"The New Adventures of Old Christine" may have initially been known as the show that broke the "Seinfeld" curse but, currently in its fourth season and a Best Actress Emmy for star Julia Louis-Dreyfus, the sitcom is clearly standing on its own. While it sits on CBS's Wednesday night schedule in the line of fire of Fox's "American Idol," creator Kari Lizer talked to our Jim Halterman about the positives of that timeslot, the fact that their guest stars keep getting better gigs and the real "Meanie Moms."
Jim Halterman: Before the show, you were primarily an actor. Did writing come out of acting or vice versa?
Kari Lizer: Writing came out of desperation more than coming out of acting. I had planned on [being] an actress and I started when I was very young (about 13 yrs old) and I made a living at it until I hit 30 and then I stopped making a living. There was a drought and I had not prepared myself for anything. I didn't go to college. I had no skills and so I wrote a play really only to get acting jobs. I wrote myself a part that I thought would showcase myself in some new light... and I showed it to my friend Jimmy Vallely, a writer on "Arrested Development" ... and he really liked it and he offered to put it up in a theater... we invited everybody we could think of in town and I got writing offers from it at first. I was a very reluctant writer because it seemed hard so I did a little of both for awhile but it really became clear that the Universe somehow had it in mind for me to write more than act because those doors kept opening up for me and the acting doors didn't. Now I can saw, now that it's been 15 years, I can say that I'm extraordinarily grateful that that happened because I would not want to be a mid-40s actress right now. I think I really lucked out that that worked out the way it did.
JH: You've said "Christine" is based on your experiences as a single mother with three kids. Was it a conscious decision to sit down and write this sitcom about that experience?
KL: I had been writing on "Will & Grace" for a few years. I had done another pilot very early on called "Maggie Winters" with Faith Ford. It started off as something I thought I knew what I wanted to say but by the time the process finished me off where there were notes and I was changing and adjusting and shifting. I got this show that I had no idea what it was. I didn't know where it was coming from. I didn't know what the second episode was... it was terrifying and I didn't have the experience to know that I should have thought of that. So, this time around I just knew that I had to have something that had legs and depth because there's nothing scarier than running out of stories and the thing that makes this work for me is that it is authentic. It's an authentic experience and the stories come out of my and somebody else's weekend and it gives it a life so that we're not always grasping and we're not always doing things like turning monkeys loose in the kitchen in order to come up with a story.
JH: How did Julia Louis-Dreyfus become involved?
KL: The script was written and CBS had picked it up. They asked me would you meet with Julia Louis-Dreyfus and, quite honestly, I was a huge fan of "Seinfeld" like everybody else but I thought I don't know about her as a mother. Elaine didn't seem very maternal to me and I didn't know if she had that softer side which was going to be an important part of this. I wasn't sure. So we met at this coffee shop. It was a blind date and it was perfect. She's so much more Christine than she is Elaine in my opinion. It was love. She was perfect... I thank my lucky stars everyday, quite honestly, because I really lucked out.
JH: One of the things that I just think is hilarious is when you go a little on the dark side, such as the incestuous comedy that crops up between Christine and her brother Matthew (played by Hamish Linklater) Do you think the humor in that comes out of the fact that it also an uneasy factor?
KL: I have read or seen a couple of comments where people are just disgusted but I think there's so much sweetness there. You know, Julia shies away from sentimentality in a great way that has kept me more honest as a writer and has kept me from embarrassing myself. That kind of stuff, even though it's dark and weird, it is sort of another way to express this incredible connection that she has with her brother and even though it's an inappropriate connection at times, it's not really. They never really act on it but she does sort of think that Matthew is the perfect man for me if he wasn't my brother and he is. He's great. They're not going to end up together. If she could pick Matthew as her soul mate, that's who she would pick.
JH: With Christine's dating life, and I found this on Seinfeld, too... the guys are not necessarily the greatest guys or the best looking guys. I mean, you guys go from Blair Underwood to Andy Richter and, I don't want to be mean in saying that, but is that a conscious decision to keep it more based in reality instead of knowing that the best looking guy in the room is the one we know she's going to be going out with.
KL: Well, lets be honest. The best looking guy in the room isn't necessarily the funniest. We're looking for funny first and if they're handsome then that's good too but that doesn't come along very often. I think the thing about Christine's dating life is where it's tricky is that Julia, the actress, is such a force that the first thing we have to look for � good looking/not good looking, funny/not funny, short/tall, fat/skinny � is somebody who can hold their own against her because she's powerful and we have to find men/actors who have a strong enough presence so they don't get eclipsed by her and that's challenging.
JH: Will we see Blair Underwood come back? They had a great chemistry.
KL: We loved him and we loved that relationship. You know, we sort of lost him to his big, fancy career - "In Treatment" and "Dirty Sexy Money". He had two shows going and he'd come back and sneak a scene. I think he had a great time and we certainly had a great time with him. I'd love to see him come back sometime when he slows down a little bit.
JH: Do you ever see Christine settling down? Maybe in the last episode of the series?
KL: Maybe. I also rebel against the fact that the thing that's keeping her from being happy is if she could just find a man. I don't want that to ever be the moral of the story. It will be interesting depending on how long we go, how her life will shift when she sort of delivers her kid to the world because then... I'm in that place now where I have 8th Graders and I'm feeling it coming on. It's like I better set myself up better and really focus on these kids and they're growing up so I think she'll deal with some of that stuff. She's funnier when she's knocked down than when she's blissfully happy and content.
JH: When I lived in Los Angeles, one of my jobs to support my writing was working as a nanny in Bel Air so whenever I see the Meanie Moms (played by Alex Kapp Horner and Tricia O'Kelley), I'm a little frightened because they're not that far from reality. Without naming names, was there a model or models for those roles?
KL: There were several models. Raising kids in Los Angeles - and my kids are at private school - but, not to name names, there is this Mommy War going on where everybody needs to feel like their lot in life is better than what somebody else has chosen. I show up at school and, you know, I work a lot but I show up for my kids as much as I possibly can and that's my priority but I get comments like "Oh, we haven't seen you around in awhile." Somebody said to me once "God Bless You. You are so strong. I just couldn't stand not be raising my own kids." So they're everywhere it's probably not Los Angeles-specific either.
JH: I think the relationship between Richard (Clark Gregg) and Christine is very sweet. As much as they get at each other, you can tell they really care for each other. Does that come from your experience as well?
KL: I definitely have a very civilized relationship with my ex-husband but I think the Richard-Christine one is a bit more of a fantasy relationship. They spend a lot of time together and they... I think it would be nice if things could be like that and I've seen a couple of people who have that kind of connection with their ex but I would say mine is not quite as it's portrayed there but certainly friendly and amicable and cooperative but we don't hang out... we don't sleep together.
JH: You always feel like Richard and Christine are always a step away from falling into bed together.
KL: They always are and I like that, too. I think they definitely are and that's fun, too. And Clark is so great. He plays Richard alternately like the biggest boob and then you look at him kind of sideways and think he's so sexy and he plays both sides beautifully and you can see how [Christine] gets confused.
JH: I interviewed Hamish a few months ago and he told me how he connected with you. Can you tell me what's coming up with his character, Matthew?
KL: Lucy's coming back [on the February 11 episode] but, again, our guests keep getting better offers. Michaela Watson, who plays his girlfriend Lucy, who we just fell madly in love with, got "Saturday Night Live" so she's off doing that [and] we had to sort of scramble and break Matthew's heart, unfortunately. Hopefully she'll come around again when she gets off and we'll have them play with each other a little bit. Constance Zimmer is going to be on the show and is going to try to heal Matthew's broken heart. He and Christine will have similar journeys where they don't quite get it right but they have each other.
JH: Any other big stories coming up for the rest of the season?
KL: We have the big wedding of Richard and New Christine (Emily Rutherfurd), which has Old Christine a little unhinged. Scott Bakula is going to come back because he's New Christine's father. He's going to come back for the wedding and get Christine all mixed up... there's a big lice outbreak, which everyone is waiting for. (laughs)
JH: How do you feel about the Wednesday timeslot now that "American Idol" is back?
KL: It breaks my heart a little bit because nobody is going to turn my show on in this house. I've got two thirteen-year olds and an eleven-year old who will never see my show again... when I first heard about [the timeslot] I thought Oh, it feels like we're being sent off to Siberia but I think in some weird way it started working out for us where the pressure was less, the expectation was lower which I always thrive when expectations are low. So in that way I think we got to just sort of do our thing more and maybe that's why we got left alone creatively this year. That post-�Two And A Half Men' slot... there's a lot going on there and I never thought it was a particularly great fit with "Two and a Half Men," and that felt like a lot of pressure that I didn't think was ever going to work out for us. Wednesday has been good. I've been pleasantly surprised. "American Idol" is what it is but I hope that people are still finding it there and I hope we can sit still for a little bit because we were moved around a lot.
"The New Adventures of Old Christine" airs Wednesdays at 8:00/7:00c on CBS.