Lisa Kudrow Returns With The Comeback, Again

Artwork by Laurie Simmons. Photo: Laurie Simmons

Lisa Kudrow isn’t much for introductions. “Are you ready? Okay. Let’s go,” she says almost as soon as I walk into the office of her production company, located in a quaint two-story house in West Hollywood. We’ve crossed the street and walked over several mounds of cracked concrete bulging with tree root before I admit that I’m confused. Are we going to her home? Her car? “I’m sorry. God!” says Kudrow, looking very California mom in brown loafers, faded jeans, and a white embroidered tunic. Turns out she’s taking me to lunch at her favorite Italian spot, Il Piccolino, down the road, where she already knows she’s going to order off-menu angel-hair pasta with vodka sauce and a bowl of Parmesan cheese for extra heapings. “I’ve got the whole plan in my head,” she says, “and I didn’t share it with you!"

Kudrow, 51, has a Vassar pedigree and a degree in biology, but charming daffiness has long been her trademark, from her terrible waitress Ursula on Mad About You to the latter half of Romy and Michele to awful therapist Fiona Wallice on her Showtime favorite Web Therapy — each role colored with her own particular halting speech pattern and organic weirdness. “My favorite characters to play are people who aren’t aware of how they’re coming off,” she says. “That’s what’s funny to me. Everybody has those moments.” And, of course, there’s Phoebe, the Friends role that meant she never had to work again and which is also sort of responsible for why we’re here now, talking about The Comeback.

That show, canceled by HBO in 2005 after a single 13-episode season and then brought back, nine years later, by, yes, HBO, features another of Kudrow’s indelible performances — and frankly her best — as actress Valerie Cherish, a character she first dreamed up in her pre-TV days as a member of the famed L.A. improv troupe the Groundlings. “I didn’t care if I became completely irrelevant, because Friends gave me a huge gift,” says Kudrow about the winding road to The Comeback’s second season. “Whatever I’m putting my name on is something that I want to do.”

Whether someone else would let her do it was another question, one that, in the case of The Comeback, took nearly a decade to answer. In 2005, when Kudrow teamed up with former Sex and the City executive producer Michael Patrick King to executive-produce, write, and star in her first TV series after ten seasons on Friends, no one was likely expecting a darkly comic satire about a desperate, self-absorbed sitcom also-ran who’s so hungry to regain the spotlight that she’s doing a reality show (also called The Comeback) about her pathetic attempts to revive her career by playing a randy landlady named Aunt Sassy on a terrible sitcom called Room and Bored. Everything about The Comeback — its meta concept; the way it was shot to resemble the raw footage of a reality show; its use of Kudrow in decidedly un-Phoebe-like punching-bag fashion — required reorientation. “It made me laugh,” says Kudrow over lunch, shrugging, about her initial decision to do the show. “I didn’t take into account enough, maybe, Will people think that that’s me?”

What scans as prescient now, thanks to its jaundiced eye on reality TV, conceptual playfulness, and female lead’s thrilling disregard for “likability,” was largely overlooked back then. Ratings were mediocre and critics were unkind, though The Comeback did earn three Emmy nominations, including one for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy. Kudrow and King discussed possibilities for a second season. It didn't matter. HBO canceled the show. 

“At HBO we never say canceled, but we didn’t pick it up for a second season,” clarifies HBO head of programming Michael Lombardo. Last year, he was puzzling out how to fill a scheduling hole when Casey Bloys, who oversees comedy, walked into his office and asked what he thought about a comeback for The Comeback. “It came from a pure fan perspective,” says Lombardo. “There are a group of us here who are now working at HBO programming who love that show.” 

Even in the current resurrection-happy TV business — see Netflix’s Arrested Development, Showtime’s Twin Peaks, DirecTV’s Friday Night Lights, Yahoo’s Community — a new season of The Comeback is near miraculous. The show never had a ravenous cult following clamoring for a second season. Nor were Kudrow and King pushing for this (“Just too afraid of getting rejected again,” Kudrow says). The Comeback is being revived by its original network because some HBO executives decided that, upon further reflection, it was actually pretty great. “Michael and I were near tears in the parking lot after we met with HBO,” Kudrow recalls about the moment the new episodes were green-lit. “We were sort of staring at each other like, ‘What happened?’”

The day of my visit, on an unusually hot mid-September afternoon, Kudrow is still in postproduction for Web Therapy’s October 22 season premiere, as well as The Comeback’s November 9 premiere. She’s also reading outlines for an unannounced new batch of her TLC documentary series Who Do You Think You Are?, in which celebrities discover their genealogy. (Her production company, It or Isn’t Entertainment, makes all three shows.) Despite her jammed schedule, we talk, both at the restaurant and her office, for four cheery, unhurried hours, the conversation meandering widely, settling briefly on the recent celebrity nude-photo leaks. “I can’t identify with that,” says Kudrow. “I would never take a picture of me naked under any circumstance. Yeesh. No.” She also takes me through her extensive TV- and webisode-watching habits, which include Burning Love (Ken Marino’s The Bachelor parody), and Girls, which she connected to “because the question for me was, ‘Is it really like that now? Oh, no, that’s awful.’ That means nothing’s changed. It’s complete subservience to the guy, except with a better vocabulary and higher education and assertiveness in every area except the relationship.”  

Kudrow lives in a nearby neighborhood with her French-businessman husband, Michel Stern, and their 16-year-old son, Julian, but she spends her days at the West Hollywood house; Web Therapy is entering its fourth season, and Who Do You Think You Are? is going into its fifth. After lunch, Kudrow pops some Nicorette before we return to her office. The gum is her one vice, Parmesan excepted. She’s been hooked since she stopped smoking after The Comeback wrapped in 2005. Her husband had tried to have them quit together during filming, but Kudrow was so stressed out she kept cheating. At one point Michel even insisted that Kudrow go with him to a hypnotist. “It worked for him,” says Kudrow. “It didn’t work for me. You have to want to quit.”

Back at the house, she shows me her workspace. “It’s a mess,” she says. “I’m halfway to being a hoarder.” There are piles of paper everywhere, but somehow the room still seems spare. The walls and shelves are mostly empty except for a few photos of Kudrow and her son at various ages (“He’s cute with his Thomas the Tank Engine”), a collage of images from The Comeback, and a still from her own episode of Who Do You Think You Are? in which she went back to Belarus and  Poland and found an uncle she thought had been killed in the Holocaust.

Her producing partner, Dan Bucatinsky, who played Cyrus Beene’s violently murdered journalist husband on Scandal, is also here, in his much-better-decorated office across the hall. He had nothing to do with Kudrow getting cast in a guest arc as a presidential hopeful, but he says she did stop watching the show in protest after his character died. Kudrow and Bucatinsky met in 1997 on the set of the independent film The Opposite of Sex, written and directed by Bucatinsky’s husband, Don Roos, who also directed her in 2005’s Happy Endings and now directs Web Therapy. (Bucatinsky plays Fiona’s assistant, Jerome, on Web Therapy and Valerie’s publicist on The Comeback.) I walk over to a French movie poster on the wall. Bucatinsky reads it, with a lovely accent, and Kudrow translates: “Men may have discovered fire, but it’s the women who discovered how to play with it.” Bucatinsky’s office closet houses the wardrobe for Web Therapy. Kudrow shows me a frumpy floral housecoat. “I won’t let us throw this out because it’s the one Meryl Streep wore,” she says. Streep had discovered the series early on and, after they got to know each other at a Vassar event, Kudrow warned her that she'd ask her to be on it. “This is the Meryl Streep stuff, so it’s not allowed to leave. Ever, ever, ever.”

Artwork by Laurie Simmons. Photo: Laurie Simmons

Kudrow, who began therapy in her 20s, came up with Web Therapy with Bucatinsky and Roos while they were discussing how everyone does everything online now, from dating to shopping. Kudrow hates shopping with a passion. “I hate putting my arms through sleeves and it not going through the first time so you have to readjust the trajectory,” she says. “On that micro level I hate it.”

That people are now so content to sit endlessly by their computers seemed to Kudrow to be a sign of our doomed society. “Then I thought,” she recalls, “How funny if people didn’t leave their desk to do therapy and they just do three minutes at a time?Web Therapy is made to look like a Skype conversation, with Fiona in one window and her client in the other — guest stars have included Streep, Lily Tomlin, Billy Crystal, and Gwyneth Paltrow. She takes me to a room downstairs where one wall is covered in colored index cards mapping out each episode of the current season. Her former Friends co-star Matthew Perry has an upcoming arc as a lawyer and pathological liar named Tyler, who needs a (crooked) therapist to write a letter saying he’s fine. “Matthew was like, ‘I want to do your show,’” says Kudrow. “I said, ‘Great.’ He said, ‘Not the one where you go back in time and look at the family. I want to do the funny one.’”

The gang doesn’t hang out like in the old days, but they do get together for dinner occasionally and try to support each other’s work. Courteney Cox, David Schwimmer, and Matt LeBlanc have all also appeared on Web Therapy. (Jennifer Aniston has said she wants to come on.) Cox, in turn, recruited Kudrow to be on Cougartown. “For her, the answer is always ‘Of course,’” says Cox. “She just wrote me yesterday: ‘Are you going to the premiere of The Comeback?’ Of course! I’d do anything for her. I directed a movie last year and she was the first person I called and said, ‘Can you give me notes?’ We’ll always be there for each other.” 

Old friends aside, Jon Hamm may be one of Kudrow’s funniest Web Therapy guest-actors. This season, Hamm plays Jeb, a phone-sex operator for the elderly. “His business is called Absolute Last Call,” says Kudrow, practically hiccuping with laughter. In their first episode together, Hamm’s character talks to a client in the middle of therapy. “He has that Mercedes voice,” says Kudrow. “You know, ‘Hey, what are you wearing? Pink housecoat? Oh, yeah. Did you get it wet? Was it an accident?’ I’ve never broken that much, ever. I started crying I was laughing so hard.”

Kudrow had initially thought that her post-Friends career would consist of occasional independent films, but she gave those up almost entirely in favor of a lifestyle of making her own TV shows where she could stay close to Los Angeles and be home by 6 most nights. But her son apparently doesn’t pay much attention to any screens on which his mom appears. He’s never watched The Comeback or Web Therapy and hasn’t seen all of Friends. “He’s just not interested,” says Kudrow. One of the rare times he’s been vaguely impressed with her, she says, was when they ran into one of his idols, Kevin Smith, at an event. Smith told Kudrow that he loves The Comeback and thinks she’s a genius. “Julian was in shock,” she says. “Maybe he thought Kevin was just being nice.”

It wasn’t just that, and Smith isn’t the only famous fan; legend has it that David Bowie called HBO halfway through season one to ask for advance DVDs. As we catch up with Valerie Cherish a decade later, it’s a relief, and a joy, to see that she’s just as deliciously venal and vain as ever. The Comeback’s second season, which takes places nine years after the first, finds her having recruited some USC students — not film students, just students — so she can film a reality-show pilot about herself and then deliver it on-spec to Bravo’s Andy Cohen. Pretty quickly, she learns that HBO is filming a stark dramedy, Seeing Red, written by former Room and Bored writer and Valerie’s archnemesis Paulie G. (played by Lance Barber), about his time doing the show while strung out on heroin and battling with an annoying, and very Valerie-like, co-star. Somehow, to her narcissistic delight, Valerie ends up getting the part. 

Every original Comeback cast member that King and Kudrow called is back for another go-round, including fan favorite Robert Michael Morris, who plays Val’s trusty hairdresser Mickey. Seth Rogen, another fan, also joined, playing himself playing a character based on Paulie G. in Seeing Red, further proof that nine years away have done nothing to tone down the show’s conceptual high jinks — nor Valerie’s cluelessness. The first day of shooting for the new season was at HBO’s Los Angeles offices, with the actual HBO receptionist playing herself. Val walks down the hallway commenting on the posters, trying to pretend like she recognizes anything from the current lineup. “That Lela Duram,” she says, noticing a Girls promo, “Can’t wait to see that!” 

Setting the show at HBO wasn’t meant to be a jab at the network that canceled them. (King calls it “a tickle if anything.”) Instead, Kudrow and King were making light of the trend of overserious half-hour conceptual comedies on premium cable that aren’t actually funny. "There are half hours on premium cable that don’t make you laugh ever," she says, "The stakes have gotten so high, and there’s no cap to storytelling sometimes. It can go sort of over the top. I want that, the naked girls and the blow job scene to be, 'What’s happening?’” Kudrow also adds that, “We thought we’d take the meta thing way too far with The Comeback comeback, and an HBO show and we were on HBO and we were canceled by HBO. We just wanted to go nuts with the meta-meta-meta-meta-meta.”

But even with HBO’s renewed support, the question remains: Will The Comeback stay back? “We have no plans for more episodes in the future,” says Lombardo. Then he leaves the door open, just a crack. “This has been one of those great magical moments, and if Michael and Lisa were game to do more, we would be very, very excited.” 

This was news to Kudrow. “He said that?” she gasps when I call her after talking to Lombardo. “Wow! And he wasn’t talking to you from a time capsule in November? That’s great! Let’s see what happens.” Kudrow, though, does know what Valerie Cherish would want. “Success isn’t going to make her truly happy,” she says. “There’s no such thing as enough.” 

*This article appears in the November 3, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.