11/09/1998 at 01:00 AM EST
Before landing his own TV series last May, D.L. Hughley was already pretty hot stuff. A rising stand-up comic, he boasted two highly rated HBO specials and a Cable ACE award nomination on his résumé. But compared to top dogs like Jerry Seinfeld and Drew Carey, Hughley (pronounced HUE-glee), 35, felt trivial toiling Thursdays through Mondays in comedy clubs all over the country. "I would see all these cats getting movies and doing all this stuff," he says. "And here I am selling thousands of tickets every week, and nobody knows who I am."
TV viewers are finding out fast. Thanks to The Hughleys, ABC's new Tuesday night sitcom about an upwardly mobile black family newly relocated to a ritzy white neighborhood (think The Jeffersons in the 'burbs) Hughley's profile has grown—hugely. "He's like a young Redd Foxx," says comedian Chris Rock, one of the Top-20 show's executive producers. "D.L. can generate funny even when it's not on the page."
Comedy has enabled the real-life Hughleys—D.L., his wife, LaDonna, 36, a social-work student at California State University, Northridge, and their children, daughters Ryan, 11, and Tyler, 7, and son Kyle, 9—to upgrade to a five-bedroom West Hills, Calif., home. The sitcom was inspired by their move from a modest place in Los Angeles's Baldwin Hills section as well as Hughley's own experiences as a parent. "He's great with the kids," says LaDonna. "Even though we don't like that he's gone a lot, when he's here, he's definitely an at-home dad, at-home husband."
He hasn't always been so upstanding. After getting kicked out of high school in 10th grade for fighting (he earned his GED in 1988), he joined the Bloods, the L.A. street gang, and ran wild. "I watched people do a great deal of physical harm to each other," says Hughley, who declines to specify his own actions. "You know it's wrong, but you don't have the courage to be different." But when a cousin in the rival Crips gang was shot and killed in 1983, he finally saw the light. "I was afraid I'd do something you can't turn away from," he says. "I wanted to be someone that counted."
That was no easy achievement. Growing up in L.A. the third of four children born to Charles Hughley, a Delta Air Lines maintenance worker, and his wife, Audrey, a homemaker, Darryl Lynn Hughley was hardly groomed for greatness. "There was never talk," says Hughley, "of what we would do after—college or in the future." In 1981, determined to quit the gangsta life, Hughley immersed himself in his job as a telemarketer for the Los Angeles Times, where he met LaDonna and wooed her with humor. "I'd sit by him," she says, "and he'd always make me laugh."
The pair were married in 1986, and the following year he was promoted to assistant manager. But despite his new $435-a-week salary, his life took a wicked turn when LaDonna suffered complications from her pregnancy with their son Kyle. "The rent check bounced," Hughley says. "We had no food in the house, and the electricity was cut off. I remember thinking, 'I will never let this happen again.' " Soon after, at the suggestion of friends, he won an opening-act spot at a local comedy club. "I picked up the microphone," he says, "and I knew this was what I was supposed to do."
After a series of local gigs, Hughley left the Times in 1991 to crack jokes full-time. Shortly after, he hosted auditions for HBO's One Night Stand series, winning the network over with his raw humor. A string of cable appearances and a flop CBS sitcom (1995's Double Rush) followed before he cooked up the idea for The Hughleys and shopped his own script around. "I had seen him live, and I was blown away," says Matt Wickline, who signed on as an executive producer. "I didn't understand how somebody who had such a distinctive voice had somehow fallen under the radar."
Now that he's on target, Hughley finds his acceleration exhilarating. "Everybody wants better than they have," he says. "Being black is hard, but it's no excuse not to try."
Monica Rizzo in Los Angeles