For a long time people told Jaime Pressly she was too pretty and sexy to be funny.

Now, after making herself a household name as the self-obsessed trailer park queen Joy Turner on TV's "My Name Is Earl," some people think she's too funny to do anything else.

But if she has to be typecast, Pressly said in a recent phone conversation to publicize her new film "I Love You, Man" (it opens Friday), at least it's good to be typecast as a comedienne.

"Comedy is my first love," she said. "I'm not someone who can portray depressed and down characters all day. I prefer to laugh while doing my job, and to make other people laugh.

"That's why 'Earl' is a dream job. Great therapy. It's hard to stay upset when you're doing it."

The Emmy-winning actress, 31, says that comedy is in her blood.

"I come from a very funny family," she said. "And I believe humor is genetic. Comedic timing is a bit like rhythm. You either have it or you don't. Growing up I was the comic relief for my girlfriends."

Pressly's girlhood passion was for gymnastics. Later she became a teen model and, after that, an actress.

She landed lots of small roles in movies and on TV, often playing a sex bomb. Her gymnastic background came in handy when she made the video game-inspired martial arts film "DOA: Dead or Alive," in which she cracked heads while wearing a bikini top fashioned from an American flag.

"I did 'DOA' a couple of years before we started 'Earl,'" she said. "All of us who worked on it did it because we wanted to work with Corey Yuen, who is one of the great fight choreographers.

"But it wasn't an easy shoot. We were in China for four months in some rough conditions, and a lot of things got lost in translation. I wasn't real happy with the final results ... making a little film for kids is not what I had in mind."

Back home she still was frustrated at not getting the comedy roles she yearned for.

"Nobody told me I couldn't be funny. They just wouldn't give me a chance. If not for Greg Garcia, the creator of 'Earl,' I'd still be fighting that battle. Greg saw something in me that everybody else overlooked."

It was inspired casting. Playing Joy, Pressly is so convincing as a blond bombshell of a Southern-fried harridan that she takes pains to assure new acquaintances that it's all for show. There's a trace of a Southern accent in her normal speaking voice, but nothing like the grits-and-spit diction she employs as Joy.

"I was born in the South — North Carolina — but my people weren't at all like Earl and that bunch on the show," she said. "We were a middle class family. My mom's a teacher, my dad's a car salesman. The house had three bedrooms and three baths. I've never lived in a mobile home.

"I don't think I'm at all like Joy. But I will say this ... all Southern women have something in common. They share a survivor's instinct. They'll get through. It's just that Joy will stomp on anyone to get there."

In "I Love You, Man," Pressly takes a small but juicy role of Denise, a Los Angeles businesswoman who runs a boutique. The comedy is mostly a "bromance" about the friendship of a nerdy realtor (Paul Rudd) and a guitar-strumming slacker (Jason Segel), but supporting couple Pressly and Jon Favreau steal their scenes as marrieds who are always arguing their way into bed.

"This was sort of a stretch because Denise is a more conservative person than I usually play. She's a really good friend and has great business sense. But what really attracted me was her love/hate relationship with her husband.

"Jon and I sat down before filming and talked about who these people were. We decided they didn't hate each other, and in fact were madly in love. But both of them want to wear the pants, each wants control. And to complicate things, they're trying to have a baby."

The film's set was more like a party than work, Pressly said.

"We all entertained each other. Everyone on this shoot was very funny, very intelligent. And big chunks of the movie were improvised...sometimes we worked it out in rehearsal, and sometimes we just cut loose while the camera was running. In fact, there was so much improv that watching the film now I can't pick out which scenes are scripted and which were coming off the tops of our heads."

She thinks the reared Rudd and Segel ("Forgetting Sarah Marshall") make a classic comedy team.

"These guys are just hilarious together. I laughed 'til I cried when I saw the film," she said. "I mean, I'd read the script, shot the damn thing, knew what would happen — and I still laughed my head off."

PRESSLY BASICS

A few factoids about Jamie Pressly:

Born 1977, Kingston, N.C.

Studied gymnastics as a child; a modeling career landed her on the cover of Teen magazine and took her to Italy and Japan.

Became a spokesmodel for Liz Claiborne Cosmetics in 2000.

Is a perennial contender in the World's Sexiest Women surveys held by various men's magazines.

With her fiance, actor Eric Cubiche, had baby boy Dezi James on May 11, 2007.

© 2009, The Kansas City Star. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.