Her own background may have set up Kudrow for this intense family focus. She was born and raised in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley, where her physician father, Lee, specialized in headache treatment and research and her mother, Nedra, was a travel agent (both are now retired). As the youngest of three children, she enjoyed certain advantages. “I learned really quickly I could get away with things,” she recalls. “I’d say, ‘I’m just little. I don’t know any better.’ ” It was a happy childhood and, looking back as a parent, she says she realizes just how supportive her parents were: “If a teacher didn’t like me—if there were any, because my first job was to get them to like me—my father’s attitude was, ‘Oh, fuck her, what does she know?’ That was great.”
WHEN it came time for college, Kudrow applied to several in the East. Vassar, which she put on her list because she’d heard it mentioned in old movies, became her top choice when it was the first to accept her. “I didn’t want to go to a party school. I wanted to be around people who were intellectually curious,” she says, popping a piece of Nicorette gum into her mouth (she quit smoking when she was pregnant and again six years ago, but still chews four to six pieces of the gum daily).
At Vassar, Kudrow spent her time among the petri dishes and beakers at Olmsted Hall, the biology building. She attended a few campus productions but evinced no interest in being an actress. “Ironically, Lisa and I were both at Vassar at the same time, but we didn’t know each other,” Bucatinsky says. “I was in a weird avant-garde performance troupe, and we did a dance on the steps of Olmsted, but she says she doesn’t remember it.”
After graduation, Kudrow returned to L.A. and a job assisting her father with his medical research. “I was studying hemispheric dominance and headache types and planning to apply to go to graduate school in neuropsychopharmacology,” she says, uttering that mouthful so naturally that she might as well be a regular on House. Then a funny thing happened: She found herself mentally critiquing performers in sitcoms. “I’d think, They’re hitting the joke too hard; you gotta throw it away,” she says. “It was like there was this alternate reality coexisting in me. It was an inner voice.”
She listened. Six months into her research job, Kudrow announced to her stunned family that she was going to try acting. On the advice of Jon Lovitz, a friend of her brother’s who’d just been hired by Saturday Night Live, she enrolled in an improvisation class.
She hated the first session. “I was embarrassed. Everyone was trying too hard,” she says. “I almost didn’t go back to the second class.” After forcing herself to continue, she found herself inspired by a classmate, Conan O’Brien. “He was really smart, really funny, and he thought I was funny,” she says. (They dated briefly, “but found we were better as friends,” says Kudrow.) With O’Brien’s encouragement, she stuck with acting, eventually becoming a member of the celebrated Groundlings comedy troupe in L.A. (Kathy Griffin and Will Ferrell are also alums.)
In 1993, after a few small TV and movie parts, Kudrow landed what she thought was her big break: the role of radio producer Roz Doyle in the pilot for Frasier. Three days into rehearsals, she was fired. “I knew it wasn’t working,” she says. “And they fixed it.” (Her successor, Peri Gilpin, played the role for 11 seasons.) For Kudrow, then nearly 30, this was a low point. She began to question her lunge into acting, and her mother started talking up medical school.
“I’ve since found out from other family members that she was very worried,” Kudrow says. “She was happy with the idea that I could have a career, but this one didn’t look like it was working out. And there was no boyfriend and”—here the actress begins imitating her mother—“ ‘You don’t wear enough makeup, you’re not flirty, and you’re not the go-out-and-get-a-guy type.’”