LOS ANGELES — Kat Dennings has been daydreaming about turning herself into a perturbed porcupine. Well, not literally. But if the “2 Broke Girls” actress had her way, she would wear a leather jacket covered in sharp metal spikes when she mingles with advertisers on Wednesday as part of CBS’s upfront presentation.
Upfronts, an annual show-and-tell for advertisers, are important to networks trying to sell their fall lineups. That being the case, one should be on one’s best behavior. “But it’s a mob, and some people grab you, or at least that’s my experience,” Ms. Dennings said. “It’s kind of overwhelming.”
If Ms. Dennings, 25, felt manhandled a year ago, when “2 Broke Girls” was just another laugh-track CBS sitcom awaiting its debut, she is right to worry about what awaits her this time around. The series, which stars Ms. Dennings and Beth Behrs as waitresses with R-rated mouths, overcame early complaints of racial stereotyping and crude humor to become the season’s No. 1 new comedy.
Original episodes of “2 Broke Girls” attracted an average of 13.4 million viewers through April 29, according to Nielsen. (To compare, Fox’s “New Girl” ranked second among new comedies, attracting about nine million viewers.)
The show is so popular that some media buyers think CBS will risk moving “2 Broke Girls” to the all-important Thursday night lineup, pairing it with “The Big Bang Theory” to form a must-see comedy block. CBS declined to comment ahead of its Wednesday scheduling announcement.
Ms. Dennings has struck a chord on “2 Broke Girls” with her portrayal of Max, who has a murderous sideways glance and an offbeat, deadpan wit. Somewhere inside is a sweetheart, but it’s buried under a bawdy sense of humor. (Pity the ketchup bottle in a recent episode.)
“Kat is incredibly interesting because she’s the ironic indie girl succeeding in a big, broad comedy,” said Brent Poer, executive creative director at LiquidThread, a unit of Starcom MediaVest, the media buying agency. “You talk to the other networks, and they all say, ‘I wish I had that show,’ and Kat is a big reason why.”
Even so, casting such a young actress in an anchor role was a risky move for CBS, which tends to build comedies around established stars. But younger performers help draw the younger viewers that Madison Avenue pays a premium to reach: “2 Broke Girls” attracts the youngest audience of any CBS show except for “How I Met Your Mother.”
Broadcast television as a whole has been succeeding with what Hollywood refers to as “quirky girl” sitcoms — character actresses as leading ladies. Perhaps riding an entertainment pendulum shift started by the film “Bridesmaids,” entries include Fox’s “New Girl,” which stars Zooey Deschanel, and ABC’s “Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23,” starring Krysten Ritter as an eccentric, manipulative roommate.
The new shows that networks will unveil this week are stuffed with similar characters. One prominent pilot stars Mindy Kaling, known for “The Office,” as an idiosyncratic gynecologist.
You get the feeling from spending time with Ms. Dennings that she’s not entirely comfortable with her breakout status. She calls herself “socially weird” and said that popping up at stylish restaurants or attending endless Hollywood parties would make her “vomitous.” She lives in the low-key Studio City neighborhood here.
“I think she just sits on her couch on the weekends, and that’s one of the things that I love about her,” said Michael Patrick King, the executive producer and co-creator of “2 Broke Girls.” “There’s nothing manufactured about her, and that comes through on-screen. People are responding to her because it feels like an individual has wandered into their living room.”
Ms. Dennings, pretty with a playful touch of Goth style, points out that she has never followed the early advice casting agents gave her: tighten up your teeth, dye your hair, lose weight, get a tan. Unlike many actresses, Ms. Dennings does not pretend that “2 Broke Girls” is art, insisting that Max is little more than a heightened version of herself.
“Take away the booze and drugs — I’m so not that girl — and it’s not much of a stretch,” she said over a cappuccino recently. “I basically thought that playing someone so close to myself would be less exhausting.” She paused for deadpan effect. “So much for that idea.”
Ms. Dennings said she was not initially interested in TV work, even though the small screen is where she got her start as a teenager, playing a girl on “Sex and the City” who gave Samantha a run for her oversexed money. (Mr. King, an executive producer of that HBO series, helped cast her.) But Ms. Dennings decided that movie roles were more interesting; she wondered whether she could remain interested in a TV show that, in success, would require her to play the same part for years.
And she was gaining traction in bigger movies, landing a role as Natalie Portman’s sidekick in Marvel’s “Thor,” for instance. “She more than held her own next to an Oscar-winning actress and a superhero, which is not easy,” said Louis D’Esposito, co-president of Marvel Studios. Ms. Dennings also played the female lead in “Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist,” a comedic romance that sputtered at the box office but won her strong reviews.
Then Ms. Dennings’s agents gave her the script for “2 Broke Girls,” which is set in a Brooklyn greasy spoon, a kind of modern-day “Alice.” “I read it, and was like, ‘Oh, no. It’s good,’ ” Ms. Dennings said.
CBS had been tracking Ms. Dennings for years, according to Nina Tassler, president of CBS Entertainment, who compared the actress to a young Candice Bergen. “Kat’s rhythms and timing are unique to her, and that’s rare,” Ms. Tassler said. “The difference is that she’s an actress doing comedy versus a comedienne doing comedy.” (Warner Brothers produces “2 Broke Girls” for CBS.)
Ms. Dennings, who lists knitting and painting as hobbies, grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs as Katherine Litwack, the youngest of five children; her mother is a speech therapist turned full-time poet and her father is a molecular pharmacologist. Her parents schooled her at home. Ms. Dennings said she finished all of her course work by 14. She then moved to Los Angeles with her mother to pursue acting.
“I’ve always had kind of an attitude so the rejection became fairly easy,” she said. “If you don’t like me, it’s your problem.”
Although she was not allowed to watch TV as a child, Ms. Dennings said she soaked up old movie musicals like “Top Hat,” a 1935 picture starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Bernadette Peters and Madeline Kahn remain two of her favorite actresses. She said she memorized segments of “Let’s Get Small,” Steve Martin’s 1977 comedy album, when she was only 3 years old and performed it for her parents. “I saw the reaction it got, and I was hooked,” Ms. Dennings said.
For fans wanting a closer look at Ms. Dennings, her blog is a kind of study guide. Listed are her “all time favorite things: cute fluffy animals, decorating, shell collecting, snow and presents.” She jogs, plays poker and eats frozen grapes — when she’s not killing spiders in her apartment or watching TV.
Mostly her blog posts reflect her dry, somewhat wacky sense of humor. “My lip is bleeding, and I don’t know why,” she wrote last July. “I don’t recall making out with a lawn mower. Although anything can happen when under the influence of ice water.”