When Lisa Kudrow and the five other cast members of Friends decided to leave that show after its tenth 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 thought 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 ten years since the show ended. She started a production company and created The Comeback, a comedy about a famous actress trying to revive her career, which HBO picked up for a limited run of 13 episodes in 2005. Along with Dan Bucatinsky and Don Roos she developed Web Therapy, an Internet series about a self-proclaimed therapist who worked in three-minute sessions on-line, which became so popular that Showtime picked it up. She produced a documentary show, Who Do You Think You Are, which follows the genealogy of celebrities like Spike Lee, Susan Sarandon, Martin Sheen, Cindy Crawford, Kelly Clarkson and Zooey Deschanel, After three years on NBC, it’s currently showing on The Learning Channel.
Kudrow was born in Encino, California on July 30, 1963. Her father was a doctor specializing in headache research. Her older brother is 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 plum role as Roz for the Frazier pilot. That didn’t work out, but she kept at it, accepting 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 Michel Stern in 1995 and they have a son, Julian, 15.
After Friends, she appeared in a number of movies, including the Albert Brooks’ comedy Mother, Romy & Michele’s High School Reunion with Mira Sorvino, The Opposite of Sex with Christina Ricci, Wonderland with Val Kilmer, Hanging Up with Diane Keaton and Meg Ryan, Analyze This with Billy Crystal and Robert DeNiro, and Easy A with Emma Stone and Stanley Tucci.
She graduated from Vassar in 1985, and when she returned in 2010 to give the commencement address, she encouraged students to follow their dreams, no matter how many times they may hit a brick wall. She also said that the question most often asked of her was how she went from being a biology major to becoming an actress. Looking at her body of work, and how familiar she has become to viewers who have laughed out loud at the ditzy but lovable Phoebe Buffay of Friends, the decent but deluded Valerie Cherish of The Comeback, and the manipulative, condescending Fiona Wallis of Web Therapy, one wonders how she ever could have considered biology over the dramatic arts in the first place.
Q: You turned 50 in July. How did you celebrate that?
LISA KUDROW: Quietly.
Q: How old do you feel?
LK: In my forties.
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, which is what a lot of commencement addresses state. 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. Whatever problems are right here, it’s the Devil you know, rather than the Devil you don’t.
Q: It seems like you’re more on the side of the angels than the devil, with two brilliant TV shows that you produce and a 3-episode appearance in the TV series Scandals.
LK: Scandals just came to me. They wanted me to play a Democratic Congresswoman, so I said yes. I didn’t think they wanted comedy, but the second episode seemed funny.
Q: Web Therapy moved from three-minute shorts on the Internet to a half hour on Showtime. Whose brilliant idea was Web Therapy?
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. What bad ideas. And I thought, nothing could be a worse idea than to do therapy. That’s a funny idea, how people could go on-line 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: That was the most important writing session, figuring out who this person was perpetrating this on the Internet. She doesn’t know much about therapy and she’s not even accredited—do you have to be on the Internet? Who’s checking? 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 Courtney Cox agreed to do it, which was a big deal. Then people like Alan Cummings and Steven Weber thought it was really funny, so we came up for things for them to do and they were fantastic. Don and Dan are friends with Julia Louis-Dryfusand, 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, because that’s what she does. 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. And she’s so committed. When her bra snapped and she went with it, I still don’t know if that really happened or if she came up with that as a bit.
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 Coliseum 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: But that’s such a different thing. It’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. Not to scare anyone. My partner Dan Roos and I are pretty hands on. We get briefed on the research. We have meetings about which line to follow. We make an outline for how the subject is going to discover the information—how the story will unfold.
Q: What has most surprised you about the show?
LK: The thing that surprises me most is just that it’s a miracle that we’re here. That any one of us is here is a result of great good fortune. Just the amount of suffering that our ancestors endured so that we could be here.
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. I thought Hitler was like a serial killer. But I never put it together that there were death squads and what that meant until the show, 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.
Q: Have you ever experienced anti-Semitism?
LK: Yes, I have. But in my mind I make everything not a big deal. It’s mostly things like someone saying, “They tried to Jew me down.” Or, “They were Jewish, of course they wouldn’t want to pay.” Certain things like that. In college there was more anti-Semitism than before college, because there were people who never met a Jew before. A friend of mine, when she found out I was Jewish, said, “Really? Oh, I don’t like Jews.”
Q: Can you relate the story of how your two best friends in junior high school told you they didn’t want to be friends with you anymore?
LK: That happened in seventh grade when we moved from sixth grade to a new school. So they knew some people and I didn’t. So I would just stand there and no one would introduce me to anybody. I didn’t know how to say, “Hi, I’m Lisa.” So they just got tired of me being a tag-along. They said, “For your own good, you need to see what would happen if we weren’t here.” It was really brutal. Very hard.
Q: Turned your world upside down?
LK: Yeah, it did. It was just mean. And all of junior high felt upside down to me. It was not like the nice people who were popular, it wasn’t the most entertaining people–it was the meanest people who were popular. We were reading Macbeth at the time and I remember the three witches: “What’s fair is foul and foul is fair.” That’s all I could hear in my head during that whole period. When my friends dropped me I was asking my parents, “What did I do?” And my father would say, “F.’em.” His answer to everything. And my mother would say, “You can’t do that.”
Q: Was it your older sister who rescued you from being isolated in school?
LK: She did, definitely. Unbelievable of her too, because I was 13 and she was 20. She would find out when our half days were, when everyone would go out to lunch and I would have no one to eat with. She would pick me up and take me to lunch. That’s extraordinary to me. She didn’t have those things happen to her when she was younger. She was popular and had a boyfriend. She was a different personality. She was bubbly and nice. She’s a sculptor now. It was just very generous of her to be so sensitive and aware, even though there was nothing anyone could do.
Q: You did something about your own appearance, having your nose fixed when you were 16.
LK: That was life altering. I went from, in my mind, hideous, to not hideous. I did it the summer before going to a new high school. So there were plenty of people who wouldn’t know how hideous I looked before. That was a good, good, good change.
Q: In high school you spent a summer at Cornell University. How did that go?
LK: It didn’t go well. I did have a boyfriend, but I failed the two classes I took. I was a wreck over those classes. One was Jewish history class and the other was Writing. I got caught up in the social stuff. I remember talking to my parents and my father said, “I forbid you to attend another class. You’ve failed two, good for you, have fun.” Because they knew I was so uptight, I was wound so tightly. And I did fine in school. Other than those summer classes.
Q: How did you get into Vassar?
LK: Well, I didn’t let anyone know I went to Cornell. [Laughs].
Q: How happy were you at Vassar?
LK: When I got there I was smiling so much that everyone thought I was an idiot.
Q: Both your father and brother advised you against med school. Why?
LK: I was saying that I wasn’t sure I wanted to go to medical school, and my father said, ‘Great, don’t.” My brother, too. He was in medical school at the time. And they both said “If you’re not sure you want to be a practicing physician, then don’t. Because it’s a lot of work to get there. And if you go through all that work and then change your mind, one other person could have taken your spot and become a physician.”
Q: You worked for your father for 8-10 years—what did you do?
LK: I started off doing research, because my goal was still to go to graduate school and I wanted to be published. But after a few months I realized if I wanted to try acting, now was the time to do it! I had no mortgage, no kids, no responsibilities—it was the best time. I could always go back to text books and catch up. My father agreed. So I just stopped the research after that one project and became a receptionist for him.
Q: The research you did had to do with left-handedness. Did you discover that left-handed people developed more cluster headaches?
LK: That was what my father had thought. First you had to establish hemisphere dominance—just because someone writes left-handed doesn’t mean they are completely left-handed. So we had to come up with a survey amongst his population of headache patients. It was a really healthy sample, and when we studied the information, the answer was no, being left-handed did not bring on more cluster headaches.
Q: Did any of his research influence your decision about trying any mind-altering drugs?
LK: I never tried that stuff. Because he would tell me stories of people who had smoked pot one time and they had a psychotic break and never recovered. And I thought, well, who wants to roll those dice? I don’t care what the odds are. [Laughs] I don’t like being altered.
Q: What about your teenage son, Julian?
LK: Well, he’s decided, and he’s not wrong, that since I used to smoke and now chew Nicorettes, that I’m an addict.
Q: What has being a mother taught you?
LK: We only have one. I think you have much more experience as a parent if you have more than one. Then you understand, “Oh, OK, they’re very different. That’s just how they came into the world.” When you just have one you can fall into, “Oooh, everything’s up to me.” And when going through the whole grade school process, kids are overly scrutinized and that’s really too bad for them. Way too measured, calibrated, and no one knows what any of that information means. One week I heard, “Oh your kid’s not able to focus. And I’ve been noticing it for a while now.” “A while?” “Yeah, like two weeks. You ought to look into medication.” Luckily the mothers would all talk. My first rule of parenting is: Get to know other parents. It’s so unfair, that kids aren’t allowed to go through a little something. It’s really tricky.
Q: Your son Julian is 15; how’s he doing in school?
LK: He’s a big thinker, but he’s impatient with the details, because he wants to jump to the bigger stuff. In that way he’s intellectual. But that’s a different skill set than organizing, outlining and studying for a test. But he’s done well. Maybe he’ll be a philosophy major [Laughs].
Q: You were bat mizvah’d. Was he bar mitzvah’d?
LK: Yes and no. It was similar to me. I was bat mitzvah’d because I asked my parents for it, and we had friend who was a rabbi who agreed to tutor me, not in person but with tapes I listened to, and then read phonetically. My son sort of wanted a bar mitzvah, but it was a lot of work and we didn’t belong to a temple. But then he was at the mall and two Hassidic Jews, I think they were Chabad-Lubavitch, they went up to him and asked, ‘Are you Jewish? Did you have a bar mitzvah?’ He said he was half-Jewish. They asked, “Your mother?” “Yeah.” “Great, come here, we’ll give you a bar mitzvah in thirty seconds.” They did a ritual, took a picture, he was all by himself and he had his own bar mitzvah.
Q: That’s a very funny story.
LK: It is. It was a drive-by bar mitzvah. [Laughs]
Q: Why was it a tough decision for you to become an actress?
LK: Because I thought actors were egocentric people with bad judgment. And anyone who wanted to do that, it wasn’t very mature.
Q: Conan O’Brien was in your first improv class. How impressive was he?
LK: He was so impressive that he saved me from quitting the whole notion of acting. I had come late to the second class and I wasn’t sure I was going to stay with it. It was too embarrassing. I felt I looked so silly doing some of the exercises. So I sat down to watch people make fools of themselves. And then I saw this very childlike guy throwing a space ball, but it looked like was throwing an actual ball. It didn’t look stupid, and he wasn’t overdoing it. He was totally committed to it. I finally got it, that as long as you totally commit you’re safe from embarrassment.
Q: He credits you with becoming a talk-show host. True?
LK: Yeah! I was very encouraging. I remember saying, “If Letterman’s leaving his late night show, he’s irreplaceable. So better it be someone we don’t know at all.” So I thought he should look into it.
Q: How did your brother’s friend, John Lovitz, influence you?
LK: He sent me to the Groundlings. That was his recommendation. That was the single best direction I ever got. It was an important suggestion. I had done a lot of acting classes, I studied theater in college, but I learned the most at the Groundlings.
Q: Your agent didn’t want you to do the small role in Mad About You, which would lead to your being cast in Friends. Is that agent still with you?
LK: No. Though it wasn’t bad advice. He said, ‘You did the Frazier pilot, you don’t say OK to do a character who doesn’t have a name and only two lines.” But I felt I wasn’t in the position to be highfalutin’ about anything. I needed money, it was a great show, so I did it.
Q: How many countries is Friends syndicated in?
LK: I don’t know, but that’s been surprising to me. It’s a new realization about Friends. It’s almost twenty years since we started. Because it’s relationship-based, that’s why it’s still funny and people still like it.
Q: Do you get residuals from every country where it plays?
LK: I should. I’m supposed to. [Laughs]
Q: What do you spend money on that’s an extravagance?
LK: Traveling well. Wherever I have to go. I’m not good on vacations. And I like facials.
Q: You must get some amusing fan letters from around the world.
LK: People mostly send me a picture to sign.
Q: Do people still call you Phoebe?
LK: Yes, they do. I don’t turn around. I never turn around. If someone’s in front of me I’ll smile and try to be nice. But I don’t like taking pictures. Autographs are fine.
Q: When you were in college you asked Elie Wiesel and E.O. Wilson for their autographs. Have you ever asked anyone else since then?
LK: No. Those weren’t social settings. E.O. Wilson was in his office, but I thought it was OK. And Elie Wiesel, how do you get any bigger than that? Other people I’ve met have been at dinner or cocktail parties and it’s not appropriate.
Q: Was Phoebe originally written the way you played her?
LK: I think so. The audition piece was the monolog that Phoebe said in the pilot episode. Everything I knew about her character came from that speech. She was basically a ditzy girl who lived in a happier reality than everybody else, because everything was so gloomy around her. That’s what I decided. And she was fearless and unapologetic. Now on Twitter or Facebook I see young girls saying, “I identify with Phoebe because I’m different too.” That’s nice, to think that people who don’t feel they fit in perfectly well can relate to that character.
Q: Did people—and do they sometimes now—take you as being ditzy because of Phoebe?
LK: Some people do.
Q: Is that your greatest fear, being taken as an idiot?
LK: Yes and no. It’s not with people who don’t know me, but it is with people who do know me.
Q: You told Matthew Perry on CNN that you were sorry the show ended.
LK: Matthew said that and then I agreed with him. It was a lot of fun. I don’t think we understood—even though I thought we did understand when we were getting done with it—but I think there was the feeling of: We can’t make any decisions based on money; and, Better to go out on top, like Seinfeld had done.
Q: The six cast members voted to end the show. If you all had that vote back, do you think you’d still be doing Friends?
LK: I don’t know, I’d have to check in with everybody. I get nervous about speaking for other cast members. It makes me uncomfortable.
Q: You told Matthew that you sucked on Friends. Do you really think that?
LK: Yes, sometimes I watch myself and I mean, really?
Q: When you see it on TV now, do you watch it or keep clicking the remote?
LK: It depends on my mood. If I’m in a bad mood, I’d better not. Sometimes my son will come in and we’ll see it and he’ll have questions—mostly what he wants to know is, “So how old was I when you did that one?” He doesn’t care about me.
Q: Why were guest stars like Susan Sarandon, Bruce Willis, and Sean Penn so scared or nervous about appearing on Friends?
LK: It wasn’t just Friends, it was the multi-camera in front of an audience thing. There’s nothing else like it. A play or a film doesn’t prepare you for that. It’s trying to figure out the energy level. It’s so different.
Q: There is always talk of a Friends reunion. Do you think that will ever happen?
LK: Not that I know of.
Q: Friends made you famous. What surprised you about fame?
LK: I had always thought that fame would give you permission to lighten up on yourself. If everybody else likes you, you could finally have permission to love yourself. It’s not true. I suspected it wasn’t true before, after having gone to a good therapist. But when it happened, I could see how lucky I’d been to have done the work I had done on myself before it happened.
Q: Speaking of love, Your husband [Michel Stern] was originally your girlfriend’s boyfriend. Was it ever awkward when you started seeing him?
LK: He went out with my roommate, yeah. Six years later I started seeing him. She wasn’t that happy. But she has two kids now.
Q: You’ve been married 18 years: What are the best things about it?
LK: We’re still attracted to each other, that’s a good one. We’re close, we’re friends, we talk. We’re very connected. And we’re still very much in love—we say that and feel that a lot. That’s very lucky—I’m knocking wood right now—because I don’t think you get that too often.
Q: What have you learned about love over the years?
LK: That it needs attention.
Q: Let’s talk briefly about your film career. Of the films you’ve done, which were you most satisfied with?
LK: I liked Opposite of Sex. I really loved Wonderland. I thought that was done really well.
Q: In Analyze This, you got to work with Billy Crystal and Robert DeNiro.
LK: They were so great. They kept inviting me to play. But I don’t think I grabbed the bull by the horns.
Q: Did you feel that way when Diane Keaton directed you and Meg Ryan in Hanging Up?
LK: I learned a lot from Diane. Her whole thing was: “Let’s not be too precise”’ She was looking for more spontaneity than precision, she liked when we were talking over each other. I think I get it now more than I did then. One of my biggest flaws is that I’m too compliant and want to please the authority figure—the director or the writer. I don’t want to be a difficult person.
Q: Diane Keaton said that you were mysterious, complicated, sly, and witty.
LK: Really? I might be mysterious—I’ve been told, “I don’t know what you’re thinking.” And I’ve been told, “Every thought you have is on your face.” So I guess that makes me complicated and mysterious. [Laughs]. Sly, I don’t know. Maybe. Witty is nice.
Q: You said at UCLA that you wished there were more Katharine Hepburn styled scripts written for women today– smart, articulate, and witty. Do you still feel that way?
LK: It’s gotten better, for sure, because you have so many strong women in comedy who write, like Tina Fey and Kristen Wiig and Mindy Kaling. It’s not going to be the same because our society is not the same.
Q: Are these the people who make you laugh?
LK: They are. But there are so many, because there are all different shades of comedy. Steve Carrel, Will Ferrell. Sarah Silverman. A lot. What makes me laugh is seeing people being caught off guard. Not knowing how they’re coming off.
Q: Well, you certainly make a lot of people laugh. Do people often tell you that?
LK: My dad is a big Web Therapy fan. He’ll text me saying “I had an asthma attack from laughing so hard.”