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Tea Time

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They are the three sweetest words in network TV, and Tea Leoni can’t stop saying them.

”Right after Seinfeld! Right after Seinfeld! Right after Seinfeld!”

It’s a mantra that’s been carrying the 30-year-old star of NBC’s mid-season replacement sitcom The Naked Truth through months of frenzied script changes and staff upheavals. And now, 12 hours into a rehearsal for the third episode, Leoni is once again calming herself with thoughts of her new neighbors: Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer on one side, and the good doctors of ER on the other. There’s just one nagging concern: ”Please, Lord,” says Leoni, ”don’t make us the Thursday-night dog-walking show.”

If that happens, it won’t be for lack of grooming. Since last summer, when NBC stole The Naked Truth from ABC, the Peacock net has spent the requisite millions performing its usual voodoo on a favored child. Much like its efforts for Brooke Shields’ Suddenly Susan at the start of the fall season, the network’s hype machine has flooded prime time with high-energy promos flaunting Leoni’s screwball allure. What viewers don’t see are the machinations that go into turning a promising, if flawed, sitcom into one worthy of a Must See slot. ”We had the deluded fantasy that coming from ABC, we weren’t a freshman show anymore,” says Leoni. ”That lasted about 10 minutes — until we realized NBC was changing everything.”

”You need to give a show time to find its legs, and we have a schedule successful enough that we can be patient and nurture it,” says NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield of the continued tinkering. ”Making a course correction on a show like this is one of the joys of toiling in the fields of episodic TV.”

It’s not as if The Naked Truth was a disaster for ABC — it finished a respectable 31st out of 159 shows overall last season. But it never lived up to its star’s potential (Leoni is the Next Lucille Ball, crowed more than one smitten critic), nor could it find a suitable home. ”We liked the show,” insists ABC spokesperson Craig Martinelli. ”There just wasn’t another show to marry it with on our fall schedule.” Last year, Truth was slotted after The Drew Carey Show and Grace Under Fire, programs considered too middle America for such an edgy, urbane comedy. ABC did offer to renew, but the series’ producers chose to go with NBC. ”It’s amazing,” Leoni says, ”to leave one network and feel like the unwanted child and then to come to a new one and feel like the hottest thing. [At ABC] the enthusiasm just wasn’t there. We were standing on our heads and not getting any attention.”

But here’s the funny thing: While edgy and urbane is the supposed definition of Must See programming, critics of the revamped sitcom (and there are many) are lamenting the loss of those very things. While ABC’s sitcom focused on a crass, Weekly World News-type tabloid (the Comet) with a daffy paparazzo (Leoni’s Nora Wilde), NBC’s Nora is a pleasantly giddy advice columnist working for a Comet in search of legitimacy. As costar Holland Taylor puts it, ”The show’s now much more about relationships and office dynamics than about finding people who’ve had sex with Bigfoot.”

Taylor, who plays Camilla Dane, survived the move to NBC, though she was demoted from editor in chief to gossip columnist. Also returning are Mark Roberts as reporter Dave (no longer “Stupid Dave,” as on ABC); Darryl Sivad, whose once-menacing T.J. character has traded living in a van for a wife and kids; and Jonathan Penner, who continues to play the hunky photographer. None of the original writers or producers (including creator Chris Thompson) remain, however; the new team includes graduates of such diverse comedy mills as The Larry Sanders Show and Cybill. “When you take a show away from the original creator, you take away the one person who understands the entire voice of the show,” says Thompson. “There’s a dark, ego side of me that wishes it would fail because they don’t have me, but I like everybody over there.”

Littlefield defends making Truth friendlier: “The ABC show was off-putting in its language. Sperm and urine jokes can only be so funny.” Adds new executive producer Jay Daniel: “You can still get laughs and have an edge without getting into all these bizarre situations. If you want to have an audience stick around, you have to let them get to know a core group of people that they want to [revisit] week after week. ”

So far, so good. In its first two weeks, Truth has averaged 27.9 million viewers. Given the golden time slot, however, NBC could probably broadcast video from its parking lot security cameras and still get a sizable audience. What Truth didn’t do was hold on to as many Seinfeld viewers as its predecessor, Suddenly Susan (Truth lost an average of 17 percent its first two weeks versus Susan‘s 14 percent this season). Yes, stress lives even in the cushiest of neighborhoods. “The time slot’s a blessing and a curse,” says Daniel. “I’d be kidding if I didn’t say it’s a little scary, too.”

The real test, of course, comes in mid-April, when Truth will be supplanted by NBC’s next great hope, the Sharon Lawrence sitcom Fired Up. If picked up for an additional 13 episodes, Truth will most likely sink or swim in another time slot a la other Thursday-night refugees Caroline in the City (thriving on Tuesday), Boston Common (falling flat on Sunday), and Susan (we’ll see). Leoni is circumspect. “You don’t get put at 9:30 ’cause you’re great. You get put there because you have potential and it’s a springboard. You’re not gonna stay there. You get Wednesday.”

Of more immediate concern are premise overlaps with Susan, which will return to Thursdays at 8:30 on Feb. 27. “Brooke’s is a physical show,” Leoni says. “She also plays a 30-year-old who has lost her way, who works at a magazine. How many semi-lost stupid white chicks can you have on one network?”

Am I in this scene?” Leoni asks script supervisor Jonathan Levit.

“Of course,” he says. “You’re in every scene.”

There’s no rest for the must-be-seen. On this particular day, when the predominant fashion statement is jet-black circles under the eyes, Leoni is still hopping, stretching, strutting around the office set. “Sometimes my energy level is jarring,” she admits, “so they gave me a treadmill to work it off.”

The sinewy Leoni—in a tight second-skin skirt and satiny top—looks barely legal for prime time. ”Can somebody please warm Tea’s nipples?” yells Holland Taylor. The camera guys hoot, and so does Leoni, whose disheveled glamour, nearly spastic energy, and love of a well-placed four-letter word is more reminiscent of Carole Lombard than Lucille Ball. A broad in babe’s clothing. ”She’s a delightful blend of contradictions,” says Littlefield. ”Gorgeous but gawky, spirited yet elegant, beautiful yet absolutely silly and funny.” Adds Taylor, ”She’s got a mouth on her.”

Between takes, Leoni flits from cast to crew with little hugs, back massages, belches, or impromptu flashes of her washboard stomach. Finally the director cues the cameramen to film, and Leoni must once again react to a line she has been forced to laugh at, take after take, for an hour (the actor has continuously flubbed the already not-very-funny joke ”I have three words for you—liar, liar, pants.”). The actress does her bit, then expresses what’s on everybody’s mind: ”Let’s shoot the f—er!”

Tension is running high thanks to massive script revisions and 14-hour-and-longer days (more than one rehearsal dragged on till 4 a.m.). ”We’re all having growing and adjustment pains,” concedes Taylor. ”We aren’t sure exactly what we are yet, and we’re being asked to deliver a big punch. Tea and I look at each other and think, We’ve got nothing to hang on to. And George must come in and think, What the hell is going on here?”

Cheers graduate George Wendt—who, as the Comet‘s new editor, Les Polonsky, plays Truth‘s straight man—knows exactly what’s going on. ”Cheers didn’t click into overdrive until the third or fourth year,” says Wendt. ”We needed some retooling too. Even if shows are terrific from the start, it can be tough getting people on board. It’s got to be a lot of pressure on Tea.”

In the fourth episode, look for another ratings jacker of a familiar face: Mary Tyler Moore will play Nora’s ”tough, opinionated” mother for four shows. Moore starred with Leoni in last year’s big-screen comedy Flirting With Disaster and calls Leoni ”gifted beyond everybody of her age that I’ve seen before. The reactions she comes up with make her a perfect sitcom star.”

Leoni’s motormouth charisma and comic acrobatics have made her the standout in nearly every project she’s graced, particularly Flirting and the 1992-93 Fox sitcom Flying Blind. She has also attracted the interest of such Hollywood heavyweights as Harvey Weinstein, James L. Brooks, and Steven Spielberg, who have dangled movie projects before her. ”Spielberg said if I’d attach myself to this script [Why Can’t I Be Audrey Hepburn?], ‘I’ll make it for you,”’ says Leoni. ”He could have handed me My Dinner With Andre, Part Deux and I would have signed on.” (Leoni and Spielberg later decided the Hepburn script was not quite right for her. ”I think we’re gonna let that one go,” she says.)

In general, the actress finds the Hollywood bull-o-rama tiresome. ”It’s annoying that people won’t be straight with you—about what they can do for you, how they liked your performance. Like with Bad Boys [1995’s Will Smith/Martin Lawrence movie], people said, ‘Nice job in that, Tea.’ Nice job? God help you.” Nevertheless, everyone involved with Truth expects to inevitably lose its star to movies. ”Until then,” says Daniel, ”I think we can treat her well in this format. The word is, Tea’s the franchise—let’s make her look as great as we possibly can.”

The fear, of course, is that the revamped Truth will advance Leoni no further than the original show, that she’ll still be the next big thing, not the thing. But the actress continues to believe in Nora’s star-making potential. “I’ve always thought she was a jackass,” laughs Leoni, “and I don’t want to lose that. She’s fun and kind and the last person on earth I’d ask advice from, yet that’s what she’s doing—giving out advice. The irony is going to be hysterical.” Fun and kindness are perhaps the only qualities she and her character share. For one thing, says Leoni, “I couldn’t dress myself out of a well-lit closet, and I couldn’t be less interested.” For another: “She has better breasts than I do.”

Not to mention a more hectic social life: “I don’t even go to restaurants,” she says, preferring to hole up with her mutt, George. Leoni relishes her privacy, especially after the breakup of a very public romance with Truth creator Chris Thompson. “My relationship with Chris was so misrepresented,” she says of reports that Thompson had ditched his wife to be with her. “I still love his heart and his mind.”

Leoni (nee Pantleoni), has been married once (to a TV commercial director; they divorced in 1993), grew up in Englewood, N.J., and Manhattan, and remains close to her nutritionist mother, corporate attorney father, and older brother, Tom. She studied anthropology and psychology at Sarah Lawrence and “for a while I thought I’d milk cows for a living.” One of many eccentric pipe dreams: After dropping out of college, she crewed on sailboats and even entertained working as a tollbooth attendant.

Charlie’s Angels, of all things, provided the entree to acting—specifically, a Boston-mall cattle call for Angels ’88, Aaron Spelling’s attempt to update his ’70s bikini-fest. Leoni beat out thousands and moved to L.A. When the show never aired, she landed a spot on the daytime soap Santa Barbara, which led to Flying Blind and small movie roles (Wyatt Earp). But “ultimately,” says Leoni, “I don’t think I’ve decided that [acting] is what I want to do.” She does, in fact, harbor a fantasy: “A year from now, I’d be getting ready to start Lamaze classes. I’d be living close to the ocean, with a movie project waiting for me as soon as my belly got unswollen. Then I would just go visit my parents—that would be the topper for a good day.”

This particular day ends at 11 p.m. Leoni insists she’s exhausted, but looks fresh enough to play 18 holes of golf (a passion) and still milk cows at dawn. “Trust me,” she says as she climbs into her black BMW 540i, “when I go home I fall facedown. Sometimes I leave thinking I’ll never be able to tell another joke. That’s when I feel like asking NBC, ‘Are you sure we wouldn’t be better off on Saturdays at noon?'”

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