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Thoroughly Modern Molly

Lovable ''SNL'' alum Molly Shannon on her new show. The comic relief actor graduates from armpit sniffing to boozing in the hopes of ''Cracking Up'' TV viewers again

Molly Shannon is explaining death. On the set of Cracking Up, Fox's latest dysfunctional-family sitcom, Shannon is discussing the pool man's untimely demise. ''He had a good life,'' she tells her 10-year-old TV son (Bret Loehr) in comforting tones. ''He toured with Aerosmith.'' Shannon asks to try the line again. He toured with Aerosmith. Again. He toured with Aerosmith. And again. He toured with Aerosmith.

Every time Shannon delivers the line, the cameraman and a slew of headphoned set dwellers start, well, cracking up.

''It's difficult without a live audience to know when you've got it,'' says Shannon, who stars with Christopher McDonald (Happy Gilmore) in the comedy about a psychology grad student (Rushmore's Jason Schwartzman) who bunks with a deceptively normal Beverly Hills family as a research project. ''But I like to play comedy very truthfully. I don't think you should try to act wacky. The truth is much more subtle and quiet, but that's what's funny.''

Subtle? Quiet? Are these words really coming from the creator of Mary Katherine Gallagher and joyologist Helen Madden? Three years after leaving Saturday Night Live, Shannon insists her armpit-sniffing, I-love-it-I-love-it-I-love-it! alter egos are history. ''When I first left SNL, I missed it so much it was like a bad breakup with somebody you love. But now I'm over it.''

Being a Molly Shannon fan hasn't been easy these past few years, unless you enjoy watching lame supporting roles in even lamer movies like The Santa Clause 2 and Osmosis Jones. ''My goal was to try to do movies, but I had a hard time. I was always getting offered the best friend and sometimes not even that,'' sighs Shannon, 38. ''I would have loved to have done [The Molly Shannon Show], but I saw a lot of women trying to do that and not doing so well. I thought, 'Ugh, you could really take a hard fall.''' It seemed Shannon was destined to succumb to the career perils that afflicted other notable SNL funnywomen (Jan Hooks, Cheri Oteri), while peers like Will Ferrell transitioned into actual superstardom. Explains SNL exec producer Lorne Michaels: ''Most comedies for women tend to be softer and romantic, and Molly's characters are strong. She's not going to play the timid housewife.''

Her Lesley on Cracking Up is the kind of endearingly insane character Shannon excels at playing: childish, undersexed, vodka-swilling, boundary-free, prone to breaking out into musical numbers at inappropriate times (Lesley will bust out ''Where Have All the Flowers Gone'' later in this episode). Considering that this season she builds a panic room and downs a pot-filled cake, Lesley may end up making Mary Katherine Gallagher one of the more normal personas in Shannon's unstable stable. ''I like how she can be a happy Stepford wife but can also go to these really bizarro places in a split second,'' says creator Mike White (School of Rock). White was such a fan that he had only one reservation about casting Shannon: ''I thought she was too young, but I remembered I was working in the world of Fox television, where anyone over 30 is able to have full-grown kids.''

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