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COMEDY : Caryl Kristensen: Mining the Mother Load Pays Off Big

<i> Glenn Doggrell writes about comedy for The Times Orange County Edition</i>

Caryl Kristensen, co-star of the revamped “Mommies” series on NBC, almost apologizes for growing up well-rounded and loved on Mountain View Place in Fullerton.

“It was really boring. My parents didn’t beat me. We’re all alive, and none of us are in jail,” the ninth of 11 children said, referring to her five brothers and five sisters. “My mother was pregnant for 99 months of her life. That makes you miss a period just thinking about it.

“It was pretty Cleaverish in the ‘60s. I was born in St. Jude’s and lived in the same house until I went away to college when I was 17. My folks still live there. We had a 30-gallon trash can in the kitchen, like the ones everyone else had outside. We thought nothing of it. It got filled up every day.

“My parents were great, really casual people. They spent money on our well-being and education. We didn’t look the very best--we had hand-me-downs and all that--but I never once felt that I didn’t have something.”

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She had a blast attending the all-girl Rosary High School, where her mother still teaches, and got involved in politics, serving as student-body president.

“I think my entire life revolved around the mile between home and school, and the Las Lomas Verdes swim club. All my first things happened there. First hand-holding. First kiss on the corner. They even had a rec center. Everyone has to learn to play ‘Heart and Soul’ on the piano somewhere.

“State College (Boulevard) was like one lane at the time. We used to watch the fireworks at Disneyland from Acacia Hill. With binoculars, you could see Tinker Bell fly from the Matterhorn to the hotel.”

These days, Kristensen is just as upbeat.

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When “The Mommies” debuted in the fall of 1993 amid much hoopla, big things were expected. The show didn’t catch on. But NBC chose not to abandon Kristensen and partner Marilyn Kentz. Instead, the network retooled the show, adding a couple of characters and broadening the humor base. When the first new episode aired Saturday, it held its own.

“The ratings came in, and they’re very good,” Kristensen said, mentioning that the show pulled a 15 share compared to a 17 for “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman” in the same time slot. “Our characters are much more developed. Last year, we were so much the same person. The show is so much better now, more reality based. NBC made it into an ensemble--the four of us--with more adult humor, and de-emphasized the kids. They put in humor instead of us just ripping on men all the time.”

Kristensen, 34, and Kentz, 47, who bring their act to the Brea Improv on Monday and Tuesday, taped 13 new episodes from August to December. The show’s future, however, is out of their control.

“It’s all going to depend on the ratings,” said Kristensen, who had just gotten back from a week of skiing at Lake Tahoe. “Now, it’s a more heated race, but anything can happen. I’m just grateful for the 13 episodes. I know the business is fickle.”

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Before getting involved with the TV show, the pair routinely attracted hundreds of fans to small clubs, then graduated to 2,000-seat theaters. They garnered a devout following of young, white suburban mothers, giving that social subset a voice, warts and all.

At a sold-out show in May, 1993, at the Irvine Improv, Kentz summed up the act: “It’s OK to laugh at your own kids and your own fat.”

And that, says Kristensen, is the key to their success: The concerns of young mothers are no less valid than those of any other social group. The myth of the perfect, cul-de-sac mom is just that.

“We’re in the middle of the road, where most women fall,” Kristensen said Monday from the Tarzana home she shares with husband Len and two sons, Bryce, 11, and Eric, 8. “There are times when I just don’t want to read that (expletive bedtime) story tonight. There are moments when you’ve had it. People saw that’s what we were. It was unfortunate that last year the show didn’t translate that.”

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As Kentz says in their press release: “We represent real moms: loving, nurturing human beings who find their families a little irritating.”

The Brea performance is a prelude to taping their first Showtime special, which they hope to have on the air by the end of February or early March to coincide with their NBC show. And in May, the duo will be the grand marshals of Garden Grove’s Strawberry Festival parade.

The two performers, who recently bumped Madge to pitch Palmolive, met as neighbors in Petaluma in 1983, when they were bemoaning their diaper-changing, husband-pleasing tasks. Seven years and a few acting lessons later, they took action, renting a women’s club for $50 and putting on their first public show.

When their TV show premiered three years later, they had achieved what many performers never do in a lifetime of striving. And as would be expected, they are chided for not paying their dues.

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“I guess they don’t count taking stool samples out of a 1-year-old’s diaper,” said the personable Kristensen, laughing for the umpteenth time during the hourlong interview.

“We were kind of dropped into this business. People were reluctant to give us our due. Well, we really worked our ass off. We were at Kinko’s until midnight. We knew who our audience was and where to find them. We’d flyer real-estate offices, day-care centers, preschools and beauty salons. We marketed the hell out of our show for two years. We didn’t wait for someone else to do it for us.”

Kristensen--who comes across as a caring and genuine good soul and who has made a career of discussing motherhood--draws the line at ever being a full-time mom.

“Some people are cut out for that. I’m not one of them. I don’t need to be working and making a living, but I need a calendar that is packed. If not, I’m miserable. My mother was like that, always intellectual, always studying something.

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“But I’m sure there were times when she thought of going to the grocery store and not coming back.”

* Who: The Mommies.

* When: Monday and Tuesday, Jan. 16-17, at 7:30 p.m.

* Where: The Brea Improv, 945 E. Birch St., Brea.

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* Whereabouts: Take the Lambert Road exit from the Orange (57) Freeway and go west. Turn left onto State College Boulevard and right onto Birch Street. The Improv is in the Brea Marketplace, across from the Brea Mall.

* Wherewithal: $20.

* Where to call: (714) 529-7878.


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