They're like parents who are delighted because a grown child they've been estranged from has reentered their lives.
"For years, when we got together, we didn't dare talk about whether this could happen because it meant too much to us; it was too emotional," says Michael Patrick King, the writer-producer and director who co-created the HBO comedy "The Comeback" with its star, Lisa Kudrow. The groundbreaking mock reality show was canceled after a single season in 2005, leaving them heartbroken, they don't mind acknowledging. But posthumously, the series and its take on a Hollywood has-been trying to break back into the business lived on, inspiring a cult-like following on YouTube and social media, leading HBO to take the unusual step of bringing it back: A brand-new season launched earlier this month.
Has the nine-year separation made King and Kudrow over-protective of their offspring, the past-her-prime redheaded sitcom actress Valerie Cherish (played by Kudrow)? Quite the opposite. What excited them creatively was the prospect of doling out tough love.
"We thought, what would be the most fish-out-of-water situation we could ever put Valerie in? What could we do to really back her into a corner? So we came up with this dark, edgy HBO dramedy, 'Seeing Red,' that she's somehow gotten herself cast in. Now she's w-a-a-a-y out of her comfort zone," says King. Valerie hustles her way onto "Seeing Red" after she learns that it features a character, Malory, that she correctly believes is a send-up of her (it comes from sitcom writer Paulie G., played by Lance Barber, whom she previously worked with). Humiliations ensue.
"She's a combination of something that is close to me and the farthest away from me that she could ever be," says Kudrow of Valerie, the cheerfully clueless and endlessly determined actress ("Gotcha! Can do!") that she originated during her comedy improv training with the Groundlings, long before she was cast as air-headed, guitar-strumming Phoebe in the mega-hit sitcom "Friends." Both she and King have other irons in the fire (Kudrow created and stars in the long-running "Web Therapy" on Showtime), but when it came to bringing new life to Valerie, "there was no not doing this if it was a possibility," Kudrow says.
"We are the parents — we are both the mother and both the father," says King. "We both write Valerie, and we both write Mark [her husband, played by Damian Young] and Paulie G." The two have a relationship founded on professional terms — their agents hooked them up — that has grown deeply comfortable.
"We don't have to act for each other, and there's no drama," says King. "When we kicked this thing off, we just went up to my lake house for two days and walked around and talked about it."
Time was short; the whole season had to be written during King's brief hiatus from his CBS sitcom "Two Broke Girls." "But he's really calm," says Kudrow. "I would say, 'Shouldn't we be further along with this, and he'd say, 'Don't worry, it's going to come.' And then in sort of the last four hours, we got the whole first episode."
As work proceeded, they felt they had HBO's blessing to chase their wildest impulses wherever they might lead. "It's almost effortless, once we get an idea of where we're going," says King of the writing, which, despite its improvisational rhythms, is entirely scripted. "It tells us what it wants to be and we go there, even though we don't know if anyone's coming with us. This time, we got to a point, in the editing room, where we just looked at each other and said, 'Oh, this is where we went, huh?' It took our breath away."
Their plan is to go bigger this time, to take Valerie on a real journey. "And Lisa's so, so tough," says King. "You're not getting anything by her, unless it's really truthful and it can get her to laugh."
In the hall-of-mirrors world of "The Comeback," Valerie's every move is documented by a reality crew she hired herself, so as to expand her fame footprint. When she leads them on a tour through the lobby and hallways of HBO, that's really HBO. When she has them film a meeting she takes with HBO execs, those are actors, but they're not far off. The behaviors, the tricky politics of show business, the coded dialogues and game-playing — that's what excites King and Kudrow, who have seen it all.
"Valerie's goal is just 'spotlight.' It's not 'I need to take acting classes. I need to make sure the material is good.' That's not her thing," says Kudrow. "And she doesn't need the money. She just wants to be recognized and be told that she's famous."
"Recognition is so important in Hollywood, because it's given and taken away so randomly," King adds. "So this time, what we're really playing with is 'What happens to Valerie when she gets what she wants? What are people willing to do for their career, and what's it going to cost them in their marriage and their life?' Lisa has created this classic sad clown, almost like Chaplin's Little Tramp. We're finding that you can put Valerie in any tragic situation. She can get a laugh out of anything."