Since "Friends" ended its wildly successful run a decade ago, its six castmates have taken various tracks, with pit stops in traditional sitcoms, rom-coms and Off-Broadway plays. But it was Emmy winner Lisa Kudrow who embarked on the quirkiest and most interesting route, one that has led to Sunday's second-season premiere of her series "The Comeback" — a whopping nine years after HBO canceled the show.
In between, she's been executive producer of "Who Do You Think You Are," a reality series exploring the genealogical trees of celebrities, and the star of "Web Therapy," a low-budget, improvised series that started on the Internet and is now in its fourth season on Showtime.
It wasn't the path Kudrow planned.
"All I knew was that I wasn't going to try for another 'Friends'-type show. I knew that was rare," Kudrow, 51, said in a recent phone interview. "I knew people would always see me as Phoebe and that's fine, otherwise I'm going to be unhappy. But the only place offering me different kinds of roles was independent film."
Her first post-sitcom effort, the 2005 indie movie "Happy Endings," received mixed reviews, with Maggie Gyllenhaal stealing the show, so Kudrow was more than willing to listen to a new friend, producer Michael Patrick King, whose credits include "Sex and the City" and "2 Broke Girls."
He suggested they cook up something that would give them complete creative control. The result: "The Comeback," a mockumentary about a one-time sitcom star, Valerie Cherish, who readily agrees to be both the subject of a TV reality show and the butt of every joke on a terrible series called "Room and Bored." The show skewered the Hollywood system and how it plays on the vulnerability of actors such as Cherish, whose only sense of validation comes from being in front of the lens, no matter how pathetic they might appear.
The show earned Kudrow an Emmy nomination, but that wasn't enough to get it renewed.
"I thought it was my best work, so I didn't know what to do after that," she said. "I had to regroup."
Independent film was no longer an option. Most were now being shot outside of Los Angeles and Kudrow didn't want to be away from her son, Julian Murray.
Then someone pitched Kudrow and "Happy Endings" director Don Roos a then-radical idea: Why not develop a show exclusively for the Web?
Kudrow's initial response: "Now, why would we want to do that?"
But curiosity got the best of her. She started exploring the Internet and realized that a series about a self-interested therapist who offers advice in three-minute sessions via computer could work.
"It was so untamed, so unregulated, absolutely anything goes," Kudrow said. "We didn't know if it was going to work. I mean it's just two people talking on computer screens. Maybe no one will watch it and no one will ever know that we failed."
It launched in 2008 and has drawn some major names — Meryl Streep, Gwyneth Paltrow, Lily Tomlin, Matthew Perry, Steve Carell — eager to riff on their public images.
But the biggest surprise was yet to come. HBO wanted "The Comeback" to, well, come back.
Kudrow couldn't quite believe it. It wasn't like a new generation found it online. Neither Netflix or Amazon has carried it. Kudrow's unscientific theory is that the DVD collection started being passed around, especially among college students and recent graduates. HBO took notice.
" 'The Comeback' holds a special place in the hearts of its many fans, including many of us here at HBO," programming president Michael Lombardo said when it was announced that the series was returning. "I can't wait to find out what Valerie's been up to since we last met."
The short answer: Not much.
Since the cancellation of "Room and Bored," Cherish has desperately tried to stay relevant, doing infomercials for a red-hair conditioner, appearing in a student horror film and appearing as a coroner on "CSI." It's not enough.
She gets the idea of hiring a frat-boy crew to film her every waking moment in hopes of pitching a new reality show to Bravo. At the same time, she learns that her former nemesis, "Room and Bored" co-creator Paulie G. (Lance Barber), has emerged from two stints of rehab with a series about a writer driven to heroin use by the constant pestering of a former sitcom star.
Cherish crashes the studio offices to protest the extreme likeness of herself — only to do a turnaround and accept the role. After all, it's a chance for yet another set of cameras to come into her life.
"I'm not just a real person," she said into the lens at one point. "I'm an actress."
Kudrow and King could have turned Cherish into a nattering, self-centered diva who only cares about her closeup. That would be too easy. What takes "The Comeback" to the next level is that Cherish truly cares about other people (she secretly pays for her extra hairdresser out of her own pocket). You feel deeply for her when she's being victimized. In one of the series' most painful scenes, she must lay her head on the lap of the show's star, Seth Rogen, while he simulates getting oral sex. Her professional-but-pained expression speaks volumes.
"She's actually a decent human being," Kudrow said.
"The Comeback" could continue for 10 more years and "Web Therapy" could book Pope Francis, but Kudrow will always be known as the smarter-than-your-average-airhead Phoebe. She doesn't run away from that. Just last month, she reunited with Jennifer Aniston and Courteney Cox on "Jimmy Kimmel Live," which recreated Monica's iconic kitchen set.
And she thinks it's perfectly natural that TV's most accessible sitcom becomes even more accessible when all 236 episodes are made available New Year's Day on Netflix.
But when it comes to actually watching her younger self in action, Kudrow is no Valerie Cherish.
"I don't reject it. I'm just a little self-conscious," she said. "Plus, what if someone saw me just delighting in the show? How embarrassing."
10 p.m. Sundays
11 p.m. Wednesdays