Laura San Giacomo can tell by her hairstyle that her NBC sitcom, "Just Shoot Me," is a success this season.
When the series was in its six-episode tryout last spring, San Giacomo recalls, creator-executive producer Steve Levitan was adamant about how he wanted her hair. "It was like, 'It has to be this long and it has to be this color,' " she says.
"Now he's like, 'You can do anything you want with your hair,' " quips the actress, running her fingers through her long, unruly golden-brown locks.
The difference, she explains, is that Levitan is more relaxed now. With big ratings rolling in every week, he can afford to be.
What a difference a time slot makes.
"Just Shoot Me" had a less-than-auspicious beginning last spring when NBC introduced it in a less-than-desirable Wednesday time slot. But moved this fall to Tuesdays, behind "Frasier," it has become one of the few young shows to shine this season.
The sitcom, set at a Cosmopolitan-type magazine in New York City, averaged 11.1 million viewers a week last season but is now drawing 16.7 million a week, ranking 20th among prime-time series and leaving ABC Tuesday night newcomer "Hiller and Diller" in the dust.
After making her mark in such dramas as "sex, lies and videotape," San Giacomo is getting a chance to display her comic chops as acerbic writer Maya Gallo, who works at the publication published by her father, Jack (George Segal), who is now married to a woman with whom Maya went to high school.
David Spade plays Jack's power-mad, wisecracking assistant; Wendie Malick is the spacey fashion and beauty editor; and Enrico Colantoni rounds out the cast as the skirt-chasing fashion photographer.
"I'm flattered it's doing well," says Levitan, a veteran of "Frasier" and "The Larry Sanders Show."
"Last year, it was very frustrating for us," he acknowledges. "We felt like we were doing a really good show that we all believed in, and we got that second-class treatment.
"I have a long-standing relationship with the network," he says, "and the result of all of that was that we got this really lousy time slot on Wednesday. We weren't being promoted. But we felt like we performed. So now to get the sense that it's taking off, we feel like it's our just rewards after what we went through."
"It's such a crapshoot," adds Malick, best known for playing the ex-wife of the principal character on HBO's "Dream On."
"They have so little loyalty for new shows and, unless you make a name for yourself quickly, there is no time to find your audience," she says. "I think there is a real natural growing period for all of these shows. I feel our stuff is much stronger this season."
Colantoni, who was a regular on the short-lived NBC sitcom "Hope & Gloria," believes "Just Shoot Me" is "audacious enough for people to be interested in. I don't think there is enough audacity on television. When you have people insulting what is beautiful and still get away with people laughing at it, I think that's wonderful. It's such a relief to see actors working together. The humor comes from that."
Plus, Colantoni adds, "I think people love David Spade so much. He's amazing and wonderful."
After six seasons on "Saturday Night Live" and starring in such film comedies as "Tommy Boy" and "Black Sheep," Spade welcomed the chance to be part of an ensemble comedy series.
"I'm not such a heavy committed actor," he says during a rehearsal break. "I don't want to do 'The Crucible' in London. I will do whatever I can to be really funny and have a good time. This seemed a way to keep it a little smarter and less greedy and just kind of be with people who are really good and take some of the chance out of it, because [doing a series] is a chancy thing.
"I don't want to do a pilot of my own show and have it not do well. [Here] you can still be funny and still get to do what you like, but you have a little bit more of a life."
As the series has progressed, Spade's character has become more like the actor.
"I just keep trying to cram my type of jokes on the show," he says. "The people who watch it for me, I want to give them a certain type of humor that is not quite sitcom--the normal. I just want to come here and be funny. I never fight to be in the show more. I don't care about that."
Each actor, says Levitan, approaches the material differently, and it's his job to keep everybody happy.
"Laura and Enrico love to work on things," Levitan says. "They can go over a scene all day. David doesn't want to do it more than once because he feels like it loses its freshness. George likes to do it once or twice and Wendie pretty much nails it if she does it once or 10 times."
San Giacomo is still adjusting to the world of sitcoms. "It really took me the first six just to begin to figure out what this energy was and how to play it," she says. "I still feel like I am just starting to get it."
Segal was already committed to the series when San Giacomo came on board. Originally, Levitan envisioned the role of Jack as a more cold-hearted businessman. But when he met with Segal, who starred in such farces as "Where's Poppa?," "Blume in Love" and "Touch of Class," he adjusted the part to fit Segal's easygoing charms.
"It has been so fun to make the character more like George Segal in a lot of ways, just to give him a sense of charm and style and lightness," Levitan says.
"This is such a civilized way to work for me," says Segal, who received a best supporting Oscar nomination for 1966's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"
"All of those movies that I got to do in the '70s, they are not doing anymore," Segal says. "If I had to live by an opening weekend the way Harrison Ford lives, I couldn't do that. Everyone is so well-mannered here. There is nothing more for me to do than show up."
* "Just Shoot Me" airs Tuesdays at 9:30 p.m. on NBC (Channel 4).