COMMUNITY. 9:30 tonight, Channel 10.

I'VE SAT straight-faced through so many sitcom pilots in recent seasons that I'd begun to think it was me.

Am I just comedy-challenged?

Is there something wrong with someone who can't find the funny in, say, CBS' "Rules of Engagement" or Fox's " 'Til Death"?

Oh, sure, my critic credentials are relatively solid: I love "The Office" and "30 Rock" and "How I Met Your Mother," and I beat the drum as loudly as anyone for the late, great "Arrested Development."

Yet even those shows' best episodes often leave me laughing more on the inside than the outside.

So when I first saw NBC's "Community," a comedy about community college students who form a Spanish-class study group, I wasn't sure at first what that sound was, the one that wasn't coming from my TV set.

Amazingly enough, it was laughter. My laughter.

For a good three days afterward, I was tempted to introduce one of the pilot's best lines into casual conversation - no, I won't spoil it for you, but it involves sharks - yet I wondered if it might not just be a fluke.

But I saw the second episode of "Community" yesterday, and the same thing happened.

So I'm weirdly hopeful.

For those of you who need a little more than my physiological responses to go on, "Community" stars Joel McHale ("The Soup") as Jeff Winger, a far from trustworthy ex-lawyer who's been forced to start over on the community college level.

Attracted to Britta (Gillian Jacobs), a fellow student in his introductory Spanish class, he invites her to join a study group of two, only to find himself saddled with a motley crew of misfits ranging from a clueless businessman (Chevy Chase) to a young man who's assumed by his fellow students to have Asperger's.

There's a fine line between exploiting a serious condition and finding the humanity in it, and Danny Pudi, who plays Abed - described by NBC only as a "pop-culture junkie" - walks that line masterfully in the two episodes I've seen.

With any luck, you, too, will be laughing with him, not just at him.

'Sunny' side of economy

"It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" gets topical as it returns tonight (10 p.m., FX) for a fifth season.

If you can call "The Gang Exploits the Mortgage Crisis" topical.

Foreclosure for fun and profit sounds perfect for Frank (Danny DeVito), Mac (Philly's own Rob McElhenney) and Dennis (Glenn Howerton), while Dee (Kaitlin Olson) decides surrogacy is her ticket to easy street.

In other words, "It's Always Sunny" is still very much "It's Always Sunny," which should be good news to its many fans, especially those who may not long, as I do, for just a bit more subtlety now and then.

But, hey, it's OK.

DeVito and the rest are totally committed to everything they do, no matter how absurd, and more often than not, they manage to sell it.

So feel free to laugh yourself silly.

I'll no doubt be smiling along - on the inside.

'Curb' drought is over

For every person who's e-mailed me over the past year and a half or so to ask when (or if) HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm" will be back, this one's for you.

After a 22-month hiatus, Larry David, who makes no TV before its time (or his) returns Sunday (9 p.m., HBO) in an episode starring Catherine O'Hara as "Funkhouser's Crazy Sister."

It's vintage Larry - bad behavior that only gets worse as the half-hour goes on - and it begins to set the stage for the season's main event, the "Seinfeld" reunion that may or may not bring about another even more important one.

(Jerry and company show up in the season's third episode.)

I'm hoping "Curb" fans will hang around afterward for the premiere of "Bored to Death" (9:30 p.m., HBO), since they'd seem to be the ideal audience for this whimsical half-hour about a blocked writer named Jonathan Ames (Jason Schwartzman) who takes his love of noir to extremes when he advertises himself on Craigslist as a private investigator (unlicensed) and begins to accept cases.

Created by the real Jonathan Ames, a humorist and novelist who's at least as odd as his creation, the unfortunately titled "Bored" co-stars "The Hangover's" Zach Galifianakis as Ames' artist sidekick and Ted Danson as his badly behaved editor, a clever bit of casting that cements the link with "Curb."

Warning: The pilot's a little slow. But a few episodes in, I found I wasn't bored a bit. *

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