Going for the reprise

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Lisa Kudrow has trod the Emmy path before — six nominations including one win (for outstanding supporting actress in a comedy in 1998) for her performance as the loopy, likable Phoebe Buffay on the popular, long-running "Friends."

But this time around it's different.

To begin with, she was nominated for lead actress in a comedy series for a role she created, co-wrote and co-executive produced. Her character on HBO's "The Comeback" was Valerie Cherish, a desperate, irritating has-been actress who made viewers squirm as she tried to claw her way back into the spotlight. And this show didn't live past its first season — HBO canceled it the day after last year's Emmys.

"The Comeback" was all about failure, which seems a fitting subject on a day when the television industry celebrates itself. Most pilots made never air on TV, and most of those that do don't last.

Kudrow, after years of working in the rarefied air on one of the most popular shows in television history, has suddenly found herself in the unfamiliar position that Valerie and many others in Hollywood would recognize: a one-season wonder. That her pet project took a beating but came up with an Emmy nomination is particularly sweet, she said, and helps her combat the odd feeling that the show never existed at all.

Creating new scenes for the just-released DVD of "The Comeback" had helped reconnect her to the show, she said.

Still, a hint of bitterness was audible when she talked about the critical reviews and the cancellation. While HBO supported her efforts to create "The Comeback," Kudrow said, "they never got it fully."

"I guess they needed better ratings or for it to catch on sooner. Plus the press was a little over HBO and their behind-the-scenes-of-the-industry shows. They weren't in the mood for 'We're leaving it on,' " she said.

"The Comeback" mocked the current state of television through Kudrow's character, a needy, obsessive, sometimes pathetic, sometimes strong actress who volunteers to star in a reality show that documents her return to television on "Room and Board," a vehicle for hot twentysomethings. Her comeback, of course, is charged with humiliating moments when Valerie finds herself relegated to the role of the tracksuit-wearing older aunt and comic foil.

With the ever-present reality show camera lingering on her facial expressions, the show highlighted Valerie's raw emotions as she careened from confusion and self-deception to fruitless attempts to dictate situations far beyond her control. "The show was really a dance between the camera and me and the [audience]," she said.

"The Comeback" is also nominated for directing by Michael Patrick King ("Sex and the City"), who co-wrote and executive produced the show along with Kudrow. Unbeknownst to each other, Kudrow said, the pair coincidentally submitted the same episode for Emmy consideration: the finale, in which Valerie finally sees the reality show, falls apart at the unflattering portrayal of her life, but then pulls it together for what turns out to be a triumphant appearance on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" to discuss it.

In the end, Kudrow allowed that "The Comeback" might have been "too jam-packed with uncomfortable experiences for an audience.... I've heard men say 'I had to step out of the room. I had to watch from the doorway.' It was so rough."

Not everyone felt that way, of course: "It's interesting that whatever the theme or the moment was, depending on which person watched it, you got a whole different interpretation from agonizing to hilarious."

Some characterized her performance as "brave," a compliment Kudrow said she doesn't understand.

"If there's a part that appealing or a character that I want to do that I think could be funny or compelling or affective in some way, the actor in me wants to do it," she said. "I'm not thinking, 'How is this going to look?' "

Kudrow, who shows little evidence of her 43 years, said she is drawn to flawed and complex characters such as Valerie who are rarely seen in modern popular culture.

"Women used to be very flawed in movies. You think of Katharine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell, Judy Holliday. Sometimes they were nasty and sarcastic and catty. Then it seems that after the women's movement, it was politically incorrect to depict a woman like that — 'Oh, there we go again, making her catty' — as if it were promoting stereotypes that were unflattering. Women in TV got boring. They always had to be reasonable and right.

"It's more realistic to depict women who have all those different sides. But it's not always appealing."

Flaws? Bigger the betterThe flaws she likes in comic characters are the more serious ones, such as Murphy Brown's alcoholism, rather than more acceptable traits such as clumsiness or materialism. It was something that drew her to Phoebe, who was a pressure cooker of anger on "Friends": "It rang true to me," she said of the character who put a smile on even the most tragic of circumstances: 'Oh, yeah, everything's all right. My mom killed herself.' "

Since then, she said, her comic roles have acquired more heft, in films such as "The Opposite of Sex" and "Happy Endings." Kudrow also has a development deal with NBC and two new films: "The Deal," a romantic comedy with William H. Macy, starts shooting this fall, and another one — a comedy called "Kabluey" — will be released next year.

Still, it's been hard to put "The Comeback" on the shelf permanently because there has been some talk of bringing it back in some way, she said. She and King also created two new scenes just for the DVD.

If the show had continued, she said Valerie would have become "more diva-ish." After her turn on "Leno," "She would have felt like a success. We could play with how much power she would have."

Kudrow also would have wanted to explore the character of Paulie G., the embittered show runner on "Room and Board" who clashes constantly with Valerie. "One way to go is she [uses her newfound clout and] gets him fired, but he would probably get fired anyway. He drinks too much and is too argumentative with the network. Or maybe he gets replaced by Gigi [a sympathetic writer on 'Room and Board'], who turns out to be worse than he was."

There aren't any more writing jobs on Kudrow's career horizon, she said. She's convinced that no one believes she was an equal writing partner with King. She pointed to a one-sided telephone conversation she heard King having with a studio executive praising his work on "The Comeback":

" 'Well, we wrote it together,' " Kudrow recalled King saying. " 'No. No. Lisa and I wrote it together.... No, we sat side by side. Yes, but I'm telling you, Lisa and I wrote this together.' "

No matter, Kudrow said. "It won't keep me from writing."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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