Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Clark Gregg on The New Adventures Of Old Christine (Photo: CBS)
A Very Special EpisodeA single television episode can exemplify the spirit of its time. A Very Special Episode presents The A.V. Club’s survey of TV at its most distinctive.  

Between 1982 and 1985, Studio 8H at 30 Rock showcased the comedy of Eddie Murphy, Joe Piscopo, Martin Short, Billy Crystal, Christopher Guest, Jim Belushi, Mary Gross, Tim Kazurinsky, Harry Shearer, Robin Duke, and Rich Hall. Longtime Saturday Night Live viewers may disagree about how many of those comics were actually funny, and whether their best bits compensated for their worst. But it’s hard to deny they made an impression. Even if these men and women had never appeared on TV or in movies again after they moved on from SNL, the show’s fans would still remember them.

But what of Julia Louis-Dreyfus? If she’d never worked again after SNL, would she have had much of a legacy, or would she have been another Ann Risley? What characters did she play back then who’ve lingered in the culture for 30 years (besides maybe Linda Ronstadt)?

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Louis-Dreyfus today is firmly in the comedy pantheon, thanks to the eight years she spent as Elaine Benes on NBC’s “must see TV” juggernaut Seinfeld, and thanks to her anchoring and co-producing HBO’s dyspeptic political satire Veep. And that’s a turn of events that not even Saturday Night Live obsessives would’ve predicted when her run ended in ’85—not because Louis-Dreyfus was bad on the show, but because she never really got the chance to develop a voice. She was one of the many plug-in players that SNL has had in its history: always around to fill out a sketch, but rarely the star.

Want to understand the difference between a talented comedic actor and someone with an actual comic persona? Compare any given Louis-Dreyfus SNL sketch with The New Adventures Of Old Christine episode “Popular,” which originally aired on February 18, 2008. The bulk of the episode is about Christine Campbell realizing the extent to which she’s been ostracized by the other parents at her son Ritchie’s private school. But it’s really about what a wreck of a person Christine is. She’s disorganized, lazy, selfish, and self-deluded—all of which makes her the worst possible mentor for another clueless single parent, Mike Gay (played by Tom Papa).

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In the episode’s key scene, Christine crashes a weekly parents’ coffee hour that she’s never been invited to, and tries to warn Mike (whom she calls “Mark”) that he’s being led astray by the school’s “meanie moms.” When Mike suggests that Christine’s plenty mean herself—and ungenerous to boot—she’s genuinely shocked, because she’s always thought of herself as a good person who just gets treated unfairly. Rather than engaging in any self-examination, Christine shouts loudly, in the middle of a crowded café, “That’s the last time I help the Gays!”

This particular comic type—who takes being on “the right side” as a license to behave abominably—should be familiar to fans of Louis-Dreyfus’ better-known roles. Christine Campbell doesn’t have Elaine Benes’ self-confidence or Selina Meyer’s ruthlessness; and unlike those two characters, Christine really does have a sweet, loving heart. Still, the basic joke is the same: This is a disaster of a person, who’s all the more hilarious for ignoring or justifying her faults.

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Louis-Dreyfus’ road to this shtick was a long and winding one, though without a lot of hairpin turns. After leaving Saturday Night Live, she spent a few years playing bit parts in movies before landing a regular gig on the short-lived sitcom Day By Day, where she played Eileen, the narcissistic yuppie friend of the do-gooder protagonists. Her character was the best thing about the show, and when Day By Day was canceled in 1989, Louis-Dreyfus carried over a lot of Eileen’s scene-stealing exasperation to Seinfeld’s Elaine. Initially conceived as one of the fairly even-keeled members of the Seinfeld ensemble, Elaine became more frazzled and snappish over the course of the series, and Louis-Dreyfus’ unflagging commitment to zanier and darker comedy paid off in the first of her six acting Emmys.

After Seinfeld ended in 1998, Louis-Dreyfus struggled a bit with what to do next, and like a lot of her castmates suffered a high-profile failure: the muddled, oft-retooled NBC sitcom Watching Ellie, in which she played a harried professional singer. She rebounded with Christine (playing a character with some of the at-wit’s-end qualities of Ellie, combined with the harder edge of Eileen and Elaine), and won her second Emmy. But the show drew so little critical attention—and was marketed and scheduled so carelessly by CBS—that when Louis-Dreyfus reemerged on Veep as a foul-mouthed, colossally egotistical politician, even some fervent TV buffs made comments along the lines of, “This is Julia Louis-Dreyfus like you’ve never seen her before.”

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It wasn’t. Veep’s Selina Meyer is really just a variation on the kind of high-maintenance human catastrophe that Louis-Dreyfus has been playing so well since the late ’80s. There’s not a lot of daylight between Selina in Veep’s first season and Christine at the end of New Adventures’ last. To be fair though, anyone who only briefly checked out The New Adventures Of Old Christine when it started might not have known that. The comic sensibility of the show changed over the course of its five seasons, getting decidedly loopier beginning in season three, where “Popular” ran.

Creator Kari Lizer (an ’80s Hollywood ingenue and ex-Matlock co-star who transitioned from acting to writing in the ’90s) began The New Adventures Of Old Christine with a simple, character-driven premise, inspired by her own experiences as an overextended working mother. The show’s name introduced its “hook,” which was that, post-divorce, Christine’s ex-husband Richard (Clark Gregg) was shacking up with a younger woman also named Christine (Emily Rutherfurd). From the start, the plots were always driven by “Old Christine” trying to juggle raising a son, owning a small gym, and finding her own romance—all while shrugging off the snide comments of her neurotic brother/roommate Matthew (Hamish Linklater) and laid-back best friend Barb (Wanda Sykes). As the series evolved, Lizer and her writers moved away from the network’s clumsy early advertising pitch for a show about a middle-aged woman trying to compete with younger ones, and instead built more jokes around the idea that while all of these people were fundamentally screwy, none were as messed up as the title character.

In “Popular,” that manifests in Christine making indignant pronouncements about the injustice of the way she gets treated at Ritchie’s school, only to have her self-righteousness punctured again and again by Matthew, by Richard, and by her own idiocy. When Matthew scoffs at her calling herself “political,” she points out, “I have a black boyfriend.” When he rolls his eyes at her saying that she’s “bent over backwards” to be a good person, she mumbles, “I don’t tell you everything.” When she boasts about volunteering to lead the “earthquake phone tree” for the parents at her son’s school, she then absently says to herself, “I should find that list…”

As with Veep, a lot of the heroine’s weaknesses are semi-excused by the company she keeps. Although “Popular” is about Christine being shamed into making more of an effort to befriend the women she despises, the episode’s big twist—or really non-twist—is that “meanie moms” Marly (Tricia O’Kelley) and Lindsay (Alex Kapp Horner) really are as petty and vicious as Christine’s pegged them to be. The episode starts with them laughing at Mike for his poor parking skills, certain that they’re actually watching Christine—who’s standing right next to them. Then when Christine decides to make friends, she figures out that the best way to get into their good graces is to flatter them for being “too thin” and “too tan,” and to join them in ostracizing Mike.

Christine goes along with this because, again, she’s not that strong willed, conscientious, or deep. (“I can’t help you now,” she hisses at Mike when he finds out that there’s a separate parents’ coffee hour that he’s not invited to.) In the episode’s B-story, Christine is excited that Ritchie’s going to be in the handbell choir, which she tells her brother is the most popular extracurricular activity “among kids who are not good at sports or other things.” But as soon as she finds out that there’s going to be whole series of concerts to attend, she groans. And at the first performance, she forgets to bring her camera and just pretends to take pictures of Ritchie with her packet of birth control pills.

“Popular” is credited to Jennifer Crittenden, a veteran sitcom scribe whose résumé includes work for The Simpsons, Everybody Loves Raymond, and Seinfeld. The writing in this episode is very much in keeping with the latter two, tweaking the real world just enough to make it funny. There’s nothing too unbelievable about Christine’s anxiety over being excluded, or her frustration with the demands of parenting. They’re in keeping with what Lizer had to say about the origins of Old Christine to The Futon Critic:

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 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 a while.” Somebody said to me once, “God bless you. You are so strong. I just couldn’t stand not [to] be raising my own kids.” So they’re everywhere.

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Nevertheless, while The New Adventures Of Old Christine was always entertaining and relatable, it never really caught on, in part because it lacked a certain hipness quotient. The show had a rollercoaster ratings history, affected in part by circumstance and in part by the fairly conservative CBS never quite knowing where to put a sitcom that frequently skewed to the farcical. When it debuted as a midseason replacement in 2006, Old Christine was a qualified success, routinely drawing close to 12 million viewers a week. The full 22-episode second season started just as strong, and then dropped down to around 7 million viewers per episode after the Christmas break. The series was bumped back down to a 13-episode midseason fill-in again for season three (which was then curtailed to 10 episodes due to the writers’ strike), and rebounded well enough in the ratings to earn two more full-season pickups. But then it faded into relative obscurity in seasons four and five, despite those years being the sitcom’s creative peak.

Today, The New Adventures Of Old Christine rarely gets mentioned, except as a footnote to Louis-Dreyfus’ Veep run and her Emmy dominance. (Repeats air daily on TV Land, but only after midnight.) Still, beyond it holding up well just as a piece of entertainment, the show’s a significant part of its star’s career. It proved she could be viable on television as someone other than Elaine Benes, and the character of Christine allowed Louis-Dreyfus to sharpen aspects of her performing style and screen presence that she’d barely touched on in Seinfeld. She dressed more stylishly—a choice she chalked up to discovering “more body confidence” in her middle age—and developed more vivid shades of vulnerability, disgust, arrogance, and exhaustion.

Thirty years after Louis-Dreyfus left Saturday Night Live, her co-stars have mostly drifted into semi-retirement or outright irrelevance. Meanwhile, the woman who could barely get any airtime keeps racking up awards and becomes more commanding with each project. She has a way of building characters now that makes use of a full range of emotions, from despair to joy to lust. But at the core of all of them, there’s doubt, born of hard experience. If Louis-Dreyfus got anything out of her disappointing three years in late night, maybe it was an understanding that failure is funny.

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Next time… on A Very Special Episode: Sanford And Son, “The Piano Movers”