To you, she’s just Phoebe from Friends. To me, she’s the one of the finest actresses of the small screen, writes Sam Brooks.
Lisa Kudrow was the best actor on Friends. Regardless of how you rank the Friends characters (and if you rank Ross anywhere but last, you’re wrong), Kudrow’s performance is unimpeachable. When I watched all ten seasons of the series again earlier this year, I was struck at how poorly a lot of the show had aged, but Phoebe, and Kudrow, exists as a kind of free radical atom outside the series. She goes for the jokes harder than anybody else, and Phoebe is enough of her own vibe and creation that it works.
I give you Exhibit A of Lisa Kudrow’s genius, a subtitled video of Phoebe Buffay flirting with Chandler on maybe the best episode of Friends in its decade of canned laughter:
But you’ve all seen Friends. I don’t need to convince you that Friends is good, or that Lisa Kudrow is great on it. If you’ve seen it, you know, and if you’ve seen it so long ago that you’ve forgotten, then you can watch all of it on TVNZ on Demand! There’s a lot of it.
Exhibit B of Lisa Kudrow’s genius is the entirety of The Comeback.
The Comeback was the first of the post-Friends projects (if we don’t count spinoff Joey, and we do not) in 2005, and was created by Kudrow herself and Sex and the City creator Michael Patrick King. Kudrow played a washed-up actress, Valerie Cherish, who had come off a massive, mainstream three-camera sitcom hit and was waiting for her comeback. The comeback comes via a three-camera sitcom, clearly based on a wet sponge of a Chuck Lorre pitch, and… a reality show, because the catch for her being cast in this sitcom is filming a reality show at the same time, documenting the process of her comeback.
It’s an idea that’s about as meta as it’s possible to get without going up its own intestines. You’ve got Lisa Kudrow playing a character who is likely far from her actual emotional reality, while being close to the audience’s perception of what a hugely successful sitcom star like Kudrow might be like. Valerie Cherish is that double sucker-punch of vain narcissism and deep self-delusion, a person who has no awareness of how little time the industry has for her, unless they can make some money from her.
Valerie Cherish is a genius creation, one of the best television has given us, and that’s largely due to Lisa Kudrow’s hyper specific, highly technical performance. Not only does play a washed-up actress (although Kudrow has never quite been washed up, and has never seemed to desire the kind of career success of her Friends castmates) that could very easily be based on herself, she has to play a character who is consistently coming against the limits of her own self-delusion, and doing everything she can to hold onto that delusion. And she has to do all this while being ‘filmed’ in a reality TV show style, so she’s not just holding onto her delusion for her own sake, but also for the sake of the millions of fans she assumes are out there watching her.
The world is against Valerie Cherish. Nobody wants Valerie Cherish to succeed. It takes enormous effort she has to stop that reality from taking hold, and Kudrow shows us that struggle at every turn. It’s right there behind the eyes, fighting not to be seen. I give you this moment from midway through the first season:
Valerie Cherish has no facade, no matter how hard she tries to put one up. Everybody knows who Valerie Cherish is the moment they see her – it’s so clear she wants to be loved, adored, appreciated. She’s incredibly human in that way. The thing that makes her tragic is that Valerie Cherish doesn’t know that everybody else knows that.
This is the moment where she lets her guard down – and the reason the audience finds it tragic, other than the fact that it’s a comically sad story, is that we see someone acknowledge the horror of their own existence for a fleeting moment, and then bury their head in the sand so fast they choke on it.
It’s a masterclass in spinning plates, and the main reason why I call Kudrow the Meryl Streep of television: She has a similar skill to the three-time Oscar winner for ripping out the carpets on a human being’s psyche to reveal the bare foundations underneath. Someone once said about Tilda Swinton that her face is like a brain; I’d go one step further for Lisa Kudrow, at least in this role, and say that her face is like a soul – she’s able to think, process and say three completely different things, and communicate all three instantly to an audience.
Like many great things, The Comeback was ahead of its time in 2005. This was pre-Kardashian, pre-Housewife, pre-reality-shows-where-people-knew-how-to-manipulate them. The show was written off as a cringe comedy, and make no mistake, this show is as excruciating to watch as the person who gets drunk first at a party, despite being no more or less cringe than Curb Your Enthusiasm, and being a whole lot more generous and rich about the human condition. In a cruel twist of fate worthy of Valerie Cherish, it was cancelled after one season, Lisa Kudrow got an Emmy nomination, and the show went into the cupboard of many gay men.
Which brings us to 2008’s Web Therapy (you can watch the first season on TVNZ on Demand). Another co-creation from Lisa Kudrow, this time with Don Roos who directed her in the darkly excellent mid-90s indie The Opposite of Sex, this was one of the first mainstream forays into the then largely unknown format of the webseries.
The idea? Lisa Kudrow plays Fiona Wallice, a ‘therapist’ who’s trying out a new ‘modality’ for theraupetic treatment: the titular Web Therapy. Rather than the standard 50 minute hour for therapists, she instead aims to fix things in three minutes. Also, she’s a crook with no experience or training in therapy, and is just looking to make a quick buck.
As a webseries, it’s a quick lark of a thing with a weirdly stacked cast (including pretty much everyone from Friends, Gwyneth Paltrow, Alan Cumming and Meryl Streep herself). Given that it’s just two actors looking at some ludicrously high-definition webcams and acting, almost without cutting away from either of them, it’s a perfect fit for sitting down and watching through lunch with your reheated leftovers. The semi-improvised nature leads to a pretty much equal amounts of misses and hits, but when it hits it really does work – the episode with Meryl Streep is maybe the loosest and most fun she’s ever had onscreen.
When the online episodes were repackaged as TV series, it didn’t quite gel. Television’s rigid 22 minute half-hour meant that shorter episodes had to be edited together, and the new sections in between feel exactly as jammed in as you’d expect of footage shot several years after the rest of it.
What makes it worth watching again is Lisa Kudrow. Web Therapy falls somewhere between the highly technical work she did on The Comeback (even in the opening scene, the way Kudrow’s voice lilts upwards on ‘web therapy‘ is a tell of the character’s cartoony evil) and the looser, jokier Friends. Kudrow still knows how to hit a punchline like Ali in his prime.
Web Therapy is a curio for Kudrow fans, who have probably eaten it up already, and even more so for television comedy fans, but as far as the genre ‘Lisa Kudrow web curios edited together into a TV show for a quick buck’ goes, you could do worse.
Which brings us, ladies and gentlemen, to the true peak of Kudrow’s career: Season Two of The Comeback.
Released in 2014 as a one-off, the second season of The Comeback is set nine years after the first, and therefore nine years after the fictional The Comeback. The years have not been kind to Cherish: her show got cancelled, she’s done independent (read: slasher) films, she had a failed audition for a Housewives show, and now she’s shooting a second season of the fictional The Comeback with a bunch of UCLA students in order to recapture her career.
Strap in, grab a coffee, this is a little bit more confusing.
Halfway into the first episode, Cherish finds out through the grapevine that Mitch, the belligerent and misogynistic writer of her failed sitcom Room and Bored, is now doing an edgy HBO dramedy about his experiences on her show. And, of course, there’s a character, Mallory, who is absolutely not based on Valerie Cherish. Cherish goes into HBO to complain, ends up doing a sudden cold read, and due to implied legal threats and the publicity angle, she’s cast as Mallory.
The second season of The Comeback is one of the most brutal and human seasons of television I’ve ever seen. Valerie Cherish is put through the ringer so much more in this season – and Kudrow plays every moment on an even higher wire than she did in the first. Early on in the season, she takes an improv class (my idea of hell) and ends up improvising on set because she’s heard that’s what actors like her co-star Seth Rogen do.
The line she comes up with: “Well, why don’t you just rape me?”
Once more, The Comeback shows us a vain narcissist with no grip on the world around her, but the huge difference is how much this season punts Cherish down a hole that even she can’t come out of – and it’s all on camera. With the health of her best friend Mickey deteriorating, she goes over to his house because he missed a makeup call for the first time in his career. She pretends not to be worried but she obviously is, and the way her barely off-screen director presses her to acknowledge that worry is excruciating.
No moment is more real than the fight between Cherish and her husband, the irascible and potentially completely unreasonable Mark. I give you Exhibit Z in Lisa Kudrow’s genius:
It’s a horrible, keenly plausible fight – one that pivots around one off-hand remark Mark throws out: “When no one believed in you, I have been there for you.”
“No one? Not no one, Mark, because I believed in me. I’m not no one. That’s not nice. Maybe you don’t think I’m someone but I have a birth certificate that says I am. Maybe you should talk to the Television Academy because they think I’m someone, they think I’m someone.”
The thing that makes Valerie Cherish excruciating to watch is not that she’s a terrible person. It’s that she’s a naked person; she has none of the armour that a normal human puts on to get through their everyday life.
Every human needs love and appreciation. Every human needs to know that they’re somebody. The difference is that most humans build up a thick enough skin that they know when to express that need, or how to bury it down. Valerie Cherish, despite being in the career that most requires a thick skin – or at the very least, a strong shovel – has done neither.
The Comeback is a comedy in the most truest, oldest and most wanky sense of the word: it puts a clown onstage and asks them to perform an aspect of humanity that is most true of us, and invites us to laugh at it because we can’t see or feel it for ourselves. Because that would be too painful.
It’s there in the writing and the concept, but it’s Kudrow who has to sell us on the reality of Valerie Cherish. She sells it in every fleeting glance to the camera, in every pitched, forced laugh and in every smile at the tiny successes Cherish has. Like I said earlier, it’s all there in the eyes – the eyes of someone fighting back their humanity to keep living their delusion.
The Comeback ends on a high note, a happy one that I can’t begin to spoil here. It gives Cherish not a happy ending, but a happy second act turn: for the first time she gets to make a choice, and she makes what can unequivocally be called the ‘right’ one. It might be the only time she makes the ‘right’ choice, and hell, it might be the only time a choice is afforded to her. But it’s a moment of respite, one that Cherish as a character, and Kudrow as an actor, deserves.
Lisa Kudrow got nominated for an Emmy, again, for The Comeback. She lost, again, to Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Valerie Cherish gets a moment’s respite, but she never quite gets justice.
When I compare Kudrow to Streep, I don’t mean she should have three Oscars, a few Emmys and 17 Golden Globes. I mean she fucking should have these things.