NEW YORK - Sure, three's a crowd. But four is a hoot.
Just consider the stars of "Hot in Cleveland," four funny ladies who would look right at home carved in the Mount Rushmore of comedy.
But rather than on a mountain ridge, this quartet was found one day recently at a tiny midtown Manhattan cafe whose other patrons looked on, bemused, at Valerie Bertinelli, Jane Leeves, Wendie Malick and, of course, Betty White huddled with a reporter at a corner banquette.
Their TV Land sitcom, now in its fourth season and airing 10 p.m. Wednesdays, focuses on three slightly past their prime gal-pals from Los Angeles who decide to make a fresh start in Cleveland (of all places), where they rent a house whose caretaker, played by White, serves as their salty companion and foil.
But not just on the show. Get these four women together and the laughter is nonstop. Which begs the question: When did each of them realize she was funny?
"I'm still waiting for that realization," says Bertinelli with a laugh.
How's that? As a teen nearly 40 years ago she was lobbing punch lines on the hit sitcom "One Day at a Time," which ran on CBS for a decade. "But then I went on to do all these movies of the week. And after that, I would go up for roles on sitcoms and people would say, 'She doesn't do comedy, does she?' So I started to doubt myself."
Hard to believe, considering her exuberance and thunderous guffaws.
"She's our little cheerleader," says Malick.
"I'm excitable," Bertinelli, 52, confirms, "and what's so ironic is that, during the first season of 'One Day at a Time,' I was screamed at because I wasn't projecting enough."
"Until my late 30s, I did all bad girls," says Malick. "Because I was tall, dark and imposing, I was always the murderer or the ex-wife or some nasty girl."
Then in 1990 came the HBO comedy "Dream On," where she was cast as the psychologist ex-wife of series star Brian Benben. Soon enough the producers realized she was funny.
"I went from being the straight woman to being more and more neurotic," Malick, 61, recalls. "By the end of the first season I had a total nervous breakdown. It was so freeing to just let it all out and run with it!" And from there she ran right into "Just Shoot Me," a long-running NBC comedy set at a fashion magazine, where she played a boozy, slutty former model.
"It happened for me at school," says Leeves, the Bri-tish-born actress who spent 11 seasons as physical therapist Daphne Moon on NBC's "Frasier."
"I was geeky and tall and skinny," she says, "and the best way in with the other students was to make them laugh. I can remember doing fake lessons on the board before the teacher came in. I would have the class in stitches. And I would think: This is powerful, I like this!"
"These girls can all make me laugh," White reports. "And with this one" - she nods toward Leeves - "if we lock eyes for a moment onstage, I'm gone!"
Leeves grins. "My back will be to you in a scene, and then I'll turn around and I'll go like this" - she flashes a little comic scowl at White, then swivels back again. White explodes with a helpless fit of giggles.
"Then I hear that," says Leeves, 51, with satisfaction. "Making her laugh is the best part of my day, I have to tell you!"
But as the whole world knows, 90-year-old Betty White is pretty funny herself, and has been since she was hosting a live talk-variety show on a Los Angeles station in TV's infancy, spanning 5 1/2 hours per day, six days per week. Her first prime-time comedy, "Life With Elizabeth," followed in 1952.
Then, years later, she scored her indelible roles on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "The Golden Girls."
So where did her funny come from?
"I'm an only child, and I had a mother and dad who never drew a straight line: They just thought funny," she explains. "We'd sit around the breakfast table and then we'd start kicking it around. My dad was a salesman and he would come home with jokes. He'd say, 'Sweetheart, you can take that one to school. But I wouldn't take this one.' We had such a wonderful time."
Of course, just because these four actresses are funny didn't guarantee they'd click as an ensemble.
"That's always the one un-known element: chemistry," says Leeves.
"You don't know until you're all together the first time," says Malick, "and the lines pop right off the page."
On this show, they're still popping.
"The chemistry between us is that we all adore each other," says White with a laugh - "no matter how much we deny it."
"There's mutual respect," says Malick. "We've all been doing this for a long time. We're all seasoned. So is our crew and many of our writers."
"I'm a little over-seasoned," White pipes up.
But they all acknowledge misgivings at the outset: "Hot in Cleveland" was the first original scripted show on a little cable network that, until then, was exclusively a home for much-loved series from the past.
"I was a little nervous to be the guinea pig," says Bertinelli.
"I didn't even know where TV Land was," says Malick.
"I had just done a pilot for a broadcast network," says Leeves, "and I found things had changed so much since the end of 'Frasier.' There was so much interference from the executives. But with this show I felt like we won't have all those network guys around. Here's a place we can go and experiment and -"
"Nobody'll ever know!" White cracks.
"It'll be a secret!" cackles Leeves.
"The president of TV Land, Larry Jones, is different," persists Malick over her co-stars' chortling. "We go out to dinner with him. He's one of our pals."
White nods emphatically, and then, with perfect timing, adds, "I'm the only one on the show who didn't get her job sleeping with Larry."
Another roar of laughter leaves them all out of breath.