It’s Lisa Kudrow’s birthday today. A gentleman neither asks nor tells a lady’s age — Google it, if you MUST reduce her to mathematics.
It’s been a long term goal of mine to start talking about contemporary comedians, for several reasons.
One is, (in case it’s not obvious) my overarching goal is always to describe a continuum, to paint a portrait that connects the past to present. As I say almost daily and no one ever seems to hear, I’m a writer and performer, not a “scholar” or “historian”. I don’t give a crap about any facts. If you MUST have facts, if you’re all about the facts, for God’s sake, get out of my sight — don’t ask me for any, and unless you have some sort of virtual voodoo death wish, don’t CORRECT me on any. “Close enough” is close enough for me. Always has been, always will be. I am after ESSENCES, not facts. If you have a problem with it, sing into your hat. I’m not interested.
Two is. I am not interested in classic comedians purely for their own sake, and I don’t think comedy died in when color arrived or anything like that. There are PLENTY of figures from the last several decades whom I REVERE, including many contemporary people. So to balance out my frequent raving about how everything sucks, I’ll now submit some celebration of things that don’t.
For a long time, I’ve been tossing around the idea of an annual award for comedy, or comic acting. It doesn’t get enough respect, and there really isn’t one that I’m aware of. Yes, there is a “Best Acting in a Comedy Series” Emmy…but my award would encompass film, tv and web. And, yes, it’s about acting — the best comic performances (to my mind) have moments of pathos. The sort of things I’d give such an award to? At random, among many others, Eddie Murphy in The Nutty Professor (1996), Eugene Levy in A Mighty Wind (2003), Ricky Gervais in The Office (2001) and Extras (2005) and Melissa McCarthy in just about anything.
And so we come to Kudrow. I haven’t heard enough raving about this show and this performance, so I will do some. Believe it or not, I was only dimly aware of her work on Friends (1994-2004) — I didn’t watch much TV in those years, and the traditional tv sit-com format seemed bankrupt to me by that point. I perhaps saw a couple of episodes, and her character on the show impressed me as derivative and not very inspired. So The Comeback came as something of a revelation. I didn’t see the first season during its initial 2005 run. I watched it in the run-up to the second (and presumably last) season, which ran last year.
In The Comeback Kudrow plays Valerie Cherish, a washed-up sit-com star who becomes a reality tv star, gradually crawling her way back into the limelight by any means necessary and at whatever cost. What I absolutely adore about it is the complexity of the character,which makes for a very rich viewing experience. Her life is a constant car wreck, but you can’t help rooting for her in the same way that you sometimes root for bad guys in movies to “get away with it.” She’s dim and superficial, and yet her ingenuity and shamelessness in going after what she wants assumes Superheroic proportions. She careens from being attractive to repellent and back again, and can be even both at once on occasion. Her behavior frequently embarrasses us to the point of mortification in a manner I would call Gervais-esque. Her blind immorality takes her to some unsavory places, but in the end she does have a heart and a conscience and she regrets her mistakes in a manner that’s sympathetic in the tradition of the great comedy characters (Barney Fife, Felix Ungar). She is also so insecure that she walks around in terror all the time (terror which she can’t show, because she’s in show business), and she’s so high strung that she frequently snaps and flips out. And Kudrow (who’s quite beautiful) makes herself as ugly as she needs to be to make us laugh.
And she’s screamingly funny. Kudrow is co-creator of the show with Michael Patrick King. And I’m imagining that much of the dialogue comes out of improv, out of her own head in the moment. I find the appalling things she says gut-bustingly funny, and her unique character, the manner in which she says them, even funnier. It has been speculated that she based the character on Shelly Long, and it’s uncanny, because I was able to perceive it before I even read that anywhere. She sometimes seems to be doing Shelly Long. And what’s even funnier about that is that Long is ANOTHER comedy actor I’d give one of my thus-far non-existent comedy acting awards to, for her role as Diane Chambers in Cheers — one of the great tv characters of all time. And anyway, as I said, Valerie Cherish is ultimately sympathetic. The portrait, if it is a portrait, is as much a tribute as it is a lampoon.
Anyway, it appalls me that more people don’t know this show. Lisa Kudrow is a comic genius.
For more on great comedians see my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc
Also, it is interesting how The Comeback riffs on the history of Friends. The writers notoriously made fun of the sexuality of the cast in the writers room and the actors banded together in contract negotiations–both of which are paralleled in The Comeback. I wonder if there are more…
The Comeback is brilliant and bears repeated watchings in a way that is rare for sitcoms. However, listening to the DVD commentaries, it became clear that very little (if any) of this show was improvised on set. The intricacy of the writing precluded that–and I think that the great achievement of the performances is how spontaneous and uncontrived they appear.