Ten years after slugging her last cup of joe at Central Perk, Lisa Kudrow – aka “Smelly Cat” chanteuse Phoebe Buffay – remains grateful for the stratospheric decades-long success of NBC’s Friends, but more importantly for friends, the people who have inspired her, supported her, kept her feet on a path leading to destinations she could never have imagined.
“I don’t know how you could do any of this without your friends, without people really looking out for you,” says the 51-year-old actress, who is about to enjoy time in America’s living rooms once more. This week, Kudrow returns for a fourth season of Showtime’s subversive, largely improvised comedy Web Therapy, in which she portrays Fiona Wallace, who has about as much business offering counseling as, say, Sigmund Freud would hurling a discus in the summer games. Completing the double-whammy, Kudrow next month revives Valerie Cherish, her egocentric, washed-up sitcom character turned reality TV star on HBO’s The Comeback, co-created with Sex and the City’s Michael Patrick King. Don’t you dare call this boob tube blitz a comeback for Kudrow, though; she’s never really gone away, and that’s a quality we like in our friends.
You have two beloved comedies returning to television virtually simultaneously. You’re also the executive producer of the documentary series, Who Do You Think You Are?, which is doing very well on TLC. How did that happen?
I don't know how it happened. That’s just how it always seems to happen for me; everything's always at the same time. I don't complain about it, by the way, because after you do all of the work, then it's like this wonderful vacation.
Has it always been that way in your life?
Yeah, that's how I feel it's always been. We needed to shoot Web Therapy if everyone was going to be available to do it, and also we were in the middle of some intensive work for Who Do You Think You Are? and the opportunity for The Comeback happened right in the middle of that. When that many good things are happening in your life, you kind of have to say yes. And then you kind of look around after a while and if it’s gotten a little bit quiet or no one is looking, you go, "Oh. I'm not needed? That's great." And you tiptoe away.
Then you’ve got time for your family.
Yeah. It's like, "All right, you mean I don't have to come in today? Oh, I'm free to take my son to camp? Okay, great!”
Perhaps we should consult Fiona Wallace, the shrink you play on Web Therapy, and ask her why this keeps happening in your life.
Oh, like she would know.
You’ve described her as “the world’s worst therapist,” which is impossible to dispute. So what kind of trouble lies ahead for good Dr. Wallace?
Well, her husband, Kip (played by Alias vet Victor Garber), has decided he’s not gay anymore, but he still doesn’t want to spend too much time with her, and she’s trying very hard to get her practice back up and running after it was shut down by her parents (played by Billy Crystal and Lily Tomlin).
Nice family you’ve got there!
Well, you know, it's America. (Laughs) So Fiona’s trying to reassemble her career and thinking maybe she needs to be nicer or pretend to listen better to people – but mostly because she wants to get good reviews on Yelp.
I guess that qualifies as progress for her. On The Comeback, which hasn’t made new episodes since 2005, how will we find your character, Valerie Cherish? It’s been almost 10 years since we’ve checked in on her. The world has changed a lot.
That’s what was so scary about saying yes to doing more Comeback; the world has gotten so much more absurd than it was in 2005. Valerie’s shenanigans are so tame compared to the stuff that’s happened on television and with celebrities since then. She very idiotically used to always insist that the reality show she was doing would be about dignity. We knew that was a joke back in 2005, and we know that it’s an even better joke in 2014. You can’t be on a reality TV show and have dignity. Valerie does have one thing down, though. She knows that if you’re going to survive on a reality TV show, you have to be entertaining. I think she is.
These two women, Fiona and Valerie, they are deeply flawed individuals. Part of the shows’ comedy is that they’re often really horrible human beings.
That’s definitely true of Fiona.
But audiences still find them somehow alluring. Why is that?
The thing that makes me laugh the most is someone who really thinks they're pulling it off, that their mask is securely on and no one will ever know the truth about who they are. Someone like (Web Therapy’s) Fiona thinks that what she's saying is perfectly acceptable, even though it is just vicious and judgmental and she is completely unaware of how far gone she is. She can't even hear how terrible the things are that come out of her mouth. I think that’s really funny. With (Comeback’s) Valerie, she thinks she can control things that she can't control, and that she can fool everyone into thinking everything’s okay because she’s smiling and looking placid. She’s lying to herself too, and to everyone around her, and she genuinely believes the people around her are buying it. That kind of tension is funny to me.
You don't know anybody like that do you?
(Laughs) Well, not to those degrees, I don't. I think a certain amount of that sort of self-delusion is actually healthy.
What's the thin line between being optimistic and being insane?
Or between denial and coping? That's the fine line to me. Sometimes you can't let some things in. I think it’s like that for everyone at some point in their lives, and if you’re in the entertainment industry, where everyone from critics to people with cell phone cameras thinks you’re fair game, you just need to block some of that stuff out. How do you get up the next day and go on when things are hard if you don’t lie to yourself a little?
You earned a BS in Biology from Vassar and flirted with the idea of following your father into medicine and neuroscience. In some alternate universe, you and I might be having a conversation about headaches or psychobiology instead of acting like a lunatic on television.
Right! Or some aspect of a theory of evolution.
What was the shift there? It’s been reported that Saturday Night Live veteran Jon Lovitz urged you to audition for The Groundlings comedy troupe at a critical moment in your education.
When I was younger, I really liked acting in school plays and writing sketches and doing that stuff and being funny. For high school and college, I just put it all in a drawer because I thought I wanted to go to medical school and then after I decided I didn't want to go to medical school, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do. Not long after I graduated, I thought, "Oh, remember how you wanted to be an actress before? You're only 22. You don't have any responsibilities. This might be a good time to give that a shot." I think that's the time you pursue something like that so no one else gets dragged down with you. So I called Jon, who was a friend of the family’s, and asked him what he thought.
Because he’s The Critic, after all!
(Laughs) Yes! Right! He was very encouraging. He told me I should take my shot.
After Groundlings, you got a little bit of work, but there were a handful of pretty lean years there too. How do you make it through those days?
I think what helped is that I was friends with people who I thought were really talented people and smart people, and if they thought I was good enough, then maybe I was good enough. I just leaned on that. You make a mental recording of the nice things they've said, and you just play it back when you need it. Family and friends, they mean everything, don’t they?