A conversation with Lisa Kudrow and Dan Bucatinsky,
moderated by Tod Lippy, Editor, Esopus
Wednesday, February 23, 2011, 7:00 p.m.
Pilot episode: “The Comeback” aired June 5, 2005.
Series created by Lisa Kudrow and Michael Patrick King. Executive producers, Lisa Kudrow, Michael Patrick King, Dan Bucatinsky, John P. Melfi. Principal cast: Lisa Kudrow (as Valerie Cherish), Malin Ackerman (as Juna Millken), Robert Bagnell (Tom Peterman), Lance Barber (Paulie G), Robert Michael Morris (Mickey Deane), Laura Silverman (Jane), Dan Bucatinsky (Billy Stanton).
Lisa Kudrow and Michael Patrick King have each left indelible marks on television: Kudrow for her winning portrayal of the character Phoebe on hit NBC sitcom Friends (1994-2004), and King as a writer, director, and eventual co-executive producer on the HBO series Sex in the City (1998-2004). But their most remarkable contribution to TV was something they conceived of and worked on together: the short-lived HBO series The Comeback, which ran for only 13 episodes in the summer of 2005. The show revolves around the unforgettable character of Valerie Cherish (played brilliantly by Kudrow), a faded sitcom actress so determined to regain her celebrity she agrees to be a subject of a reality show documenting her return to television (playing the thankless role of “aunt Sassy” on a sitcom call Room and Bored). A penetrating and often brutal satire of reality TV, sitcoms, and show business in general, The Comeback received three Emmy nominations, including best actress for Kudrow and best director for King, despite being cancelled after only one season…
[Tod Lippy]: …My understanding is you both knew each other before you worked on this…
[Michael Patrick King]: My friend John Stark was at the Groundlings, so I had seen Lisa do things there, and I was aware of her very unique energy. I once saw her do a sketch as Audrey Hepburn on a fishing show, which was not an accurate Audrey Hepburn, but that wasn’t the point: it was the most absurdly brilliant idea. And of course I had a crush on Lisa, because it’s impossible not to. Later on, we were both working on the Culver lot—Lisa was on Mad About You and I was running my first show …and Lisa and I would get together and complain about showbiz.
[Lisa Kudrow]: I don’t think I was complaining. I think I was thrilled at this point…
MPK: And then, years after that, we has the complete opposite of that relationship. We were in this weird grown-up show business relationship at the Golden Globes at our separate tables every year.
LK: I would literally have to move out of the way so that all of the Sex and the City people could get up to receive the awards they beat Friends out for every year. [laughs]
MPK: It was this amazing and strange knew-each-other-in-different-time-periods thing. We had always had an emotional connection, and now were playing these other parts. Then one day Lisa called me up and said, “Let’s have lunch,” and we went to the Beverly Hills Hotel…And at lunch, Lisa said, “I have this idea…”
LK:…We sat down, and we looked at each other and said, “So, it’s good to see you…” And Michael said, “I have to tell you, I don’t really see myself doing a sitcom, and I don’t really see you in this like, shiny multi-camera thing.” And I said, “No, I really don’t have an interest in doing another show. The only ting I could ever see myself ever doing”—and then I started telling him this very vague, not-at-all-fleshed-out idea of an actress who is so desperate to be in the limelight that she agrees to be in a reality show called The Comeback.
TL: Can you talk about your writing process a bit?
MPK: Lisa is a brilliant, brilliant writer. Brilliant and also ruthless. She is not at all indulgent. As we were writing the pilot, she would be cutting things as they were coming out of her mouth: “No, we don’t need that.” It’s this fantastic stuff, and I’m typing it, and before she’s even finished the sentence, she’d say, “No, it’s too long, we don’t need that either.” We always knew the Valerie stuff was going to be funny, but then we came up with the idea of the sitcom, Room and Bored, that Valerie gets the “Aunt Sassy” part on, and things really took off.
The crucial thing Lisa contributed to the plot—in addition to everything else—is something I would never have come up with on my own. It’s a small but significant idea: the water leak in the house that Valerie ignores after being warned about it by her housekeeper. Lisa kept saying from that scientist part of her brain, “There’s a leak in the wall that she’s ignoring because of her career.” What was so smart about it was that it was the beginning of the germ of the idea that if you pay too much attention to show business, your personal life will collapse out from under you. You will literally gut your home ….
TL: This series aims its satirical sights at two television genres: One, of course, is the sitcom, which we’ll talk about more in a moment. The other is reality TV. I remember reading somewhere that you had gotten hold of some bootleg tapes of raw footage from one of the reality shows, and that these ended up being your ‘way in’ to the unusual format of the series.
MPK: That’s right, and we had even hired a couple of writers who had worked on reality shows as well. Those tapes gave us access to the boringness of unedited reality-show footage, and we fell in love with the idea that the actual story was in the stuff that Valerie thought would be cut from the final series because of that boringness. What interested us, a lot, was this kind of Stockholm syndrome situation with Valerie and Jane, the producer of the reality show. We knew that Lisa was going to be on camera, and we wanted to find ways to show the cracks in her performance versus the real thoughts she was having while being constantly filmed. We came up with the idea that of “leaking” people from the outside—Jane, the cameraman, the sound guy—into the frame. This was important, because we didn’t just want to do a parody of a reality show; we wanted to put in the foreground the behind-the-scenes manipulation and the cruelty. Once we realized we could use this unedited-footage approach, it just became really interesting to us, because then you can see everybody that is in the show. But it was that boringness—the endless hours of unmanipulated footage—that we thought would be interesting to the show. That’s why we decided to start each episode with color bars.
TL: It essentially allows the viewer to become an editor, which turns the experience of watching these episodes into a very suspenseful exercise. You’re continually thinking, “Are they going to use that line they just tricked her into saying in the final show? Are they going to squeeze in that humiliating fall she just took?” It makes you kind of squeamish as a viewer, but it also allows you to take a more active role… Lisa, your portrayal of Valerie not only brings out the humor we talked about earlier but also imbues her with a humanity that makes her at time feel almost like a character in a tragedy. Alessandra Stanley in The New York Times called the series “the saddest comedy on television,” and she’s right. I couldn’t watch more than three episodes at a time—it’s really draining, as hilariously funny as it is at the same time
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