On a sunny morning at Jerry’s Deli on Beverly Boulevard, Lisa Kudrow was laughing about the narcissistic shrink she plays on her improvised Showtime dark comedy, “Web Therapy.” “Isn’t she awful?” said Kudrow, who burst into popular culture in 1994 playing the kooky masseuse Phoebe Buffay on NBC’s megahit “Friends.” Despite her fame, the 48-year-old actress, wearing black jeans and a white blouse, didn’t attract attention even in a front booth; her low-key glamour and quietly subversive sense of humor as she dug into her oatmeal made her seem so, well, normal. Which, she drolly acknowledged, is, “thanks to therapy.”
Not from the likes of her character, the dubiously credentialed Dr. Fiona Wallice, thankfully. Wallice — as in wall-of-ice — is the planet’s most self-absorbed, money-grubbing shrink, dispensing dismal advice as she touts herself as the creator of the three-minute iChat therapy session, the better to cut through trivial issues such as patients’ thoughts and feelings. “It’s so much fun to play Fiona,” said Kudrow, whose own appealing qualities make Wallice watchable. “It’s fun to make fun of things that are stupid and merit ridicule.”
As the show’s second Showtime season premieres on July 2 (the DVD of season one hits stores June 19), Fiona is finagling to hawk her memoir, which she’s plagiarized from her doormat of an assistant (played by Dan Bucatinsky, who created the show along with Kudrow and Don Roos). She’s also trying to steal the limelight as her husband, Kip (Victor Garber), runs for Congress on the Republican ticket — requiring damage control as a result of his sexual proclivities. Meryl Streep plays Kip’s “rehabilitation” therapist; Rosie O’Donnell is a conservative Catholic publisher who hates Fiona’s book; Lily Tomlin portrays Fiona’s mother, who hates Fiona; and Conan O’Brien and David Schwimmer (“Friends”) are two of her hapless patients.
While some of Kudrow’s “Friends” co-stars have continued to embrace similarly lighthearted fare — Jennifer Aniston has become a staple of romantic comedies, and Courteney Cox stars on ABC’s guilty pleasure “Cougar Town” — Kudrow has gleaned kudos for taking on riskier characters. In addition to starring in independent films such as “The Opposite of Sex,” she earned an Emmy Award nomination for her turn as a faded sitcom star desperate to return to the limelight in HBO’s mock reality series “The Comeback.” And Webby Awards have been amply bestowed upon “Web Therapy,” which began as an Internet series on iStudio before being picked up last season by Showtime, joining the network’s slate of shows spotlighting edgy protagonists such as “Shameless” and “Nurse Jackie.”
You could call Kudrow the Opposite of Phoebe: “Life can be absurdly horrible, and I like to poke fun at the absurdly horrible,” she said. “Not everyone’s a monster — but potentially [they are]. I think it’s these extreme perceptions that fuel people’s comedy. It’s almost a neurotic thing that I have.”
“Lisa can be complicated,” Roos said in a telephone interview. “She’s certainly aware of the inequalities in life, all the systems we have that separate men and women, blacks and whites, rich and poor, Jews and non-Jews. I don’t think she has a rosy view of human relationships. Not that it’s a pessimistic view; it’s realistic.”
“Lisa’s comedy is an odd pairing of quirky and intellectual,” Bucatinsky said. “There is an edgy, irreverent point of view, and yet also a sort of conservative prudishness. Lisa is very devoted to her family and values her privacy. She is also sensible, reliable, whip-smart and a very loyal friend. I look to her a lot for advice and counsel.”
In person, Kudrow appears practical, empathetic and down-to-earth. Unlike many of her former co-stars, she has not been fodder for the tabloids, escaping that glare, she said matter-of-factly, “because I’m dull.” She thinks it helps that she’s been married for more than 15 years to a non-celebrity, the French businessman Michel Stern; they have a son, Julian, who is now studying for his bar mitzvah, she said, proudly.
Kudrow is equally direct when asked about complaints from some Jewish critics that characters played by Cox and Schwimmer on “Friends” were Jewish (or half-Jewish) in name only. “I don’t know how funny it is to say, well here we are Jews, sitting around in Central Perk,” she said, referring to the coffee shop hangout in the show. “It’s not out of hiding; it’s just, to me, there’s no full acceptance or equality until there’s no spotlight on a character’s religion, until it just is.”
“The Comeback” was born of Kudrow’s observations about the train wreck of reality television. “I couldn’t fathom the level of humiliation that people were signing up for in order to be famous for I don’t know how long,” she said. “And what’s happening to us that we’re just sitting around watching people humiliate themselves, and that’s our entertainment? Uh-oh.”
As for “Web Therapy,” she said, “I got the idea because it’s such a bad idea.” In the Internet oversharing culture, it seemed that perhaps the next ludicrous step might be the phenomenon of the Web shrink. “Then I thought about who might perpetrate this, and it’s obvious that she would have to have a lot of gall,” Kudrow said. “What makes me laugh about Fiona is just her brazenness; these horrible ideas that she just is very confident about. We wouldn’t have had the idea if we hadn’t already seen it in so many politicians who just say the most outrageous things but with a great deal of bravado.”
Kudrow grew up in Tarzana, where she first learned to perform improvisational comedy in a drama class while attending Portola Junior High School, but focused on biology at Taft High and later at Vassar College, aspiring to become a doctor, like her father.
Although her father is an atheist and the family did not belong to a synagogue, Kudrow chose to have a bat mitzvah “because I just felt like I needed to be counted ‘in.’ I’m Jewish, and that’s important to me,” she said. She still remembers the biography of Uta Hagen that her brother’s best friend, the actor Jon Lovitz, gave her for her bat mitzvah, inscribed with the words “to my fellow thespian.”
It was Lovitz who advised Kudrow to study with The Groundlings improvisational comedy troupe when she decided to become an actress after graduating college in the mid-1980s. Before long she was cast on the sitcom “Frasier” but was devastated when she was fired after just two days. Even so, she parlayed a one-day gig on “Mad About You,” a role so insignificant she was cast, simply, as “Waitress,” into a recurring role. Then producers came calling for “Friends,” the iconic sitcom revolving around six yuppies in New York that eventually earned Kudrow and her colleagues a reported $1 million per episode.
Kudrow credits her sweetly optimistic character of Phoebe with getting her to “loosen up, lighten up,” but the blast of fame that came with the series proved unsettling. “What I remember most vividly is when the six of us did our first big photo shoot. As we came out of the studio, there were so many photographers that it was blinding, flashing, and they were all screaming, impatient and angry to get your attention,” she said. “It just felt like an assault. But the great thing was that we could see each other every day and talk about what was happening; it was like therapy. Even at the time, we all said, ‘Thank God we can all do this together.’ “
As “Friends” entered its final seasons, her future career remained uncertain. It’s not that Kudrow didn’t try the romantic comedy route; she starred in the poorly received “Marci X,” in which she played a Jewish-American Princess who heads a controversial hip-hop record label. “That was the least happy I’ve been professionally, because you have to be adorable for [romantic comedies], and I’m not adorable; it’s just not who I am,” she said. “So I remember vowing, nobody’s ever going to hire me to do this again; I’ll try other things.”
Kudrow co-founded a production company in order to produce her own projects, took co-starring roles in films including “Wonderland” and “Analyze This,” and created NBC’s “Who Do You Think You Are?” a show she adapted from British television in which celebrities explore their ancestry.
Initially she was reluctant to trace her own ancestry, afraid that she would uncover details about family members who had died in the Holocaust. “I had been in complete denial about that,” she said. She also didn’t see herself as a big enough name for a segment of her own — the show was featuring artists like Sarah Jessica Parker and Spike Lee. Then a slot opened, and Kudrow found herself at the site of a vegetable warehouse in Belarus where her great-grandmother and family were forced to strip naked before being shot and falling into a pit, where their bodies were then doused with gasoline and burned. Kudrow went on to ask hard questions of the villagers — “Did you know any Jewish families? Where were your parents when this was all happening?” — as they squirmed with discomfort.
At one point while telling her family story, Kudrow said she became so emotional that she turned away from the camera. “Going to Belarus confirmed that, yes, it’s an ugly planet,” she said when we met. “But, in the second half of the show, I found a cousin of mine who is still alive in Poland, and that made me feel like there’s hope, and that good things can happen.”
Our conversation turned back to “Web Therapy,” specifically how, five years ago, she would get pitying looks when she would tell people she was working on an Internet series. Undaunted, she pursued the project as “a great experiment, because it was just two people talking at any time on computer screens.”
Today, Kudrow — who is on screen throughout almost the entire show — seems amazed that her experiment has paid off.
“The miracle of all this is that we’re on Showtime for a second season,” she said.
“Web Therapy” premieres July 2 on Showtime.
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