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Jenny McCarthy, Arsenio, and Paul Reubens try to remake 'em laugh

Can Hall, McCarthy, and Reubens find happiness in sitcoms?

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What’s a good resume credit if you want to nab your own lucrative sitcom deal? Apparently, never having been on one, since the coming year promises new half-hour comedies from MTV Singled Out creation Jenny McCarthy, ex-yakster Arsenio Hall, and reformed Pee-wee Herman impersonator Paul Reubens.

McCarthy can point to a passable guest stint on Wings, but that’s not why Fox Entertainment president Peter Roth reportedly (and literally) rolled out the red carpet for the Woman Who Would Be Sitcom Queen. The ultimate measure of McCarthy’s appeal is her drawing power with the MTV set. After all, when Singled Out debuted on MTV in June 1995, it quickly became one of the network’s highest-rated shows and propelled McCarthy from nursing student-turned-Playboy Playmate to pop-culture lust object of the year. And as Gary Carr, senior VP at ad agency Ammirati, Puris/Lintas, points out: ”If networks need anything right now, it’s to attract young adults.”

The brash bombshell appeal of McCarthy was not lost on NBC, which ultimately wooed and won the 24-year-old away from Fox (and every other network) with a multi-episode commitment for a Paramount/MTV-coproduced fall ’97 sitcom. This despite a still-sketchy concept: Small-town gal relocates to Hollywood to become the personal assistant to a movie star (yet to be cast). ”It was a little bit of a mystery as to what she could do until she did Wings, and that was our suggestion,” says NBC president Warren Littlefield. ”I think she can be an explosive talent.”

Despite some small parts in films (in which he basically expanded his stand-up persona), Hall also is valued for the young audience he could bring to ABC. His as-yet-untitled DreamWorks sitcom, likely to debut in March, has been described as a black Mad About You, with the star as a newlywed sportscaster. The network will pony up $900,000 per episode, although Hall’s character — a conservative, finicky, and sometimes childish cable star — will be markedly different from the party-hearty late-night hipster so beloved by his woofing fans. ”He doesn’t come in barking,” notes executive producer David Rosenthal.

Nor will you see Paul Reubens donning his old checked suit and red bow tie. After his indecent-exposure scandal of 1991, he put Pee-wee to rest and lay low until making several recent appearances as a conniving executive on Murphy Brown. Now Carsey-Werner — which, according to president Caryn Mandabach, ”has been waiting to work with him for some time” — plans to outfit Reubens in a sitcom as offbeat as its 3rd Rock From the Sun, perhaps allowing the mercurial artist to play a number of characters. Bill Croasdale, president of Western International Media, believes Reubens’ Murphy appearances prove that the star’s porno theater transgressions have been forgiven by TV’s more conservative viewers and advertisers: ”I don’t think anybody pulled out of Murphy when he temped there. It’ll be just a matter of whether he has the capability of being the top banana.” And whether Pee-wee addicts can love a straight(er) character.

Well, stranger things have happened–Brooke Shields successfully committing comedy, for example. Then again, when even such two-time sitcom winners as Bob Newhart and Tony Danza can flop (witness Bob and Hudson Street), who knows what works? As one studio exec notes: “A big name can bring you a big audience. But if the show’s not good, you’re just going to lose a bigger audience.”