Life experiences link 'Christine' writer, star

Life experiences link 'Christine' writer, star

They bonded over breakfast. Kari Lizer was looking for a fearless and funny actress to take on the formidable lead role in a pilot with the curious title "The New Adventures of Old Christine" that she had set up at CBS and Warner Bros. Television. Julia Louis-Dreyfus was looking for a TV show to star in, "Seinfeld" curse be damned. During their first meeting at a Santa Monica eatery last year, writer-producer Lizer and Louis-Dreyfus realized they were very much alike, walking the same tightrope of trying to be an engaged mother while making a living in a demanding business.

Lizer knew the star of "Old Christine" -- who takes on the senior designation after her ex-husband begins dating a younger woman with the same name -- would have to be an actress who could be beaten down at times but still never come across as "pathetic." The title was the first thing Lizer came up with as she honed her idea for a sitcom revolving around the awkwardness that divorced couples face when they're forced to spend significant time together at soccer games, pancake breakfasts, family gatherings, et al., for the sake of their children, as Lizer does with her ex-husband.

When Louis-Dreyfus' name was mentioned, Lizer was instantly intrigued, but she admits she couldn't stop thinking about the decidedly un-maternal character of Elaine Benes that Louis-Dreyfus played so well on "Seinfeld." Over breakfast, those concerns evaporated faster than the steam rising from their coffee.

"As a person, Julia is so much more Christine than she is Elaine," Lizer says. "She's a mom. Her kids are the center of her world. She's into all of the school (events), and she spends her afternoons at Gelson's. As an actress she is just so powerful. It's great for the writers. We know Julia can sell anything."

Indeed, Louis-Dreyfus' range as a comedic actress has infused the Christine Campbell character with the kind of depth that impressed Emmy voters enough to give this year's lead comedy actress trophy to Louis-Dreyfus after the show's first miniseason (it was a midseason entry in March). She's adept at the hands-on-hips delivery of sassy one-liners a la Lucy Ricardo that ring true in the context of her wise-cracking, world-weary character. And now, in its first full season, it's clear the show is settling into a groove. Louis-Dreyfus is ably supported by Clark Gregg, who plays her ex, and Hamish Linklater, who plays her brother.

Lizer knows how fortunate they are to have found their rhythm so quickly (she gives some credit to the fact that "Old Christine" inherited the "Everybody Loves Raymond" stage on the Warner Bros. lot and much of its production crew). She got her start as a preteen actress, doing everything from commercials to telefilms to a stint as a semi-regular on NBC's "Matlock." ("Matlock" star Andy Griffith remains a friend; "He's the dearest, sweetest man," Lizer says.)

When acting job offers started to "dry up" as she got into her early 30s, Lizer decided to write a short play to generate some buzz for herself as an actress. After staging it as an industry showcase with the help of her friend, veteran comedy writer Jim Vallely, she was bowled over when she got a few job offers -- as a writer. Lizer took the cue and got her first staff position on the USA Network comedy "Weird Science," and she hasn't wanted for work since then.

"Looking back, I'm lucky that I didn't peak too soon as an actress," Lizer says. "I wasn't wildly successful. Intermittently I had to take the occasional waitressing job, but I got to live a regular life. I'd much rather peak now."