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By ERIC DEGGANS, Times TV/Media Critic
After her high-profile role on Friends, Aisha Tyler continues to blaze new career paths.
On paper, she's a mass of contradictions: a child of working-class Oakland, Calif., educated at a private school in Berkeley. A Dartmouth College graduate and model-pretty bombshell who can hold her own as a standup comic, actor and author.
And a proud black woman who brought a complex character to one of TV's whitest sitcoms, NBC's Friends.
Ladies and gentlemen, meet Aisha Tyler.
"Being the only black kid in my school . . . I always hated it when people made assumptions about what I was like or what my background was," said Tyler, 33, calling from the West Coast at the crack of dawn, her words interrupted by the occasional yawn.
"I decided . . . I was going to break every stereotype . . . be a white-water rafting guide, go rock climbing, listen to punk music. When I was young, it was a hard row to hoe. But I'd like to tell kids that someday, being different will be a good thing."
That range has paid off. Years after her first big show biz break, as host of the now-defunct cable show Talk Soup, she has a book (Swerve: Reckless Observations of a Postmodern Girl), film roles (the upcoming DMX/David Arquette film Never Die Alone) and her turn as paleontologist Charlie Wheeler on Friends.
"It was definitely a validation . . . the people who have guested on Friends: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Julia Roberts and, you know, me," she said, bursting into laughter.
Hired for a part that wasn't written specifically for a black woman, Tyler soon discovered producers had big plans for Charlie. She sparked a love triangle and ran off with a character played by Oscar nominee Greg Kinnear, her predecessor on Talk Soup.
And though others touted Charlie as the show's longest-running black character, Tyler just enjoyed stealing the spotlight on one of TV's hottest comedies.
"I hope (people's) frustration over (the lack of diversity) is tempered by the fact that when they wrote this role, they didn't wimp out," Tyler said. "They wrote her so smart and sexy and elevated, she wasn't just the black girl on Friends."
After bonding on Friends, Tyler and star Lisa Kudrow teamed up for Aisha, a comedy series CBS is considering for fall. Centered on a gregarious fashion designer who finds her hip company bought out by a bland corporate behemoth, the show won't be based on Tyler's life or any market-research-driven game plan.
"Any time you try to figure out what the marketplace wants and put it in a show, you wind up with The Single Guy," she said, referring to an NBC sitcom of the mid 1990s starring Jonathan Silverman. "The reason people love Friends is because they feel, on some level, that they're real people. I wanted to feel free to create something new . . . but based on my personality."
Now Tyler is on a tour that brings her to Tampa this weekend. She's promoting Swerve, which she calls "a longer, more extended conversation," filled with rants about bikini waxing, the perils of dating and the insult of being called sassy.
She remembers when she used to dress down while performing comedy, afraid audiences couldn't accept a woman who was pretty and funny.
"It's a challenge every day to prove that women can be sexy, funny and smart," Tyler said. "The terms aren't mutually exclusive. . . . Though I think people definitely (believe) that."
Aisha Tyler, 8 p.m. (nonsmoking) and 10:30 p.m. today and Saturday, Side Splitters Comedy Club, 12938 N Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa. $18 general admission, $23 prepaid preferred seating.[Last modified March 12, 2004, 02:05:29]