Thursday, February 24, 2011

My One-Night Stand With Valerie Cherish

Attended a fun and informative evening with Lisa Kudrow and Dan Bucatinsky last night at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, where the creative duo screened the pilot of their acclaimed series, "The Comeback," followed by a Q&A session.

As many of you recall, "The Comeback" ran just one season on HBO, but has left an indelible mark on the celebrity landscape with its brutal send-up of everything in Hollywood, from aging actresses and power-hungry show runners to hot shot writers and delusional publicists, all the while poking fun at the era's scripted offerings (The CW-able "Room & Bored") and predicting where reality television would lead ("America's Next Great Porn Star"!).

Watching the pilot episode on a big screen with an audience was really a treat. The show is so subtle and nuanced that it was almost as much fun noticing what made other people react as it was watching it yourself. (The audience was nearly all gay men, by the way.) Afterward, Tod Lippy, editor of ESOPUS magazine, moderated the chat, and started at the top by asking where "Valerie Cherish" came from. Kudrow quickly explained Val had roots in her days at the Groundlings -- "Whenever that was" -- and was a character she did for a "Your Favorite Actresses on a TV Show" assignment at the legendary comedy training ground. "The completely insincere voice -- 'We're doing it for the children' -- the whole thing," she recalled. She performed her "probably only three times." Jump ahead to the end of "Friends" when her publicist and the publicist of Michael Patrick King, fresh off his "Sex and the City" success, suggested the two have lunch. Both said that they had no idea why this date had been arranged -- and completely agreed neither of them had any interest in doing another television series. "But if I were going to do one, I have this character ..." Kudrow told King. Without missing a beat, she said, King got everything she was explaining. The lunch ran four hours and by the time it was over, King told her that with one more lunch, he believed they'd have a series. It was as if King took her "sugar and whipped into into a candy sculpture," she said "It'll be a show within a show," he said, and within no time, they were getting ready to pitch it to HBO.

"Other than stuff I had done at the Groundlings, this was the first thing I had formally written," Kudrow said. "Yet we did the whole thing really quickly and with very little rewriting. So I asked Michael Patrick if this was normal (that it would go so quickly and smoothly) and he said no."

If writing the pilot was easy, selling it was anything but. Bucatinsky remembers the incredibly awkward pitch meeting vividly -- and how everyone in the room kind of stared at them as Lisa broke into character and they tried to explain who this aging sitcom star who is willing to suffer any humiliation to get herself back into the limelight is. HBO executives weren't like regular network suits, Kudrow explained, as she demonstrated how they all sat with their legs up on the tables and asked few questions. Finally, realizing they had Michael Patrick King -- "who had just made HBO a billion dollars with 'Sex and the City'" -- and someone with a track record on a megahit show, Bucatinsky said HBO finally said, "We don't know what that is, but do it anyway." And the show was bought.

Eventually, they got around to discussing the show's untimely demise. Both Kudrow and Bucatinsky spoke very fondly and respectfully of HBO throughout the discussion. It was at this point they got introspective and serious, and said they had heard conflicting reports about what ultimately ended the show. A regime change was mentioned. The fact that the network had too many "Hollywood navel-gazing" shows on at once ("Extras," "Entourage," and "Unscripted" were all the air then too) might have been a factor. And that the channel "stopped being HBO for a second," Lisa said kind of sadly, and started thinking like a regular network for a while, was offered as an explanation. Most interesting, though, was how even after all these years, there still seemed to be palpable shock that the show was canceled at all. "This was definitely a two-season thing," Lisa said. "Everyone just thought they put you on and then they leave you alone -- like seven seasons of 'Arli$.'" (No need for sarcasm in parenthesis -- and the "Arli$$" crack may have been said more than once.)

We also learned that:

  • The show was originally called "Raw Footage," a nod to the reality footage we are supposedly watching.

  • Robert Michael Morris, the man who played Val's trusted hairdresser/confidant, Mickey, was Michael Patrick King's acting teacher in college. Michael had him in mind for the role the whole time even though he had never done any TV or films before. ("He said to me, you'll meet him and then you'll know exactly who Mickey is," Lisa said.) Even though he had no Hollywood experience, MPK was certain Robert would nail the audition, but they still had "a lot of big names read for it." (Who??? FYI: I always HATE when people say stuff like that but don't say WHO!) Robert came in and nailed it -- and HBO hired him. (Lisa loved that the guy's first professional job , was on a television series!)

  • Damian Young, who played Val's husband, Mark Berman, was someone MPK had wanted to work with from back in the "Sex and the City" days. (I think he wound up being in the first SATC movie, too.) MPK and Lisa felt the character of Mark needed to be strong and successful so that Valerie did not "need" the job on "The Comeback" or "Room & Bored." "Val didn't need this humiliation," Lisa explained, "but she still ran after it!"

  • Lisa "takes full credit" for the brilliant casting of Laura Silverman to play the unflappable reality show producer Jane. "I had worked with her on 'Dr. Katz' and had her voice in my head." Again, they said how all these other (nameless) people had auditioned for the role, but they kept giving too much of a "performance" when the role required someone to just blend into the backdrop. (Dying to know if Kathy Griffin was one of them!) It had to be just right -- and Laura nailed it.

  • Casting Tom and Paulie G. was the most difficult task of all. They saw a lot of people and would mix and match them, and something would always be wrong. When they finally got Robert Bagnell and Lance Barber together, they knew they'd found the perfect pair.

  • Juna's publicist was played by Stephanie Courtney -- aka the "Progressive Insurance lady" -- who was a fellow Groundlings person. Some other clips were shown and I discovered that Jayma Mays (who plays Emma on "Glee") was the salesgirl in the shop in Santa Monica where Val returns sheets in one of the series' most excruciating scenes!

    Eventually, the host turned to the audience, who thankfully were prepared to ask the questions that still needed to be asked.

    Such as:

  • If the show had stayed on for a second season, what was planned? This is obviously the BIG question of any show that ends prematurely ("My So-Called Life"!), and Dan and Lisa tossed out a couple of ideas, like the possibility that Val would have gotten Paulie G. fired (remember, she ended on a high note with another classic Leno!) and the always-snacking Gigi would have moved into his role -- only to become a bigger nightmare. Marital problems were also a possibility. ("You could see Mark kind of getting overwhelmed toward the end there," Kudrow said.) I wish the moderator had pressed them on this -- there has to be more.

  • Where is Val now? After saying she did not want to answer that because she didn't want to spoil it in case Val comes back to life some day -- a possibility Dan said he is "convinced" will happen eventually, when all the planets align just so -- Lisa immediately changed course (with a big smile -- and Dan's needling that he knew she would!) and said she thinks Val is somewhere desperately trying to get herself on -- you guessed it -- a reality show. (She didn't mention that the DVD release features an extra of Val backstage with Mickey at "Dancing With the Stars"!) They talked a lot about how reality was in its quasi-infancy when "The Comeback" was conceived, and how seeing "Fear Factor" contestants and Anna Nicole Smith humiliate themselves on TV back in the day really influenced the making of the show. No one knew if reality was going to "last" back then, but Lisa is sure Valerie would be attempting to be all over it now.

  • Dan is convinced Val would be hawking something for Guthy-Renker by now (now THAT would have been a great storyline!). There were repeated references to Bethenny Frankel and Jill Zarin about how they may be famous for being famous, but unlike Val, who Lisa says was also clearly not in it "for the art," they at least have made a brand of themselves and are getting rich off it. "Val doesn't even have that," Lisa said. Older women on television -- or a lack of them back in 2005 -- was mentioned a lot, too. The advent of "Desperate Housewives" -- with a cast of non-22-year-olds -- was something that made Lisa happy, until she realized they were "older women who don't eat and only work out. So I don't know who that helps."

  • The Elephant in the Chamber(s) -- which I was about to ask about, but was beaten to the punch -- was of course this: Is Val based on Shelley Long? As the guy was asking his question, Lisa interrupted him and stated rather emphatically that the answer was no. Undeterred, Mr. Inquisitive continued on with his theory -- something about Long having a hairdresser named Mickey in real life during the filming of "Hello, Again" and how Val does resemble Long quite a bit -- which prompted a hilarious reaction from Lisa, who feigned indignation and said, "Oh, I guess he begs to differ." Lisa eventually conceded that Val was a "composite" of various actresses -- again, naming NO ONE -- and never admitted if Long was one of them. Like our intrepid reporter in the audience, however, I was not buying it.

    At one point before the whole thing started, I was telling my date for the evening, Christopher, how truly excited I was because there were only a few things that I would come to like this. (Debbie Harry at a public school or a "Desperately Seeking Susan" screening might do the trick, or anything having to do with "The Mary Tyler Moore Show.") He turned and told me that when he first came to New York for an internship in 1984, some television station used to show three back-to-back episodes of Mary very late at night. He didn't have a strong recollection of the show from when he was a kid, so found himself getting lost in life at WJM. Although he had to be up early for work, he recalled the night the last two episodes -- including the famed "It's a Long Way to Tipperary" series finale -- and the pilot happened to be the three. "It was one of the greatest nights of my life," he joked, as we both began to poke fun at our "pathetic" selves for even kidding about such a thing. Then we paused for a second -- remembering that life's joys really do come in all shapes and sizes, including a trip out to Queens to revisit Valerie Cherish -- and then both agreed this was no joke at all.

    Afterward, Christopher and I worked our way down to the stage, where Dan and Lisa were chatting with various friends and attendees. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to get to Dan (who directed one of my fave gay movies ever, "All Over the Guy"), but Lisa was very warm and kind when I worked my way over to her. I mentioned our mutual friend (Scott, who directed her in "Kabluey") and she immediately said, "Oh, hi. He said you'd be coming." (You know THAT made my night!) I knew she was aware of my Madonna-Val comparison, so I told her that that item was the post that put my infant blog "on the map" back in the day (Queerty and Towleroad both linked to me, which was -- and is -- a big deal in the blogosphere). She smiled and said, "But really -- what is up with that? I don't know if she (Madonna) knew, but her hairdresser ..."

    We laughed and then I asked her if Valerie would ever turn up as a client of Fiona Wallice (the character she plays in "Web Therapy") -- sort of an Ursula and Phoebe Buffay situation -- and she smiled and said, "God, Fiona would eat her alive!" Christopher then got the "pic with" and moments later we were back on the subway to the city. It was one of those great evenings that goes by so quickly you feel like you went from saying "Hello, hello, hello" to "Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye" in a just matter of seconds.

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    Bill in DC said...

    What a great posting. I absolutely loved that show and was so sad (and surprised) it wasn't brought back for a second season. Thanks!

    Anonymous said...

    A great synopsis of your evening, but where are the photos of Dan? I'd be "all over the guy" too.

    Anonymous said...

    Fun post! What's up w/the date? Won't ur luvuh be jelly?

    victor said...

    !)I love Lisa so thanks for this
    2)Congratulations for your blog,Ken:you have opened the doors to females unlike the majority of
    gay blogs
    3)Reading this blog is very interesting because you inform us about your life,we share your sorrows and joys.And you spur us to help those who need it.

    Matthew said...

    I think you topped me in the amazing pic-with, amazingly exhaustive recap department! I sure wish I'd been in town for this. I would've been ALL OVER THE GIRL.

    Anonymous said...

    Robert Michael Morris was on an episode of Will and Grace, the "kid" who works at a bowling alley that Jack goes to visit. So it wasn't his first tv gig.

    David K said...

    Great work, Ken!

    @ Anonymous 1:26 p.m.: The "Will and Grace" episode Robert Michael Morris appeared in, "Cop to It," aired January 26, 2006 -- which was AFTER "The Comeback." Thank you, though. Everyone LOVES a know-it-all who is wrong!

    long duck dong said...

    One memory: when the show was beginning to air, they had sent headshots of Valerie to seemingly every business, signed something like, "Love this place! - Valerie Cherish". Some places (gay bars) got the joke and put the pic up for a while, but as I recall, it was prominently displayed at West Side Cottage (chinese restaurant on 9th Ave in NYC) alongside the other celeb's pics for years until they remodeled. Always made me giggle.

    David K said...

    @ Anonymous 1:26 p.m.: The episode he appeared in, "Cop to It," aired January 26, 2006, was was AFTER "The Comeback." Everyone LOVES a know-it-all who is wrong!

    Doodle Whore said...

    Great post! Thank you!