Lynette Rice
January 13, 2006 AT 05:00 AM EST

It’s a scorcher of a day on My Name Is Earl‘s Pimmit Hills Trailer Park set. Jason Lee (who stars as scruffy Earl Hickey) and Ethan Suplee (Earl’s man-child brother Randy) are parked outside the dilapidated trailer of Earl’s ex-wife, Joy (Jamie Pressly) — and the actors can’t leave the hot confines of Earl’s 1973 El Camino until Pressly stops flubbing her line, ”Look at my boobs while I’m talking about them!”

After several failed takes, Lee takes matters into his own hands. BEEEEEEEP! ”Every time you mess up, I’m gonna honk this!” he yells, leaning on the car’s double-octave horn. Unamused, Pressly resets for the scene in which Joy makes her husband, Darnell (Eddie Steeples), throw away his Playboy collection. Action! ”I don’t know why you want to look at that Miss February tramp when you got all this right here,” Pressly snaps. ”You look at my boobs while…oh!!” BEEEEEEP!!

The crew howls with laughter, while exec producer Marc Buckland asks Steeples for more energy. Lee leans out of the El Camino and flashes a grin. ”Do we have enough energy?”

More than enough, it seems. After nearly four months on the air, Earl is the highest-rated new comedy among young adults, and, with a weekly audience of 12 million, the second-most-watched in total viewers (behind CBS’ Out of Practice). Lee’s portrayal of a repentant crook who decides to rehab his karma by making up for every bad deed he’s ever done (258, to be exact) has earned the actor his first Golden Globe nomination. ”When I’m out in public and people recognize me from the show, they light up and talk about how much they love it, how good it makes them feel,” beams the 35-year-old. ”It is so rewarding.”

Now NBC is ready to cash in on that goodwill. On Jan. 5, the network plucked the freshman sitcom from Tuesdays — where it was regularly beating House, Commander in Chief, and The Amazing Race 8 among adults 18-49 — and moved it to Thursdays as part of an attempt to regain its four-comedy Must See TV glory. NBC Entertainment president Kevin Reilly admits that it’s an extraordinarily risky decision; besides giving new time slots to Will & Grace and The Office, the network is in danger of squandering Earl‘s valuable momentum by pitting it against TV’s No. 1 show, CSI, and ABC’s ballroom juggernaut, Dancing With the Stars. Despite carrying a large part of the network’s fortunes on his back, Lee denies feeling overwhelmed by pressure. ”I think our fans are locked in,” he says. ”If NBC wants to rely on us to be the one show to help their ratings, then I don’t mind. I think we can maintain it.” In its first outing, Earl performed respectably, pulling in 11.2 million viewers and coming in third in total viewers behind CBS and ABC. (Earl also slightly increased the audience average of its former time slot occupant, The Apprentice.) Even with the show’s dip in audience, Reilly remains convinced that the ex-con from Camden County is primed and ready for a fight. ”Earl had some brutal competition on Tuesday but it consistently won its time period,” he says. ”We’re not going to trade up on the ratings, but I think it’s gonna work, those comedies will stick and reestablish the block.” Creator and exec producer Greg Garcia (Yes, Dear) is also pleased with the early numbers: ”I like that we came in second in adults 18 to 49, beating Dancing With the Stars. I’m happy with that.”

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