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For Kirstie Alley, Showtime Has Some Big Plans

By Teresa Wiltz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 6, 2005; Page D01

That humming noise you hear is the sound of the Hollywood buzz machine kicking into overdrive: Once sleek and beautiful actress, now packing on pounds and the subject of scary tabloid photos, decides to make lemonade and embrace her adipose. Ergo her new Showtime series, "Fat Actress," debuting tomorrow, and with it, all the hype that's fit to print.

Indeed, these days, Kirstie Alley, 54, is playing front and center in America's exceedingly short attention span. There's the People cover. The tell-all memoir, perfectly timed to coincide with the premiere of the sitcom. The appearances on the "Today" show, Letterman and "Dateline." Then there are the Jenny Craig commercials, the billboards and, oh, let us not forget, the premiere, red carpet and all, at Los Angeles's Cinerama Dome, with Showtime's president cracking jokes about the width of the screen being necessary to accommodate the girth of his newest star.

It's all about manufacturing a moment, people.

"In a very crowded environment, we decided to be very aggressive about this show," says Richard Licata, Showtime's VP of corporate communications.

Being aggressive meant that in addition to the lavish ad campaign -- Showtime won't say how much it's spent -- and television appearances, the cable network's marketing team made sure that Alley was photographed looking as glamorous as possible, to counter the tabloid pics of her scarfing down junk food and to create the image of "the fat actress who's also beautiful," Licata says. They had a lot to work with, so to speak: After all, Alley first attracted attention for her striking looks in 1982, as the half-Vulcan chick in "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan." And with "Cheers" (one Emmy win, five nominations) and "Veronica's Closet" (Emmy nomination) her comedic chops were bona fide. All she needed was a little repackaging. And with that, they pushed her out into the public, making sure she showed up at premieres, the better to generate mentions in the gossip columns.

There's a technique to the publicity machinations, says Variety TV columnist and critic Brian Lowry: "You pick signature shows and then just pound the medium with it, throw huge parties and do everything you can to get attention. When you're one of these pay channels, getting attention is at least 50 percent of the battle."

Says Licata: "Truthfully, 'Fat Actress' is a success for us already. Because of the buzz."

The trick, of course, is to back up the buzz with success. Buzz without bodies tuning in is akin to the proverbial tree crashing in the forest, unheeded and unheard. Says Todd Boyd, a professor in the School of Cinema-Television at the University of Southern California: "Buzz gets you early attention, but it also raises the stakes."

Only time -- and Showtime subscribers -- will tell if Alley's gamble at Larry Davidesque docu-comedy, where fact and fiction blend into an comedic whole, will capture the fickle fancy of the viewing public. (Sandy Chanley, who executive-produces the show with Alley and Brenda Hampton, once produced HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm.") Other cable comedies, like HBO's "Entourage" and "Unscripted," have adopted a similar approach to quasi-reality, with real celebrities playing themselves in cameos alongside fictional characters. "Fat Actress" is no different, with John Travolta (Alley's co-star from "Look Who's Talking"), Kelly Preston , Kid Rock and Jeff Zucker, president of NBC, which produced "Veronica's Closet," scheduled for cameos.

"It's a strange trend," Lowry says. "This genre reflects Hollywood's fascination with itself. Which sometimes reflects people's fascination with Hollywood."

But mostly, with "Fat Actress," the fascination is with Alley and her struggles with weight in an industry that views a size 4 as zaftig. With "Fat Actress," Alley, who declined to be interviewed for this article, pushes the envelope hard, using herself as parody throughout each half-hour. In the opening of the first episode, she is found, prone and facedown, crying hysterically after weighing herself. (The real Alley says she topped out at 203 pounds.) The phone rings. It's her agent, with an offer: a Jenny Craig commercial. (The real commercial supposedly came after the show was taped.) "You're killing me," she tells him.

Later, at the urging of her personal assistants, she decides that she'll date only African American men because she thinks they prefer larger women. (In real-life magazine articles, Alley has declared herself too fat for sex.) She's soon found in the arms of the comic Mark Curry, in a spoof of "9 1/2 Weeks," yapping like a dog as he dangles a slab of meat in her face.

Other female comics have used their weight as a punch line, most notably Roseanne Barr, another Emmy winner whose sitcom ruled the airwaves during much of its run, from 1988 to 1997. Alley is different in that back in the day, she was a babe, and therein lies the fascination, says "Fat Actress" co-creator Hampton.

"She was thin once and now she's heavy and that attracts press. If you start out heavy and remain heavy, that does not attract press. . . . She's someone that people like to stare at."

But will they stare and laugh? And tune in again? Is all this buzz permeating the average American home? On the Internet, message boards are debating.

Wrote ATLGRRRL on the Jenny Craig message board: "I am eagerly awaiting the premiere of Fat Actress . . . I think for anyone to be able to 'reinvent' themselves in such a way as to come out and say here I am . . deal with it . . is not only brilliant . . but also something to which a lot of people look up to . . Not necessarily the fat part . . but just the whole package."

And then there's silentfilmsiren, who posted this spelling-challenged missive on imdb.com: "How can anyone laugh at Kristy stepping on a scale, then crawling on the floor for about 14 minutes afterwords. It's not comedy. It makes you feel sorry for her. . . . I have had weight issues and even though, I have lost and gained and lost again, I don't want to see this garbage littering up my tv screen."

Controversy, of course, can generate more buzz: Strong reactions can make people tune in or turn away. In many ways, the rules for premium cable television are different from those of broadcast networks. As subscription-based channels, they aren't dependent on driving ratings to garner advertising dollars, which gives networks like Showtime and HBO a little more creative leeway. But for every "Curb Your Enthusiasm," there's a "K Street," here today, beloved by buzzers, ignored by viewers, and gone tomorrow.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company