For the critics and a cadre of appreciative fans, deciding about her first post-Friends show, The Comeback, was easy: They adored it. Created and written by Kudrow and King in 2005, it starred Kudrow as Valerie Cherish, a middle-aged ex–sitcom star so desperate for a second shot at fame that she allows her attempted comeback to be filmed for a reality show. “Lisa truly wanted to lacerate the idea of celebrity, and she loves the idea of playing someone who is a little emotionally incorrect,” says King. Though HBO pulled the plug on The Comeback after only one season, the show is revered to this day by its admirers, and Kudrow earned an Emmy nomination for her performance.
Kudrow says The Comeback grew out of her feeling appalled at how eagerly ordinary people would humiliate themselves for the chance to be on a reality-TV show. “It’s all about the hot pursuit of fame, and fame doesn’t fix anything,” she says.
Not that she thinks all reality programs are bad. Her company produces Who Do You Think You Are?, an hour-long show in which celebrities as A-list as Sarah Jessica Parker, Spike Lee and Gwyneth Paltrow dig into their ancestry. In Ireland shooting a movie in 2006, Kudrow raptly watched an episode of the British version and became convinced that the show could work in the U.S. “This was just good storytelling—truly documentary and not sensational,” she says.
She turned up as a guest herself in the first season, traveling to Belarus to visit the site where her paternal great-grandmother was killed by Nazis in a mass shooting of villagers at the edge of a pit; afterward the bodies, which had fallen into the pit, were set afire. She then flew to Poland, where she discovered that a distant cousin, long believed dead, was still alive. (“This is amazing!” another Polish relative exclaims. “Lisa Kudrow, not on my TV but in my home.”)
If Who Do You Think You Are?, with its focus on family, is consistent with Kudrow’s own preoccupations, Web Therapy is not. In real life, Kudrow believes in therapy. Years before she found herself on Friends, she saw a therapist who, she says, offered practical advice to someone coping with the uncertainties of young adulthood.
That helpful therapist definitely did not inspire Dr. Fiona Wallice, the snippy, can’t-be-bothered counselor played by Kudrow. “She’s maybe the worst human being in the world, and she’s dispensing advice,” says director Don Roos, who created the show with Kudrow and Bucatinsky. (To make it even cozier, Bucatinsky and Roos are a couple. Kudrow wrote recommendation letters when they were adopting their two children.)
Kudrow says the original, online show was shot on a shoestring in her company’s offices. “Doing a Web series is what independent filmmaking used to be,” she says. “This room”—she gestures around at the space we’re sitting in—“we used to shoot in.” The chocolate-colored walls certainly look familiar, having appeared behind Wings’ Steven Weber when he did a stint as a Wallice client. Other guest stars, many of them Kudrow’s pals, have included Alan Cumming (they met “so long ago, I was still dating women,” says the openly gay actor), Rashida Jones and Streep, a Vassar alum with whom Kudrow serves on the college’s board of trustees.
Streep was paid a pittance (“I think the makeup woman made more,” says Roos), though her segments were filmed in New York to accommodate her. When it came time to shoot, Kudrow found Streep, who was playing a breathy sex therapist, totally prepared. “She had researched her part, she had everything in her head, and”—here Kudrow shakes her own head at the role -reversal—“she was playing the ditz.”
It takes, it would seem, one brilliant blonde to recognize another.
Former People movie critic LEAH ROZEN writes about entertainment for TheWrap.com, the Anglophenia blog on BBCAmerica.com, the New York Times and other outlets.