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From Middle to     the Top

by Naomi Pfefferman

August 23, 2001 | 7:59 pm

(Clockwise from top) Bryan Cranston, Jane Kaczmarek, Justin Berfield, Frankie Muniz,  Erik Per Sullivan and Christopher kennedy masterson in "Malcolm in the Middle." Photo  by Michael Lavine

(Clockwise from top) Bryan Cranston, Jane Kaczmarek, Justin Berfield, Frankie Muniz, Erik Per Sullivan and Christopher kennedy masterson in "Malcolm in the Middle." Photo by Michael Lavine

Michael Glouberman felt the déjà vu the whole time he was reading the pilot of the Emmy-nominated Fox sitcom, "Malcolm in the Middle." "It was like someone had hidden a camera in my childhood home," says the 33-year-old "Malcolm" writer and co-executive producer.

OK, so Glouberman never tied up his younger brother and hung him on a hook. His mother didn't punish him by making him run in circles in the living room. Dad didn't blowtorch mom's dress and extinguish it in the toilet. Mom didn't shave dad's hairy body in the kitchen during breakfast. "That would have been Linwood's mom," Gouberman says of "Malcolm" creator Linwood Boomer.

But something felt familiar about the quirky sitcom family with the genius middle kid (Frankie Muniz), his three hooligan brothers, clueless dad and drill-sergeant mom. "Mostly it was the way the brothers fought and blamed each other for everything," says the Orthodox Jewish writer, who attended Emek Hebrew Academy with his two younger brothers.

Apparently viewers -- and the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences -- agree. "Malcolm" became an instant hit after it debuted last year, rescuing Fox from a Nielsen black hole. Last month, it raked in eight Emmy Award nominations, two shy of HBO's "Sex and the City" and four shy of the NBC comedy "Will & Grace."

While "The Sopranos" again stands out with 22 nominations and Holocaust fare predictably dominates the miniseries category (specifically ABC's "Anne Frank" and TNT's "Nuremberg"), "Malcolm" surprised observers by edging out NBC's "Friends" to vie for best comedy.

The sitcom shares a thing or two with competitors "Sex" and "Grace," shows also based on the lives of their creators. "All the humor comes out of real kinds of relationships and interactions," Glouberman says of "Malcolm." "It's not just 'setup-joke, setup-joke.' We write funny scenes. We don't feel the need to shove jokes in every two sentences."

About a third of the show's dozen writers are Jewish -- including Glouberman, who believes he was destined early on to write for television. "My parents say I was glued to the tube from the time I was 2," confides the Montreal-born writer, who moved to Los Angeles at age 10. "I watched all the trash, from reruns of 'Gilligan's Island' to 'The Brady Bunch.'" At Yeshiva University of Los Angeles, Glouberman says he was the class clown who "got thrown out of class a lot for having a [smart] mouth." At home, he annoyed his then less-observant parents by pointing out all the food items that didn't have a heksher.

After graduating from UCLA, Glouberman worked the reception desk at a film distribution company and descended on all the comedy scripts that arrived in the mail. By the age of 25, he was a staff writer on NBC's "3rd Rock From the Sun," where he helped create the story line in which the fictional aliens decide they're Jewish because their last name is Solomon. On "3rd Rock," he shared the writer's room with Boomer, who eventually hired him to work on "Malcolm."

Glouberman has since written seven episodes, mining his own childhood for yuks. One show is based on the time his parents accidentally left his brother standing in the corner all night long. Another recalls how he discovered his dad sitting in a car at 2 a.m., smoking a stogie and wielding a lead pipe lying in wait to catch some teenage hoodlums. Malcolm's dad is less forbidding; he falls asleep and awakens with cigar ash all over his face.

"Malcolm in the Middle" may be rife with gross-out humor and sight gags, but Glouberman insists it jibes with Torah values. He points out that Malcolm's mom and dad actually love each other, unlike the bickering parents on Fox's "Married... With Children." The TV family has dinner together. The kids don't get away with anything. "The children honor their mother and father, but they don't necessarily do that in classic terms," Glouberman chuckles.

The show is so hot that observers have wondered what will happen when 15-year-old Muniz and his co-stars complete adolescence. "For a while, they were bleaching the [fuzz] on our lips and having us drink hot lemon juice so our voices didn't crack," says Justin Berfield, 15, who plays Malcolm's second-oldest brother, Reese.

For Berfield, a Jew from the West Valley, the relationship between Malcolm and tough guy Reese rings true. "That's how brothers are -- they pick on each other," he says. "Every day, my older brother picks on me somehow."

Sometimes, he confesses, he wishes Malcolm's family was his own. "Then I would be the older brother in the house, so I could do the beating up, instead of getting beaten up," he quips.

"The Emmy Awards" will air on CBS on Sept. 16.

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