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From critics' target to sitcom savior?

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- Desperate to replace classic comedies such as ''Friends" and ''Frasier," NBC has turned to a most unlikely savior this fall: a low-profile TV producer named Greg Garcia.

Garcia is the co-creator of one of television's most critically disliked sitcoms, CBS's ''Yes, Dear." In a burst of inspiration, he put together a completely different type of show, the offbeat ''My Name Is Earl," which NBC is now saying tested better with focus groups than any other comedy in 15 years, including ''Friends."

Kevin Reilly, president of NBC Entertainment, said at the Television Critics Association summer conference here last month that the comedy ''manages to be both subversive and yet sweet at the same time."

Jason Lee stars as a dimwitted but likable thief who wins $100,000 in the lottery. Ecstatic about his win, he runs into the street and is promptly knocked to the ground by a car, helplessly observing as his lottery ticket blows away. Later, watching an episode of ''Last Call With Carson Daly," Earl is convinced that karma is at the root of his problems. He sets out to right all of the 258 wrongs he's done over the years.

Critics have reacted favorably to advance copies of the pilot, calling it reminiscent in tone and character of the Coen brothers' feature film ''Raising Arizona."

The positive buzz is something Garcia can't get used to.

''It's very strange to hear from the same critics who slammed 'Yes, Dear,' " he said during an interview at the conference. Harsh reviews of ''Yes, Dear," which is based partly on his life at home with his wife and two young sons, ''fueled" him to be funnier, he said.

But after creating 109 episodes drawn from events in his life, Garcia said, he was ''tapped out." For the upcoming television season, he is on leave from that show. ''My Name Is Earl," which Garcia created while on vacation in North Carolina two years ago, has his full attention.

''We're concentrating on finding those big, funny moments that are going to make people laugh and talk about the next day," said Garcia. ''Earl is going on quite a journey here. He's going to learn a lot of things, and he's going to become enlightened a little bit each week."

Garcia is someone who buys lottery tickets himself. He's a fan of Carson Daly. And, yes, he believes in karma.

But the producer never intended to take his business to NBC. He pitched the show to Fox initially, but the network passed.

''I thought it was over. And then I had lunch with some people at NBC who complimented me on the script, and I said, 'Well, let's do it.' "

Unlike a lot of NBC's veteran producers, Garcia has only been in the business for 12 years, doing stints as a writer on ''Family Matters" and as a producer on the animated ''Family Guy."

He grew up in Arlington, Va., where his father was a cab driver and his mother a realtor. Glued to the television most nights, he would faithfully watch sitcoms such as ''Good Times," ''The Jeffersons," and ''Happy Days."

''At dinnertime, I would record the audio of my shows with a tape recorder and then listen to them after dinner," he said.

A class clown, Garcia negotiated a deal with his eighth-grade teacher in which he was allowed to do a stand-up routine in front of his class during the last five minutes of every day provided he was quiet the rest of the school day. ''It worked," he said.

Garcia, who majored in speech communication at Frostburg State University because it was ''easy," took a television writing course as a fluke. It inspired him to apply after graduation to a one-week Warner Bros. writers program in Los Angeles in 1993.

''I looked at it as a vacation," he said. ''I couldn't believe people were paid to sit in a room and tell jokes."

To be sure, NBC's reputation for making comedies is pretty shaky these days. ''Joey" was a disappointment last year. The heavily marketed ''Father of the Pride," ''Committed," and ''Come to Papa" are all now off the air.

In a defensive move, NBC deliberately scheduled ''My Name Is Earl" for Tuesdays at 9 p.m., rather than on the higher-profile ''must-see" TV Thursday night programming block. The show is set to premiere Sept. 20.

''Comedies, as you know, historically need time to grow, need time to nurture," said NBC's Reilly.

For star Jason Lee, the pressure is building, although he tries not to think about it. ''I can't show up on the set every day with that in my mind. It would just be too distracting," he told critics at the TCA meeting. ''All I can do is show up and work and try to make the best show that I can make as an actor."

Garcia agrees, placing his faith in some good one-liners and, yes, karma.

He jokes, ''I'm going to continue to try to do good things in my life so this show can stay on the air."

Suzanne Ryan can be reached at

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