Lisa Kudrow was the first member of the Friends cast to leap into a premium-cable series, but even though she picked up an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lead Actress In A Comedy Series, The Comeback lasted only a single season. Taking a break from the small screen, Kudrow returned to the niche she’d carved for herself as a film actress, but in 2008, she shifted mediums yet again with the online series Web Therapy, a comedic collaboration with Don Roos and Dan Bucatinski that featured Kudrow as Fiona Wallice, a self-styled therapist who doles out advice in three-minute-long sessions. In July 2011, however, Web Therapy made the jump to premium cable, adapting two five-episode seasons of the online series into one 10-episode season for Showtime. Kudrow spoke to The A.V. Club in the midst of a promotional blitz for the series during this summer’s Television Critics Association press tour.
The A.V. Club: You mentioned during the TCA panel for the show that Web Therapy’s origins date back to 2007. Can you take us through that?
Lisa Kudrow: Well, we’d been asked to do web series a lot, and we weren’t really interested in doing that. But I think we were asked ’cause it was, like, “If you have any pilots that didn’t go, you could chop ’em up into five-minute segments, and then it’s a web series.” And we didn’t really have that, and we weren’t interested in doing anything like that. But I just started thinking about a web series. It should probably address the web. … I just thought about people multitasking so much, and they’re at work and doing this, and then they’re watching that sketch and it’s funny, and then they’re paying their bills, and just doing all kinds of things. Even, uh, intimate things [Laughs.] while they’re doing other stuff. But, you know, people are just knocking things out while they’re on the Internet, and I just thought, “How funny if people started doing therapy while they’re at work, knocking that out during lunch?” And then it was, like, “And they knock it out in three minutes,” because at the time, it seemed like three minutes of entertainment was all a person’s attention could handle. Which turned out to not be true. But I just thought it would be really funny, ’cause it’s such a bad idea to have three-minute therapy sessions online, through web chat.
And then also I realized, “What’s to stop anyone from doing that?” ’Cause anyone can say, “Oh, I’m a therapist,” and how are you going to check them, really? So, anyway, that was the idea. But I mentioned it to Dan Bucatinsky, my partner, and Don Roos, and they went, “Oh, yeah, that’s really funny!” Anyway, we weren’t about to start selling it and taking meetings and try to develop it or anything like that, but then Lexus showed up—this is months, if not a year, later—and said, “We have this broadband channel, do you have anything you’d want to do?” And I was, like, “Well, I have one idea, and I would do that, but that’s it.” And they’re, like, “Well, we’ll take it. That sounds good.”
AVC: So what was the process of bringing it to Showtime? Did they approach you after they saw it online?
LK: Yeah! I think our agents actually said, “You know, let’s see if this has a life on television.” And we just went, “Yeah, you could try. What, like, as an interstitial?” “Yeah, let’s just see.” And Showtime said, “We think this is a good fit for us, like, as a half-hour show.” And we’re like, “Oh, uh, okay, I guess if we put one client’s three sessions together, all right.” And then we added them up, and it didn’t come close to a half-hour. [Laughs.] So we had to think about how to fashion a half-hour show out of it, and we decided to shoot other material to get a little more information about [Fiona Wallice’s] marriage. ’Cause she’s a despicable person, and while you’re not going to feel sorry for her, you might understand why she’s so horrible: because of her husband, played by Victor Garber, and her mother, played by Lily Tomlin.
AVC: Fiona Wallice is far from the best therapist in the world, but did you do any research before diving into this series?
LK: Other than what I’ve already experienced, or what Don or Dan have experienced, no. I mean, we all have a sense of what good therapy is, so we just did the opposite of that. [Laughs.] We made her very judgmental, and we thought it was also fun to just play around with certain other techniques that she’s come up with. But we also thought it’s funny enough that her revolutionary modality is only three minutes long.
AVC: In addition to producing Web Therapy, you were also working behind the scenes last year on the NBC reality series Who Do You Think You Are? How did that come about?
LK: Well, I had seen the original version. I was working in Ireland and had seen it on the BBC and thought it was the most compelling, riveting show I had ever seen. And I got a little jealous/angry that we didn’t have it in the U.S., and I was like, “What, they don’t think we’re smart enough? Why can’t we have it? It’s worth a try, isn’t it?” So I got in touch with Alex Graham, who created the show, and he said, “Yeah, we’d love to do it over there. We’ve been talking about it for a long time. Let’s partner up!” So I was like, “Yes! Okay!”
AVC: It was surprising to see it on NBC. It’s much more in the Discovery Channel mold.
LK: Right. Or PBS, or even HBO. In fact, when we first started talking with Alex, we were, like, “Oh, of course you’re going to want to go to…” And we named some of those places. And he said, “Well, actually, we hear NBC might be interested.” And my first response was, “Oh, no, you don’t want that.” ’Cause I didn’t trust that they would actually be able to get behind a show like this. But he went ahead and made a deal with them anyway, and yeah, they really showed up in the right way.
AVC: How hands-on were you as a producer? Were you around for the filming of any of the episodes besides your own?
LK: No, because it’s a very intimate experience. So unless someone really wants me there or feels like an executive producer needs to be there, then no, I think it needs to be the family of documentary filmmaker and subject alone. But in the research phase and the editing phase, once it’s been shot, I’m very involved. I’m in love with that series. I think it’s great, and I’m really proud of it. I like every one of the episodes, to be honest with you. The genealogy stuff is great, but I really love the history component.
AVC: The last time we saw you in front of the television camera on a regular basis was with HBO’s The Comeback, which regrettably only lasted for a single season. There continues to be a pretty vocal fan base for the show, though.
LK: I know! I love hearing about people liking The Comeback.
AVC: The series got some Emmy love, but it still must’ve been more than a little painful to get the hook so soon.
LK: It was. It was painful. That’s for sure. And confusing. It was mostly just really confusing and disorienting. It was! ’Cause you wonder, “Well, what does it take?” Because that was about as good as we could do, Michael [Patrick King] and I, so… What does it take? But it was nice to hear later on from, uh, people who remain anonymous that, oh well, HBO wasn’t being HBO at that moment.
AVC: How far had you mapped out Valerie Cherish’s “comeback”? Did you have a several-season plot arc?
LK: Oh, we had so much fun talking about, like, “Oh, wouldn’t it be fun if she moves to New York? When can we do that? She’ll go to New York and try to be in a Broadway play, and she’ll take classes at the Actors Studio. That’ll be fun!” We had a lot of fun. And we still do every time we get together for lunch. We still can’t not talk about what Valerie would be doing. [Laughs.]
AVC: You’ve mentioned that you had hopes that there could still be a comeback of The Comeback. Is that just wishful thinking, or have there actually been tentative discussions?
LK: Well, you know… Yes. “Tentative” is the operative word, though. But Michael and I can’t help but talk about it whenever we’re together, and as I said, we keep coming up with “Wouldn’t it be funny if she was doing this, this, and this” ideas. And then at some point, we start wondering, “Is it a special that we ask to do? Or is it a limited series that we ask to do? What are we asking to do? What is it that we want to do? What do we have time for? What would you be willing to do?” So that just keeps going back and forth. And Michael truly has no time right now, that’s for sure.
AVC: Speaking of re-visitations, Mira Sorvino was at the TCA tour a few days ago, and in addition to talking about how much fun it was to film Romy And Michele’s High School Reunion, she also spoke of a still-ongoing desire to do a sequel to the film.
LK: Sure! I mean, as long as anyone’s going to believe the role. [Laughs.]
AVC: When it comes to film, you’ve had a unique career arc as far as the types of films you’ve chosen to do. Was it a conscious decision to mix up the commercial with the arthouse?
LK: It’s just what comes along, to be honest with you. [Laughs.] I didn’t orchestrate any of that. But what was fun was that my career in independent film was so different, as far as the kind of roles that I could get, vs. studio movies.
AVC: Do you have a favorite among your indie films, perhaps one that didn’t get as much love as you thought it should have?
LK: Oh God, yeah, The Opposite Of Sex was definitely a favorite. And Wonderland was a really good movie, I thought. So was Happy Endings. You know, you really see it with these kinds of movies when marketing mistakes are made, where for some reason…well, no, not for some reason. It’s just going to be tricky to get an audience in if you don’t tell them, “It’s like Boogie Nights!” And then it isn’t. [Laughs.] Everyone’s trying their best, though. You know that for sure. Oh, Bandslam was another great movie… And that’s one of the most famously mismarketed movies in recent years!
AVC: Agreed. It was a legitimately intelligent teen comedy-drama, and they wanted to paint it as this fun teen romp.
LK: And it is not a fun teen romp. [Laughs.] But it is a really great movie. I mean, yeah, you’ve got two Disney girls in it [Aly Michalka and Vanessa Hudgens], but they’re not being Disney girls. Why not just be up front and hit it head on?
AVC: What are your favorite memories of playing Phoebe?
LK: Well, there’s sort of like a bigger-picture memory. When I was playing Phoebe, the mindset was “Everything’s okay,” so that was a great attitude to adopt. It really helped a lot. It lightened me up. That’s my favorite memory of playing Phoebe, I have to say: how it just sort of seeped into the rest of my life.
AVC: Do you have a favorite plotline from the run of the series?
LK: I loved when she was with David, the physics guy. That’s Hank Azaria. I can’t wait to see his new show [Free Agents]. He’s so talented and fun to work with. He’s hilarious. Hank’s just great.
AVC: Was there anything you didn’t love about the character?
LK: No, not really. Although personally, I will say that every time we’d show up again after a hiatus, I’d be like, “Oh my God, I don’t know what I’m doing! I don’t know how to be this girl anymore!” And [Matt] LeBlanc would say, “Just relax. You got it. You got it in your back pocket. You know what you’re doing.” And he was right.
AVC: How many times have you been asked to serenade someone with “Smelly Cat”?
LK: Oh God, it’s endless. No, really. Endless. [Laughs.] Which is interesting, but… I thought some of the other songs were hilarious. I don’t know why that’s the only one that took off. Some of the others were really, truly funny.
AVC: And catchy, too.
LK: Yes! Thank you! Because I came up with the tunes. [Laughs.] And not that “Smelly Cat” wasn’t, but why that one? Why not, say, “The Cow In The Meadow Goes Moo”?
AVC: The key difference there, of course, is that Chrissie Hynde never recorded “The Cow In The Meadow Goes Moo.”
LK: Oh, of course, Chrissie Hynde! I’m so dumb. [Laughs.] Yeah, no kidding, that’d do it! And that was so thrilling, to meet and work with her. And so much fun.
AVC: Were you a Pretenders fan?
LK: Oh, yes! And she said, “You know, all you really need to know are three chords.” I’m, like, “That’s it?” She said, “That’s all you need to know. All rock ’n’ roll is three chords.” Unfortunately, I don’t remember which three. [Laughs.]