08.29.11

Lisa Kudrow Goes Viral

Kudrow’s hilarious online show drew millions of viewers before moving to Showtime, where it’s netting guest stars from Meryl Streep to Rosie O’Donnell. Nicole LaPorte visits the set.

“What do you guys think? I mean, is it super wiggy?”

Actress Minnie Driver is staring into a mirror, assessing the unmoving bulb of chocolate-colored tresses that has been carefully positioned on her scalp.

“It’s a good shape. It's just a little wiggy, part-wise,” says director Don Roos, from the floor of the hair-and-makeup room, where he’s sitting, squinting up at Driver.

It is a Friday afternoon on the set of Web Therapy—the web series turned Showtime show starring Lisa Kudrow as Fiona Wallice, the most unqualified therapist on the planet—and Roos is going over story points with Kudrow and Driver (who’s guest-starring as a rehabbed former tween star) before the shoot.

A few feet away sits Kudrow, dressed in Sarah Palin-esque power garb (turquoise suit jacket, fitted jeans, sensible flats), and quietly chewing on a piece of gum as a stylist sprays a long, blond strand of hair back into place.

Driver frowns into the mirror. “The part is really dreadful.” She shrugs. “But it’s too late now, love. It’s going in.”

Indeed. Less than 20 minutes later, cameras begin rolling, and Driver’s shellacked mop is featured prominently on the two small screens that Roos and Kudrow’s producing partner, Dan Bucatinsky, are hovering in front of backstage.

Exhaustive premeditation is not part of the Web Therapy formula. The show, which originally was created by Kudrow, Roos, and Bucatinsky as a web series on Lexus’s L Studio site in 2008, is all about on-the-fly decisions, creative spontaneity, and, in some cases, just winging it. Later during the shoot, when Driver realizes she doesn’t have a pair of high heels, which are necessary for a scene, she ends up borrowing her assistant’s, no matter that they are two sizes too small.

This off-the-cuff method is partly strategic: the show, which features online therapy sessions that run from four to 11 minutes (Fiona has no interest in hearing sob stories for a full hour), is almost entirely improvised. Before shooting, the actors are given a summary of the plot, and what beats need to hit, but they are otherwise on their own when it comes to dialogue.

But it’s also born of necessity. Even though Web Therapy has now graduated to Showtime (though the web series still exists online), where it was launched as a half-hour show last month, and filming now takes place on a sound-stage in Van Nuys as opposed to in Kudrow and Bucatinsky’s office, it remains a remarkably lean production.

“It’s really crazy to do a TV show for Showtime with five people,” Roos said earlier in the day, when the cast and crew broke for lunch.

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“It’s the three of us,” he said, motioning to Kudrow and Bucatinsky, “our producer, Jodi Binstock, and we have an assistant. If you count our two Vassar interns, then it’s seven or eight. There’s not many fingers to point when something goes wrong.”

It’s this simplicity, both in terms of production and format—viewers only see Kudrow and her patients via web-cam—that has made the show so edgy, unusual, and, true to Kudrow’s post-Friends work, caustically funny.

Now, viewers just need to catch on, which they’re starting to. The show, which Showtime licenses and is made on a tiny budget, has received little promotion from the network, and airs at the very un-prime-time slot of 11 p.m. on Tuesdays. Unsurprisingly, ratings, which reached a high of 110,000 viewers the first week of August, have been much smaller than for high-profile, and far more expensive, shows such as Weeds. (That week, Weeds averaged 711,000 viewers.)

The show is all about on-the-fly decisions, creative spontaneity, and in some cases, just winging it.

Still, the numbers have gone up considerably since the show’s premiere.

“It just proves that word is getting out there,” Bucatinsky said. “I like to think that people think of it as sort of a cool thing that you go and check out. That seems to be the case.”

Gary Levine, Showtime’s executive vice president of original programming, called Web Therapy’s ratings “very solid in terms of the numbers of people watching,” adding, “We’re spoiled here, because ratings do not determine anything at Showtime. The only power ratings have is if they affect revenue from advertising, and we don’t have advertising, so they’re by no means a life or death verdict.”

As for the show not being heavily promoted, Levine said, “different parts of the portfolio demand different levels of marketing and publicity. Web Therapy got an enormous amount of publicity, but did not get a big chunk of a marketing budget. That’s not what it’s designed for… But we couldn’t be more pleased with the profile that the show has gotten in the press, and the reaction from our subscribers.”

Beyond Kudrow’s star power, the show has attracted attention for its guest actors, an impressive list of stars that includes Meryl Streep, Rosie O’Donnell, Alan Cumming, and Rashida Jones. (Along with Kudrow, the only recurring actors are Bucatinsky, who plays a patient who, because of Fiona, loses his job; Victor Garber, as Fiona’s husband; and Lily Tomlin as her mother.)

Because there is no casting director, actors are typically lined up after Kudrow “runs into them,” she said. Natasha Bedingfield, who shot an episode earlier that morning, was cast when Kudrow saw her at a Tonight Show taping.

“I was like, ‘Oh! You’re British! We have a British character!' ” Kudrow recalled.

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Then there was Streep, whom Kudrow bumped into at Vassar College (Kudrow and Bucatinsky’s alma mater), when Kudrow was delivering a commencement address.

“She said she loved the show. And then later it dawned on me to just ask,” Kudrow said. “So I had to work up the courage. ‘Would you ever do it?’ She was like, ‘I’d love to!’ But I also know big stars always say, ‘SURE!’ They’re nice. They never say, ‘Mmm, no.’

“So I was like, ‘All right. But you understand that means now I’m going to email you? She’s like, ‘Yes! Of course! Go ahead!’ And then she said she was available at this time. We still can’t believe it.”

To film the scene between Kudrow and Driver, each actress is on a different set on the soundstage (Fiona’s corporate-y home office, for Kudrow, and a funky loft apartment for Driver.) They can see each other via a screen, and hear each other via an earphone, but otherwise they are alone, navigating the scene like two volleyball players, skillfully lobbing lines back and forth, with an occasional spike—or zinger—thrown in for good measure.

When Driver’s character launches into a Valley Girl-speak description of what it was like to star in a film called Nun For a Day (“I mean, who wouldn’t want to be that—a nun for a day?”) Roos and Bucatinsky crack up in their seats.  

The scene cuts, and Driver breaks out of ditzy actress mode. A huge smile spreads across her face. “Lisa, you’re so brilliant to have created a show where you get to have so much fun!,” she swoons into the camera.

Kudrow mumbles something self-deprecating, but a slight blush warms her cheeks. It’s a compliment that resonates.