Lisa Kudrow: Head Case

Lisa Kudrow: Head Case

For a series about the endless humiliation associated with reality TV, the double vomit was comic gold. Toward the end of the first -- and, it turns out, only -- season of HBO's The Comeback, Lisa Kudrow's character, Valerie Cherish, dressed as a giant cupcake, punches her loutish nemesis Paulie G in the stomach. He throws up, prompting her to upchuck as well.

But Kudrow kept flubbing it. Every time she went to throw up, she turned her head away from the camera, instead of facing it.

'I think it was a polite, real-people-don't-throw-up-on-camera reflex,' says Michael Patrick King, who created the show with Kudrow. 'I don't know, you're in a cupcake -- you don't know what you're doing.'

Actually, Kudrow knew exactly what she was doing. In her mind, the ultimate goal of a reality show is to capture crying and vomiting. 'I had seen it on The Amazing Race, that's why we put it in,' she recalls. 'To me, vomiting is the most humiliating thing.' But when she wrote the scene, it hadn't occurred to her that the audience needed to actually witness the projectile. 'We just want to know it happened,' she explains. 'At least, I don't need to see it. I mean''

Sitting on the outdoor patio of the Beverly Hills Hotel Polo Lounge, Kudrow has just quoted what is probably Valerie's most cherished line: 'I don't want to see that!' But sadly, Valerie's days are over -- Kudrow has moved on to a new self-absorbed, delusional persona: Fiona Wallice, the therapist at the center of Web Therapy, Kudrow's Web-to-TV comedy now airing on Showtime. Like Valerie, Fiona is a manipulative wack job, but she's also rather clever. Undaunted by a lack of credentials, Fiona takes to the Internet to provide three-minute counseling sessions to on-the-go patients.

'One day, Lisa came into my office and said, 'You know what would be funny?' ' recalls her producing partner, Dan Bucatinsky. It was 2007, and Kudrow, intrigued by the proliferation of online services, had the idea of busy professionals turning to their webcams for quick therapy between meetings. 'That character just arrived out of Lisa, full-blown,' says director Don Roos, who is married to Bucatinsky.

'We weren't dying to do a Web series,' says Kudrow. The show originated when she and her team were approached by luxury car company Lexus, which asked if they wanted to contribute something to LStudio .com, the entertainment site it was launching. 'You could never walk into any network or studio and pitch, 'Oh, it's two people on this video iChat thing,' ' Kudrow says, pausing for effect. 'And that's it.' But with Lexus, there wasn't the usual harrowing process of developing a show at a studio and a network. They just made it and delivered it, which is part of why Kudrow can't imagine returning to a traditional sitcom anytime soon.

Of course, that's how it all began. Kudrow achieved fame, and fortune, in the '90s, playing Friends's Phoebe Buffay, one of the most likable -- and dumbest -- characters in TV history. (Her gloriously idiotic Michele Weinberger in 1997's Romy and Michele's High School Reunion may claim that spot for the big screen.) But Web Therapy, which recently snagged two 2011 Webby Awards (for best comedy and best individual performance for Kudrow), makes her one of the only major television stars to produce and headline a successful online series that has been remade for TV.

Television is made by committees -- a committee of writers and a committee of executives. Web Therapy has a committee of just three: Kudrow and her cocreators, Bucatinsky and Roos. Kudrow and Bucatinsky, who was also an executive producer of The Comeback, formed a production company after Friends wrapped. She met the two men on the set of Roos's 1998 film, The Opposite of Sex. She's had roles in most of his movies since, including 2005's Happy Endings and 2001's All Over the Guy, which Bucatinsky starred in and wrote. The trio also produces NBC's Who Do You Think You Are?, a celebreality series in which stars like Sarah Jessica Parker and Susan Sarandon have explored their family lineage on camera. (It's now in preproduction for its third season.)

'As a director, I'm used to just saying any note is horrible and any person who gives me a note is a horrible person, but this is trickier,' says Roos, who takes cues from his husband and one of his closest friends while shooting Web Therapy. 'We all work and live together, essentially.'

Web Therapy's original three-minute webisodes had Fiona counseling various patients, including characters played by Alan Cumming and Jane Lynch. In Showtime's expanded, half-hour version, the original sessions are linked by new scenes of Fiona with her closeted husband, Kip (played by Victor Garber), and her detached mother, Pussy Hodge (Lily Tomlin). 'She's completely dismissive of Fiona and clearly doesn't like her very much,' says Kudrow, giggling. 'So you get a glimpse into Fiona's life. You didn't realize how delusional she actually was. What can you do if your own mother doesn't like you?'

In a later episode of the original Web series, Fiona meets her match in Camilla Bowner, an aversion therapist played by a deliciously sexed-up Meryl Streep, who is working to turn Fiona's husband into an 'ex-gay.' She informs Fiona that Kip has not responded well to the treatment. In fact, he was more turned on by a photo of David Hasselhoff than by one of his wife naked. Still, Camilla vows to 'take the 'homo' out of sexuality.'

Though the series has moved to cable, it maintains most of its Web-ish qualities. Kudrow and her cohorts resisted adding an extra camera; everything is still shown from the point of view of Fiona's webcam. And there's still not much of a script. The writers outline the scenes, building a loose plan that includes a bit of information that one character doesn't want the other to have. Then the first character lets it slip.

'The funniest stuff happens when someone misspeaks and you go to town on that for a while,' says Kudrow. 'Improvising is just making whatever the other person says make sense in the world you're in.'

These are skills she learned while studying with the Groundlings, the legendary Los Angeles comedy troupe she joined after abandoning her path to a Ph.D. in biology. 'It was weird!' Kudrow says. 'I had a plan, I was doing headache research with my father, I was going to get published, get into a great program, but I was compelled to do comedy. I don't know how else to explain it.'

Some veterans of wildly successful TV series cringe when asked about the show that made them a household name (see: Hayes, Sean). Out in public, Kudrow gets a lot of 'Hey Phoebe!' She expresses only gratitude. 'If you just talk about it, then that's done and you can move on to something else,' she says. 'It's nothing to run and hide from, that's for sure. They haven't seen The Opposite of Sex, and of course they haven't seen The Comeback, and there's nothing bad about that. Had I not done Friends I wouldn't be able to afford to do Web Therapy. I'd be busy trying to do a sitcom so I could have a steady check.'

Kudrow says she rarely watches reruns of Friends. She's too busy catching up with shows on her TiVo, like her favorites, 30 Rock and The Killing, as well as her recent Netflix obsession: the original Upstairs, Downstairs. 'I never saw it in the '70s, but, oh, my God, nothing's been better -- ever!'

And she can't tear her eyes away from The Real Housewives, which inevitably summons memories of The Comeback. 'I've thought about that a lot,' she says. 'We were on before any of the Housewives. It is as close to making a deal with the devil as you can get now. At first, you think, Why are they doing this on TV? Then you realize, she's in an unhappy marriage, and she's figuring out what her next step is after her divorce. As a viewer, you have to figure out what their agenda is, their game plan. It's what they're willing to sell to secure their future.'

The Real Housewives offers further proof of how ahead of its time The Comeback was in 2005. 'It was before women had actually gone out there and sacrificed themselves on TV, which is what they do now,' says Michael Patrick King.

'I have moments of, like, why are you supporting this?' admits Kudrow, only a little ashamed of watching. 'Decorum has gotten worse and worse anyway, but now it just doesn't exist. They get more screen-time if they're despicable. It has affected the way people behave.'

It's as if all of America were gunning for the double vomit.

Web Therapy airs Tuesdays at 11:00 p.m. EST on Showtime.

Tags: Television