Chatting with ‘Hot in Cleveland’s comedy quartet

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“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 a day, six days a 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 unknown 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.

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