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HBO banks on the boys with a trio of comedies

Call it ``guys' night in." On Sunday, HBO begins a new programming lineup featuring a bunch of porn-using, attention-loving, curse-inventing, beer-belly-bearing dudes. Sure, these men bust each other plenty, but they always hug it out -- with conspicuous non sexual back pats, of course.

With Tony Soprano and his crew weakening and then departing in 2007, HBO is declaring a new demographic war on young men. This summer, from 9 to 11:30 p.m. on HBO's most valuable night, you'll find a sort of Howard Stern - flavored sundae with Vince Vaughn sprinkles on top. Look for the good (``Entourage"), the bad (``Dane Cook's Tourgasm"), and the ugly (``Lucky Louie"), all airing right after the return of HBO's most brilliantly artful of stinky sinkholes, David Milch's ``Deadwood."

Seriously, you wouldn't want to do laundry for the HBO men, who now include the comedian Louis C.K., a one-time Boston boy. His explicit sitcom, ``Lucky Louie," premieres in the 10:30 slot, and it's one of HBO's more fascinating series -- but not because it's good, or funny.

It's actually a failed experiment in TV genre, and a reminder of the power of the unspoken and the unseen in entertainment. When you can swear like a sailor and simulate love making openly in an old-fashioned sitcom, as the actors do on ``Lucky Louie," you don't generate much excitement or outrageousness. Often, shock depends on the forbidden for its ballast.

``Lucky Louie" is HBO's first-ever conventional multi-camera sitcom, complete with live audience laughter and a fake-looking set. It's the antithesis of the more sophisticated TV comedy that HBO has championed, from ``The Larry Sanders Show" to ``Sex and the City." But while ``Lucky Louie" mimics old-school sitcoms such as ``The Honeymooners," ``Roseanne," and ``The King of Queens," it's also frankly sexual. In tonight's episode, for instance, Kim (Pamela Adlon) catches her chunky lug of a husband Louie pleasuring himself in a closet. Next week, the series becomes even more unreserved, as the couple make love during a scene -- while exchanging quips, naturally.

Kim is a nurse who suffers Louie's quirks; Louie is a James Belushi type with a part-time job at a muffler shop and buddies with whom he can complain about women; and they have one adorable preteen daughter. They're just another working-class TV family, and if the same characters appeared on a network series they'd be definitively unoriginal.

On HBO, they're definitely unoriginal -- with sex. But let's be kind and say that Louie C.K. and HBO are ambitiously trying to usher an antique sitcom format into today's risque standards and see how it holds up. It's a study in cultural change. I don't think HBO would have anything to do with this lousy series if that weren't the agenda.

The masturbation content on ``Lucky Louie," so self-conscious and forced, made me think of the ``Contest" episode of ``Seinfeld," when the four friends competed to see who could refrain the longest. The word ``masturbation" was never used (according to Julia Louis-Dreyfus, NBC forbade it) and that fact made the half-hour funnier than ever.

``Will & Grace" also toyed successfully with ``dangerous" material, as the writers mustered their wit to make their sexual humor clear and yet stealth. Prudishness is boring, but pushing the envelope isn't fun when the envelope is torn wide open.

``Entourage" is compensation for ``Lucky Louie." Entering its third season Sunday at 10 p.m., ``Entourage" is the Hollywood satire with a heart. It makes good fun of movie-business self-importance and superficiality, in the way Fox's failed sitcom ``Action" did. But it also includes a collection of affectionately drawn characters whose successes and failures matter to us, and whose boyishness is amusing. The gang of five -- star Vince, brother Johnny Drama, dude-in-waiting Turtle, manager Eric, and agent Ari -- has jelled into a dynamic unit.

Based on the first three episodes, this season will add dimension to the characters, including Jeremy Piven's Ari, whose expanding sado-masochistic rapport with receptionist Lloyd (Rex Lee) has become one of the series' little gems. In the first episode, we meet the guys' moms, most notably Vince and Johnny's mother, when Vince tries to lure her to LA for the opening of his ``Aquaman." In a bit of perfect casting, she's played by Mercedes Ruehl. She's more like Johnny, with superstitions and competitiveness, but she probably doted on her baby Vince. Also, in episode 3, we meet one of the guys' buddies from Queens, as well as Ari's daughter's boyfriend.

The successes and failures of these guys -- and they are all guys, since female characters such as Debi Mazar's publicist get little attention -- has been a great device. They can never quite relax, because fame and money are so fickle and fleeting in Hollywood. Vince is only as good as his last movie, and if ``Aquaman" isn't a blockbuster, he, his friends, and Ari will be yesterday's news. And as long as they're on their toes, they're worth watching.

The oddest thing about ``Tourgasm," at 11, is that it's like a nonfictional ``Entourage." The docu-reality show follows four male comedians who live on a bus together as they perform around the country. Dane Cook has a Vince-like presence, since he is t he most successful and charismatic of the four. He's surrounded by Robert Kelly, Jay Davis, and Gary Gulman, each of whom has character traits similar to the guys in Vince's posse. As their customized ``Tourgasm" bus cruises along, they lose track of time and place, nerves go on edge, and mundane reality arguments occur.

And that's about it. We get snippets of the guys onstage at their gigs, but most of ``Tourgasm" tracks the morale on the bus. One minute, the porn jokes are flying, the next Davis is having a snit fit because he doesn't want to talk about porn. Whenever there is a clash, Cook jumps in as a peacekeeper, in case we didn't already know he's a nice guy. ``We've got to be the glue for each other," he tells the viewers.

But in trying to make the bus melodramas seem important, Cook stretches too far. This is a cross-country tour, something most performers have experienced, and there's nothing particularly special about it. Cook pretends that the bus dynamics are TV gold, but you can feel him straining to be convincing.

Cook is headed for greater stardom, for sure; just watch him dance around the stage as he pours out his stand - up material. He's a likable and formidable force. But ``Tourgasm" isn't going to get him to the top any faster. His show is too much like a dull season of MTV's ``Road Rules," without the women.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at

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