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Wayans makes like Cosby

"My Wife and Kids" isn't just the most family oriented sitcom to hit TV this season, it's the most surprising. We are, after all, talking about a show that's co-created by, co-written by, co-executive produced by and stars Damon Wayans.

And Wayans, after all, is best known for "In Living Color" on TV, vulgar movies like "Blank Man," "Mo' Money" and "I'm Gonna Get You Sucka," and a stand-up comedy act that's decidedly R-rated.

And yet "My Wife" is a show very much in the vein of "The Cosby Show," about an intact couple with three kids.

"That was the plan, to kind of do 'Cosby' in the new millennium," Wayans said. "And to kind of pick up the ball from where he put it down and just try to deal a little more with problems that kids are facing today."

Wayans stars as Michael, a good father who isn't exactly the most modern guy in the world. Mike and wife Janet (Tisha Campbell-Martin of "Martin") have three kids — Junior (George O. Gore II), 16; Claire (Jazz Racole), 12; and Kady (Parker McKenna Posey), 5.

There are moments in Wednesday's premiere (7 p.m., ABC/Ch. 4) that seem straight out of an episode of the "Cosby Show" of the '80s. Like when Junior hits his father up for $35 for a rap concert.

"We got money," Junior says.

"No, I got money. You're broke," his father retorts.

Not that Mike's style is completely that of Cliff Huxtable. Back to the subject of rap music, Mike says to his son, "What did I tell you about listening to all that cussing?

"Dad, all the music has cursing," Junior says.

"No, Marvin Gaye didn't curse — 'cept maybe when his father shot him," Mike says.

"My Wife and Kids" is quite often very funny stuff.

And the show rings surprisingly true, owing to the fact that — like Cosby before him — Wayans based it on his own experiences.

"I'm using my life for the past 19 years, being married and having children. . . . And having kids, there's always something new," he said. "The older they get, the less control you have over them. And I think that that's what we are trying to do in this show. In the show, the only one that he has any kind of control over is the little one."

How traditional is this fictional family? Too much so for some people, no doubt. Mike isn't happy when his wife takes a full-time job in the pilot episode. "I need a wife, not a roommate," he says.

"Maybe you better tell me how you define the word wife," Janet says. "What does that mean to you — barefoot? Pregnant?"

"No. You could wear shoes," he replies.

When it comes to women in the workplace, Wayans sounds a lot like Dr. Laura — as does his character. Both firmly believe that a woman's place is in the home.

"When you have children, yes," he said. "You just look at society right now and there's a lot of dual-income homes. And the kids, they're not under anybody's watch. Especially when you don't need the extra income, I think it becomes selfish."

In real life, Wayans — the father of three kids ages 18, 13 and 10 — is going through a divorce from his wife of 16 years. On the show, his character reluctantly agrees to go along with his wife's career ambitions and takes it upon himself to spend more time with the kids.

"He is self-employed, so he's home when he wants to be home and when he needs to be home," Wayans said. "But that's the compromise in the relationship that drives him crazy."

And he rejects the notion that his views are outdated.

"They're only old-fashioned because we've made them old-fashioned. There's nothing sexier than a woman at home waiting for her man when he comes home, in a man's mind. Like, really waiting for him. Not just home with complaints."

"It's a tough pill to swallow. What it does to a man — well, to me, anyway — it kills my incentive to be a warrior. I take pride in taking care of my family. Now, if we're both taking care of the family, what happens to my pride. What happens to my drive to slay the dragon?"

More often than not, the line between Wayans and the character he plays seems indistinct. Although his character accepts his wife going to work, albeit grudgingly.

But that's a point from which the comedy is derived. And there's a great deal of comedy to be had.

Here's a sentence that seems incredibly bizarre but is nonetheless true — Wayans' new show is the best family sitcom to come along since "Home Improvement."