Sometimes, change is a catalyst for fearlessness. For Kari Lizer - creator and executive producer of the hit series "The New Adventures of Old Christine" taking a gamble by leaving a hit sitcom so she could create a television series of her own, proved to be the best change she's ever made in her career.
Becoming a writer was not Kari Lizer's lifelong dream. This former child star had been acting since she was 11 years old and had her heart set on making it big as an actress. But her flare for quick-witted comedy writing got the better of her and her career took off in an entirely unexpected direction.
Back in the early 90's, Lizer wrote a play called "Late Bloomers" which she planned to use as a vehicle to showcase her acting prowess. Following the show's opening, Kari wasn't deluged with casting offers, but instead, picked up her first writing gig for the comedy series "Empty Nest," when she was given the opportunity to write an episode in which she also appeared in as a guest star. While Kari says she continued to "slip scripts" to the "Empty Nest" writers, she eventually landed her first full-time writing job for the USA Cable Network series "Weird Science."
"Weird Science turned out to be the best job because it made me realize I was more than an actress who could write monologues for herself," Lizer recalls. "It turned me into a real writer because I had to write about things that weren't close to home."
When Kari became pregnant, she says "it became very clear that it was a beautiful thing to be a writer and not an actress." Had she still been acting, Kari would have become obsessed with every ounce she gained during her pregnancy. Not only was she able to gain weight, but at one point, Kari says she broke her arm and was hobbling around the office. "If I was an actress, I would have been out of work for that period of time but I continued to write up until I delivered the twins and then after that. That was really an epiphany for me of 'Thank God that I was a writer.' I realized how fortunate I was to have made a transition."
After giving birth to twins, Kari continued to hone her craft and soon joined "Will & Grace," where she spent four years as a writer for the Emmy award-winning comedy series. While at "Will & Grace," Kari says she had a manageable schedule where she worked a few days a week and had great balance in her life with her three children. Creatively, though, she was ready to take on a new challenge.
While she was now proficient at writing about a life that wasn't necessarily her own, Kari returned to what she knew best and crafted a concept for a series that was loosely based on her own life. Lizer recalls when her children were in preschool, 15 of the 18 families that she had met were all married. By the time their children were entering 3rd grade, 12 of those couples were divorced.
"I wish that weren't the truth but it was and we were one of them," she says. Lizer believed that a show based on the life of a single parent and the problems they face trying to balance work and family commitments, could potentially resonate with many people experiencing the same difficulties and growing pains associated with divorce and parenthood. But how do you make it funny?
Lizer says that was simple.
"I had an acting teacher who told me that comedy is a man or a woman in trouble. I think that is true. Trying to write a comedy about a person who is great at their job, always kind, always appropriate, always does the right thing - I don't think there's much funny about it. That's not my life and I don't think that's where funny comes from."
While Kari bases "The New Adventures of Old Christine" on her own real life experiences, she did mix in a few elements that kicked up the funny factor by several notches. While she and her ex-husband remain friends - spending holidays and weekends together at their kids' sporting events - neither has brought a new love interest into the equation. Kari says that by introducing a "New Christine" into the lives of her fictional characters, the scenarios "Old Christine" would find herself in could make for laugh-out-loud television moments.
Several of the staff writers at "The New Adventures of Old Christine," are parents and four of the writers, herself included, are working moms who've experienced many of the scenarios Christine has found herself in as she tries to navigate the choppy waters of work and home. "The parenting thing is universal - whether you're married or separated, everyone is trying to do the right thing by their kid so the stories come from the same place," she says. While she has worked with many of the writers before, she says the big difference this time around is that they're all writing from a sense of reality.
Lizer has also tapped into "The Mommy Wars" and has found the perfect way to inject humor into Christine's everyday confrontations with the "Meanie Moms" who are always on-hand to make Christine feel guilty about being a working mother. "There's definitely a chasm between working women and stay at home moms and a backlash of judgement about being a working mother today," she says, even recounting an incident that happened earlier in the day.
"I was at my kids' school this morning and I was looking at the calendar every day this week there is an event taking place in the middle of the day that I'm supposed to be present at to take my kids. And I thought to myself does anybody work anymore?" She continues, "Between the parent teacher conferences and the haiku festival and the Day of the Dead dance, I had to sit my kids down and have them tell me which events are important that I show up for and which ones you won't mind if I miss because I can't do all of them."
When she does show up for a school event, Lizer says, "I always get comments like 'Oh you made it!' Yeah I made it alright. But if their dad shows up at anything, they name the science wing after him. He comes once and they say 'Oh that's so great, your ex, he came to a game the other day and isn't that great.' It's pretty good I guess, but I was up at 4 in the morning washing their football uniforms so that whole world as much as the divorce world is what sort of prompted me to dig into that."
Lizer says that she can tell the show has struck a chord with her peers when she's approached on the weekends by moms on the soccer field who tell her that they completely relate to what Christine is going through. "There is a bit of momentum of people coming up to me and saying, 'Oh My God, that's me!' or 'That's me at school.' If it's not the divorce situation, it's the private school situation or the parenting situation in general. I'm feeling good about the fact that people are responding and feeling like it's relatable."
People are also responding because of the uncanny comic timing of Emmy award-winner, Julia Louis Dreyfus, who fits perfectly into the lead role of Christine as if she had slipped into the most comfortable pair of shoes she's ever worn. "Julia can do no wrong as far as I'm concerned. She's nailed this character," comments Lizer.
And that's the key to a quality comedy series. As much as we enjoy shows that offer us a chance to escape into the world of the unknown, the best thing about "The New Adventures of Old Christine," is that the series gives viewers the opportunity to sit back, relate and laugh at the lunacy of parenting today.
While she's at the top of her game in the entertainment industry, Kari says her two sons and daughter are pretty unfazed by their mom's success. After school, the kids attend show tapings that Kari deems appropriate and life is pretty normal...except for the chickens. "This summer we got it into our heads that we should get chickens and we researched it - it was our summer project - how would we raise them, what would we need? We now have four hens, built a coop and we just love them. It's a little bit of work. My kids don't feel very fancy and neither do I and I think that makes it feel really normal around my house," she says.
Speaking of fancy, while Lizer was dressed to the nines earlier this fall for the Emmy Awards - that was pretty much the last time this Cinderella has been to a Ball. "There's a lot less time for me these days, but that's okay. I looked down at my feet and said, 'I still have my Emmy awards toe nail polish and that was September 18!' Something's gotta give and usually that's it."
While she may not have time for her toes, Kari Lizer has found a way to juggle her home life with work and stay on top of her game. "It is difficult but it's been my experience that my 'mommy-ness' lends itself very well to my work. I have to be incredibly efficient and I have to do 1000 things at once. And my priorities are the same as they've always been - which is I go to my kids' Halloween parade tomorrow morning and I figure out the rest of it as the day goes on. It doesn't mean I don't work as hard as someone who skips the Halloween Parade - I just figure it out or I'll stay up later once the kids go to sleep - I make it work because it's important."
To find out more about Kari Lizer and "The New Adventures of Old Christine," visit CBS.com or tune in and get ready to laugh your sides off every Monday (9:30-10:00 pm, ET/PT) on CBS.