Lisa Kudrow turned 50 last summer. Instead of throwing a blowout birthday bash—“If you have a big party, then everyone will remember it years from now, when you turn 50 again,” she jokes—the actress headed to Las Vegas to mark the occasion.
Keeping it low key, Kudrow celebrated with her husband of 19 years, French-born businessman Michel Stern, and a couple with whom she’s close. Kudrow spent her time in Vegas playing blackjack and learning craps. So, did she win big? “No,” she says, laughing over the phone from her home in Los Angeles. “Sometimes I win. But I come with a certain amount of money that I’m willing to spend—I don’t say ‘lose’—on the game. I don’t ever want to find myself at an ATM in Las Vegas.”
What are the odds that Phoebe Buffay, the ditz Kudrow so memorably played on Friends for 10 seasons, would take a similarly sensible approach? Not that anyone who has followed Kudrow’s post-Friends career would ever confuse her with her most famous role. In the decade since the legendary sitcom ended, the Vassar-educated Kudrow has made her mark not only as a performer but also as a writer and producer of such smart programming as HBO’s The Comeback, Showtime’s Web Therapy and TLC’s genealogy show, Who Do You Think You Are?, which begins its fifth season on July 23.
Web Therapy, which debuted online in 2008 and was adapted for television in 2011, starts its fourth season later this year. In the comedy series, which is partly improvised, Kudrow plays Fiona Wallace, the world’s worst psychotherapist. Despite its shoestring budget, the show lands big-name guest stars (Jon Hamm, Billy Crystal, Allison Janney and former Friends castmate Matthew Perry pop up this year), thanks to Kudrow’s connections. “We pay $900, plus the 10 percent that their agent would get,” she says. “And we feed them lunch if they want.”
Fans saw yet another side of her talent when she took on a dramatic role last fall in four episodes of the hit ABC political drama Scandal. Portraying an ambitious U.S. congresswoman, Kudrow so effectively delivered a blistering tirade on how the media trivialize female politicians that it ended up going viral on YouTube, with 700,000-plus views. “I was really thrilled to do it,” Kudrow says of that scene and Scandal. “I’ve never done a one-hour show, and I wanted to find out what that was like. I found out it’s a lot of hours.”
Working nonstop is what Kudrow has tried to avoid in recent years. She repeatedly turned down roles that would take her out of town because she wanted to be with her son, Julian, now 16. “I’ve kept it sort of purposely 9 to 5,” she says. “But now it’s gonna be a little more than that—actually, a lot more.”
That’s because HBO is reviving The Comeback this fall, nine years after the critically acclaimed satirical series was canceled following a single, 13-episode run in 2005. The show, cocreated by Kudrow and Michael Patrick King (Sex and the City), starred Kudrow as Hollywood actress Valerie Cherish, a relentlessly optimistic, attention-craving has-been attempting a comeback via both a reality show and a crass new sitcom.
In the years after its demise, The Comeback became a cult hit, appreciated for its gimlet-eyed take on show business. “There had been talk about bringing it back,” she says, “and then HBO called us in.” Kudrow and King proposed doing six new episodes, and HBO said yes. Of writing the scripts, she says, “It’s so much fun to be Valerie again, especially when I’m in her zone, because I realize that in her mind everything’s fine for her, everything’s great.”