The star of ''Samantha Who?'' hopes the audience will remember her freshman sitcom

When the 100-day writers’ strike forced her promising new ABC comedy Samantha Who? to shut down production last November, star Christina Applegate vowed to try new things. The guitar, she thought. Maybe French classes — or even an exotic vacation.

She ended up staying home.

Turns out that finding new adventures for the old Christina wasn’t nearly as exciting as her day job: exploring the character of Sam, a woman who wakes up from a short coma with no memory of her life and slowly discovers that she used to be a total bitch.

”It was so awful to have the rug pulled out from under us,” says the actress, who’s gearing up for the show’s return on April 7. ”You really get into this groove. I hope the audience isn’t fickle and that they’re going to come back.” Before the break, Samantha‘s audience was quite loyal. The single-camera comedy attracted 12.8 million viewers in the post-Dancing With the Stars time slot and positive reviews; critics went out of their way to praise Applegate, who, until now, was best known for playing ditzy daughter Kelly Bundy on Fox’s long-running Married…With Children. That buzz earned the show a second season come fall, so Applegate will get another run at the kind of double role rarely seen outside of daytime TV: playing pre-amnesiac Sam, who was both rude and petty (in flashbacks), and the postaccident persona, who’s staging a one-woman contrition tour.

”I love playing both versions,” says the 35-year-old, as she lounges outside her rustic, Spanish-style McMansion in the Hollywood Hills. ”It’s very relaxing playing the old Sam. That person is very comfortable with herself. Yet the new Sam is so lost and kind of nerdy, off-kilter. She’s trying to find her way, and there’s a lot of frenetic energy. I love that because a lot of comedy comes out of that.”

Not that Applegate will actually brag about her ability to crack a joke. She still smarts at the memory of improvising her role as the ambitious Veronica Corningstone in the 2004 comedy Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, alongside Will Ferrell and Steve Carell. ”I was working with these guys who were kicking my ass!” recalls Applegate. ”I had to try to keep up with them.”

Hogwash, insists Donald Todd, Who‘s exec producer. ”Christina could be eating squirrels off a table and we’ll laugh and say, ‘Oh, fantastic. She can hunt for us!’ If there’s any surprise about her, it’s that she makes the material better. And that’s something you don’t expect.”

Her lifelong work ethic should have provided a clue. Born and raised in Los Angeles as the only daughter of a singer-actress, Applegate was appearing in commercials before her first birthday and landing movie roles (Jaws of Satan) by the age of 10. A charmed 20-year career in TV shows like Married, Jesse, and Friends (which earned her an Emmy for best guest actress in 2003) followed and convinced Broadway that she could open a revival of Sweet Charity in 2005. But when her New York run was over, Hollywood wasn’t beating down her door (though she has snagged a supporting part as a mom in the Rainn Wilson comedy The Rocker, due in August). ”It’s so hard with films,” admits Applegate. ”You don’t see funny women really headlining a lot. It doesn’t change.” So Applegate welcomed the chance to return to prime time last fall, especially when it meant acting opposite a pro like Designing Women‘s Jean Smart.

”Television is female-dominated now,” says Applegate. Singling out her own network, she says, ”Look at Desperate Housewives, Grey’s Anatomy, and Ugly Betty. All these shows have central female characters who are strong. It’s really amazing.”

And with any luck, her stint as Sam will serve as a reminder to Hollywood that one doesn’t need a Y chromosome — or a W-2 form from Saturday Night Live — to bring the funny.

Into the Archives
Here’s a career moment the longtime funny girl loves — and one she’d love to forget

WATCH THIS ”I improvised something in [the 2002 film] The Sweetest Thing that I was really proud of. I’m sitting behind this little kid at a church wedding, and I’m trying to get him to turn around and not look at me because I’m not supposed to be there. So I just go, ‘Look, there’s Jesus.’ It got the biggest laugh at the premiere.”

SORRY ABOUT THAT ”I played keyboards in Tina Yothers’ band in an episode of Family Ties [in 1987]. It was so stupid. I’m more sorry about the clothing and the hairdo. If I had put on any more shoulder pads, I could have been a football player. It was an ugly-ass thing. So I’m really sorry about that — not for anybody else. I’m just sorry for myself.”

Samantha Who?
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