Lisa Kudrow is squinting in the sun on the hotel patio. Pleasure to meet you. So tell us everything about Brad and Jen. There is a beat, a professional pause, and then Kudrow gives that little nose crinkle, a trademark tell perfected over a decade of playing the ditz twins Phoebe and Ursula Buffay on "Friends," and snorts, "Yeah, right."
In the iconography of the "Friends" ensemble, Kudrow played the space cadet(s), but she is actually known off-screen as "the smart one." Perhaps because she graduated from Vassar and studied biology? Her area of interest: the evolution of the biochemistry of human emotion. A burden. Or not.
"When I was first playing Ursula and Phoebe, because people would think you're dumb, they end up saying things in front of you that they wouldn't say in front of a guy or somebody who they thought was paying attention or would do something with the information, like it was way over my head," she says. "That could be useful."
Now she is doing something interesting with her career, first in the new HBO show "The Comeback," a dark comedy about a network sitcom and reality TV, which she co-created with Michael Patrick King, of "Sex and the City."
And also in the new movie "Happy Endings," by the writer-director Don Roos ("The Opposite of Sex"), which is an ensemble drama masquerading as a comedy about: family, betrayal, relationships, lies, longing, children, and Javier the Latino masseur and hottie sex worker. The reviewers are mostly liking it. (It opened Friday in Washington and select other cities.)
First, "The Comeback." The Sunday-night series is about the bottomless need and delusional sado-pathology of a C-level television actress, the character Valerie Cherish, as she struggles to return, way past her stamped expiration date, in a "Friends"-like retread about four sexed-up twenty-somethings. Valerie assumes she is going to play one of the swingles, but her role is switched to the batty upstairs landlady, Aunt Sassy, and she is not the mother of jokes but their butt. To make matters worse, Valerie's stab at a comeback is the subject of a reality TV show, which is pitiless.
So, to refresh: "The Comeback" is a TV show about a TV show within a TV show. Valerie is a pinata for the evil show-runners and network suits. Not that Valerie is sympathetic. She would score a zero on the self-awareness scale. She is a damaged being, but still manages to be appalling. And funny. It's a neat trick.
"A dog pile of humiliation," says Kudrow, of her character's travails on the back lots of Burbank. "But she'll take it. Because her goal is over there." She is pointing off toward the Hollywood Hills. "And this is nothing. Nothing. She can take anything. That's how much she wants it. She doesn't need it, financially. Doesn't need to work. But it's not like she's an artist, either. She just wants celebrity and that's it."
But it's strange, Kudrow says, the feedback she is getting about the show. Many viewers, instead of laughing at Valerie, have begun to cheer her on. "They've invested in what she wants and they want her to have it," she says.
Though the show has not attracted huge numbers -- 786,000 viewers last week -- "The Comeback" is the kind of program that its viewers and TV critics feel strongly about. "Teeters on wonderful," wrote Tom Shales of The Washington Post. "The saddest comedy on television," pronounced Alessandra Stanley of the New York Times. On Web sites devoted to audience critiques of TV shows, the viewers seem divided. To say the HBO series is a dark comedy doesn't quite get it right: Some viewers confess they actually wince; others guiltily inhale the anti-Hollywood fumes.
"I love it," says David Crane, the co-creator of "Friends." "Your heart breaks every week, which is weird for a half-hour comedy experience." Crane, of long experience in the world of network TV, says: "It's truthful. They're going after everybody, and they do it really well. You don't watch and think, God, I'm so glad I'm in television."
Is it real? Is the business so cruel? Crane says, well, look at former stars on their reality TV venues -- shows like "The Surreal World" with Bronson Pinchot or "Fat Actress" with Kirstie Alley -- and "The Comeback" starts to look tame.
"You have to admire her, for the guts to come out and do this," says Danny Jacobson, writer, producer and co-creator of the Paul Reiser sitcom "Mad About You," on which Kudrow got her start on network television. She had a recurring part as an airhead waitress, a role that then morphed in Phoebe on "Friends," an "innocuous" show that Jacobson confesses he was not a big fan of, though he is of Kudrow.
"She is a really, really talented actress," Jacobson says, but like Henry Winkler, as the Fonz, "Lisa is going to be Phoebe for the rest of her life and her kid's life. That's the way it is with TV," with a character played for 10 years on a hit show. "So I applaud her taking chances." (Jacobson, too, is high on the HBO show and hopes it finds its audience.)
From the outline of "The Comeback," one might think the project is Kudrow's revenge, her re-spin of "Friends," but she insists it has little to do with the popular NBC comedy, now in endless rerun.
"I certainly was not drawing on any experience on 'Friends,' " which Kudrow describes as a mostly intelligent, supportive, creative enterprise (and a certainly lucrative experience at $1 million per cast member per episode in the later years). "I was interested in this character," she says.
Valerie Cherish was hatched, Kudrow says, back in the early 1990s, pre-"Friends," when she was a member of the improv troupe the Groundlings in L.A. "Truth is that I created this character in a three-minute monologue sketch called Favorite Actress on a Talk Show. You know, so phony, so self-promoting. Talking about her favorite causes, the environment, that ego out of control." Here, Kudrow becomes Valerie on Leno. "Okay, so save the planet, please, as a favor to me." Beat. "I'll love ya for it!"
Patrick Bristow, now a director and teacher at the Groundlings, was a student and then a cast member with Kudrow in the troupe in the early 1990s. She wasn't as polished then, but "everyone knew she was the one who was going to pop," and break out into TV and film, as did former Groundling alums Will Ferrell, Phil Hartman and Chris Kattan.
"She had this velvety, dry delivery," Bristow recalls, and she also was developing a way to do comedy that hid as much as it revealed, so that the audience leans in and feels this discomforting embarrassment for the character, and then gets a release when she delivers the joke. "Those uncomfortable silences, it's almost too much, but you're just waiting to hear what comes next," Bristow says. (And in that style, many have compared Kudrow's long, uncomfortable pauses on "The Comeback" to the technique used on the BBC and now NBC versions of "The Office.")
Whatever a viewer might make of "The Comeback," the social satire has in its cross hairs two intertwined pop culture targets: the network sitcom, which Kudrow believes is dying, and reality TV, which is competing with the traditional and stale sitcom-form and, more ominously, degrading society, she says. This is not an entirely fresh critique. But it is compelling, coming from someone so on the inside, biting the hand that fed her.
"It's really hard, almost impossibly hard, especially when the shows get shorter and shorter," Kudrow says of today's sitcoms. Many 30-minute programs have now been reduced to less than 20 minutes of actual comedy -- the other 10 minutes consumed by advertisements. "And you need some moments that an actor can take so that they can ground a character. So it can't just be setup, joke, setup, joke, like laying pipe. I think that's one of the problems. So desperate for success." Does she include her former co-star Matt LeBlanc, now starring in the "Friends" spinoff "Joey," in that assessment? She says she does not. And so we politely move on.
Kudrow understands TV is a business chasing eyeballs. But she thinks, too, that the days of broadcast might be numbered, that it all might be heading for a pay-per-view world.
The flip side of the sitcom, Kudrow says, is reality television. On "The Comeback," she says, "The setting for Valerie is reality TV because it all went together: someone who is willing to sell herself out completely and entirely. Reality TV was made for her. She is such a willing participant in her own demise. But to watch her on a new sitcom, there's just no room for her, because audiences are getting younger and younger, and they need to appeal to audiences. . . . That's the world. A desperate woman in a desperate world."
It can feel kind of scary, Kudrow says, the extent the reality shows and contestants will go to. "Andy Warhol? You know? We're way beyond that. Everyone is entitled and demanding and insisting on their 15 minutes of fame, and they don't care what for. Everyone can be famous now. For what, I don't know."
A lot of talk about desperation here, from a comedic actress, no? Kudrow says she never planned to make it her life's work to play the brainless. Before success, "my characters weren't dumb blond girls. It wasn't my strength. But for auditions, a cold reading, when you have to make a quick choice, one that's comedic . . . " she says. "You find a twist, and dumb is always easy." Any regrets? "I'm fine," she says, "really," and gives a squint, to show, you know, it's okay that she is now fabulously wealthy beyond anyone's dreams. No harm done.
But there is something in her latest roles that shows a different actress stirring beneath Phoebe Buffay. In "The Comeback," Kudrow is over-the-top, all id, but there is this vulnerability. In "Happy Endings," the movie, she plays Mamie, a woman in her late thirties (Kudrow is actually 41) who channels twitch and tension, who sees in life something about to bite her on the ankle.
The Roos film is an indie-style, arty, talky ensemble piece, shot in L.A. in a quick 30 days on a tight budget, with four overlapping story lines -- a hard film to market. Kudrow's character seeks a son she gave up for adoption when she was a teenager, a son sired by her stepbrother (Steve Coogan), who turns out later to be gay and is experiencing problems with his boyfriend and their lesbian couple friends, one of them played by Laura Dern, who is, you know, indie royalty. They're joined by Tom Arnold, who plays a rich sugar-daddy with a good heart, who has a quickie with Maggie Gyllenhall (more indie cred; recall "The Secretary"?), a scammer and lounge singer. And then there's Bobby Cannavale, who plays Kudrow's love interest and is the masseur who gives bored Beverly Hills trophy wife-types their "happy endings" on the massage tables for $175 a session, plus tip. Oh, and there is another show-within-a-show, in this case a bad student documentary.
The film is a comedy but it manages to be sad. The director, Roos, says he wrote the Mamie role with Kudrow in mind. "I don't think there's a better actress working today," Roos says, and compares her to Gwyneth Paltrow. Reckless praise? Roos says no.
"What Lisa can do -- show pain, but then hide it behind her mask -- but it bleeds out. And then she does that and she can make it funny." A kind of triple back flip. "Because you have the sense you not only know what the character is feeling, but what she is thinking, what's going on between her ears."
Kudrow says it's the cracks. "He liked that. That the camera captures those moments when you're thrown by what's happening to you, and you think you recover quickly enough so the viewer doesn't notice, but they always do. It works with comedy. That moment when someone is exposed and covers it up is what's funny. It works the same with tragedy. The covering-up," she says. "I think that's universal, don't you?"