When Lisa Kudrow and the five other cast members of Friends decided to leave that show after its 10th season in 2004, they were giving up the most lucrative deal in TV history. For their last two seasons, they were each being paid a million dollars per episode. Yet, they agreed it was time to move on. Friends is syndicated around the world, so it seems those characters will never disappear from view, but Kudrow has done quite well for herself in the years since the show ended, as an innovative producer (Web Therapy and Who Do You Think You Are?), and before, as a versatile actor (The Opposite of Sex, Wonderland, and Analyze This).
Kudrow was born in Encino, California, on July 30, 1963. Her father is a retired doctor specializing in headache research. She has two older brothers, one, a neurologist, and her sister is a sculptor. Growing up, she was shy and felt awkward, and only started to blossom when she went off to study at Vassar. It was her intention to follow her father and brother into the medical profession, but then her brother’s best friend, Jon Lovitz, suggested she give improvisation a try, and once Kudrow hit the stage at The Groundlings, she was hooked. She went on countless auditions, with guest appearances on Cheers and Newhart, finally landing a small role as a waitress in Mad About You. That led to Friends and an Emmy for Best Supporting Actress in 1998. She married advertising executive Michel Stern in 1995, and they have a son, Julian, 15.
Question: You turned 50 in July. How did you celebrate that?
Lisa Kudrow: Quietly.
Q: How old do you feel?
LK: In my 40s.
Q: Three years ago you gave the commencement address at Vassar. What did you say that you wish someone had said to you when you graduated?
LK: People who are 22 sometimes don’t listen. What I wanted to impart was that it’s going to be hard, but don’t let it get to you. You have to look at spinning disappointment into road signs. If something doesn’t work, go another way. You can’t take it personally.
Q: So your theme was don’t give up, because failure can lead to success. How much failure did you have to deal with yourself?
LK: A lot, but I chose not to look at it that way. Every audition you don’t do well in, the job you didn’t get, you get into trouble when you start looking at it as failure. I try to be happy for everything that happens, the good and the bad. Otherwise I wouldn’t be right here.
Q: It seems like you’ve experienced more good than bad lately. Your show Web Therapy started as three-minute shorts on the Internet and was picked up as a series of half-hour episodes on Showtime. How did that start?
LK: I was asked if I wanted to do a Web series and said no. But whenever I say absolutely not, I know that’s not rational. My brain just keeps on working on it anyway. So I thought if you were going to do a Web series, you should go straight into the storm, and make it about the Internet. I started thinking about things that people do on the Internet—people were revealing themselves, they were dating, doing intimate things really quickly, with not a lot of thought. And I thought, nothing could be a worse idea than to do therapy. That’s a funny idea, how people could go online and do a three-minute session with a so-called therapist and be able to say at work, “Yeah, I’m in therapy.” Then L Studio asked us if we had any ideas for a Web series, and we said, “There’s one thing we would do.” So then we had to figure out the details.
Q: Can you describe how you saw your character Fiona Wallice?
LK: She doesn’t know much about therapy, and she’s not even accredited. So we made her really self-serving, judgmental, and not having to adhere to any rules of therapy. I’ve been in therapy but I’m not a trained therapist, so that’s perfect. [Laughs.]
Q: How did you manage to get people like Julia Louis-Dreyfus to play your sister, Lily Tomlin your scheming mother, Meryl Streep the guide to set your gay husband straight, Steve Carell as your boyfriend, and Meg Ryan as a happy hoarder?
LK: In the beginning it was very hard. No one knew what it was. So we went to people we knew, like Bob Balaban and Jane Lynch, who had just shot the Glee pilot. Then Courteney Cox agreed to do it, which was a big deal. My co-producers are friends with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and she agreed to play my sister. Then we asked Lily Tomlin, and she had so many ideas, which took it to a higher level. We just said, “You’re in a psychiatric hospital” and she said, “That’s good. I want to have sock puppets and make socko drama.” And she came in with these sock puppets with wigs that matched her own wigs. Hilarious. Then I ran into Meryl Streep, and she said she’d love to do it. She’s just fantastic.
Q: When David Schwimmer’s character began to get too dark, did you have to stop filming and regroup?
LK: No, we didn’t have to stop and regroup [laughs], but at one point we did have to go, “Wait, is he really going to rape me?” His story line was that he had once witnessed me having an affair with his father, and the only solution he had discovered, with his horrible therapist, to purge this was to sleep with me. He was so good. Oh my God! He just blew us away.
Q: Why are we fascinated by watching despicable people on reality shows?
LK: Because we can’t believe our eyes. Maybe it’s just a window into my soul, but sometimes you see something that makes you so mad, and you’d like to say something, but you don’t. And then you see these people on these shows doing it, and it makes you feel better that you did keep it to yourself. You’re grateful to your parents for raising you better than that.
Q: Do you think reality-type shows will always be with us, or will the pendulum swing back to scripted shows?
LK: That’s a good question. Game shows and contests have never gone away. I’m nervous for the biographical reality shows because what’s next? The actual Colosseum where people are killing each other? I don’t know what other level it can go to.
Q: You’re doing a biographical show with Who Do You Think You Are?
LK: That’s more like a documentary series than a reality series. They call it alternative reality because they think no one will want to watch documentaries.
Q: You traced your own genealogy for one episode. You knew that some of your family had been lost in the Holocaust—what did you find out that you didn’t know?
LK: Since I was a kid I had seen documentaries about the Holocaust, and I read what I could about it. I watched World at War—remember that series? They had a number of episodes on the Holocaust. There was some pretty graphic stuff in there. I took a lot of Jewish history classes and studied Hebrew for two years in college. But the striking thing to me is that while I studied it, I never applied it to my own family history. So I didn’t have to be burdened with the nightmare of what happened to people I knew. Then as I got older my grandmother told me it was Hitler who killed everybody in her family, and that’s the first time I came face-to-face with it. In my fully denial state of mind it was, “No, no, we’re not part of the Holocaust.” But I learned we are.
Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now