NEW YORK - Consider "Jake in Progress" the latest example of how things can come in threes.
After a preview last Sunday, the new John Stamos comedy arrives on its regular night, Thursday, with back-to-back episodes airing 8 p.m. Its network: ABC, which already has enjoyed a Lazarus-like recovery with "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives," the season's most-talked-about hits. Now could "Jake in Progress" be the third?
Why not? "Jake" is fresh, antic and smart, with the former "Full House" star exhibiting a gift for adult romantic comedy while making sport of his image since teenhood as a heartthrob.
Playing a slick PR agent who mostly handles celebrity clients, he is surrounded by a splendid supporting cast: Wendie Malick ("Just Shoot Me") as Jake's diva-ish boss; Ian Gomez as his childhood friend, a schlubby suburban dentist with the stable family life Jake thinks he wants; and, as a demented performance artist forever hounding Jake to either be his publicist or his best friend, the hilarious Rick Hoffman.
"I knew the character I wanted to play," says Stamos, thinking back to when the show first began to take shape. "He's a guy who can make everyone else seem like they have their act together - but HE doesn't. His life is in shambles."
Well, maybe not in shambles. But Jake has his hang-ups - sweaty palms when he gets nervous; issues about age (he's observed his 32nd birthday the past three years); a grass-is-greener fixation, whether it's for the supermodel across the room who seems sexier than the girl he's with, or for the latest model cell phone in somebody else's hand that makes him instantly unhappy with the one he owns.
His biggest problem: Weary (or so he claims) of bedding one hottie after another, Jake believes he wants to settle down.
The series was originally meant to have Jake settling down from its first week - "basically, 'Mad About You,'" Stamos explains.
Then his life and the show's evolving concept began to mirror each other.
A year ago, Stamos separated from his wife, supermodel-turned-actress Rebecca Romijn-Stamos.
"Meanwhile, ABC picked up the show, but wanted Jake out there dating. I said, 'Yeah, let him be a guy who's looking to fall in love again.' So it all paralleled my life, and suddenly the show became more personal to me. There are scenes sometimes that hit right to the core.
"I never thought I'd be single at 41, never in a million years," says Stamos, whose divorce became final earlier this month. "It's for the best, and it's exciting. But a lot of it's depressing."
Mind you, there is no self-pity in evidence. Nor, for that matter, does Stamos display a leading-man swagger, despite his poster-boy status since landing a role on "General Hospital" at 18. Turns out he is, if anything, better-looking than his handsome on-screen puss. No big deal. He comes across in person as an ordinary joe. One minute he is voicing pride and cautious optimism about his new show, the next commiserating with a fellow loser in love.
"I had two three-year relationships before I met Rebecca, and then I was with her for 10 years," he muses, "so this is really kind of new to me."
Sure, John, but isn't it like riding a bicycle? So how about advice on how to find a new bicycle?
Stamos laughs. "I was just in Brazil with my friends, who were making fun of me because girls weren't falling all over me - they didn't know who I was. And I had no idea what to do. In Brazil, of all places! For 2½ weeks! Nothing! Not a kiss! All of a sudden, I was just a regular guy, without a 20-year history on television. You want advice? Don't ask me!"
Not that it was the first time he's been asked. Nor is this the first time he is asked the next, inevitable question: What about "Full House," the treacly family sitcom that ran on ABC from 1987 to 1995, and has haunted him since.
"The whole time I was on it, I wished I was on another show, I'm not gonna lie to you," he gamely replies. "But I look back on it fondly, and I'm proud of it. Was it 'Seinfeld,' 'Friends,' 'Mary Tyler Moore'? No. Was it a heartwarming show you could watch with your kids? Yes. And there's nothing wrong with that.
"But it's taken me years to have people realize that I can do more than that mullet-headed, guitar-playing motorcycle guy. It's been methodical, it's been slow, it's been 10 years of doing theater, independent movies, and hiding out for a while and just growing up and becoming a man."
Among other things, Stamos has toured with the Beach Boys playing drums, and co-produced the miniseries, "Beach Boys: An American Family." He played the master of ceremonies in a Broadway revival of "Cabaret." In 2001 he starred in "Thieves," a short-lived romantic action series on ABC.
"I also took a back seat for a while to my ex's success, and loved it," he says. "I was proud of her. So I've performed under the radar the last few years, and I don't blame people for just knowing me from 'Full House.' As soon as I give them something else to see me in - hopefully it's 'Jake in Progress' - then they'll have a different perception."
An actor looking to leave his past behind, Stamos just might do it here, with a comic version of his present.
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