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COVER STORY

Must-See? We'll See.

Can NBC make a sitcom star out of a former centerfold and MTV fantasy figure? She's not exactly your girl next door, but Jenny McCarthy says 'Jenny' is the real her. Really.

September 28, 1997|Jeannine Stein | Jeannine Stein is a Times staff writer

When Jenny McCarthy was a 13-year-old Catholic schoolgirl, she made a horrific discovery--her boyfriend was harboring a copy of Playboy in his room. She did not take it well.

"I went crazy," she recalls. "I said, 'You are a pig! You are looking at these sluts! These whores!' "

Fast-forward six years: McCarthy becomes Playboy's Miss October 1993, and subsequently Playmate of the Year. This was no twisted ex-boyfriend revenge tactic, just a means of blasting into the spotlight. That she did, following Playboy with two MTV gigs, magazine covers, a controversial ad campaign and an upcoming book that have hurled her, like a spitball, into the public's collective eye.

But now it's the dawn of a New Jenny. Her NBC sitcom, "Jenny," is set to debut tonight, with a new and improved, not so in-your-face McCarthy poised to take on prime time.

She plays Jenny McMillan, a Utica, N.Y., grocery store cashier on the nowhere track who discovers that the father she's never met has dropped dead, leaving her an inheritance. She heads to L.A. with best friend Maggie (Heather Paige Kent) to find that Daddy Dearest is has-been-ish B-actor Guy Hathaway (George Hamilton, who will appear, post-mortem, throughout the season). He's left her his house, a time-warp bachelor pad circa 1974 that comes with Max and Cooper (Rafer Weigel and Dale Godboldo), two videographer dudes trying to break into the big time, who live in the guest house.

The girls decide to stay, taking on temp work and launching a season of zany adventures that McCarthy herself calls "Laverne and Shirley for the '90s."

But is prime time ready for Jenny McCarthy?

"I feel like I've graduated, like I did my freshman year and moved on, and it feels like I'm coming into my own now," she says with a slight accent that belies her Chicago roots. "And I'm so loving it because it's a whole other side of me that people haven't seen yet, where I can sit down and have a conversation without sticking my tongue out [a signature piece of shtick]. Hopefully, people will still like me this way. I think they will, because this is the sincere side."

Despite NBC's commitment to the show (they won a fierce bidding war and have committed to 22 episodes, unusual for a new sitcom), the challenge of marketing McCarthy to a network audience may be a tough one.

First, she's been in Playboy three times (pictures from the original shoot appear in the September issue), which branded her a sex kitten, making some women a little leery. She tested the limits of taste with a Candie's Shoes ad campaign that showed her sitting naked on a toilet, panties around her ankles. Some magazines refused to run it, just as some TV stations won't run a new commercial for the shoe company that has a hefty-size plumber fixing Jenny's kitchen sink pipes, showing a significant portion of his backside.

Second, her demographic, by her own admission, has been "Beavis and Butt-head"-ites, mostly male teens and twentysomethings who followed her through MTV's raucous dating show "Singled Out' and the outrageous, sketch-format "Jenny McCarthy Show." She quickly gained a reputation for pushing-the-envelope antics like smelling her armpits and pretending to eat her own vomit.

Third, beyond that niche there's a lot of "Jenny who?" going on, especially among the members of the older-boomer-and-beyond set who at best have only a vague notion of this 24-year-old.

Nevertheless, Warren Littlefield, president of NBC Entertainment, is quite certain McCarthy possesses the qualities needed to succeed.

"When she was brought to my attention for the first time, I thought she was somebody who was not afraid to be funny, and not afraid to make mistakes; she had a personality that made you just root for her. . . . There are a lot of people who haven't discovered her yet, which is why we built a show that will work for a broader audience," he says. "Not everyone may know her by name, but they've seen her on Rolling Stone, on the cover of Newsweek with a cigar, and they're saying, 'Oh, yeah, that's that girl.' I think there's this bubbling of recognition."

He admits courting a young demographic with the show: "Last time I checked," he says, "that's how we get paid. But I don't think what we're building with Jenny is an exclusive or narrow show. 'Jenny' is about having that first break in life, and I think that's a fun adventure."

While at MTV, McCarthy signed a sitcom deal with Paramount (Paramount and MTV are both owned by Viacom). According to Littlefield, when word got out, "we aggressively pursued Paramount. I asked the most basic of all questions, 'Hey, can she act?' And our friends at Paramount said, 'We don't know.' So what I pitched was, 'Well, we do shows together, why not put her in an episode of 'Wings?' "

That brought McCarthy together with Mark Reisman and Howard Gewirtz, then producers on "Wings," who didn't know what to expect from this out-there personality.

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