Lisa Kudrow became a household name and Emmy winner for her portrayal of ditzy massage therapist Phoebe Buffay on the hit sitcom Friends. Now, she is winning awards for her innovative online work. Kudrow is using her star power to fuel Web Therapy, an improvised series in which she portrays a comedic anti-Phoebe: disdainful, empathy-deficient, self-serving therapist Fiona Wallice, who offers three-minute therapy sessions via webcam as a way to "cut to the chase."
Each webisode, about 10 minutes long, features Wallice in an iChat session with a client, associate or family member. The sessions often reveal less about her patients and more about her own dysfunctional life.
The webisodes were created for L Studio, the broadband channel sponsored by Lexus. Now, they're being reconfigured into traditional television episodes, and will premiere on U.S. cable network Showtime in July.
The series is improvised to hilarious effect. While Kudrow and co-creator Don Roos write the outlines beforehand, there is no script beyond that, other than a series of specific points the actors are instructed to reach. Kudrow's character and her patients shoot their scenes on separate sets, but are located on the same sound stage. They speak directly into cameras equipped with monitors, so they can see each other in real time, and they also wear ear inserts to hear each other.
"Improvising is really fun," Kudrow, 47, says from her home in Los Angeles. "I like puzzle games, and to me it's like working out a puzzle. Whatever someone says, you have to make it right."
Web Therapy has attracted an impressive list of guest stars: Julia Louis-Dreyfus appears as Wallice's long-suffering psychiatrist sister; Molly Shannon as a freelance journalist who writes a popular erotic blog; Selma Blair as a surrogate mother carrying triplets for Wallice's assistant.
Fellow Friends alumna Courteney Cox plays a psychic who has lost her powers. "I was gonna do a show with Hollywood they were developing for me," explains Cox's character, Serena DuVall. "It was called Psychic Friends, but it was a legal issue." A few minutes later, she reveals that the producers opted instead to do a show with "one of those acting Arquettes with - good God - how many are there, really?" (Cox is married to actor David Arquette, a member of the Arquette acting family, from whom she is currently separated.)
Yes, the inside jokes abound, but it's a lot of fun for everyone - viewer and cast alike: "[While filming the show] I have cracked up and just put my head down [to]make it look like I'm thinking of a thoughtful response," Kudrow says. "But [actually]my head is down and I'm covering my mouth."
Even Oscar winner Meryl Streep, another recent guest star, broke down repeatedly while shooting her scenes as Camilla Bowner, a renowned sexual orientation therapist enlisted to help Fiona's husband in the midst of his political campaign. "You're amazing; you really are. How do you not laugh?" Streep asks Kudrow in a behind-the-scenes video featured on L Studio.
Streep and Kudrow ran into each other at a Vassar College function (they're alumnae and on the college's board of trustees), and Streep said she thought the show was really funny. So Kudrow invited her to make a guest appearance.
"I had to control my nerves and just focus on being my character talking to her character," Kudrow says about the shoot. "She's I think the greatest actress that's ever lived."
Kudrow laughs a lot as she recounts some of the series highlights. It's clear she's having fun. Over the phone, she sounds nothing like the uptight Fiona Wallice. Or Phoebe Buffay, for that matter.
She agreed to the project after Lexus approached with an offer of complete creative freedom. She and Roos, who worked together on the 1998 film The Opposite Of Sex, already had the idea for a Web series based on three-minute-long online therapy sessions. They thought it would be fun. Its success has far surpassed their expectations.
After three seasons, the series continues to earn kudos. At the Banff World Media Festival on Wednesday, Kudrow will receive the festival's inaugural Award of Excellence in Digital Media. Later this month, she'll host the Webby Awards; she and the series have won Webbies.
The move to television has created the need for additional material. Each guest generally appears in three webisodes (all three usually shot in one morning), but the three don't usually add up to a full 30 minutes. So they're adding to it, including backstories, some of which was already shot for a mobile platform that went out of business. Look for Lily Tomlin to guest as Fiona's mother.
Kudrow's embrace of digital technology is evident at home as well as at work. Everything her 13-year-old son watches is recorded, she says. And she has become used to recording favourite programs (such as Men of a Certain Age), or watching them on the Web. "I almost get frustrated in the car when I'm listening to the radio, and I can't rewind what I just heard because I missed it."