Lisa Kudrow seems surprised by the notion, recently posted by a TV blogger, that she is having the most daring career of all the former “Friends” stars.
“It doesn’t feel daring. I feel like I’ve been very safe,” says the actress, who has two series returning to the tube tonight (7/23) — her improvisational “Web Therapy” comedy on Showtime, and the celebrity genealogy show she produces, “Who Do You Think You Are?” on TLC.
“A show like ‘Web Therapy’ – that wasn’t a risk, to me, because it started on the internet. People our age weren’t doing that much there,” she says of herself and collaborators Don Roos and Dan Bucatinsky. “And we thought, ‘Well, if nobody watches, then no one will know.’
“And ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ didn’t feel like a risk because it was a show that was already a success in the U.K.,” she goes on. “I didn’t understand why it wasn’t on in the U.S., and then we brought it to the U.S. and we heard, you know, what the worries were – that it was a little too intellectual for people. But we knew that people are more intellectual than they’re given credit for. And it’s a big country, you know. There’s a percentage who watch TV who would definitely be interested in this. And it’s not just intellectual, it’s emotional too. They were overlooking that.”
Yes, the show that’s brought us such intriguing moments as Sarah Jessica Parker’s discovery that she is descended from one of the accused in the Salem witch trials has something for everyone — from smarty pants history buffs to those who like other TLC shows such as “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” and “Cake Boss.”
The first installment of this season’s “Who Do You Think You Are” focuses on Kelly Clarkson. The “American Idol” winner is “the youngest person we’ve ever had on the show. What’s great about that is, there’s like this optimism and enthusiasm. She’s not jaded yet and she’s just wonderful.” Clarkson learns about a great-great grandfather who was a Union soldier during the Civil War. “She’s just kind of blown away by what his journey was. He was a prisoner in one of the worst places you could be held by the Confederates.”
Kudrow and her team have just put the finishing touches on another upcoming episode, with Zooey Deschanel. “Her granny who recently passed away came from a long line of Quakers, and talked about there being family members who were involved in abolitionist movement. She was like, ‘Who knows if any of that’s true?’ Well, Quakers were very involved before the Civil War, very anti-slavery on principle. Even though Zooey knew the area, there were details she never expected to find. There were huge, very pivotal events — one especially that her ancestor was involved in, that she had no idea about.”
Jim Parsons, Christina Applegate, Trisha Yearwood, Chelsea Handler and Cindy Crawford are also among the famous names who find out about their ancestors’ amazing lives this season. “It’s a great group with fantastic stories,” Kudrow says.
Has all her work with genealogy given rise to views about lines of remarkable humans and such?
“I think every person has come from someone who has succeeded remarkably under very difficult circumstances – that’s every human being,” answers Kudrow. “We wouldn’t be here otherwise. It’s not an easy planet. So, if we’re here, it’s because the people who came before us had to endure some impossibly difficult situations.”
She notes, “There aren’t always records or documents to show you what those stories are, but obviously if we’re broadcasting an episode, it’s because we were able to document an incredible story.”
Speaking of incredible – this season’s “Web Therapy” might even be more off-the-wall than the previous two. “This whole season she’s trying to cope with the mess that is her life. Her husband Kip (Victor Garber) has left her for his campaign manager they’ve moved to New Mexico as a gay couple. So she’s coping with the end of her marriage. Her boyfriend, Austin Clark, played by Alan Cumming, got Gina Spinks (Jennifer Elise Cox), you know her friend, pregnant, so that relationship is in danger. She’s being investigated for campaign finance improprieties, and her mother (Lily Tomlin) stole her idea of web therapy and started Net Therapy…”
Not surprisingly, it took Kudrow, Bucatinsky and Roos “weeks to figure out the arc of this season. That’s mostly Don, and Dan and I write the outline for the season. And then we need some stories that are sort of self-contained,” she says.
As far as how celebrity pals — like Chelsea Handler and Matt LeBlanc, both coming up this season — are utilized, “We think about the person and what might be fun to see them play,” she says.
When she and the guys first started playing around with “Web Therapy,” did she imagine…
“That I’d be doing it for five years?” she completes the question with a laugh. “No I didn’t.”
And as for “Web Therapy’s” long-term future? “Well, we’ll see anyone is still interested, then we will decide. That’s the nature of entertainment: you’re onstage for as long as they want you onstage,” Kudrow says.
“Web Therapy” has also been singled out as remarkably gay-friendly, with her creative partners, lots of gay cast members and frequent storylines – including last season’s skewering of attempts to push poor Kip into the straight life. Kudrow is happy for the praise, which is similar to the “gay-friendly” accolades heaped upon her for her brilliant HBO “The Comeback” series.
“I’m smart enough to pick people more talented than I am to work with,” she says, smiling. “That also diminishes the amount of risk”
As for herself and husband of 24 years, French advertising executive Michel Stern, and their 15-year-old son, they’ve recently been on their yearly trip to France to visit her in-laws. “Nothing remarkable there,” she says. But in the entertainment world, a 24-year marriage is remarkable in itself.
“That’s true,” she concurs. “We’re proud of that.”