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For Kathy Kinney, Success on ‘Carey’ Is Funny Thing

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It’s easy to overlook Kathy Kinney sitting in a booth at Bob’s Big Boy restaurant in Burbank. Without iridescent blue eye shadow, an effulgent outfit or a hair-sprayed coif, she looks normal. Even, perhaps, a little plain.

Mimi Bobeck, the over-the-top character Kinney plays on “The Drew Carey Show,” would never leave home in something so understated as a slate-green velour shirt. From her painted-on eyebrows down, Mimi is a moving visual assault with a personality to match.

Mimi is Carey’s office nemesis on the show, which is one of ABC’s top-rated programs this season. Ever since last season’s pilot, when Carey--who plays an assistant director of personnel at a department store--wouldn’t give Mimi a job behind the cosmetics counter, things have been getting ugly: wet paint on the chair, exploding toy trolls, hot coffee down the pneumatic tube.

Not all the pranks end when the cameras stop rolling. Carey recently convinced Kinney--she isn’t sure how--to come to Bob’s Big Boy for lunch, dressed in character. She found out later that he’d plotted to drop her off, say he was going to park the car, and then leave her. She would’ve had to walk back to the Warner Bros. lot--about four short blocks--in bright green capri pants with a panda decal.

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It’s a good thing he had a change of heart, she said. “I would’ve had to kill him.”

But that’s the closest Kinney seems to come to the emotional outbursts for which Mimi is getting famous. To the contrary, said executive producer Bruce Helford, “She’s the sweetest person in the whole world. . . . When you have a character like that, you hope you have [an actor] who is emotionally grounded. And Kathy is very grounded.”

Kinney, 42, grew up in the small town of Stevens Point, Wis., and attended the University of Wisconsin campus there. She abandoned pre-law studies to major in theater, but had no outward aspirations to be on stage. “I could build you a set, light you a play--do anything but run the box office,” she said.

Then she was forced into a role in the musical comedy “The Boyfriend” and, to her astonishment, she drew big laughs.

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Finally, she quit her job as head bartender for Polish weddings at Bernard’s Supper Club in Stevens Point to move to New York. Her best friend, Cindy Ratzlaff, helped her get temporary secretary jobs at CBS. In one CBS office, Kinney met Bill Sherwood, who wrote a part for her in his 1986 independent film “Parting Glances,” one of the first movies about gay men and AIDS.

It was also Ratzlaff who took Kinney to her first comedy improvisation class. She loved it. “It was like jumping out of a plane and flying,” she said. “It was like everything I was best at, which was playing.”

Kinney joked, “I owe my entire career to my friend’s co-dependence.”

After “Parting Glances,” a friend in Los Angeles suggested she come here and get an agent--and then had to explain to her what an agent did.

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It’s been nine years since then, during which she’s played a crew of oddball characters that make Mimi look painfully average. Among others, she played an obsessive bomber on “Dream On,” a dog trainer on “The Larry Sanders Show” and, for two years, the sluttish town librarian on “Newhart.”

Between jobs, however, she would return to temp work, where some employers would recognize her from one of her TV appearances. “People were thrilled to meet me,” she said, “but I was temping.”

Last year she got a call for a one-shot guest part on the pilot of “The Drew Carey Show.” It was only after the pilot was edited and picked up by ABC that Helford, who created the show with Carey, realized that the funniest scenes were those with Mimi. They hired her to be in seven of the first 13 episodes, but she wound up being in every show.

“I think I’m still a little baffled as to why people think I’m funny,” Kinney said. “I used to be afraid that if I figured it out, I’d lose it. Now I don’t worry about it. I just go with it.”

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She’s much clearer on the appeal of her character. Mimi is undeniably childish and prone to utter delicate phrases like “Bite me, doughboy,” Kinney said, but she says out loud what most every office drone thinks.

“I believe that Mimi is a woman of color,” Kinney said. “I believe she encompasses all minorities. I see her as someone who could be downtrodden . . . but she has to stick up for herself.”

As for Kinney, for the first time she’s confronting the downside of fame--like the tabloids calling her mother and neighbors back in Wisconsin. She’s appeared on the cover of TV Guide, “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” and the pages of USA Today.

And even though no one asked for an autograph that day at Bob’s Big Boy, she knows her decades of temp-agency anonymity are behind her, she said. “I think the quiet days must be over for me.”

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* “The Drew Carey Show” airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m on ABC (Channel 7).


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