YOU CAN certainly see why CBS entertainment boss Jeff Sagansky signed off on giving Lenny Clarke his own sitcom after seeing the comedian work at a Los Angeles club.
Whatever the merits of his stand-up act, Clarke has the essential ingredient necessary to translate nightclub comedy to situation comedy -- he gets you on his side. You like him, you want him to be funny. And you wouldn't mind paying him another visit next week.
In "Lenny," which has a sneak preview tonight at 8:30 on Channel 11 (WBAL) before moving into its Wednesday at 8 o'clock time slot next week, Clarke plays Lenny Callahan, a Bostonian who works two jobs -- construction worker by day, hotel doorman by night -- to keep his family's head above financial water.
Clarke fits into the role as if it was an old pair of work boots, which is not surprising considering he did grow up in a blue-collar family in Cambridge, Mass. Indeed, he once worked as the janitor of the town hall -- supposedly running for mayor on the promise he would clean up the place -- before he took his comedic talents on the club circuit.
"Lenny" is at its best when it takes advantage of its star's authenticity. There are certain scenes -- maybe a third of those in the show -- that ring with the clarity of truth even as they make you laugh.
In some of these, Clarke is basically doing stand-up, stalking around the room commenting with insight and humor on the state of the world and his life. He comes across as exactly what he must have been for most of his life, a blue-collar guy who had rather amusing observations to make about what he stumbled into every day.
Other bits of stand-up that work are exchanges with his wife and his soliloquies to their infant daughter. On the borderline are the scenes with his mother, essentially a comedic device as she sits in her kitchen and gives her rather myopic view of the world, and with his father, played by commercial veteran Eugene Roche, who sits in his living room and keeps check on the Weather Channel.
The scenes that fail miserably are those with his older daughter, who seems miraculously to have grown up in Los Angeles' San Fernando valley even though she's supposed to have lived in Boston her whole life, and his ne'er-do-well brother, a virtual copy of Kirk from "Dear John," though this guy is into scams, not women. During these scenes, it's painfully evident that everyone is delivering lines that were scripted by Hollywood comedy writers.
In the pilot, Lenny comes home and announces that he's finally put away enough money so that he can quit the night job. Even he knows that he's telegraphing the plot and comments on it. The phone rings, Dad's taken a fall, he needs an operation that he can't afford. Though he's never been in debt in his life, Lenny decides to borrow the money so his Dad can have the surgery.
"Lenny" is in the post-"Roseanne," school of comedies. "Roseanne" works because, at the insistence of Roseanne Barr, it comes across as the story of a real household, not a Hollywood vision of blue-collar life.
Lenny Clarke doesn't have the stand-up status nor prime-time clout of Barr, but the producers of "Lenny" would be wise to pretty much put him in charge. He probably has a better idea of what should be going on in a household like the Callahan's than any of them do. And it's when "Lenny" has a feeling of reality that it demonstrates its significant potential for a lengthy stay in the CBS lineup.
*** A sitcom centered around the Boston household of Lenny Callahan, construction worker by day, hotel doorman by night.
CAST: Lenny Clarke, Eugene Roche
TIME: /////Tonight 8:30, then Wednesdays at 8 o'clock
CHANNEL: CBS Channel 11 (WBAL)