Must-See? We'll See.

Jeannine Stein is a Times staff writer

When Jenny McCarthy was a 13-year-old Catholic schoolgirl, she made a horrific discovery--her boyfriend was harboring a copy of Playboy in his room. She did not take it well.

"I went crazy," she recalls. "I said, 'You are a pig! You are looking at these sluts! These whores!' "

Fast-forward six years: McCarthy becomes Playboy's Miss October 1993, and subsequently Playmate of the Year. This was no twisted ex-boyfriend revenge tactic, just a means of blasting into the spotlight. That she did, following Playboy with two MTV gigs, magazine covers, a controversial ad campaign and an upcoming book that have hurled her, like a spitball, into the public's collective eye.

But now it's the dawn of a New Jenny. Her NBC sitcom, "Jenny," is set to debut tonight, with a new and improved, not so in-your-face McCarthy poised to take on prime time.

She plays Jenny McMillan, a Utica, N.Y., grocery store cashier on the nowhere track who discovers that the father she's never met has dropped dead, leaving her an inheritance. She heads to L.A. with best friend Maggie (Heather Paige Kent) to find that Daddy Dearest is has-been-ish B-actor Guy Hathaway (George Hamilton, who will appear, post-mortem, throughout the season). He's left her his house, a time-warp bachelor pad circa 1974 that comes with Max and Cooper (Rafer Weigel and Dale Godboldo), two videographer dudes trying to break into the big time, who live in the guest house.

The girls decide to stay, taking on temp work and launching a season of zany adventures that McCarthy herself calls "Laverne and Shirley for the '90s."

But is prime time ready for Jenny McCarthy?

"I feel like I've graduated, like I did my freshman year and moved on, and it feels like I'm coming into my own now," she says with a slight accent that belies her Chicago roots. "And I'm so loving it because it's a whole other side of me that people haven't seen yet, where I can sit down and have a conversation without sticking my tongue out [a signature piece of shtick]. Hopefully, people will still like me this way. I think they will, because this is the sincere side."

Despite NBC's commitment to the show (they won a fierce bidding war and have committed to 22 episodes, unusual for a new sitcom), the challenge of marketing McCarthy to a network audience may be a tough one.

First, she's been in Playboy three times (pictures from the original shoot appear in the September issue), which branded her a sex kitten, making some women a little leery. She tested the limits of taste with a Candie's Shoes ad campaign that showed her sitting naked on a toilet, panties around her ankles. Some magazines refused to run it, just as some TV stations won't run a new commercial for the shoe company that has a hefty-size plumber fixing Jenny's kitchen sink pipes, showing a significant portion of his backside.

Second, her demographic, by her own admission, has been "Beavis and Butt-head"-ites, mostly male teens and twentysomethings who followed her through MTV's raucous dating show "Singled Out' and the outrageous, sketch-format "Jenny McCarthy Show." She quickly gained a reputation for pushing-the-envelope antics like smelling her armpits and pretending to eat her own vomit.

Third, beyond that niche there's a lot of "Jenny who?" going on, especially among the members of the older-boomer-and-beyond set who at best have only a vague notion of this 24-year-old.

Nevertheless, Warren Littlefield, president of NBC Entertainment, is quite certain McCarthy possesses the qualities needed to succeed.

"When she was brought to my attention for the first time, I thought she was somebody who was not afraid to be funny, and not afraid to make mistakes; she had a personality that made you just root for her. . . . There are a lot of people who haven't discovered her yet, which is why we built a show that will work for a broader audience," he says. "Not everyone may know her by name, but they've seen her on Rolling Stone, on the cover of Newsweek with a cigar, and they're saying, 'Oh, yeah, that's that girl.' I think there's this bubbling of recognition."

He admits courting a young demographic with the show: "Last time I checked," he says, "that's how we get paid. But I don't think what we're building with Jenny is an exclusive or narrow show. 'Jenny' is about having that first break in life, and I think that's a fun adventure."

While at MTV, McCarthy signed a sitcom deal with Paramount (Paramount and MTV are both owned by Viacom). According to Littlefield, when word got out, "we aggressively pursued Paramount. I asked the most basic of all questions, 'Hey, can she act?' And our friends at Paramount said, 'We don't know.' So what I pitched was, 'Well, we do shows together, why not put her in an episode of 'Wings?' "

That brought McCarthy together with Mark Reisman and Howard Gewirtz, then producers on "Wings," who didn't know what to expect from this out-there personality.

"Mark and I were vaguely aware of 'Singled Out,' " Gewirtz adds, "but we didn't know what to think--[the show] wasn't necessarily our thing. When we met her, we were immediately struck by the fact that she wasn't an airhead blond. She did the job in terms of showing the network that this girl can act."

On "Wings," McCarthy played Brian Hackett's (Steven Weber) date from hell, who swung back and forth between normal and total freakazoid. They saw it as a transition character, containing a little of the old, a little of the new Jenny.

Her edict to them for the one-shot "Wings" appearance was no ditsy blonds.

"When I met with Mark and Howard" (now "Jenny's" creators and executive producers), McCarthy recalls, "they said, 'What kind of character do you want to play?' And they had this look in their eye like, 'We can write a bimbo role.' I said, 'I don't want to be a bimbo,' and they said 'OK.' "

After that, Paramount asked Reisman and Gewirtz to come up with a sitcom premise.

"We knew we had to make her user-friendly for women," says Reisman. "When you have a 24-year-old sexy woman, it's usually not the type of thing women are drawn to, so we purposely gave her a close female friend."

"When we were creating the character," adds Gewirtz, "we used elements of Jenny's real life--the Catholic school background, the fact that she came from, well, not Utica, but Chicago."

Says Reisman, "Our task was to find the middle ground. We wanted to show her as a real person, not just sticking out her tongue."

McCarthy welcomes this evolution and doesn't worry that the show will make her so bland she'll become a generic goofy sitcom actress.

"Now it's time to, like, tone down," she says. "Being able to kind of come down to my real self is fun, and I think we're still Laverne and Shirley--wacky, running around, getting into trouble."

Her mother--whom she affectionately calls "Mrs. Cleaver"--is even ready for a change.

"She's like, 'All right Jenny,' " she says, affecting a strong Midwestern accent. " 'We've seen you on the toilet, let's move on from that.' "

McCarthy talks between healthy bites of a sloppy cheeseburger and mashed potatoes eaten out of a Styrofoam container that sits on a coffee table in her smallish dressing room on Stage 19 of Paramount's lot. She's hastily removed some papers and an ashtray filled with dusty pink lipstick-coated cigarette butts to make room on an overstuffed sofa, apologizing for the mess.

In real life, the petite McCarthy is spirited and intense, if a few degrees shy of her on-camera persona. She peppers her conversation with four-letter words and doesn't have to be coaxed to speak her mind. On the set she keeps the energy and the atmosphere charged. After rehearsing a scene on the living room set with co-star Kent, she gives her a bear hug so strong it tips over the sofa.

Today the crew is re-shooting some pilot scenes outside on the lot. The producers decided to tweak the original story, in which Jenny gets a job as the personal assistant to a bratty male star. They quickly realized that the premise left Maggie too far out of the loop.

McCarthy doesn't take her good fortune for granted; she knows she's been given a rare opportunity in a crushingly competitive field. Still, she adamantly maintains, she's paid her dues.

She was all of 19, a young woman who had grown up in a working-class neighborhood, when she strode into Playboy's Chicago headquarters in 1993 and offered herself as a potential Playmate. It was, she maintains, a last-resort, nothing-to-lose move after going broke and dropping out of nursing school, tending bar on Chicago's rough South Side, working in a Polish grocery store and suffering rejections from local modeling and commercial agencies.

"I felt like such a loser [dropping out of college]. I was living with three girls and basically couldn't pay my rent anymore. I had to leave through the window because there were police at my door because I owed back rent for a year, and my roommates were basically flipping me off because I owed them so much. I got in the car and I was six hours from home, and those six hours, every song was like, 'I'm a looooooser' and I went back home and went, 'All right, that is obviously not my destiny. What do I do now?' "

Going from nursing to modeling and ultimately Playboy seems an unlikely career path, until McCarthy mentions the missing puzzle piece: That little voice inside that had always whispered about Hollywood and fame and being in front of a camera. She finally decided to obey it.

A college friend recalls that pre-Playboy, strangers would often walk up to McCarthy and tell her she should be in show biz.

"She just always had this aura about her," recalls Julie Lewis, a 27-year-old public-school reading specialist in Chicago. "She liked the attention, but she hadn't really found her niche. I'd always be saying, 'Someday you're going to be famous,' and she definitely wanted to do that, she dreamed of being in Hollywood. This is her calling."

"I did Playboy for a one-way ticket to L.A.," McCarthy says in her own defense. "Something drew me over to those bunnies."

Her issue on the newsstands, she drove to L.A. with a U-Haul, settled in Brentwood and started making the rounds (she also had a fiance; they eventually split but remain friends). She hooked up with manager Ray Manzella (who has also guided the careers of Vanna White and Pamela Anderson Lee), who told her about an audition for a new MTV dating show. She couldn't say "yes" fast enough. But after four seasons dealing with turbo-hormone-charged guys and girls, she was more than ready to bail.

"I would make a face, scream and yell, cheer for the girls and punch a guy. Season after season after season."

Her MTV comedy series last spring, "The Jenny McCarthy Show," allowed her to show more range, but the pace was brutal--22 episodes in three months.

Still, it wasn't a bad place to be for a former Playmate who hadn't even hit the quarter-century mark.

That's why she harbors no regrets about her Playboy stint--it allowed her to boldly go where few Playmates have gone before. Yet posing for the magazine caused far more personal turmoil than she expected.

"It shows you how naive I was," she says, "I thought that no one was going to find out. I actually thought that. 'Who am I? I'm working at a Polish grocery store; who's going to find out? I'll tell them [Playboy] I'm from a city outside Chicago.' But I had no idea how big Catholicism is and how they throw stones at you. . . . And I thought that maybe people would understand my dream and my plan, that this was only a stepping stone--'Do you get it, you guys?' But they didn't want to see it my way.

"I'd be doing radio interviews in Chicago and these girls would call up and say, 'Listen, you ho, your soul is going to burn in hell forever and we're so ashamed of you we can't wait for you to move, so get out, you slut!' It was horrible. I bawled every night. In the grocery store with my mom, people would be like, 'If that was my daughter, I'd kill her!' Half of our family disowned us. I've got three aunts that are nuns and four uncles that are priests. So you can understand where that comes from."

Her parents were devastated when they first learned about Playboy but have now come to accept their daughter's decision (the couple also have three other daughters; Jenny is second oldest).

"After she [posed for Playboy], she wrote letters to my husband and me," says Linda McCarthy from her home in a suburb outside of Chicago (her parents are currently separated). "She wrote that she was surprised that they agreed to do a shoot, and she said she then tried to get out of it, but by that time it was too late, she had signed contracts. I think that's the part that bothered me the most, after everything I had told her when she was growing up about coming to me when she had something she wanted to talk about. But I chalk it up to her being young and and I don't hold it against her."

But Linda quickly learned that being a centerfold's mom wasn't easy; while some friends and family steadfastly supported her, others cut her off. She even left a parish she had belonged to for years: "It was probably me," she says, "but I felt like everyone was staring at me."

Linda McCarthy says that Jenny always had stars in her eyes.

"When she was in first or second grade, she used to say that she wanted to be a teacher and an actress and I'd say, 'How will you do that all in one day?' And she said, 'I'll teach in the morning and then get on a plane, go to Hollywood and make a movie.' I knew right then and there that this was something she had in her head that she was going to do."

She even developed an affinity for the camera early on, starring in home video productions like "Killer Pizza Cutter," in which Jenny proved a convincing victim of her mom's pizza slicer.

Still, Linda McCarthy is as stunned as anyone by her daughter's early success.

"It's still unbelievable to me," she says, "at her young age to be where she's at. When I was her age I had 1.5 babies. But she's always had such energy and drive, and this dream. She told me, 'Mom, even if the show fails, I've still made it.' "

Credit Manzella for not allowing McCarthy to languish in Bimboland. Despite her Playmate pedigree, he saw something beyond the big hair and curves: "I really liked her personality. It jumped off the page. And she has an incredible sense of comedic timing."

Manzella explains that his career-building strategy involves "thinking long-term, not short-term. It's the talent that really is the one remarkable thing here, and a good manager will not screw that up. Less is more."

That meant not overexposing McCarthy with too many endorsements, but taking advantage of publicity coups like landing the covers of Newsweek and George, where she posed with tongue out and painted with the Stars and Stripes.

"You have to be focused," says Manzella, "and very, very minimal."

McCarthy now sits in the beige-and-cream-toned bedroom of the Pacific Palisades home with a breathtaking, uninterrupted view of the Pacific. She happens to share it with Manzella, who became her boyfriend about three years ago.

A big-screen TV is on, the mute button pushed. Manzella, wearing a sweatshirt and sweatpants, introduces himself, then tells McCarthy he's off on a laundry and grocery run.

Rumors of a Svengali-like relationship (he is 49) don't annoy her; "Anyone who questions it and then spends time with us, they go, 'Oh my God,' because it so makes sense. I need someone who is not into game-playing and is very mature. He knows what he wants and there's no bull----, and that's so key for me, especially with everything that's going on in my life."

McCarthy curls up on a cushy off-white chair in the bedroom, wearing a white T-shirt, loose drawstring pants, a pair of Manzella's white athletic socks, and no makeup. A vastly different kind of au naturel from what graced the pages of Playboy five years ago.

Getting through that shoot, she recalls, created a turbulent psychological tug-of-war.

"I definitely became somebody else doing it. Playboy's very professional, they really know how to make it seem like a business thing. But you have to get in these positions and then they say, 'OK, get that light, and put it right there,' and they'd be lighting my ass while I'd be stuck in this position," she says, demonstrating on all fours. "And you're going, 'This isn't right. This isn't me at all.' So I truly had to become 'Sarah the Centerfold' in order to get through that. I am so glad it's over, and I will never, ever ever do it again. But I still like them, Hef is a nice guy, and I still understand their corporation and why they rerun my pictures [they appear in this month's Playboy]. But at some point I wish he would stop running them." (Her third Playboy video, "Jenny McCarthy: The Playboy Years," will be in stores Tuesday; like the photos, it is footage for which she posed several years ago.)

McCarthy is also adamant about wanting the world to know the wonders of airbrushing: "Honey, there are so many choo-choo tracks on my thighs, trust me. And I've got cottage cheese, just like every other Playmate I saw at the mansion. I went on 'The Rosie O'Donnell Show' last year and held up a poster and marked on it what I really look like. I've never had so many little girls' moms come and say, 'Thank you, because we never knew that.' I wish more people would know the truth. Especially with those Cover Girl ads. When I was little, I used to say 60 'Our Fathers' so I would have a face like that--smooth, no pores."

The experience has helped her to better understand women's bitterness toward her: "I think it's not so much jealousy as it is just being threatened. And I don't blame them. I mean, I was looking at [the centerfolds], too, going, 'God, these girls are so perfect!' Little did I know how phony it is. It's a dream, that's it."

But the tide of female acceptance is turning, she believes, judging from the crowds at personal appearances.

"A year ago, if there was 1,000 people, 950 would be men. And at my last appearance recently there were 2,000 people there, and 1,500 were girls."

She credits "The Jenny McCarthy Show" for helping change some minds. "I think they saw how I really didn't take myself seriously, where on 'Singled Out' I did to a point, but also they had me dressing up like a Barbie doll, so it still made the girls kind of stand back a little bit. 'She's bold, but ehhh, she looks like a slut.' On 'The Jenny McCarthy Show,' when I'd be wearing long armpit hair, they'd go, 'Oh my God, I'd never be able to do that.' And they kind of came around. And you know now, when I ordered a pizza on the phone this girl on the other end recognized my voice and she says, 'You know, you rock!' And I'm like, 'Thank you so much!' It makes it all worthwhile, it's almost like getting an Emmy."

But television isn't the only medium McCarthy is using to communicate with her audience. Next month will see the debut of "Jen-X: Jenny McCarthy's Open Book," a not-quite autobiography (written with Neal Karlen for publisher Judith Regan, who brought radio loudmouths Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh into print). The various tales of Jenny chronicle her youth, Playboy, airbrushing and Hollywood--the good, the bad and the ugliness of things like casting couches. (She reportedly got a $1-million advance for the book.)

"I didn't want to do an autobiography; that would be ridiculous. But this you can open up and read any kind of story you want. I tell all the stories my way, without them being twisted."

She says the book also deals with a family member's drinking and its devastating effects on her and her family. It's a problem that has continued to plague her since making L.A. her home.

"Since I moved out here, I was throwing up I think every night, because it's so hard," McCarthy says. "It's so horrible. I can't deal with it anymore. That's why I have ulcers and internal problems, because I internalize everything. I kind of like seem, 'La-la-la, life's a party,' and then on the inside everything's going r-r-r-r-r, and I can't let it go. Fortunately, Ray's been a great shoulder."

At the urging of friends, she saw a psychiatrist: "People were like, 'Jenny, you've got a lot of [expletive] going on, you need to talk to somebody.' I'm like, 'I talk to reporters. That helps.' But I went to one woman and I was so disappointed. And I haven't been back since. But I think definitely I'm going to come to the point where I go again. I just need to find another person."

It seems odd, then, that McCarthy is part of a Coors beer print advertising campaign scheduled to run during Halloween.

Although she wrestled over whether to do it, finally saying yes came with some stipulations: Portions of Coors' proceeds would go to St. Jude Hospital and Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and the ads would carry warnings about drinking and driving.

In the meantime, she quiets her physical and psychological rumblings with New Age spirituality books ("I swear they have saved my life") and faithful attendance at an Indian sweat lodge.

"You go in this tepee and sit like this and you sweat so much. It's like this insane heat for three hours, and they sing these Indian songs that are so beautiful and they really make you go into that place in yourself that is usually always too cluttered. It's almost like you're facing your own fears and you have to face them now. In there, everything kind of comes out, and it's almost hypnotic in a way. If I didn't have my tepee, I don't know what I'd do."

Dealing with family travails hasn't dampened her enthusiasm for her show or her burgeoning career; McCarthy says eventually she'd like to tackle meaty dramatic roles, along the lines of Elisabeth Shue's prostitute in "Leaving Las Vegas." She had a small role in the 1995 Miramax release, "Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead."

"Down the road," she says, "I can definitely see myself doing that because there's this whole fiery side of me that a lot of people don't know. But right now, I'm having so much fun doing this, being the fun, young, naive girl. While I can get away with it I'm going to. And when I get older, I'm going to want to play the mom parts, the sophisticated kind of roles--but still very likable."

She rises from the chair and walks into the kitchen, where Ray is fixing something to eat. McCarthy looks through sliding glass doors over the vast expanse of water.

"Looks like it's going to be a beautiful sunset, huh?"

*

* "Jenny" premieres at 8:30 tonight on NBC (Channel 4).

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