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TEMPEST IN A PERFECTIONIST'S TEAPOT; MARTHA STEWART NOT FLATTERED BY SITCOM TREATMENT.

Byline: Keith Marder Daily News Television Writer

Martha Stewart might be the ultimate arbiter of genteel living, but rub America's domestic goddess the wrong way and ... look out.

At least one of two midseason replacement shows is the object of her ire at the moment.

Whether the network cares to admit it or not, the new CBS sitcoms are rooted in mocking Martha, and the grand dame of domesticity is mad. Maybe she just never heard that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

``Style & Substance,'' which debuted Jan. 5, stars Jean Smart as a one-woman cooking, decorating and entertainment conglomerate who, as CBS says, ``has no trouble whipping up a gourmet dinner for 12, but she doesn't know 12 people who would care to eat with her.''

The other show, ``Simple Life,'' stars Judith Light as ``the foremost authority on ways to achieve a relaxed, homespun lifestyle.'' It's likely to be kept on the bench until summer.

In other words, both characters know their way around a glue gun.

Sticky situation

The parodies are an unusual move for the network, both because the two shows are built around poking fun at the same person and - even more unique - because the object of their ridicule is a money-maker for the network's parent company. Stewart's syndicated television show is produced by CBS sister company Eyemark Entertainment.

Publicly, Stewart has tried to take the high road. Before ``Style & Substance'' premiered, she issued a statement that read: ``CBS is free to broadcast any program it chooses to. I would hope that it would be programming of the highest quality and educational value.''

But, behind the scenes, Stewart has been less cordial, probably fixing to wring someone's neck with a hand-woven macrame. Her displeasure has led to a clarification in one of the shows, while the other show has taken a change in direction.

``She is not happy with me,'' said CBS Entertainment president Leslie Moonves. ``That's all I want to say.''

Martha's misgivings have trickled down to Peter Tolan, executive producer of ``Style & Substance,'' who made a quick fix. The show now makes reference to lead character Chelsea Stevens as a Stewart rival, instead of a parody of Stewart herself.

``She spoke to someone very high up with the network, who shall remain nameless,'' Tolan said, ``and that concern was passed on to me and I came up with that solution. I never got an accurate reading on the tone of voice she used, but I think she was concerned. I was flattered that she would take an interest in our little program. Really.''

Tolan made no bones about the Stewart influence over ``Style & Substance.'' He said the show was originally created for ABC, which was looking for ``a show with a Martha Stewart-type character.'' A pilot was shot, but the show didn't make the network's schedule. The show was revamped and, when Smart joined the cast, he said it all came together.

``What prompted it was not so much Martha Stewart, but wondering what Martha Stewart does not have,'' Tolan said. ``I read about all the things she does and everything, but this is, I think, essentially a lonely person. And that's the thing that sparked it for me. This isn't that I want to get Martha Stewart... I'm not out to lampoon her. I'm just using it - a very interesting character - as a jumping-off point.''

Martha `wanna-be'

Meanwhile, the people behind ``Simple Life'' are denying any connection between Stewart and lead character Sara Campbell (played by Light).

``One of the things that I resisted talking about for a long time is that this is actually about me,'' Light said. ``We're not making fun of Martha Stewart. We are actually making fun of me. And that is true.''

Light confesses that she is a regular reader of Stewart's magazine, has a collection of her tapes and reads books about gracious living.

``When people were coming over for dinner, I would have like five glasses at everybody's place. And they were just like good friends. In a sense I am a wanna-be because I have tremendous respect for her,'' she said. ``And I can promise you, the little bit I know about Martha Stewart, Sara Campbell is no Martha Stewart.''

Her executive producer, Robert Sternin, made another distinction. Campbell is really failing to be Stewart, even if she was trying to mimic her.

``It's someone who isn't quite sure how to do it attempting to do it,'' Sternin said, ``rather than Martha Stewart, who knows how to do it.''

The acrobatic attempts to keep the sitcom siblings from being associated with the good housekeeping guru makes you wonder whether the shows' writers will be able to keep themselves from politely parodying Stewart's next, real-life journey.

CBS news recently revealed they'll be sending the kitchen and craft expert to Cuba to cover the pope's visit.

CBS News president Andrew Heyward was quick to defend the assignment, insisting that Stewart will lend a unique touch to the coverage.

``This is also a cultural story,'' Heyward said. ``It's not just an historical or economic story or political story or religious story, and I think she'll bring her own perspective to it.''

CAPTION(S):

4 Photos

Photo: (1--2--Cover--Color) On the cover: Nancy McKeon, top left, with Jean Smart in ``Style & Substance,'' and the real Martha Stewart, left.

(3) In ``Style & Substance,'' Jane Sokol's (Nancy McKeon) boss, Chelsea Stevens (Jean Smart), bears an unmistakable resemblance to Martha Stewart.

(4) Judith Light, left, says the central character she plays in ``Simple Life'' is based on herself, not Martha Stewart.
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Title Annotation:L.A. LIFE
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jan 17, 1998
Words:930
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