How Lisa Kudrow Pulled Off TV’s Ultimate ‘Comeback’

Lisa Kudrow talks about returning to Valerie Cherish in HBO’s revival of The Comeback nine years after its first season was canceled. And yes, you’re going to ‘need to see that.’

John P. Johnson/HBO

We can thank Lisa Kudrow for the rise of celeb reality TV—Real Housewives, the Kardashians, Honey Boo Boo and its ilk. Or maybe we should blame her for it. It’s hard to decide. She can’t decide either.

The Friends star returns to HBO Sunday night as Valerie Cherish in The Comeback, the tragicomedy about an out-of-work actress who agrees to let reality show cameras film her desperate attempts at reclaiming the spotlight, and which infamously ran for only one season in 2005. Nine years later, all of the degradation and exploitation that was so exaggerated with Valerie’s shameless clinging to any fame opportunity—no matter how humiliating—has become the mundane.

“I know!” Kudrow tells me, grappling with her feelings about the current state of reality TV, which The Comeback both predicted and warned against. “Is it disturbing or OK? I don’t know.”

To understand what The Comeback was predicting, first you need to understand what The Comeback was—and it was so many things.

It was brilliant, first of all. It was hilarious and it was brutal. It was ahead of its time. And it was barely watched and canceled, only to return now nine years later thanks to cult status, nearly a decade’s worth of word-of-mouth building its popularity, passionate embracing by the gay community, and a renewed timeliness in a TV world both ruled and ruined by Housewives.

In 2005, fresh off her tearful signoff from Friends, Kudrow met with Michael Patrick King—famous for writing and producing Sex and the City—and the two created The Comeback, about the former star of a long-canceled, middling sitcom making her return to television after years of obscurity, only this time as the dowdy supporting fringe character instead of as the star.

While Valerie Cherish shoots this new sitcom, called Room and Bored, a reality show production team captures every indignity she suffers while frantically trying to turn up the wattage of her dimming star power. What we watched on HBO was the raw footage from those reality TV shoots: Valerie not so much grinning and bearing the belittlement and embarrassment, but grinning and enabling it—perhaps even encouraging it—as a means to more fame.

Of course, this is Lisa Kudrow, the Emmy-winning comedic genius, playing Valerie, so while it’s tempting to watch Valerie’s incessant bungles with your hands covering your eyes, the blind optimism, endearing neuroticism, and cheerful recklessness of Kudrow’s performance makes Valerie’s veritable car crash something you can’t just not look away from, but that you can’t help but laugh at, too.

A clown-car crash, if you will.

“She doesn’t see herself as tragic, or that would be the end of her,” Kudrow says, reflecting on what it’s like to get into the mindset of Valerie—part delusion, part ambition, part clueless joy—all these years later. “The humiliations that come, she doesn’t let them fully in,” she says. “There’s something kind of great about that.”

It’s tempting to call Valerie’s pursuits a variation of “fame-whoring,” but the word has such a negative connotation that it feels like a betrayal to apply it to a character who is ultimately so empathetic and endearing. But Kudrow thinks there’s no difference.

“The other thing is that the world has caught up to her, because that behavior is perfectly acceptable now,” she says. “That’s sort of what we were exploring nine years ago. That this doesn’t seem OK, does it? But the past nine years have shown that it is OK, apparently. Broken marriage? Family’s family apart? All the intimate, painful details of your life? Oh well, I guess everyone’s got a right to see that.”

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By that regard, looking back at The Comeback’s first season it’s hard not to look at Kudrow and King as some sort of pop culture soothsayers. There’s even an incredibly satisfying, self-referential moment in the premiere of the new revival Sunday night that acknowledges just that.

“Reality TV has had an evolution,” Valerie says, addressing the camera proudly. “It’s a different reality. I should know. I was there at the beginning with The Comeback.”

When we reunite with Valerie, both Room and Bored and her reality show have been canceled. She had an unsuccessful go at trying to join the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills franchise. She took a page out of Bethenny Frankel’s book and attempted to brand herself, hocking boxes of “Cherish Your Hair” products for redheads on a home shopping network. And she’s been tweeting with Bravo’s reality czar Andy Cohen, which she thinks is a sign that she should pitch him a new reality show.

In the midst of all this, Paulie G, the creator of Room and Bored and the bane of Valerie’s existence, writes an HBO show based on his antagonistic relationship with an aging actress who strongly resembles Valerie. First, she threatens to sue. But then, through a series of calamities typical of The Comeback, she ends up auditioning for the show…and gets the part.

“She’s got a prize, kind of,” Kudrow says. “She’s going to be on something that has the potential to be really, really good.” Except, of course, “she’s playing a horrible version of herself.”

It was actually HBO that came to Kudrow and King with the idea of reviving The Comeback, which, TV fans can attest, seemed like a natural successor to the likes of Arrested Development and Veronica Mars—other cult TV favorites that were brought back from the dead thanks to fan support.

“It was daunting for five minutes,” Kudrow says. But then she and King began riffing on what would have become of Valerie over the last nine years. “After two hours we looked at each other and went, ‘Is that really it? Because we just figured this out and that took two hours.’”

Well, nine years and two hours. It’s hard to say when The Comeback went from the show so ratings starved that HBO canceled to the one with such underground popularity that HBO brought it back.

Kudrow noticed it when college-aged kids would come up to her and said they discovered The Comeback online and were obsessed with it. It helped, too, that two very vocal, very obsessives groups—TV critics and the gay community—were relentless with their championing of it over the years.

It was included, for example, on Entertainment Weekly’s list of “10 Best TV Shows of the Decade.” And if you have a gay friend, you have been sent a .GIF of Valerie Cherish in a demeaning cupcake costume or sent a photo of the character captioned “I don’t need to see that” at some point in the last five years.

“That was immediate,” Kudrow says of the show’s gay following. “And Michael Patrick King said when we were working on it, ‘First the gays, then the ladies, then everyone else,’” referring to the timeline of tastemakers that dictate a show’s popularity. Of course, King was being a tad cheeky. “Then I watched Sex and the City and saw it was line from one of episodes,” Kudrow laughs.

But there really seems to be something to this idea that King was a bit prophetic when it came to the show. “He also said, ‘We might be too ahead of the curve,’” Kudrow remembers. “He said, ‘It’s good to be ahead, but it’s not good to be too ahead.’” With affection for The Comeback growing exponentially with each passing year, that certainly seems accurate.

But it’s the last thing that King foretold that has stuck with Kudrow more than the others. “He said, ‘I just realized that we haven’t seen a woman like this before. We have a point of reference for every possible type of man, but we don’t have this. I hope that’s going to be OK.”

She recalls a particularly traumatic conversation with a HBO executive soon after the plug was pulled on The Comeback. They were trying to understand what had happened. The ratings weren’t great, but HBO often saves series with struggling ratings. She asked him if he thought any of it had to do with King’s prophecy, that it was because this character was a woman.

“And he said yes,” Kudrow remembers. “He said that it was because she was a woman and she was treated so horribly, that it was hard to watch a woman be treated like that,” something that echoes in an early New York Times review that praised Entourage over The Comeback because “the missteps of actors on the way up are less painful to watch than the graceless freefall of actresses on the way down.”

When it dawned on Kudrow that this contributed to The Comeback’s cancellation, she was gutted. “I never felt that bad for such a sustained time,” she says. “I can usually yank myself out of it. That’s the part of Valerie Cherish that’s like me. It took me a long while.”

She actually, in a warped way, thanks the Housewives for giving her the opportunity to bring Valerie back. They’re that reference point for despicable behavior, for self-serving vapidity that you somehow root for, that was missing when The Comeback first aired, that made it so hard to watch. Now it’s OK.

But when you consider, too, the way that Kudrow just seems to get how TV is changing and evolving, the return of The Comeback might have seemed inevitable. This is a woman who stars in and produces Web Therapy, a show that started as a web series and moved to Showtime. Who produced the docuseries Who Do You Think You Are?, which moved networks over its run. And is now starring in a series that is returning to the network it first aired on, nine years later.

It’s the fans, she says. We’re in an age where they have the power. “They may have always had it,” she says. “But now thanks to social networks and the Internet we can hear them. If they make the same sound, we can hear them.” TV’s version of Horton Hears a Who. Or, more fittingly for The Comeback, it’s Horton Hears a ‘Hello Hello Hello.’