November 04, 1994 at 05:00 AM EST

Situation #1: Like most good husbands, Paul Reiser, the costar and cocreator of Mad About You, calls his wife, Paula, when he’ll be home late because he’s trapped in the office. ”Then,” he says, ”I’ll go to her, ‘Oh, listen, we’re stuck on page 27. Let’s say the guy is coming home late and he calls his wife. What would he say? What would she say?”’

Situation #2: Like most good writers, Reiser cannibalizes his life to make his art, even when he tries hard not to. ”The first season I was so obnoxious,” he recalls. ”We’d be talking and [Paula] would see me get this glazed look and she’d go, ‘Okay, go get a pencil, I’ll wait. Do you remember what you said? I’ll remember what I said.”’ Mrs. Reiser was not thrilled by the interruptions; Mr. Reiser tried to reform. By the second season, though, ”we’d find ourselves in the midst of a heated argument and she’d go, ‘Oh! That would be great if Jamie said that!’ And I’d go, ‘Wait a second, I just learned to stop doing that — now you’re doing it?’ Then I realized that’s the big joke of marriage — that the rules change.”

Situation comedy: Among those built around the stand-up acts of successful comics, Mad About You is the one that tells the big jokes, and the little ones, too, about marriage. It’s the one where the winsome, wittily neurotic characters are connected and committed to each other, rather than disconnected and isolated masters of their bachelor domains. While the verbal, obsessional humor of Seinfeld and Ellen is rooted in rootlessness and singlehood, and the comedy on Home Improvement, Roseanne, and Grace Under Fire is motored by the demands of kids and houses, Mad About You is anchored by togetherness — chatty, urban, small-scale, romantic togetherness. Mad is as obsessed with small negotiations (who changes the toilet paper roll when all that’s left is the cardboard tube?) as with big ones (when to have a baby?). Mad stars a couple — Reiser and Helen Hunt carry equal weight — rather than a comedian-plus-costars. Now in its third season and third different night on NBC (it currently airs Thursdays at 8 p.m.), the show has emerged as the sitcom that men and women, and especially couples, love. But quietly.

Which is to say, while it’s not filled with the kinds of buzzwords that get repeated at the office the next day or situations that get rehashed with friends, the signs are compelling that Mad About You is hitting its mark:

*It’s now a top 20 show. Last week the series came in 16th, and it ranks 14th for the season so far.

*Mad received seven Emmy nominations this past year, including one each for Reiser, 38, and Hunt, 31, in the categories of Outstanding Lead Actor/Actress in a Comedy. (Although the extremely popular Hunt lost the 1994 Emmy to Murphy Brown‘s Candice Bergen in September, Bergen, in her acceptance speech, praised Hunt as her ”hero.”)

*Mad has helped shoot Reiser’s new book, Couplehood, to the top of the best-seller list. Bantam, which also published Jerry Seinfeld’s 1993 best-seller, SeinLanguage, reports sales of more than 750,000. (Hunt says that she too has been approached by a publisher about writing a book; form and content have yet to be discussed.)

*Mad has led to new movie roles for both stars. The New York City-born and -bred Reiser, who began doing stand-up comedy in 1977, made a memorable film debut in 1982 as the grating moocher Modell in Barry Levinson’s Diner, and appeared in Beverly Hills Cop (I and II) and Aliens; he now costars with Randy Quaid and Matthew Modine as a divorced guy hung up on his ex-wife in Bye Bye Love, due by next spring. Hunt, the daughter of acting teacher Gordon Hunt, grew up mostly in L.A. and has been a professional actor since childhood (recently appearing in the films The Waterdance and Mr. Saturday Night). She’ll play the wife of soon-to-be-ex-NYPD Blue star David Caruso in Barbet Schroeder’s Kiss of Death, due out early next year.

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