Nobody fakes laughs better than Julia Louis-Dreyfus. She can belt one out even when what she's laughing at doesn't seem particularly funny -- like, say, the unremarkable scene unfolding right now on the Culver City, Calif., studio lot where a character on her new NBC sitcom, Watching Ellie, has just suffered a not-terribly-amusing foot injury. On cue, Louis-Dreyfus emits an impressively realistic string of giggles. In fact, she manages to do it over and over again, take after take. Of course, the big question is whether anyone else will be laughing when Watching Ellie debuts Feb. 26. Because unlike her Seinfeld costars, who returned to TV with more or less traditional stabs at formula sitcoms (Michael Richards as an idiot private eye in his self-titled NBC show, and Jason Alexander as an unmotivated motivational speaker in ABC's Bob Patterson, both of which bombed), Louis-Dreyfus will be attempting something a lot more audacious. A sitcom with no laugh track. A sitcom shot with only one camera (rather than the traditional four) and without a studio audience. A sitcom that runs in real time (a la Fox's 24). And most daring of all, a sitcom that actually prides itself on not always being funny.
''I needed to do something really different,'' says the 41-year-old actress. ''Something that pushed the envelope. And I liked the idea of seeing Ellie when you wouldn't normally see [a sitcom character]. I think it's interesting to see her in the midst of a frenzy having a seven-second moment when nothing happens and she needs to take a breath. Like when she's looking at herself in the mirror and weeping. Why is she weeping? It affords a kind of look at a character that you might not normally get -- you get everything for 22 minutes. The in-between stuff, as an actress, is really fun to play.''
Ellie, it turns out, is an unmarried L.A. lounge singer whose just-trying-to-get-through-the-day ''adventures'' -- riding in an elevator, rushing to work, idly watching her boyfriend talk on the phone, inexplicably melting down while applying eyeliner -- are enacted by Louis-Dreyfus while a clock ticks away 22 minutes in the corner of the screen. Circling within Ellie's universe are her sister, Susan (Lauren Bowles, who guested on Seinfeld), her go-to gal for discussing the trauma du jour; Ingvar (Armageddon's Peter Stormare), her apartment building's not-so-super super; Dr. Zimmerman (Return to Me's Don Lake), her next-door neighbor; Edgar, her ex-boyfriend/the dork she can't seem to dodge (The Daily Show's Steve Carell); and Ben (newcomer Darren Boyd), her current boyfriend who comes with more baggage than a Samsonite warehouse.
Not an unappealing roster of characters, but it doesn't immediately scream Friends, either. So it's no big surprise that after Louis-Dreyfus delivered her initial pitch for the sitcom to all the networks, she didn't get an overwhelmingly positive response. ABC turned it down. CBS said no. Fox took a pass. Even HBO -- the king of cutting-edge comedy -- -wasn't interested. In fact, NBC was the only network to put in a bid on the project (''It doesn't phase me one way or another,'' says NBC Entertainment president Jeff Zucker of all the thumbs down the competition gave the show. ''The pack mentality has gotten us into trouble in the past.'') Of course, it didn't help that Louis-Dreyfus was making extraordinary demands for the series such as: (1) There must be an executive-producing role for her writer husband, Brad Hall (creator of the dismal mid-1990s comedy The Single Guy, who also came up with the Ellie concept); (2) she will only shoot 15 episodes per season instead of the standard 22; and (3) only one network suit will be allowed to ''give notes'' (translation: meddle creatively) on the set (says Louis-Dreyfus on this last score, ''We don't want to have 13 people from the [network's] comedy department giving notes; you have to be an idiot to think that process works'').