‘The Comeback’ Kid: Lisa Kudrow and the Second Lives of Network Sitcom StarsHBO
Here’s the scenario: You’re a struggling actor and you get cast in a pilot. The show debuts to enormous ratings, securing a full-season run. We’re talking record-breaking numbers — the kind that make networks commission themed board games and make executives buy a second Malibu beach house. The program starts winning Emmys. And you and your costars pick up endorsement deals. People on the street approach you on a regular basis, screaming out your character’s catchphrase. There’s syndication, and a dozen years on the air. After a glorious run, the show airs its last episode, and this behemoth that brought you fame and fortune finally comes to an end.
So … what’s next?
There’s no exact formula for actors who want another shot at success. Take the unconventional path Lisa Kudrow has been on since the end of Friends in 2004. Once she left Central Perk for the last time, Kudrow teamed up with Sex and the City executive producer Michael Patrick King for a show they would write and produce together.
The final product was called The Comeback. It debuted on HBO in June 2005, billed as a satire, chronicling a has-been TV actress named Valerie Cherish (Kudrow) who was attempting to revive her career by diving into the messy world of reality television.
The 13-episode first season, which received mixed reviews from critics, ended up being funny, sharp, and dark. It used the self-referential, mockumentary style that would become popularized by The Office and Arrested Development. Viewers certainly weren’t expecting that from an actress best known for playing a spunky character on a multi-camera sitcom. Though Valerie and Kudrow’s wildly popular Friends character, Phoebe, had a high level of naïveté and lack of self-awareness, Phoebe kept her confidence intact. She was known for relaying wild stories about her sex life and the days she lived on the streets of New York City as a teen. Valerie was insecure, constantly seeking approval from family, friends, and complete strangers in everything she did. She also had the tendency to be a selfish asshole.
Even though The Comeback snagged multiple Emmy nominations, including one for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy, HBO dumped the show after one season. In the intervening years, the show found a second life through YouTube clips, DVDs, and on-demand viewing, developing a cult following and popping up on a few Best TV Show of the Decade lists. Though the audience may have paled in comparison to the rabid fan base we would later see from other pre-resurrected shows like Arrested Development or Community, there was enough interest from hard-core fans for HBO to belatedly order a second season, which premieres this Sunday, almost a decade after its first season.
Dan Bucatinsky, a producer and costar on The Comeback (he plays Valerie’s agent), told BuzzFeed the idea to bring it back first came up at a breakfast meeting with Casey Bloys, an executive vice-president at HBO. A few months later, head of programming Mike Lombardo scheduled a meeting with King and Kudrow:
King was spitting out ideas, and soon they were all “sitting in the room giggling, grinning. It came alive in a second,” [King] said. “Lisa morphed into Valerie. I got outside of my skin, I was, like, Oh my god! She knows that character so well, she knows her on a cellular level.”
It’s difficult to secure a second act in American sitcom stardom. Whether you’re talking about Michael Richards’s horrific The Michael Richards Show, or the further adventures of Joey Tribbiani in his sad, titular Friends spinoff, we’ve seen the same mistake made over and over again: TV stars trying to re-create the charms of a character, outside of the ensemble and setting that made them beloved in the first place.
For Richards, he decided to follow up his turn as Cosmo Kramer with a show about a wacky private eye based in Los Angeles. It seemed like a decent idea on paper, particularly with three former Seinfeld writers working behind the scenes. What we got instead was a watered-down return of Richards’s frizzy-haired, arm-flailing klutz.
Matt LeBlanc’s Joey didn’t have quite the same TV show flameout1 as the Seinfeld star did, but his didn’t fare well either. The ill-fated attempt from Kudrow’s former costar featured LeBlanc’s Joey as he made his way to California to pursue a career in acting. But instead of exploring new territory, it turned into a boring reprise of Joey tropes and catchphrases. Sure, the premiere went on to attract a hefty 18 million viewers, but those turned out to be hangover numbers from the Friends finale, as Joey soon faced a steady decline — plus terrible reviews — causing it to fizzle out by its second season. Ultimately, both Joey and Kramer weren’t strong enough to carry a show on their own. They were the seasoning, not the stew. In their inception, both characters were conceived as comic relief, known for throwing in a few quippy one-liners or pulling a gag, not shouldering important plot points or entire programs.
Of course, not all spinoffs end up collapsing. Some like Frasier — which hinged on the ramblings of Kelsey Grammer’s radio host/psychologist from Cheers — or The Facts of Life — which focused on important lessons and morality issues from Edna, the housekeeper from Diff’rent Strokes — found their own devoted fan base.
For Kudrow, her post-Friends role in The Comeback worked precisely because Valerie was so different from Phoebe. As the needy, fading star, Kudrow gave Valerie the perfectly awkward, deer-in-the-headlights look you’d expect from an overly attentive actress who’s trying to taste fame once last time. Add in a convincing antagonist in Paulie G (played by Lance Barber) — a strung-out writer, who, in the first season, had it out for Valerie and everything she stood for — and you end up with a smart, self-deprecating look at Hollywood.
A similar quasi-fictionalized account of an ex-sitcom star can be seen in Showtime’s Episodes. The show stars LeBlanc, and features the Joey star playing a jerkier version of himself as he tries to make a return to TV (“C’mon, you gotta help me here. I kinda need this to be a hit — at least something they can’t make fun of on a talk show,” he begs during the first season, about doing a new program). Like The Comeback, Episodes, now in its fourth season, is amusing and intelligent. But Kudrow’s show is more an acerbic commentary on current culture trends — the superficiality of reality programs, and what people will do to get famous — than it is a meta-take on its star.
Comparisons between Kudrow’s character, Valerie, and the actress herself were tenuous at best in 2005, which confused audiences when they first saw promos for the show. In fact, some people didn’t realize The Comeback was fictional at all. As Kudrow pointed out on a recent episode of Jimmy Kimmel Live!, a few viewers thought the first season was a documentary about her real life (albeit one where she had a different name, husband, and hair color, I guess?). Valerie’s path is far from the one Kudrow has taken. Her character is a B-list sitcom star from a program that lasted only four seasons, not the 10 she spent on Friends.
This new season of The Comeback, which is getting a truncated eight-episode run,2 has Valerie once again doing whatever it takes to win back her brief spout of fame, including having cameras follow her around despite the disastrous consequences they caused the first time around.
The story here revolves around her one-time enemy Paulie G, who ends up casting Valerie to play a version of herself on a new program for HBO called Seeing Red. (For those keeping score, that means the second season of HBO’s The Comeback will feature Lisa Kudrow playing a former sitcom star playing a former sitcom star in an HBO show about a former sitcom star’s former nemesis.)
If anything, the lesson former sitcom stars can take from Kudrow is to use the capital they built up with their past successes to invest in something new. Do that, and maybe you’ll get out of that box your initial hit show put you in. As Kudrow recalled on Kimmel regarding the decade between the first and second season of The Comeback, “I noticed that college-aged people were saying to me, ‘Yeah, yeah, Friends is good, can we talk about The Comeback?’”
Alex Suskind is a writer and former Washington Wizards ball boy whose work can be seen on The Daily Beast, Vulture, Esquire.com, and SI.com.