At the tail end of The Comeback’s triumphant second season return—after nine years off the air—Lisa Kudrow’s Valerie Cherish, a fading former sitcom star desperate to return to the limelight, gets what she really wants: an Emmy award. As votes start to come in for this year’s accolades, Kudrow surely deserves consideration herself for bringing back a character that touches nerves closer than any other Hollywood self-examination. The Comeback followed Cherish in the style of a reality TV show, as she landed a lead role on a new sitcom and soon learned that she wasn’t everyone’s first choice. Faced with rejection and often ridicule, Valerie puts on the bravest face she can muster and spends her time spinning ever more desperate situations for the “reality” cameras.
“It was therapy to write,” recalls Michael Patrick King, Emmy-winning veteran of Sex and the City, Murphy Brown and Will & Grace, who co-created and co-writes the show with Kudrow. “It started as an expose of reality TV, but also of what I knew about sitcoms.” He remembers a scene in which Valerie asks Paulie G (Lance Barber)—the writer of her in-show sitcom Room & Bored—to come up with a new joke. “The director says, ‘Here comes the hate show,’ and it’s like a documentary. This is exactly the kind of thing that’s happening out there.”
Show business has cried out for Valerie Cherish since the first season became The Comeback’s apparent last, way back in 2005. It wasn’t the first mockumentary by a long stretch, but its “raw footage” style and the constant presence of a camera crew and a “producer,” Jane (Laura Silverman), put Valerie and those around her on edge, and it was hard to tell whether or not they were fronting for the camera in any particular moment. Its tone was odd—somewhere between hysterically funny and excruciatingly cringe-inducing—and it was a tough watch more often than not. Valerie is neither hero nor villain, but neither is she an antihero, and it’s hard not to feel sorry for the delusion she has created for herself, even as you’re frustrated by it. Even a network as robust as HBO seemed to struggle to understand it.
But times changed. “The new people at HBO were fans of the show and never forgot about it,” Kudrow recalls. She’s sitting with King at his bungalow on the Warner Bros. lot, where they once gathered to write. “It really hit a nerve with young people. I guess they are so used to everything humiliating, because that’s what the world is. I’d go to college campuses and there’d be questions about Friends, sure, but then someone would be like, ‘Yeah, yeah, Friends was great, but can we talk about The Comeback?'”
The show had become everyone’s favorite secret, passed around on DVD and slowly building a small, committed fan base. Especially within the industry, The Comeback has become required viewing as a cautionary tale and one of the most impressive examinations of ego ever committed to the small screen. But it’s taken time for it to bed in like this, which is why a second season order took nearly a decade. With the first season, “the expectation was that it was going to be the numbers of the Sex and the City finale,” remembers King. “There was no boutique TV then. But the show didn’t look like anything else, and that’s why we came back. It was both the blessing and the curse: it was completely original, which is what hurt it, but also what saved it.”
Film and TV that has tried to lift the lid on its own industry often feels like parody, fantasy or both, doubtless because of how sensitive the dispositions of most of Hollywood’s players seems to be. But The Comeback has been fearless, quite possibly because of the selflessness with which its creators have explored their own issues with ego and the industry.
“It was more reporting than anything else,” says Kudrow. “We had five or six writers on that first season, and they all thought for sure they knew who Paulie G was, and it was a different person for each of them. It’s a real type.”
“It started out as (these characters’) intentions clashing,” continues King, “Paulie G thinks he’s writing a sitcom that was already below his talent, and Valerie thinks she’s the star of a reality show. The industry pushed them together, creating a conflict. Valerie’s laying in her stardom, but Paulie’s laying in his own, and they’re both digging to stay on top and keep that alive in their minds.”
It’s hard not to wonder how much these particular characters are drawn from fears Kudrow and King share about their own place in the creative cauldron. It’s probably no coincidence that Kudrow’s middle name is Valerie. Unpicking the layers of this show can get complicated. Kudrow says they played with the idea that HBO was bringing it back—that The Comeback would get a comeback—by casting Valerie on a gritty HBO miniseries in the second season. “You can’t escape how tied to reality some of it is,” she says.
But if the characters are alternate universe nightmares cast in a chaotic world of rough and ready reality TV, the true reality of the show’s production is much more harmonious. All the show’s apparently rough shot choices and filming gaffes are orchestrated on paper, to add their own punchlines and remind us that we’re seeing what a cameraman and a reality producer are choosing to show us. And when it comes to putting Valerie on paper, King and Kudrow couldn’t be more aligned.
“This whole thing came together freakishly fast,” Kudrow remembers. “It just comes for us, and I don’t know how else to put it. I don’t know what it is. It’s something we both key into and are in sync about.”
“We actually have completely different points of view about it, but when it’s right we always sync up,” continues King. “The actual birth of the whole excitement was the first time I heard Lisa do Valerie. There was a tone to her voice that made me start laughing instantly.”
It’s possible that the show’s word-of-mouth success over the last decade has been due, in part, to the way the landscape of television has changed. The Comeback is a cautionary tale, but the lessons it taught us haven’t really been learned. “There was no Facebook when Valerie was first on,” notes King. “Now people are creating their own profiles to give filtered views of their lives. That’s what Valerie was doing with the reality show. ‘Look how good I look in this selfie.’ ”
“That was what made the show so stunning to watch,” says Kudrow. “Because it wasn’t just pulling back the curtain on the industry; that isn’t enough. It’s also about, look at what people endure and the lies they’ll tell themselves to get through the day.”
Kudrow is proud of the way The Comeback’s characters don’t follow prescribed notions of good and bad. “Because people are complicated,” she notes. “That’s a tough story to tell, and maybe it’s tough for people to watch and wrap their heads around in the beginning because of the way we’ve been conditioned, but we’re not going to tell you who’s good and who’s bad. It’s up to you.”
“Is Valerie funny or is she tragic?” asks King, rhetorically. “We realized in the second season that The Comeback is withholding. We show you all the ‘raw footage’ and you have to figure out what you feel about it. It’s a great puzzle for the audience.”
There was “no wound” about returning after such a long time away. “The second season was a complete party,” King says, “because the show wasn’t ever lost. It was celebrated and it was fine. It was feted.”
HBO has given the pair an order for a third season, but they’re in no rush to get it ready for next year’s schedules. It’ll happen, they say, as and when inspiration strikes.“It always seems to have its own timeframe,” laughs King. “Like Valerie, it seems to come back right when it’s now or never. We’re not even in charge of that.”
They’re aware that, for many, the show felt like it had reached a natural conclusion with the second season finale—when Valerie chooses her ailing hairstylist Mickey (Robert Michael Morris) over the Emmy ceremony, even as she’s the hotly tipped favorite to win. She gets what she wants, and she learns that her friends and family are even more important.
“But you can easily hear Valerie saying, ‘Gotta win another. Wasn’t on stage. Never had my moment,’ ” laughs King. “I was at a lunch once in the middle of the afternoon, in an empty restaurant at a table for four with an Oscar-winning actress. The waiter came over and said, ‘You can’t sit at a four-top if there’s only two of you.’ That was the rule, and it didn’t matter who she was.”
“But it’s like, ‘So you won an Oscar,’ ” deadpans Kudrow. ” ‘So what? Why are you entitled to sit at a four-top?’ And I know people who feel like, ‘I won an Oscar. Why aren’t I being flooded with offers?’ No, because that’s not how it works. We’re expecting validation and you can’t get validation from a business. You can from art, if you’re doing what you feel is expressing what you set out to do. But a business can only validate you for the two weeks you were number two at the box office. There’s no permanence.”
“You notice she didn’t say ‘number one ,’ ” jokes King. “Because Lisa’s realistic. ‘You could be number two, maybe…’ ”