"Reba" started out as "Sally."
"I auditioned for the part twice," said Reba McEntire, the country-western-singer-turned-actor who has a new album out next week. "And when we shot the pilot in 2001, I said, 'Why don't we change it to "Reba"? There are some loyal fans out there.'"
The title change stuck, and five seasons later, "Reba," the show about a blended Houston family, is a staple of WB's Friday night lineup.
McEntire plays real estate agent Reba Hart, a divorced mother of three. Her dentist ex-husband Brock (Christopher Rich) cheated on her with his dental hygienist, Barbra Jean (Melissa Peterman). Barbra Jean's pregnancy coincided with that of Reba's then-unmarried teenage daughter Cheyenne (JoAnna Garcia), who struggles with alcoholism.
"It's one dysfunctional family, isn't it?" said McEntire, who sings the show's inspirational theme song, "I'm a Survivor." "But what I enjoy most is to laugh, and this show, the people in it, entertain me. ''
Many of the comic sparks stem from the give-and-take of Reba, as the first wife, and Barbra Jean, as her replacement.
"You've got this kinda kooky gal who took Reba's husband, so of course [Reba] feels angry about that," McEntire said. "But because of the kids she's still got to deal with her ex and his new wife." And she understands that relationship, she said, because in real life she's friendly with her husband's ex-wife.
The show has lasted, said executive producer Kevin Abbott, because its characters are "fighting the small battles and getting through them."
Cast chemistry also is a key to the show's longevity, Abbott said. Cast members "enjoy being with each other offstage, and that translates to the screen," he said. "It works for us because this show is about people not in the best situation."
At McEntire's urging, the show recently devoted an episode to Hurricane Katrina survivors. In it, Reba Hart shelters a dog displaced by the disaster. Then she invites a grandmother and grandson to stay -- but winds up sharing her home with more than 20 extra people. The crowd makes Reba cranky, which in turn leaves her feeling guilty.
McEntire closed the show with a reminder urging viewers to help with hurricane relief efforts.
"So many people watch TV and they think what they see is the truth," she said. "Sometimes it is, sometimes it's fiction, but if they see something on TV and think they can help [the situation], then I am proud that we can encourage that."
Besides her sitcom schedule, McEntire still performs in concert, and her new two-disc CD set, "Reba #1's," will be released Nov. 22 (MCA Nashville, $19.98). It includes the sitcom's anthem, some new tracks as well as hits such as "The Greatest Man I Never Knew" and "Little Rock."
Her name also is on a line of clothing, which her character wears on the show.
"Rebawear has casual and some fancy things that I could even wear on stage," she said, chuckling at her involvement in fashion. "I grew up wearin' hand-me-downs from cousins and an older sister."
And she remembers that once, for a rodeo competition, "I had a pair of cowboy boots with duct tape wrapped around the soles, and I won enough money at the rodeo to buy new boots and spurs."
McEntire no longer rides; her big hobby these days is taking photos and e-mailing them to friends and family.
"I don't have time to ride or ski, and I have way too many people depending on me being able to walk and talk and sing," she said.
Co-star Peterman, who enjoys hearing McEntire singing on the set between takes, called her "an incredible energy force."
"You ask her what she did on hiatus and she says she did an album, worked on her clothing line, did some concerts," Peterman said. "And you're happy if you got the bathroom grouted."
McEntire would like the show to stick around -- at least for the short term. "If it went three more years, it would be great," she said. "Five more would be too much fun."
Already a star from her music, she said the sitcom has brought her even greater recognition.
"TV has such a broad audience, you think you know the people you see on the screen," McEntire said. "I've done it. I went up to the postman on 'Cheers' [John Ratzenberger] and hugged his neck. I said 'I'm sorry, but I feel I know you.' I grew up watching Andy Griffith raising Opie, and he helped me raise [son] Shelby. When I first met Carol Burnett, I felt I knew her from years of watching her. There are no boundaries with television."
HEAR A CLIP from "Reba #1's" at www.washingtonpost.com/tv.