Cindy Williams still cooking up comedy

May 20, 1994|By Mike Giuliano | Mike Giuliano,Special to The Sun

If you are what you eat, Cindy Williams is certifiably fat free. Best known as Shirley in the '70s TV series "Laverne and Shirley," she's now touring malls across America as master of ceremonies for Entenmann's Fat Free Home-Baked Humor contest.

Locally, you can take part when the contest comes to the Owings Mills Mall tomorrow. The auditions at 10 a.m. are open to anyone 18 or older; then the 14 selected contestants will be paired up to perform seven different sitcomlike skits in a public performance while Ms. Williams acts as host, starting at 1 p.m. The single contestant judged funniest goes to the national finals in New York City in June.

What prompted Ms. Williams to sign on as host for this open-to-nearly-all-Americans comedy contest? Did she worry that this home-baked competition would turn out to be half-baked?

"They sent me a big basket of bakery goods and a big Entenmann's cookie jar," she laughingly responds from her Los Angeles home.

As a TV sitcom veteran, Ms. Williams knows all about developing a performance for the small screen. She acknowledges that putting on a comedy show in a massive and noisy shopping mall has its challenges.

"We call it mall theater," she says. "It's a wandering audience, with some people stopping to watch and others moving along. For actors, when you're in a mall, you're in a very open space, and your performance can just dissolve into the atmosphere. But you can't let it bother you."

Although Ms. Williams says she neither coaches the contestants nor serves as one of the judges, she takes an eager interest in how the script-in-hand contestants negotiate their lines and the basic kitchen set.

"This isn't stand-up comedy. It's more a situation comedy kind of context. There are various scripted situations. Like one with a modern working couple who can't get their schedules coordinated. That's a very '90s kind of situation. And there's another script that's about interviewing a woman who has had 12 children."

How have the contestants been faring?

"Some people don't speak into the microphone and others turn their back to the audience, but many of the people we've seen so far are terrific. I've been impressed. You know, people don't realize how tough comedy is. Situation comedy isn't just telling stand-up jokes. It is basically a personality play. You have to become this person in a situation. In order to do that, you have to love people to be able to perform well, and you also have to be willing to get up there and show your own vulnerability."

Ms. Williams knows whereof she speaks. She faced the TV cameras in the series "Room 222," "Nanny and the Professor" and "Happy Days" before hitting the pop cultural jackpot with "Laverne and Shirley." Most recently, the NBC series "Getting By" has had her in the public eye again.

Settling into a series like "Laverne and Shirley," she says, "you know that set so well that you learn when to open a drawer, or how long it takes you to get from here to there, and how to time a line to match that action.

"People watch a situation comedy because they love the people on it. They make friends with these characters. As an actor in a situation comedy, you go into people's living rooms."

That very familiarity, however, perhaps makes people forget Ms. Williams also has an unusual assortment of movie credits: Roger Corman's "Gas-s-s-s," the Jack Nicholson-directed "Drive, He Said," George Cukor's "Travels With My Aunt," George Lucas' "American Graffiti," Francis Ford Coppola's "The Conversation," and really left-field entries, such as "The First Nudie Musical."

Besides her big-screen acting, she co-produced the "Father of the Bride," starring Steve Martin.

In her personal life, the 46-year-old wife of Bill Hudson, and mother of Emily, 10, and Zak, 7, works with the National Safe Kids Council in Washington on its public awareness campaigns. She also does "Toy Time With Cindy Williams," broadcast on the QVC cable network, as a way to spotlight affordable and educational toys.

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