Can NBC shape a former Playmate-turned-MTV plaything into a TV-G-Rated prime-time star?


… that is the question. On the one hand, some of the TV execs inside Stage 19 on the Paramount lot, where Jenny McCarthy is taping the pilot episode of her new NBC sitcom, want the former Playmate to wrap herself up in a demure cardigan, giving her a family-hour, TV-G-friendly look. A powerful anti-sweater contingent, however, is pushing for the more hubba-hubba, in-your-face Jenny. After much passionate debate, the issue is settled Solomon-style: The scene is shot both ways. More on that later.

The point is, there’s gold in them thar hills, even if NBC hasn’t figured out how to mine it yet. The 24-year-old pinup-turned-cutup who manhandled panting frat boys on MTV’s Singled Out, whose ads for Candie’s shoes were too scandalous — and too gross — for network TV, who built an entire persona around exposing her tongue (and other body parts) to the camera, may be the most marketable centerfold to unstaple herself from Playboy since Marilyn Monroe. Or at least since Pamela Lee.

”She’s larger than life, she cuts through the clutter, she’s got universal appeal,” believes NBC president Warren Littlefield, who’s made an unusual 22-episode commitment to the show — and who, by the way, sided with the no-sweater crowd at the pilot taping. ”You can’t hide the fact that she’s a gorgeous woman, so why put her in a potato sack? Why try to turn her into the walking nun? It is, after all, Jenny.”

It is indeed, as the show’s ingenious title — Jenny — makes abundantly clear. Its wacky sitcom premise: McCarthy plays Jenny McMillan, a small-town girl working the cash register at a convenience store in Utica, N.Y., along with her pal Maggie (Heather Paige Kent), until one day she learns that her long-lost father, a hammy B-movie actor (played by hammy B-movie actor George Hamilton), has died and left her his fab bachelor pad in Los Angeles. So, the girls have loaded up the truck and moved to Beverly. Piercing parlors. Sharky Hollywood lawyers. Pretentious indie filmmakers.

”It’s Laverne & Shirley for the 1990s,” offers McCarthy, scarfing down a slice of pizza in her dressing room during a rehearsal break last month. ”You know, two girls trying to be hip in L.A., always in trouble, not fitting in. It’s very similar to my own experience. It’s the Jenny that first moved out to Los Angeles. Except my dad isn’t dead.”

You’ve got to pace yourself,” George Hamilton is advising a visitor to the set. ”You’ve got to go one step at a time. You can’t push it. It’s about slow exposure, about not going from white to red-hot right away.” He’s talking about tanning, not fame, but the message still applies: In Hollywood, too much exposure can be just as deadly as too little. And the man most responsible for the pacing of McCarthy’s career, for controlling her exposure, is Ray Manzella, her 48-year-old manager — and boyfriend of nearly three years. Manzella has plenty of experience handling Playboy refugees of untested talents: He helped turn Vanna White into more than a mere letter turner and managed Pamela Lee for two years, until she fired him at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival (for paying too much attention to McCarthy, Manzella says). ”Insecurity sometimes makes people lash out,” he says of the falling-out with Pamela. ”And then when Tommy Lee came into the scenario, I was dead meat.”