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Mirthful Mothers : Television: The Mommies--Marilyn Kentz and Caryl Kristensen--will test their suburban sarcasm on the small screen in an NBC pilot.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The term “family values” means one thing when it comes up in political debate, but in the world of Marilyn Kentz and Caryl Kristensen, the phrase more likely calls to mind a sale at Mervyn’s.

Kentz and Kristensen, who are housewives, live in Northern California’s Petaluma, the kind of suburb whose fastidious absurdity was gently chided in “Edward Scissorhands” and is highlighted again once the two of them get going.

“It’s the egg capital of the world,” Kentz says. “It helps to know that when we’re ovulating.”

Kentz and Kristensen first locked sardonic gazes across the crowded living room of a home crystal party and found they had so many comic notes to share on the rites of cul-de-sac life that they eventually teamed up to form the Mommies, who find a universe of observation in the world of Tupperware.

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They’ve been playing to packed comedy clubs around the country, and now NBC is gambling on them to join its fall program lineup. They’ll shoot a half-hour pilot May 4 at Paramount. In an effort to generate interest in the pair, NBC has been airing prime-time promo spots for the past week called “Mommie Moments,” in which the two dish on matters of immediate concern, such as kids, the elaborate preparation a woman needs to get ready for work and whether Tom Harmon has mysteriously invaded the body of Marilyn Kentz’s husband.

“I got word of them from one of our casting people, who’d seen them perform at the Montreal comedy festival last summer,” says Perry Simon, NBC’s executive vice president of prime-time programs.

“I played their performance tape for my family . . . and we all fell down laughing. The next day I flew up to see them play a club in a little town in Northern California called Martinez. Most of the audience was ladies who’d dressed up and ordered drinks with little umbrellas in them. Real people. It was so refreshing. At the end, the women stood up to give them a standing ovation.”

In “The Mommies,” Kristensen and Kentz will portray themselves; the network has supplied actors to play their families, and a veteran writing-producing team (Terry Grossman and Kathy Speer of “The Golden Girls”) to shape their material for television (Terry Hughes will direct).

“We say what women think,” Kentz observes. “Like, ‘D’you ever think your kids are ugly?’ ”

“People think you have to live in the inner city for material,” Kristensen adds. “But the stressed-out mother has more than enough to contend with. It only looks minuscule when seen from the outside.”

Kristensen is 32 and has a sly, languid quality. Kentz is 45 and has a driving entrepreneurial restlessness that’s propelled them both through a number of “activities,” including acting classes and speakers bureau. They’re naturals around each other, forever locked in an ongoing comedic pas de deux: “The three loves of my life are my husband and my two boys,” Kristensen said. “They’re gifted children.”

“I cannot add to that,” Kentz replied. “Mine are not.”

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“I just mean they have a lot of stuff,” Kristensen added.

They were lunching at a tony West Hollywood restaurant, riding the wave of anticipation and attendant publicity over being discovered, not quite sure yet what any of it meant.

“It was never our goal to be famous,” Kristensen said. “We see these TV executives and it’s all very nice, but we’re far beyond trying to impress anyone. Our job is to bring joy to a lot of people.”

Kristensen was born in Fullerton, one of 11 children. She graduated from Chico State with a degree in graphic design, and married an engineer, who now works in San Francisco. They have two sons, ages 6 and 9. “My husband’s a kind and caring man. When I got pregnant and started vomiting a lot, he bought me a pair of knee pads, so I could throw up on the bathroom floor.”

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Kentz’s career is a bit more checkered. “Thirty-seven years ago at a slumber party, I told my cousins I’d be a stand-up comedian. One of them said, ‘Oh, Marilyn, I’m so embarrassed for you.’ ”

She was born in Santa Rosa, Calif., the oldest of three children, and married for the first time at 18. She’s a self-confessed child of the hippie era, and early on went to work as a tap dancer for Bob Ward and the Cigar Band--she was the Havana.

Later she worked for a real estate agency, where she met her second husband (she has two sons, 18 and 17, and one daughter, 6).

They first discovered each other as neighbors in Petaluma in 1983. Their act became an outgrowth of Kentz’s avowed mid-life crisis, in which she recruited Kristensen to join her for acting class. They lectured on humor in the workplace for a local speakers bureau, where, Kristensen says, “We realized that working mothers had much more stress than corporate stiffs.” Though they had no real show yet, they booked the Petaluma Women’s club in 1990 (“Women would call up and say, ‘Should we bring baked goods?’ Kristensen recalls), and then rented a local comedy club, promising the owner that he could keep the revenue from drinks if they could keep the door. They’ve been growing in popularity ever since (they played the Brea Improv last month).

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It’s clear that the quality of the two of them is based on freshness, the one element that’s first to evaporate in front of the TV lens. What will NBC offer by way of a preservative?

“That’s the challenge,” Simon concedes. “It’s important to keep their voice, which comes from the heart. We need to capture the spontaneity and naturalness that’s so essential to their act. If we come up with just another sitcom, we will have failed.”


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