NEW YORK -- In the first episode of ABC's new sitcom "Hope & Faith," the sisters wage a spirited food fight (mustard, ketchup, whipped cream, chocolate sauce) right in Hope's tidy suburban kitchen.
"It gives you a taste of what our relationship is based on," says Faith Ford, who plays wife-and-mother Hope to Kelly Ripa's Faith (don't ask), a Hollywood diva who - abruptly fired from her soap opera and without a cent - invades her sister's Midwestern household for refuge.
"You've got this pent-up sister and this other sister who is completely unedited, a drama queen," Ford explains, "and they butt heads on a weekly basis."
Fortunately, there seems to be no butting heads between the leading ladies. During a joint makeup session at the studio last week, Ford and Ripa have lots to say about the hope and faith they share.
After being in production for a month or so, what's "Hope & Faith" been like behind the scenes as its premiere approaches (Friday at 9 p.m. EDT)?
"Like chunky peanut butter as opposed to creamy," sums up Ford, who expects things will be creamy before long. "If it's a bona fide hit, then everyone can lighten up.
"But what's a little odd is, when they give directions they have to say, 'Faith Ford, move there,' 'Faith Ford, don't do that.' That's how they keep it straight which Faith they're talking about."
"It's been great," says Ripa, in the other makeup chair. "I had never worked on a sitcom at all, but Faith has been very patient with me, and generous with her knowledge.
"I feel like I'm at an ice-skating party, and Faith and Ted (McGinley, who plays Hope's husband) are Olympians twirling around doing their quadruple axels while I'm just trying to stand up."
"Yeah, yeah," scoffs Ford, 39, who spent a decade as Corky Sherwood on "Murphy Brown" and has high praise for her rookie co-star. "Kelly is a quick study, and she's learning so fast we've really got to be on our game."
"The schedule is much more pleasant than anything I've done before," says Ripa, bouncing 6-month-old Joaquin (her youngest of three children with actor-husband Mark Consuelos) in her lap while she speaks.
"In terms of my dialogue, what I do in a week here we would do in half a day on 'All My Children,"' her ABC soap for 13 years. "And here the material is so funny and clever. I was always the victim on 'All My Children': I was shot, stabbed, kidnapped, poisoned, gassed, blown up and raped. There were very few laughs for me."
Although Ripa (who turns 33 next week) left her soap last December, since February 2001 she has co-starred with Regis Philbin on the syndicated talk show "Live."
But that job, she insists, "is REALLY easy. My morning show is literally an hour of work."
"I would be a babbling idiot," breaks in Ford, shaking her head at the thought of Ripa's busy schedule. "She's just one of these people who are good multitaskers."
"I'm a Libra, so having one job is a weird concept to me," says Ripa. "When I was working retail, I had TWO retail jobs. And maybe a baby-sitting job, too."
Ripa grew up in New Jersey, and Ford in Louisiana. But each has a sister, and both find similarities between real-life sisterhood and the sitcom kind.
"There's that one thing a sister can say that can really spring you into a fight, or that YOU can say that will spring HER into a fight," notes Ripa.
"Sometimes," offers Ford, "it's just a look!"
"We're lucky," says Ripa, "that we didn't kill ourselves during the food fight" when their two characters mix it up with the same comic zeal of Lucy and Ethel or Laverne and Shirley. "The two of us are very similar. We want to do well, we're very competitive - with ourselves."
"I was a drill team captain in high school," says Ford, "and Kelly was a cheerleader, so we're disciplined that way."
"Like on the episode when Faith lacerated her hand," Ripa says. "She needed stitches, clearly! But she goes, 'Just a scratch. Put a Band-Aid on it. Can't keep the audience waiting."'
"It WAS just a scratch," Ford insists. "We were fighting over her character's Emmy, which was designed to break, but then it cut my hand. So Kelly, of course, had on a white leather jacket, and before I realized my hand was bleeding I had patted her on the back. I was more worried about the jacket." She laughs. "We get our bumps and bruises!"
"I have bruises everywhere," announces Ripa. "Faith tells me, 'Just you wait! You think you're bruised now, wait until the second season!"'
"We're not just two girls being cute with each other," Ford says with gusto. "We're going to get messy. Just like life is!"
On the Net:
EDITOR'S NOTE - Frazier Moore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org