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Cedric the Entertainer’s new variety show is a revolving door of quirky characters—from the tyrannical Cafeteria Lady who ladles out insults from behind the soup counter to a smooth-talking therapist who owes more to Barry White than Sigmund Freud. Between sketches, Cedric shimmies through campy dance numbers amid a bevy of long-legged showgirls. Blame a secret obsession with Tom Jones. “Ever noticed that my slacks are a little tight?” says Cedric. “Tom had cool moves—that’s why I added hip moves into my act. I just thrust my hips for no apparent reason, and it seems to work for me.”

As Tom Jones might put it, it’s not unusual that most things are working for Cedric lately. This year alone, the onetime insurance exec released his first book, a collection of comic essays subtly titled Grown-A$$ Man, and appeared in two summer movies, Serving Sara, opposite Matthew Perry, and Barbershop, an ensemble comedy-drama that grossed $21 million its opening weekend. He also filmed the Coen Brothers’ Intolerable Cruelty, due out next spring. Now, with FOX’s Cedric the Entertainer Presents, Cedric, 38—who started his stand-up career 13 years ago in predominantly white clubs before winning African-American fans on TV’s Def Comedy Jam and The Steve Harvey Show—says he is aiming for “an everybody kind of show. Hip enough for young folks, nostalgic enough for the older folks.”

“There’s a reason why they call him Cedric the Entertainer” says his Barbershop costar Ice Cube. “It’s because he can do it all.” He may be doing too much. On the Barbershop set last winter, “the camera panned to Cedric,” recalls Ice Cube, “and he was sitting there snoring.” He had an excuse, though. During filming he was up most nights with his sleepless infant son, Croix, now 2. “His wife, Lorna, and the baby were on the set all the time—it was chaos,” says director Tim Story. “But Cedric gave 110 percent every day. Any time he’s around you, you feel good, you feel better.”

Cedric Kyles has been trading on his infectious enthusiasm since his early party days in St. Louis, when he danced in nightclubs in return for free admission. His father, Kittrell, 59, a retired AT&T employee, “wasn’t around; he lived in Memphis,” says Cedric, who was raised by his mother, Rosetta, 58, a retired elementary school teacher. (His sister Sharita Kyles Wilson is now 37 and a communications professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia.) Cedric himself earned a degree in mass communications from Southeast Missouri State. But he had other ambitions. Through high school and college, he sang in jazz bands and talent shows.

After graduating with his B.S. in 1987, he hedged his bets by going to work for State Farm Insurance. Cedric the Claims Adjuster was “the worst,” he says. “People would stay late to help me solve claims. Many times they wanted to fire me.”

At 25, he started working nights in clubs across Missouri after winning $500 in a local comedy competition. That’s when he added his Entertainer moniker. “I didn’t want to be known as a comedian because I didn’t have 30 minutes’ worth of jokes,” he says. “So I would dance, sing—whatever I possibly could to fill that time.” Three years later, on a cross-country stand-up tour, he landed at Steve Harvey’s comedy club in Dallas. “He was hysterically funny,” says Harvey. “I told him he was going to be a major star.”

The prophecy began to come true in 1992 after Harvey suggested Cedric perform on Def Comedy Jam. In 1994 he became the host of BET’s Comic View and two years later he had a regular gig as Cedric the Lazy Sports Coach on Harvey’s WB sitcom. From 1997 to 2000, Cedric, Harvey, Bernie Mac and D.L. Hughley toured as the self-titled Kings of Comedy, raking in more than $37 million. On his own, Cedric scored instant national recognition when he squirted beer over his lady love in a Bud Light commercial that aired during the 2001 Super Bowl.

There were no sloshed suds when Cedric met Lorna Wells, a costumer on his first film, 1998’s Ride. “I was throwing the ‘Hey, I’m a big star’ thing around and she just had no idea who I was,” he says. “But two weeks later I ran into her in a little jazz restaurant and I put the ‘woo’ on her.”

The pair wed a year later, and the “woo” is still working. “He makes me feel like his girlfriend most of the time,” says Lorna, 35, now a full-time mom. The couple often leave Croix and Tiara, Cedric’s 13-year-old daughter from a previous relationship, with a nanny at their palatial L.A. home and go on drives or dinner dates. Cedric the Family Man is a serious guy, says his wife, and his intensity sometimes results in unintended hilarity. “A whole vacation can be ruined over a fly,” says Lorna. “He’s tipping over furniture. He thinks he’s one of the top five fly swatters in the world. He names the flies and talks to them: ‘You better ask your friends about me, and those friends are dead.'” Cedric the Lord of the Flies says he can’t help himself. Making people laugh is “my destiny,” he says, “my field of dreams. ‘If you do comedy, they will come.'”

Susan Horsburgh

Katie Wright in Los Angeles and Sona Charaipotra in New York City