Since “Friends” went off the air in 2004, its cast members have used the incredible popularity brought to them by the show’s broad success for various purposes.
Some have tried to escape their characters — like Jennifer Aniston, who’s spoken on numerous occasions about shedding the “Rachel” type-casting, even going so far as to condemn her character’s beloved haircut. Matthew Perry has tried repeatedly to avoid Chandler-hood, choosing serious roles in Aaron Sorkin projects “The West Wing” and “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” before returning to sitcoms in “Mr. Sunshine” and “Go On.” Because none of that worked for Perry, critics wondered if perhaps he should’ve instead embraced his accepted public persona as Matt LeBlanc and Courtney Cox have done.
LeBlanc plays “that guy from ‘Friends'” on his Showtime series “Episodes” (for which he won a Golden Globe), and Cox found her biggest post-“Friends” success on another sitcom with a character who traded Monica’s baking for wine. Even Aniston’s biggest box office successes in film have come when she’s playing a character at least closely related to Rachel, if not her twin (“Horrible Bosses” excluded).
That leaves David Schwimmer and Lisa Kudrow, or, as people more commonly know both, Ross and Phoebe. While Schwimmer has laid low as a director and guest actor for the last 10 years (he’ll be returning to TV on ABC’s upcoming sitcom “Irreversible”), only one of our former “Friends” is both embracing her character’s mentality while doing wholly original work as an actor. That’s not to say there’s a right way to conduct yourself or shape your career after a monumental success, but Kudrow’s choices are arguably the most fascinating of any of the six “Friends.”
When Kudrow first took up the role of Phoebe Buffay, the flaky, eccentric singer/songwriter and masseuse, she already had some of the character’s history in her back pocket. She landed the role after a memorable guest stint on NBC’s “Mad About You” as Paul and Jamie’s inept waitress Ursula — rather than expect audiences to understand how an actress can appear on two shows at once, the “Friends” writers made up a backstory where Phoebe had a twin sister named Ursula, thus creating a shared universe between the two Manhattan-set shows (which came into play on many subtle occasions).
Kudrow brought the same head-in-the-clouds mentality to Phoebe that she did to Ursula, but with a positive spin. Phoebe became an endearing character because of how her unexpected insights and seemingly random backstory combined with an earnest belief in the best of others. Secrets about her mysterious childhood spilled out over the years, creating a disturbing adolescence — filled with thievery, assault, parental suicide, and life on the street — only Kudrow could make us believe. Phoebe, despite being stretched to the quirkiest extremes, maintained a uniquely grounded worldview from beginning to end.
But she wasn’t a fan favorite. Phoebe was always the odd man out (as the show mentioned in Season 5), in part because she was so… different. This exclusionary status has translated to the actor’s other projects, as well, both in the best and worst ways. When “Friends” ended in 2005, Kudrow’s next starring role was as Valerie Cherish in “The Comeback” on HBO. A critical sensation, “The Comeback” earned three Emmy nominations including a Best Actress nod for Kudrow (who had always been an Emmys darling, even winning in 1994 for her role on “Friends”), but was canceled by the pay cable giant due to low ratings.
Kudrow spent the next few years working in supporting film roles and guest stints on TV (attempting to help out “Friends” co-stars with their own shows) before she turned to the web for her next project, the aptly-titled “Web Therapy.” Using a clever premise that allowed for low production costs and lots of famous guest stars, Kudrow plugged away at the project for four seasons, attracting talent like Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Conan O’Brien for brief episodes. Then, Showtime came calling and made the web series into a pay cable sitcom.
Now entering its fourth season, “Web Therapy” shares many of the same features of its online debut (which you can still watch) — including low ratings. Kudrow’s Fiona Wallice spends her time dolling out questionable advice to troubled “patients” via three-minute sessions over the web. There are a few permanent co-stars, including show co-creator Dan Bucatinsky — now also on NBC’s “Marry Me” — but the season’s cast is largely made up of famous faces who pop up as temporary patients. “Modern Family’s” Jesse Tyler Ferguson is a highlight of Season 4 as a lottery winner with trust issues (or is he?), as is Gwyneth Paltrow’s “healer” with rage problems. And Jon Hamm steals the show in a matter of minutes as a phone sex operator for geriatrics.
You can see how much fun Kudrow and her cohorts are having in the outtakes closing out each episode, and it’s Kudrow’s love for her characters which makes them work so beautifully. While Wallice is as damaged as most therapists, she wears her flaws on her sleeve for the benefit of the audience (and detriment of her patients). She’s manipulative and money-hungry, but she’s not heartless. Kudrow’s stricken look is one of many faces, and she brings them all out for each particular occasion — each helping the viewer identify her not as a con artist of the mentally ill, but a marred daughter and wife hoping not to be hurt again.
Yet for all her efforts, all her opportunities, and all her accolades, Kudrow remains on the outside looking in — yet another trait shared by her most iconic characters. Phoebe was the outsider in an impossibly close group of friends. Valerie craved stardom so much she convinced herself she had it by simply pretending to for too long. Finally, Fiona wants to be seen as an innovative success story while she struggles to keep both her professional and personal life from being exposed as falsities. Kudrow’s sincere depiction of them all only adds to the idea she’s hyper-aware of the satire, and thus keenly in tune with her own role in portraying them.
Without doubt, there is a distinct difference between Phoebe Buffay, Valerie Cherish and Fiona Wallice. They all very much exist in their own worlds, but like Ursula before them, each has a built-in backstory in Kudrow. She’s unafraid to push herself to the extremes, even if it means appearing unlikable. “The Comeback” illustrates this as much as “Web Therapy,” more so in her character’s cringingly blatant pursuit of fame. Here’s hoping soon she’ll get the time in the spotlight she seems not to care about, even when it’s all her characters crave.