Minnesota native Melissa Peterman gets off the bench to take center stage in her own sitcom.
LOS ANGELES - Melissa Peterman thought she was prepared for the most important day in her professional life. The night before the first day on the set of her very own sitcom, she had laid out her clothes, picked the perfect shoes and shaved her legs. The next morning, she got into her car and turned the key. Click. Peterman had forgotten to fill the tank.
"Here was this dream I had planned my whole life and I didn't have the gas to get there," said the 39-year-old Minnesota native, who still managed to get to the Warner Bros. lot that morning last October to lead the charge for "Working Class." The show, which debuts Friday on CMT, is the country-music channel's first sitcom -- and its star's first chance to prove she's more than a second banana.
That's a goal she set back when doing theater at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Even when she was finding success at Dudley Riggs' Brave New Workshop and in "Tony N' Tina's Wedding" on Hennepin Avenue, she wanted to take a shot at being a Hollywood headliner.
"I would have been perfectly content coming back and having a career in Minnesota, but I didn't want to be 45 and saying, 'I could have been a star,'" said Peterman, nursing a vodka and club soda last week in a Pasadena sports bar, not far from the Silver Lake home she shares with husband John Brady (whom she met in Minnesota) and their 5-year-old, Riley. "I mean, who wants to be married to that girl -- although she can be fun during a drunken Thanksgiving."
It's that borderline bawdy sense of humor that quickly landed her a role as Reba McEntire's comic foil on the sitcom "Reba," which ran for six years on the CW network and set up Peterman for her own show.
But it didn't happen, at least not right away.
Since "Reba" left the air in 2007, Peterman has tried out for one sitcom after another. She shot a pilot with Cedric the Entertainer that didn't get picked up. She was in the running for the role in "Modern Family" that eventually went to Julie Bowen. ("In my head, I almost had it, but if you ask ABC, they might say I wasn't even close.")
Instead, Peterman became something of a country-music star, warming up fans of McEntire and George Strait on tour, hosting red-carpet events for country awards shows and emceeing "The Singing Bee," which quickly became CMT's most-watched show.
It was then that Brad Johnson, who oversees the cable channel's programming, realized that Peterman would be the perfect actress to launch the first sitcom for a network eager to prove it can do more than run country videos. CMT, now available in nearly 90 million homes, has had growing success with repeats of family-oriented shows such as "Dukes of Hazzard" and "Extreme Makeover." Johnson was ready to put the network's own spin on a show.
He remembered a script by Jill Cargerman that had been floating around for years and sent it to Peterman when she was vacationing in St. Paul. Peterman was instantly smitten.
"The script was written before I met Melissa, but I can't imagine anyone else playing the role," said Cargerman, who previously wrote for "Gary Unmarried" and "Las Vegas."
"It had to be someone incredibly funny, strong and sexy, and you can see that she fulfills all of those roles."
'Roseanne' meets 'Lucy'
Peterman plays Carli Mitchell, a twice-divorced mother of three who appears to have inherited both Roseanne Connor's house and her money problems. She waters down the milk when the kids aren't looking, hoards free toothbrushes from the dentist and washes her hair in dish soap.
Through it all, Peterman lets her freak flag fly, juicing up scenes with the kind of goofy, let-'er-rip physical humor she first mastered at Dudley Riggs. A scene in which she desperately flirts with a customer at her deli counter who turns out to be her boss, and another in which she overdoses on laughing gas, would make Lucille Ball beam with pride.
Then there's the interaction with a co-worker played by Ed Asner, who exhibits great chemistry with Peterman both on and off screen. (He calls her "Blondie"; she calls him "Old Man.")
Other names who will stop by during the 12-episode run include Leslie Ann Warren, Ryan Stiles, John Schneider and, yes, McEntire, playing the woman who steals Peterman's ex-husband -- a role reversal from "Reba."
"I'm so proud of Melissa having her own show," McEntire said in an e-mail. "She's so talented and funny and the world needs to see what she's up to!"
McEntire isn't just a cheerleader. Peterman contacted her for advice at least twice a week during shooting and used her as a role model on how to lead a set.
"I've done guest spots on shows where the cast never even says hello," Peterman said, "but Reba taught me that you go up and make sure they know you're glad they're here."
She went out of her way to create a "superfun" set. After the cameras went off for a mud-wrestling scene, she challenged crew members to $10 bouts, with the proceeds going to Toys for Tots.
But during the early days of the shoot, she worried. And cried. A lot.
"What if this is the wrong dream?" she remembered asking herself. "What if I was supposed to make cheese in Vermont? I didn't sleep a lot leading up to it. I think my husband got a blowup doll in November. He put her in a dress and called it Mommy. Funny thing is, the kid didn't notice until Christmas."
In the end, Peterman said the experience lived up to expectations and she's hoping CMT renews the series -- a likely scenario considering it's giving the sitcom a mighty publicity push.
In the meantime, she's hoping to spend more time with her family in both L.A. and St. Paul, where she can sometimes be spotted at the Happy Gnome and Dixies. She's gearing up for another season of "The Singing Bee," opening for McEntire on the road and putting the finishing touches on her debut comedy album. Her next big dream: Doing a dark comedy on Broadway or, yes, the Guthrie.
"I'm putting it out there," she said.
Rest assured that come opening night, she'll double-check the gas tank.
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