Lisa Kudrow on the Unexpected Return of 'The Comeback'

The star of the cult HBO comedy tells all about bringing Valerie Cherish back and her favorite 'Friends' memories

Lisa Kudrow in episode 14 of 'The Comeback' Credit: John P. Johnson

When HBO's The Comeback premiered in 2005, it was simply ahead of its time: The story of a has-been Hollywood actress named Valerie Cherish who's trying to regain her moment in the spotlight by starring in a reality TV show. Never mind that it starred a fresh-off-of-Friends Lisa Kudrow and was co-created by Sex and the City's executive producer Michael Patrick King; audiences weren't ready to dig in to a dark cringe-comedy with this much showbiz cringe, told in the mockumentary style that, just a few years later, would practically become the norm for single-camera sitcoms. In the pre-Real Housewives era of reality shows, Cherish's desperation reeked like a stinkbomb. The cable network gave it a single season and didn't invite it back for seconds.

Until now, that is. Whether we've all simply become comfortable with the idea of celebrity humiliation as a comic spectator sport on TV or the time was simply ripe for the show's particular flavor of acidic satire, HBO signed off on Kudrow and King bringing The Comeback back for another pomo go-round starting Sunday, November 9th. Nine years after we last saw Cherish chuck her dignity in the name of 15 more minutes of fame, she's back, making it big by reading for a part on (wait for it) an HBO show. And though Kudrow hasn't exactly been M.I.A. — her Showtime series Web Therapy is still going strong in its fourth season, and she's played supporting parts in movies like Easy A (2010) and Neighbors (2014) — these new Comeback episodes make us realize that she's never better than when she's got her comedic claws out. Welcome back, Valerie Cherish.

Did you ever think you'd get to resurrect The Comeback a decade later?
No, I never thought I'd be able to revisit the project ever. Michael Patrick King and I had tossed around the idea of maybe making a movie, but then we'd have to ask HBO and if they said "No," I don't know if I could survive that. It's like asking a guy that broke up with you, after running into him, "Do you want to get back together?" God, no. But the people at HBO were picking up on something, so they came to us said: "We think people like Valerie Cherish and wouldn't mind seeing her again." I really did feel that because we were on HBO, there would be another season [eventually].

Would you have proceeded with the second season if you couldn't get the original cast back?
I think we would've figured out a way. But that was the first thing we said: "Okay, here's a list of people that were here before; let's find out if they're available."

How did you originally come up with the character of Valerie?
 The voice and phoniness of that person was from a character monologue I did at the improv company I was part of — the Groundlings — called "Your Favorite Actress on a Talk Show." It was about how she tried to spin everything to make it seem flattering when it wasn't, and thinking she was so persuasive with an adoring audience that would just follow everything she said.

But it was more a response to Survivor and The Amazing Race; I couldn't believe people were doing stuff that was being broadcast on national television. To me it was shocking in a horrible way, as if people don't have any dignity anymore. Like, really? Fame is worth that? It's your real name; it's who you are! There was no personal integrity, social norms. So I thought it would be funny if there was this phony-baloney actress who was so desperate to be in the spotlight that she agrees to be on a reality show called The Comeback. The cameras would just follow her around while she's on a brand new sitcom. It was the barest seed of an idea.

Viewers still love Valerie, despite herself.
Right, she's not a bad person. She can be a little insensitive, but it's not as much about likability as it is about being a whole person, and most human beings aren't just bad. They're just not.

Did you realize how prescient the concept of the show regarding celebrities on reality TV?
Not really. It was written about this made-up world, even though it was based on a lot of things we could observe. The thought of "We're having fun doing this" outweighed any sense of "We're predicting the future." Michael Patrick King is smarter than I am. In the middle of writing, he would be the one that would say, "What if we're too far ahead of the curve?" I always said, "Well, they'll catch up! They'll catch up in the second season" — and then the second season took nine years! But because all of our friends are writers, we could see there weren't a lot of development deals for writers. They were switching to the lower-budget, high-rating reality shows, so we did know that. That wasn't news. But for a regular audience it was like, "What is this?"

Since reality TV has become such an inseparable part of our culture since the first season aired, did you want to push the meta concept even further?
It took care of itself; it had to be part of the background music. Like it's here and it's part of our everyday existence — the infiltration of everyone broadcasting and publishing themselves on the Internet.

Was there ever a moment, when the Housewives series really got to be omnipotent, that you thought, "Wow, we really picked up on something?"
I definitely noticed it. Like, "This really feels like a version of what we did and maybe Michael was right."
 
Do you have a favorite characteristic of Valerie's?
I love the spins. I also love how she figures that because she's saying something different, that you didn't hear the first part. I just like that sort of crazy thinking that, if you're that good, you must be that persuasive or manipulative.

How did Seth Rogen come to join the show for Season Two?
Well, I had a part in Neighbors, but I didn't feel like I could just write him an email and say, ‘Hey!' But Seth said, ‘Yeah, I'm a fan of the show…I'd love to!" Seth is the guy that would be the most torture for [Lance Barber's character] Paulie G. — everything Paulie G. turned out not to be. Just ridiculously talented, can write, act, and direct…also he's sooo funny. We just thought, "Since it's HBO, it had to be a big star." And he was perfect.

Your Showtime series, Web Therapy, is still going on as well, right?
Oh yeah! I can't believe who we go to do it. Jon Hamm, he made me laugh out loud. Gwyneth Paltrow — my god, she's a riot. Allison Janney was fantastic. It's all improvised, so they show up and see where it goes. [Director] Don Roos sometimes leaves his mic on accidentally, and you can hear him laughing. One time we were shooting with Matt LeBlanc and he goes,"Well that wasn't very good at all so let's do it again." You could just see Matt's face fall: "Oh, um, thanks?" [Laughs] Matthew Perry is in this round as well. He's so good.

What was your favorite memory from Friends? Did it surprise you the Phoebe character made such an indelible mark on American pop culture?
I get overwhelmed if I start thinking about that stuff — the mark on pop culture and all that. But personally, just to spend 10 years with these people who you just laughed with all day long! And I'm talking about the writers too. I'm not kidding. We really just enjoyed each other so much, and got to do this show that everybody loved. It really was remarkable — and lucky.

How much of you was in that character?
I merged the parts of me I could into that character but she taught me, she influenced me. I was much more sort of serious, uptight. She loosened me up!

Did you write any of her songs?
No, no. I got to come up with the tunes — as much as you can call them tunes. [The show's producers] offered to get me guitar lessons. I realized, "I don't want to learn the guitar." She's not good! It would be so much funnier if she's just a bad guitar player. She bad, but she thinks she's really good. To me, that's what was so funny.
I never tried to analyze why people liked Phoebe so much, what part of her femininity people liked. I just don't look at things that way. Which is a better world? The one I create in my head. My reality.

Everyone creates the world they're comfortable in.
It's called coping.