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A Comic's Effort to Keep It Real : Hard work, being himself pay off for 'Hughleys' star.

November 24, 1998|MARC WEINGARTEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ask comedian D.L. Hughley how he's been able to graduate from the club circuit to his very own sitcom, and he'll just shrug his shoulders and give you one of his patented Cheshire Cat grins.

"There's nothing flashy about me," says the affable Hughley, who's lounging in his spartan, un-TV star-like dressing room on the set of his show, "The Hughleys." "I don't sing, I don't dance, I don't do impressions. I'm just a guy who gets up there and talks [trash]."

For a guy who may be one of the few potential stars to emerge among new TV shows this season, Hughley, 34, is shockingly short on bluster. But when you've worked as hard as he has to reach the show-biz summit, you're already far too winded to blow much hot air.

A former gang member and longtime employee of The Times, Hughley is hardly what you'd call an overnight success story--he logged more than 10 years and a million frequent-flier miles as a stand-up before getting his big break with "The Hughleys," one of the more promising ratings performers among this fall's crop of new shows.

"I'd be working on the back rooms of these clubs, and I'd see all these other guys playing in the main room," Hughley says. "I'd see them get deals and I'd wonder, what do I have to do to make people notice me?"

Apparently, all he had to do was be himself. "The Hughleys," which chronicles the exploits of a middle-class African American family living in a largely white suburb, is based on Hughley's own experiences as a dad and husband living with three kids in West Hills, part of the San Fernando Valley. It's not, Hughley is quick to point out, a reprise of the hit '70s sitcom "The Jeffersons."

"That show didn't seem real to me," he says. "George Jefferson wanted to be treated like a white man, whereas my character is a black man who wants to get respect as a black man. I'm very aware of who I am, even if I don't have all the answers."

It's that emotional honesty that has resonated with the show's viewers, making "The Hughleys" a compatible fit with its lead-in, "Home Improvement," and ABC's highest-rated new series.

"People can relate to the show 'cause it's written from a real person's perspective and it works from real life," Hughley says. "It's not a very sitcom-y show. When I moved from a black neighborhood to a white one, I had a lot of preconceived notions--I thought I would have a cross burned on my lawn--but it turned out I met a lot of people like me, who had families, dreams and hopes. I wanted the show to reflect what I learned along the way."

Although "The Hughleys" isn't above lobbing the occasional one-liner at its black (and white) characters' expense, the show has a loftier agenda than just race-based comedy. It frequently toys with well-entrenched racial stereotypes, and its story lines can be socially relevant without slipping into facile moralizing--that booby-trap of most family-based sitcoms. Mostly, though, the show is about maintaining one's cultural heritage while working your way up the socioeconomic ladder.

"The tricky part of the show is figuring out how to handle racial issues, yet keep it a fun show," says Matt Wickline, an executive producer and co-creator (with Hughley) of the series. "You want to be realistic and not forget the racial component of it. In the aggregate, we want to show what life is like for D.L. having to deal with the change in class and opportunity."

"I think you see a black man say a lot of things on the show that you've never seen on television before," Hughley says. "I believe in hard work, in education, in setting an example for your kids. I mean, working hard has been my only saving grace in life. I can't be one of these guys that's like, 'The world is a screwed-up place--could you bring my Lexus around, please?' "

If Hughley sounds a tad more grounded than your standard-issue instant superstar, there's a good reason for it. Unlike so many of his peers, he never regarded stardom as his destiny. The son of an airline maintenance worker and a homemaker, L.A. native Hughley was reared near Compton in a stable, if not particularly tight-knit, family. "I can't say we were particularly close," Hughley says.

Despite Hughley's relatively worry-free, middle-class upbringing, he nonetheless dropped out of high school in the 10th grade and briefly joined the Bloods, until a cousin's gang-related murder scared him straight.

In 1981, Hughley entered the rat race with a vengeance, holding down a job as a sales manager at The Times and a night job at Greyhound while raising a small child as a newlywed (Hughley and his wife, LaDonna, now have three children--Ryan, 11; Tyler, 7; and Kyle, 9).

"It was the first time I ever felt like I was good at something," Hughley says of his decade-long Los Angeles Times tenure.

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