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New York Hip, Mid-west Heart

October 01, 2000|PAUL BROWNFIELD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In "Welcome to New York," Jim Gaffigan plays a TV weatherman from Indiana who lands a job on a morning news show in New York City. Gaffigan is all Type B--polite and retiring, a guy seen by his colleagues in shades of beige. His new boss, producer Marsha Bickner, is played by Christine Baranski. If you've seen Baranski before (in the CBS sitcom "Cybill," in the films "Bowfinger" or "The Birdcage"), you know she's adept at playing Type A's, conveying in the process lots of attitude--whether gruff or snooty or conniving.

The comedic chemistry between Gaffigan and Baranski will fuel "Welcome to New York," to air Wednesday nights at 8:30 on CBS. An office ensemble comedy in the vein of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" or the more recent "NewsRadio," "Welcome to New York," say its co-stars, is equally about the cultural stereotypes that come between a sophisticated, urban career woman and a newly arrived transplant from the heartland.

"There are two countries in this country," says Baranski. "There's the coasts, and the Midwest."

After "Cybill" went off the air in 1998, Baranski had a deal with CBS to develop a sitcom of her own, but meetings with writers proved fruitless. Then early this year, she read a pilot called "Mr. New York," starring Gaffigan, and saw promise in what was then a supporting role-- TV producer Bickner. Baranski says she told CBS and the show's executive producers, Barbara Wallace and Thomas R. Wolfe, that if they beefed up the role she might bite. Now Baranski is fully into creating a female boss whose authority competes with a more vulnerable side underneath.

"I had all these out clauses until it became clear that I was following my instincts in a way that [showed] I was right," Baranski says of her joining the show. "This is a potentially smart show about the difference between the coastal sensibility and the Midwestern sensibility. [The show] questions stereotypes as much as it enhances them."

When "Welcome to New York" was still called "Mr. New York," the project was widely believed to be loosely based on the career path of "Late Show" host David Letterman. That's because Letterman's production company, Worldwide Pants, is behind the series, and because Letterman himself was a TV weatherman from Indiana in a former life.

Gaffigan, too, has qualities that would appear to make him a Letterman stand-in--white-bread, droll sense of humor, product of Chesterton, Ind. His comedy is wry and observational and creeps up on you; Gaffigan, who worked in finance and advertising before being blown sideways into stand-up comedy, came to Letterman's attention after doing stand-up on "The Late Show," whereupon he was signed to a development deal by Worldwide Pants.

But several episodes into his new series, Gaffigan is vexed by the constant comparisons to Letterman, because what he sees evolving with "Welcome to New York" is a sitcom that explores cultural issues that are far more universal to the average viewer than the saga of a weatherman arriving in the Big Apple.

In addition, late casting additions, including Sara Gilbert ("Roseanne") as Baranski's assistant and Anthony DeSando, who plays Gaffigan's assistant, have beefed up the ensemble. The cast also includes Rocky Carroll ("Chicago Hope") as Gaffigan's territorial co-anchor on the morning show.

"Welcome to New York," Gaffigan says, is largely about "the provincial stereotypes we levy on people. It's far less insulting than a racial slur, but it's still a form of bigotry."

In other words, much of the comedy on "Welcome to New York" will trade off of the false assumptions a hardened New Yorker like Baranski's Bickner would make about a newly arrived Midwesterner.

"[When] Christine is commenting on my outfit ... the reality is I'm wearing normal clothes," Gaffigan says. "I'm not dressed like a hillbilly, but from a hipster New York point of view, I might as well be.

"I don't really think having Christine come on board was a compromise," Gaffigan says of going from the star of his own sitcom to the co-star of a show with a presence as dynamic as Baranski's. "The reality is, who am I? Among my peers I might be respected, but I'm a bald white guy."

*

"Welcome to New York" premieres Oct. 11 at 8:30 p.m. on CBS.

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