He sounded for all the world like the Rocky Balboa of television.

Lenny Clarke spoke with the huff and bluster of a long-overlooked, underdog heavyweight psyching himself up for the bout of a lifetime, confident in his ability, even if the opposition was already wearing a crown. He could have been a contender all along, and now he had a chance to prove it.

And he could be speaking for his network, CBS, which has plucked this irrepressible hulk from relative obscurity, handed him a sitcom with his name on it, and simply asked that he go out, lick the opposition, and help restore the network to ratings respectability.

Piece of cake.

"You better believe it," said Clarke, asked if the network wasn't pinning much of its hope for the TV season on his broad back. "We're coming out against two top-10 shows. I say, put the chips on my back and I'll carry the network to the finish line. I'm surrounded by a Tiffany cast, writers to die for and I love the show. The only way I can screw up is to stop being myself, and that's the only thing I'm good at."

It's basically about respect, with both Clarke and his network looking for some. CBS is trying to straighten up and dust itself off after years in the ratings dumper. And Clarke, disappointed at being shut out of television for years, now has a chance for a thumb-your-nose triumph.

"CBS is getting off the floor and so am I," said Clarke. "I've been overlooked for a TV show for five years. A lot of it has to do with my accent. Rather than be bitter, I just kept my head down and kept going and waited to get my break."

Opportunity has knocked and been answered with a question: Can Lenny Clarke be this season's Roseanne?

The parallels are numerous: Both come from standup comedy backgrounds, both are full-figured and both play blue-collar TV characters.

"Lenny," airing at 8 Wednesdays, revolves around a hard-hatted troubleshooter for the gas company who comes home to his wife, played by Lee Garlington, three children, a sometimes difficult father (Pat Roche) and a deadbeat brother (Peter Dobson).

The series is produced by Witt-Thomas, the same duo responsible for a number of successes including "The Golden Girls." "They are the house of hits," said Clarke, "not NBC."

Should "Lenny" add another room to that house, it will be some measure of revenge for Clarke, who feels he's the only up-and-coming comic not to crack the Carson-Letterman guest-shot barrier.

Part of the problem, he suggests, is that he may not be the most telegenic person you've ever seen. You've got to picture me over all," he said. "I'm 6-foot-2, 225, and a full head of hair. I try to watch my weight. But I gain 20 pounds in a cab ride. I'm a human cartoon. I'm larger than life."

John Goodman, who plays "Roseanne's" husband -- a part Clarke auditioned for -- is one of the few bear-sized guys to succeed on the tube.

And there's his accent, which he hasn't lost from his days growing up in Cambridge, Mass. "Shows set in Boston -- 'Cheers,' 'Banacek' -- none of them had Boston accents."

Lenny Clarke comes from a large family, the type that has given rise to prominent political families. That might have been the case in his too.

He is third child and oldest son in a family of four boys, four girls and one bathroom. His father was a Linotype machine operator. His father died recently and his mother still lives in Cambridge. "We were very, very poor, but we were too crazy to realize it," said Clarke. "We all had dreams, and mine just happened to come true."

Clarke grew up in Catholic schools and American International College in Springfield, Mass. He admits to being a class cut-up, but he also had a political side: He was elected class president in eighth grade, for four years of high school and in his first two years of college. Were his parents surprised: "They sat back in disbelief."

After two years of college, Clarke left school when his mother got sick. At one point, he was going to school by day, working comedy clubs on days off and working as a janitor at city hall. It was then that an academic political career almost went public. Clarke ran for mayor.

"I came up with this platform that I was going to clean up city hall," he said. "Being a janitor, I lost the election, but I kept my word."

He later ran against Joseph Kennedy III for a congressional seat. "I would have won," said Clarke, "but I ran out of money. He spent about $2 million, I spent 80 bucks. But I got some super bumper stickers. I think I've got a few left."

Since then, Clarke has traveled the hard road of comedy club work and college campus appearances. He moved to Los Angeles in 1984, commuting across country -- he is said to have 2 million miles American Airlines frequent flyer miles, No. 5 on their list.

Six years ago he married an actress-model -- "How did I get her? Luck and bull."

Now, after 11 years on his feet making people laugh -- "I'm 36 -- I use creams" -- he has his very own show.

He is one of two stand-up comics CBS is banking on this fall -- Kevin Meaney in "Uncle Buck" is the other one. Should they succeed in their 8 p.m. timeslots, a traditionally tough slot for CBS, there'll be high-fives all around.

And for Clarke, there would be the sweet taste of revenge.

"I'm the only comic to be given a show without any help from those bastards who wouldn't give me a chance," he said, referring mainly to Johnny Carson and David Letterman. "I tried out for them every day of my life. It was my goal, just to get it out of the way ... My mother says kill them with kindness. And I take it one step further -- kill them with kindness, but kill them."

If his show's a hit and Clarke is suddenly called by Carson or Letterman for a guest shot, that would be fine. "I'm a happy guy and I have no bitterness toward anyone."

And what if the show fails? Well, that would make it hard ever to do another sitcom. "They'd say, 'Oh, yeah, he used to be Lenny.' But, you know, I'm always going to be Lenny."