Just when Kudrow was thinking maybe she should look for a day job, she was offered a waitress role, only a line or two long, on Mad About You, the popular Paul Reiser–Helen Hunt sitcom. “My agent said, ‘I don’t think you should do it,’ but I said, ‘I’m going,’ ” she recalls. “As I’m driving over, I kept telling myself, Just listen and respond and make it funny.”
She made it very funny. By week’s end, she was asked to reprise the role in five more episodes. Her hilariously indifferent waitress, named Ursula Buffay (when Friends began and both shows were on NBC, it was decided that Phoebe would be Ursula’s twin sister), put her on Hollywood’s radar. Less than a year after being booted from the Frasier pilot, she was officially in demand. Humorist Andy Borowitz, the cocreator and executive producer of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, remembers bringing Kudrow in to read for a pilot in 1994. “She was brilliant, of course, but as soon as I offered her the part, I found out that every other pilot in town wanted her,” he says. “She turned me down and did Friends instead. Good move.”
Friends, originally called Insomnia Café, was a hot pilot that year. Created by Kauffman and David Crane, it focused on six twenty-somethings who hang out together in Manhattan. “Lisa came in to audition and just nailed it,” says Kauffman. “Phoebe ran the risk of being cartoonish, and Lisa brought so much humanity to her.”
The sitcom quickly became a smash, turning its ensemble cast (including Aniston, Courteney Cox, Matthew Perry, David Schwimmer and Matt LeBlanc) into household names. How do you handle that kind of attention? “We at least had each other,” Kudrow says. “I couldn’t imagine being alone and that happening.” Cox and Kudrow became especially close and remain friends today, trading cameos on each other’s current shows, Cougar Town and Web Therapy (Cox plays an Internet psychic). “I wish I could see her every day like we used to. I miss her laugh,” says Cox. (Asked what would surprise people about Kudrow, Cox responds, “She has to chop up everything to swallow, including aspirin.”)
As the cast’s careers and public profiles skyrocketed, Kudrow managed to steer clear of the pitfalls of sudden fame. “She was probably the most grounded of anyone, while I, rather famously, dealt with it the worst,” says Perry. However, he does recall once seeing a frustrated Kudrow throw what qualified, for her, as a temper tantrum: In her dressing room, she slowly and deliberately tipped a chair over onto the floor.
HAVING her family nearby helped her cope, says Kudrow, as did keeping company with Stern, her future husband. They were introduced in 1987, when he was newly arrived in L.A., by Kudrow’s then-roommate, who was also French. “I thought he was perfect, but he was dating her, so I wouldn’t even look him in the eye. I would leave the room,” she says. “He thought I was weird—and I was weird.” When they met again, at a party six years later, they were both free, and sparks flew. Kudrow and Stern (“He’s not Jewish, but his name is,” says Ku-drow, herself a nonpracticing member of the tribe) wed in May 1995, at the end of Friends’ first season. Julian, their only child, was born in 1998.
Kudrow was already looking toward her future when Friends ended its run in 2004. Thanks to the handsome salaries the cast had collected ($1 million an episode by the final season), she was set financially. “It makes life way, way, way easier—no argument, no discussion,” she says.
A year earlier, she and Bucatinsky, an actor-writer with whom she was friendly, had formed Is or Isn’t Entertainment. Explaining the name, she says, “What we’re making, either it is or isn’t entertaining; others will decide.”