Lisa Kudrow plays an acerbic therapist in the new Showtime series "Web… (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles…)
Lisa Kudrow, who may forever be identified as her lovably clueless "Friends" character, is out once again to show she can be the "anti-Phoebe."
Her first notable TV attempt to bury sweet Phoebe came in 2005 with the character Valerie Cherish, the self-absorbed former star trying to rebuild her career in HBO's "The Comeback." The critically acclaimed mockumentary that cataloged the relentless humiliations of Hollywood earned her an Emmy nomination but was axed by HBO after one season.
And now with Showtime's "Web Therapy," which premiered last week, Kudrow is tackling another grating lead character: self-declared psychotherapist Fiona Wallice whose webcam counseling is overshadowed by her own narcissism and lack of expertise. The program is an outgrowth of a series of Web episodes put together by Kudrow, along with writer-director Don Roos and executive producer and co-star Dan Bucatinsky.
"I can't help it," Kudrow said with a laugh. "There's just something about not doing what the audience expects of you."
As Wallice, Kudrow certainly strives to help her patients, but a horrifying web-side manner serves only to underline the obvious point — physician, heal thyself. Her rambling, ill-informed and off-base diagnoses, however, can often be hilarious.
This type of character "is certainly a risk," acknowledged Kudrow, but "people who think they're pulling something off when the rest of the world can see right through them have always struck me as funny. They make me laugh a lot."
Some of her former "Friends" have found success with lighter fare that doesn't travel far from their popular TV persona: Jennifer Aniston is a romantic comedy mainstay and Courteney Cox anchors "Cougar Town" with considerable pleasant fluffiness.
Still, Kudrow is indebted to Phoebe, who has given her the luxury to be discriminating. By the time the NBC comedy about six yuppies in New York City ended in 2004 after 10 years, each cast member was earning a reported $1 million per episode.
"Thanks to Phoebe, I don't have to worry — I can have fun," Kudrow said.
Ironically, she said her flaky Phoebe was more challenging to play than her grittier roles.
"Phoebe was very far from who I was as a person," Kudrow said. "But part of her definitely rubbed off on me, inspired me to be more optimistic."
Kudrow exhibited a relaxed, sunny demeanor while discussing her latest venture in a room at the Beverly Hills Hotel. The 47-year-old actress is clearly proud of "The Comeback" and "Web Therapy," flashing a smile that highlighted her quiet glamour.
Even when playing troubled or unpleasant characters, she displays a good-natured likability. Fans of "The Comeback" marveled at her performance — though Valerie Cherish was unapologetically self-centered, she displayed a vulnerability that was ultimately winning and charming.
Her success as Phoebe also enabled Kudrow to branch out in show business. In addition to being an executive producer on "Web Therapy" and "The Comeback," she is also an executive producer on "Who Do You Think You Are?," the NBC series in which celebrities trace their ancestry. (The reality series will soon launch its third season.)
Still, "Web Therapy" represents one of her riskiest projects and characters. The format is unconventional — Kudrow is on-screen almost the entire show, talking to clients via webcam, so there are primarily only two characters on screen simultaneously. The dialogue is basically improvised, although a basic story and arc have been outlined.
"Lisa is playing someone who is definitely not America's sweetheart," said Roos, who has worked with Kudrow on several films, including "The Opposite of Sex" and "Happy Endings." "With Valerie, you really wanted her to succeed. But it's very hard to be sympathetic toward Fiona. She's a ruthless, narcissistic therapist. It's amazing to see Lisa play someone who is not so adorable."
The acerbic therapist also fits in with the gallery of antiheroines in other Showtime series such as "Weeds, "Nurse Jackie" and "The Big C."
Kudrow hopes that "Web Therapy" has a longer life than "The Comeback." She is still stung that HBO did not renew the show: "I think it was a mistake," she said.
Although Kudrow is obviously pleased creatively with "Web Therapy," "The Comeback" served as a valuable lesson.
"I'm being cautious this time," she said. "But I do hope people like it."