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Cablers enthusiastic on ‘Curb’ effect

Celebs sign on for projects that are close to home

HOLLYWOOD — In the first episode of the Showtime comedy “Fat Actress,” NBC-U TV Group chieftain Jeff Zucker — playing Jeff Zucker — fields a call from Kirstie Alley’s agent while focused intently on his handheld Game Boy.

“If you send her over here and she still hasn’t lost weight, you’re putting me in the awkward position of having to tell her I don’t want to (hire her) because she’s so fat,” Zucker whines.

Alley, meanwhile, devours double cheeseburgers and sweets, even as she resists signing an endorsement deal with a weight-loss company.

Call it the “Curb” Effect.

Ever since Larry David began playing a version of himself on “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” celebs have jumped at the chance to take on roles that don’t require a character name.

Bravo has locked up six episodes of “Hidden Howie,” which features Howie Mandell in a role close to home. Even Alanis Morisette is close to a deal for a Comedy Central series following her and her fictional roadies.

The first season of “Entourage” was peppered with star cameos including a ditsier Jessica Alba, a more irritating David Faustino and a crazier Gary Busey. Ditto for “Unscripted,” an improv comedy about working actors, that co-stars Frank Langella as a “noted actor” alongside other celeb guests.

“We’ve had a long history having fun with inside Hollywood,” HBO senior VP of comedy series Sarah Condon says. “Celebrities do have fun taking the personas they’re known for and playing off of them, or twisting them. It shows that they have a sense of humor about themselves.”

And because series such as “Curb,” “Entourage” and the new “Unscripted” are all set against the backdrop of Hollywood, “it’s good for HBO because they make it more authentic,” Condon says.

“Fat Actress” co-creator Brenda Hampton attributes the glut of celebs-as-themselves-only-worse shows to admiration for “Curb” and says it was Alley who came up with the idea to do a series revolving around the tabloids’ take on the now-rotund actress.

“Kirstie isn’t the least bit insecure,” Hampton says. “There are no boundaries when it comes to the jokes. Kirstie goes way beyond what I would suggest” — which includes off-the-wall tantrums and begging John Travolta (yes, as himself) to do another “Look Who’s Talking” sequel.

HBO’s “Unscripted,” another quasi-improvised series from George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh, features lesser-known actors Krista Allen, Bryan Greenburg and Jennifer Hall wading through bit parts and audition hell. Frank Langella even makes a turn as a “noted actor” who leads an acting workshop at Los Angeles’ fabled Tamarind Theater.”

Execs, agents and flacks, meanwhile, are lining up to give being themselves a try. Vet sitcom helmer James Burrows will surface on HBO’s upcoming “The Comeback” as a director. Chris Barrett of Metropolitan Talent is a stern tenpercenter in “Unscripted.” And Zucker will be back in the “Fat Actress” season finale.

“We were nervous about putting the Game Boy bit in, but Jeff loved it,” Hampton says.

Condon isn’t surprised industyites have agreed to roles. “Half the people in this town wanted to be an actor at some point,” she says.

“In Hollywood, people become larger than life and when they’re depicted on screen it can be really funny.”

Although HBO isn’t surprised that industryites have been so willing to appear in these shows, even pay channel execs seem conscious that the gimmick might be reaching its saturation point. Says Condon: “We’re actually working relatively hard to do some new shows that aren’t about show business.”