MARILYN KENTZ NEEDS THREE HANDS. As dusk descends outside her cluttered kitchen in picturesque Petaluma, Calif., she's breading pork chops, wrapping a present and talking on the phone—all at the same time. Her daughter, Marcy, 7, bangs on the living-room piano when she should be dressing for her Brownie troop meeting. Marilyn's son, Aaron, 18, groans about his girlfriend. "Why is it every time I talk to her, I hate her?" he asks plaintively.

Across town, Kentz's best friend, Caryl Kristensen, is worried that her son, Bryce, 9, may be a hypochondriac. "He limps when he has a cold," she says. She's also keeping a wary eye on her other son, Eric, 6, who is cutting shapes out of baloney slices to plaster on his face.

Instead of reaching for a sedative, both the droll Kentz, 45, and the perky Kristensen, 32, rely on an even more habit-forming kind of relief: laughter. After all, it is domestic foibles like these that are the grist for a three-year-old routine that has been selling out comedy clubs across the country. Starling this fall, their dieting dramas and carpool capers will also be the basis for an NBC sitcom, Mommies, in which Kentz and Kristensen play harried housewife supermoms—in other words, themselves. "Like Roseanne [Arnold], they strike an honest chord," says NBC exec Perry Simon, who viewed their gig on tape last summer and brought them to the network.

Authenticity, in fact, is what gives these spiritual descendants of Erma Bombeck their special cachet. "If I had someone else doing the laundry," says Kentz, potato peeler in hand, "I wouldn't come up with as many lines." "It's white-bread cul-de-sac comedy," adds Kristensen, who lives with her husband, Len, 37, an engineer, in a two-story house on a cul-de-sac. When the two are onstage, the largely middle-aged female audience howls as Kristensen describes her pregnancy as one long bout of vomiting on the bathroom floor: "My husband, sensitive man that he is, bought me knee pads for Christmas." (In fact, he did.) And the crowd loses it when Kentz comes out in a low-cut nightgown to talk about her "favorite fantasy": a shopping trip in which her kids behave.

Marilyn, who has cowritten three books on parenting, and her husband, Richard, 47, a tire salesman for Goodyear, met Caryl and Len when both families moved into a new Petaluma housing development in 1982. Caryl, an ad-agency art director at the time, was a student in one of Marilyn's at-home parenting classes, where they continually cracked each other up. On a lark they enrolled in a comedy seminar in 1990, and soon after, joined by comedian Diane Conway—with whom they later split—they were convulsing friends with their Comedy Camp for Mommies in Kristensen's living room. For their public debut the threesome rented the Petaluma Women's Club for $75 and sat on stools from Caryl's kitchen. "We really sucked," admits Kentz, "but we struck a note."

Encouraged, the women sent flyers to local hair salons and preschools. When a Sonoma paper gave them a small write-up, Kristensen received more than a hundred phone calls for tickets in one day. "It took off like wildfire," says Kristensen, who quit her job in 1991 to devote herself to the act and who, like Kentz, sometimes relies on child care when on the road.

Native Californian and Chico State grad Kristensen, whose father was a glass company sales rep and whose mother taught high school psychology, says she learned to be funny as "a way to keep the peace" in her boisterous Irish Catholic family of 11 children. (She was the ninth.) Kentz, who grew up in a "conservative" California household with a liquor-salesman father and a housewife mother, attended Santa Rosa Junior College and turned hippie, living in a commune with her first husband, a bass player. In fact, Marilyn, who married Richard in 1980 and is stepmother to his kids Richard Jr., 19, and Pfilipa, 22, has tried in her own special way to instill a sense of communal responsibility in her family. Once, after the kids repeatedly failed to set the table, she served the dinner—-lamb chops and all—directly on the-table. Says Kentz: "They never forgot after that."

Come fall, that scene will probably play like a dream on TV. But the Mommies' hopes for a sitcom hit are tempered with a mother's realism. "If it-doesn't work out, I'm happy to make pork chops and drive my daughter to Brownies," says Kristensen. "But it would be fun to be a star."

TIM ALLIS
LIZ McNEIL in Petaluma

  • Contributors:
  • Liz McNeil.