Originally created 09/21/03

ABC sitcom draws comedy from a real romance

BURBANK, Calif. -- Chris Henchy and Marco Pennette, co-creators of ABC's new sitcom "I'm With Her," are seated on a stylish kitchen set.

The floor is tiled. The chairs are wicker and leather. There are candles on the table. The cooking pans are copper. The roses, orchids and lilies in the vases are real.

But what's with all the gift baskets? Bundles of wine, minicrackers and foreign cheese seem to be everywhere.

"We were writing the show at Chris' home one afternoon," explains Pennette. "He offered me some food, and in this cabinet he opened were all these gift baskets. That was a detail I would never have thought of," she laughs.

Henchy is married to Brooke Shields, the recipient, no doubt, of a gazillion of Hollywood's most prevalent of perks during her almost lifelong acting career.

Inspired by Henchy's relationship with Shields, "I'm With Her" centers on high-school teacher Patrick Owen (David Sutcliffe), who becomes romantically involved with movie star Alex Young (Teri Polo) after one of her dogs bites him on the butt. The half-hour series premieres Tuesday, Sept. 23 (8:30 p.m. ET).

The couple's meet-cute moment is a broad exaggeration of the way Henchy and Shields met. They started talking about a dog that Shields had rescued, and things soon went from canines to Cupid.

Henchy is adamant, however, that the show is not completely autobiographical. He's written for sitcoms and TV specials, so is more in tune with the weird ways of show business than Owen, whom he describes as being "so far from Hollywood that when he walks into this world, he's really a fish out of water."

Pennette adds that Owen is "totally in control of his world, totally out of control when he falls down the Hollywood rabbit hole. He sort of represents the eyes and ears of the audience."

Henchy, 39, and Pennette, 37, met when helping a mutual friend work on a TV pilot. Soon after, they got together for lunch and started swapping stories about their lives.

Pennette, a longtime sitcom writer who created "Caroline in the City," had "always been intrigued" with the notion of basing a sitcom on the concept explored in the 1999 Hugh Grant-Julia Roberts film, "Notting Hill," in which an ordinary bloke falls in love with a movie star.

"I mentioned this to Chris, and he topped every one of those stories in the movie with a better story, and I went, 'Wow, we have a real-life "Notting Hill" here,"' says Pennette.

It's amusing to make fun of Hollywood mores. And the producers of "I'm With Her" would love it if any real stars agreed to make guest appearances. Brooke Shields, perhaps?

But Henchy and Pennette don't plan an excess of insider jokes or the depiction of a show-biz world entirely inhabited by the self-absorbed.

Shields is "a very normal girl," Henchy insists, and he says it's essential that Young is also perceived that way.

"She couldn't be some diva, who wouldn't deign to give an autograph. You wouldn't want to watch that," says Pennette, who had been worried that it might be difficult to find an actress who could be really convincing as a major movie star.

They feel they've found the right combination of "beautiful and funny" in Polo, who co-starred with Robert De Niro and Ben Stiller in the 2000 film "Meet the Parents."

Polo laughs that it's hard to be thought of as any sort of stand-in for Shields when you're a 5-foot-7-inch blonde and she's a statuesque 6-foot brunette.

Henchy returns to the writers' room as Pennette remains on the set to suggest nuances to Polo and Sutcliffe. They're working on an episode in which Owen feels he must tell Young that, although she's signed to star in a musical, she's a horrible singer. It's also the episode where he first tells her he loves her.

Polo has great fun in the scenes singing flat, although she's a bit disappointed she's now stuck with that disability, given that her own singing voice is OK.

Canadian-born Sutcliffe says his goal is not to ape Henchy, but "more to capture the general feeling of someone overwhelmed and out of his league."

He doesn't feel he would be right for a sitcom in which he'd have to be "the main kind of funny guy," yet he believes the tone of the show suits him precisely because "it's romantic comedy ... which you can kind of play for real."

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