Questions for Lisa Kudrow

The Friends star talks about her new therapy show, the surprisingly helpful influence of the Real Housewives, and the pleasures of genealogy.

Also read Troy Patterson’s review of Web Therapy.

Lisa Kudrow, Web Therapy. Click to expand image.
Lisa Kudrow

In her new Showtime series, Web Therapy (Tuesdays at 11 p.m. ET), Lisa Kudrow plays a terrible therapist named Dr. Fiona Wallice who’s more interested in making big bucks off of counseling patients over the Internet and talking about herself than she is in helping her clients. The show—which originated online as a series of web videos sponsored by Lexus—is largely improvised and boasts an impressive cast of co-stars, from Meryl Streep to Jane Lynch.

For viewers who know Kudrow best as the spacey, sweet Phoebe Buffay from Friends, the shameless Dr. Wallice is a departure. But since Kudrow’s Romy and Michelle days, she has consistently chosen darker parts. From her perspicacious, canceled-too-soon HBO Show, The Comeback,about a failed actress trying to claw her way back to fame through a reality show, to smaller roles in movies like Easy A, in which she plays a guidance counselor who is a little too friendly with one of her students, Kudrow has proven that she has a comedic range far beyond the dizzy blonde we remember from the ‘90s.

Ispoke to Kudrow about how she adapted Web Therapy to a television format, her role as executive producer of the NBC documentary series Who Do You Think You Are, in which celebrities explore their family trees, and how reality TV shows like Bethenny Getting Married begat Bridesmaids—because they showed American audiences how to root for unlikable women.

Slate: In its original incarnation, Web Therapy was an online-only series, and it feels specific to the medium. What inspired you to do this series for a Web audience rather than a TV one?

Lisa Kudrow: It is specific to the Internet. The idea struck us as very funny that people, while they’re at work, could take three minutes out of their day and say that they did therapy. Cross it off their list. It couldn’t possibly be effective therapy, so the idea was that it would work on the Internet because things happen quickly. In 2007, when we first started the series, people seemed to use the Web in short spurts. No one wanted to spend too much time with one task.

Slate: It sounds like an offshoot of the 4-Hour Work Week. You can fit your therapy into three minutes.

Kudrow: Right, like a really bad idea. Not everything should be done quickly. Everyone uses that fallback excuse, “Well I’ve got ADD.” That doesn’t mean that’s OK. Fight it, you know. Fight against it.

Slate: So what are you doing to expand it into a 30-minute show for television?

Kudrow: What we realized, when we were looking at what we had done, was that there was a narrative that people missed when watching the series in pieces on the Internet. They are connected, stringing one client’s sessions together, and over the course of a Web season, there’s a story being told.

Slate: Did you shoot any extra material or cut anything from the originals?

Kudrow: We shot extra stuff that were also webisodes. But we’re not changing too much. We just wanted to show where [Fiona Wallice] worked, and the people she’s trying to get money from as investors, and explore her marriage. We also meet her mother. She’s just a horrible person, Fiona. Now we get to know a little bit more about why that is. It’s not just random.

Slate: Fiona seems to have a lot in common with your character on The Comeback, Valerie. They’re both narcissists who are obsessed with self-promotion. What interests you about this type as a writer and an actress?

Kudrow: They both think they come off a certain way, and we can see right through that. That’s definitely true for Fiona. She thinks she’s really poised and intelligent—all those wonderful things—and that no one catches how manipulative she is. They don’t get that she’s horribly judgmental, dismissive, and bullying. She thinks it doesn’t matter.

Slate: In choosing these characters, were you consciously trying to move on from Phoebe, who is more lighthearted and certainly not malicious? Or are these just the characters that you were drawn to create?

Kudrow: It’s more of what occurred to me. You start with the idea, and the character has to serve the idea in order to generate it from the concept. A Phoebe-type person wouldn’t drive this. Same with The Comeback. It was about how humiliating reality TV actually is, so the character has to be someone who’s misguided and in search of the spotlight, which is why she’s signing up for the show.

Slate: Even though The Comeback was not a hit when it premiered in 2005, it is now seen as relevant and ahead of its time as a commentary on reality TV. What interested you about that genre? Had you just been watching reality TV in the early aughts and were fascinated but appalled?

Kudrow: That’s exactly right. It was only, like, the second season of The Amazing Race, and people were vomiting and crying on national television. And I just thought, “That’s the end of the world.” You don’t even care that someone is watching you vomiting and crying while your husband is yelling at you to eat the horribly spicy ipecac. I don’t even have words. I had to create a whole show.

Slate: What’s fascinating now is that going on reality TV is no longer seen as shameful. I remember watching Bethenny Frankel peeing in a bucket on her wedding day and thinking, “This is some kind of end game.” We have come full circle to where she is a pretty respected television personality and businesswoman, and we are watching her urinate.

Kudrow: I completely agree. No matter what, attention is good. It goes back to the idea that any publicity is good publicity, which depends, well, on your moral compass. And I think we’ve lost our way to continue with that. There’s no such thing as decorum. I was so happy to watch the royal wedding, only because it was people behaving, there was protocol. I was hungry for it.

Slate: Do you think celebrity culture has changed since your days on Friends? Do you think the experience of being on a top TV show would be entirely different now?

Kudrow: Yes. It is entirely different. They’re tapping phone lines or hacking in to cell phones. Who knows? It’s much worse. And it seems to me, at first, one was allowed to be appalled at people chasing you down the street with cameras or chasing you into your car. Now, you’re not allowed to be put out by it. This has to do with the reality people who definitely need that [paparazzi attention]. If they’re not being chased and their picture’s not in something, then they really have nothing. It’s not like, “Maybe the next movie will do better.”

Slate: They’re the products.

Kudrow: But I think on the good side, The Real Housewives of everywhere, have kind of helped our point of reference for women, how poorly we can behave, which allows for comedic women to do a lot more. Reality TV stars have given us another point of reference. With men, you have every point of reference. There’s a whole range of what we’re allowed to make fun of in a man. With Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids, she played this woman who made colossally horrible choices—she was horrible to her friend, and she just got so ashamed of herself, the way she acted out—but then we can forgive her again. I don’t think we would have taken that had it not been for how horrible Jersey Shore folks are. It’s not just cute and clumsy for a female star anymore.

Slate: It can also be crass. It is clear to me, though, that you see that reality television can have other beneficial effects. Your series Who Do You Think You Are? is an example of documentary TV that is also educational. What inspired you to import it from the U.K.? Were you always interested in genealogy?

Kudrow: Well, no. It was because I was working in Ireland and saw Who Do You Think You Are? on BBC, and thought, “Well this is the most fascinating show.” I’m learning something, and seeing how these events in history have these details that actually change the course of family lineage. I just thought it was such compelling television, and that there is an audience for this. I think our audiences are smarter than they’re given credit for.

Slate: It seems like you really hold your privacy very dear. So was it hard for you to experience something like visiting the site of your great-grandmother’s death on camera?

Kudrow: Yes. I initially wanted to see if maybe I didn’t have to do one of the episodes. Especially because I knew it would be a Holocaust story. I didn’t know if I could emotionally handle it, much less on camera. I’m producing the show, so I need to know what the experience is as a producer. And the [researchers] really hooked me. “So we know your grandfather’s name was David and he was from Mogilev.” And I was like, “You do? What else can you find? I’m in!”

Having done it, you realize, This is much bigger than me and my discomfort. This is about them, and also I’m glad I get to bear witness to what happened here and broadcast it.

Slate: Finally, what is the best thing you saw on the Internet this week?

Kudrow: Oh god. I haven’t been on much. Someone sent me something on school for animals, and it was a metaphor for our own children, and how different animals have different gifts [Ed note: I think this is it ]. It’s about just trying to accept kids for their strengths and weaknesses.

This interview has been condensed and edited.