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LOS ANGELES—Going 12 rounds with Mike Tyson? No sweat. Fighting Rosie O’Donnell for the last slice of chocolate mousse? Piece of cake. Approaching Larry David at a cocktail party?


Now, that’s scary.


Just four hours earlier, the co-creator of “Seinfeld” and the genius behind “Curb Your Enthusiasm” had ripped TV critics at a wild press conference that would have fit right in on the Las Vegas strip.


Why are you so willing to portray yourself as—
Careful.


a schmuck.
I’m portraying you, schmucko. That’s you, too. Not just me. I’m Jesus Christ. I’m Jesus Christ. I’m sacrificing myself for the betterment of humanity.


I have a microphone, but I’m mortified to use it. I wonder if there are things that happen to you that make you angry, but you’re happy they happened because you can get your revenge by acting them out?
Something like that. If I’m angry, I’ll go, “I’m gonna use that.” Does that answer your stupid question?


+ + +


The crowd ate it up.


But chatting with the King of Curmudgeons one-on-one at this HBO courtyard event in mid-July was another matter. It required guts—or at least four glasses of wine.


If the real-life David is anything like his “Curb” TV character, the most self-serving cad since J.R. Ewing, there’s good reason to shudder.


In the sixth season, which starts today, David destroys a smoke alarm with a baseball bat, devours a cake from an erotic bakery, berates a woman for taking too many samples at an ice-cream shop, steals flowers from an over-the-top memorial and whines to a U.S. senator about the trouble with his dry cleaner.


It’s action that makes us cringe—and seethe with jealousy.


“I really love the guy who’s on the show,” David said in a rare moment of seriousness at the session. “He doesn’t have to behave the way society wants everybody to behave, and I decided I love being that honest. I wish I could be that way in my life. I’m getting closer to him every day.”


Co-star Jeff Garlin, who’s much more approachable at parties, said David’s bottomless bag of complaints has kept the show alive.


“The world is full of things to be pissed off at,” Garlin said. “Certain shows have a rhythm in which they should end. They get long in the tooth. The fact that we’re allowed to be so honest and unedited allows us to have a million story lines. We could add 10 characters. We could take away everyone but him. We could put him in an elevator for a whole season. We have no rules.”


Still, there was no guarantee that “Curb” would return for another year. The season five ending felt like a finale with David at the pearly gates of heaven, guarded by Dustin Hoffman and Sacha Baron Cohen. Even they couldn’t put up with David’s grousing.


“Every season that I do is my last season. That’s the only way I can get through it,” David said. “Then when it’s all over, I go, `Oh, maybe I’ll do another one.’‘’


Keeping in mind that David may retire at any moment to spend the rest of his days rolling around in his “Seinfeld” money, I finally get up the nerve to approach him as he chatted with HBO executives.


He was surprisingly cordial (it didn’t hurt that I started off peppering him with compliments)—until the courtyard started to shrink.


Critics, like wolves, like to travel in packs, and once they start to sniff fresh blood, they swarm in. In a matter of minutes, David was surrounded by mini-tape recorders, notebooks and a barrage of questions on everything from his favorite episodes (“The Doll” and “The Ski Lift” among them) to his bizarre cameo on “Hannah Montana” (“I loved having a laugh track to back me up”).


His patience was running low.


“You people are listening to me like I know what I’m talking about,” he said. “I’m beginning to scare myself here.”


In less than 10 minutes, the impromptu session was over.


“All right, guys,” David said, waving off the mob with a glass of wine. “I can’t take this anymore.”


And with that, the king shuffled away to a private, exclusive table—just as it should be.

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