Lisa Kudrow takes her online series Web Therapy to Showtime and explains why, when it comes to producing the show, it’s important to her to go Guild.
Written by Dylan Callaghan
(July 15, 2011)
There are several odd things about Lisa Kudrow’s three-season-old online series Web Therapy, not the least of which is that Lisa Kudrow has an online series at all. It all makes more sense now that on July 19 Showtime will begin airing re-jiggered episodes from the first two seasons while a third season concurrently runs on the Lexus-sponsored L/Studio broadband channel.
After years of ballyhoo, Web-only series are still the redheaded stepchild of the entertainment world, but admiration for Kudrow’s work has attracted a platinum parade of A-listers to the show from Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin to Jane Lynch and Bob Baliban. All that talent improvs from outlines written by Kudrow and her co-creators, writer-director Don Roos (Marley & Me, The Opposite of Sex) and actor-writer Dan Bucatinsky (Lipstick Jungle).
But still, why a Web series from one of the most successful TV actresses in history? Creative freedom is the simple answer, says Kudrow. It’s enabled her to concoct and develop on the fly a character totally divergent from her globally known friend Phoebe. In Web Therapy she is Fiona Wallice, a “scammy” hack therapist and entrepreneuse. Wallice strains misanthropically to modulate an alto voice and an air of clinical expertise during brusquely absurd three-minute therapy sessions with clients via Web cam.
Kudrow spoke with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about the show’s evolution, the future of new media and her fidelity to the Guild – especially out on that still fairly maiden frontier.
Tell me where Fiona came from.
[In] 2006, 2007, it just felt like people were doing everything from their desktop at work; going shopping, reading newspapers, watching some entertainment in short spurts and I thought, We’re like a click away from doing therapy online for three-minute sessions. That way it doesn’t take up too much time, people can do it while they’re at work and they can just say they’re in therapy.
I thought it was the dumbest idea in the world. It’s such a bad idea that it made me laugh. So then Don Roos and Dan Bucatinsky and I set to work on this as a Web series after Lexus said they were gonna do a broadband channel, and we’d have complete creative freedom. This was like a year after the [initial] idea. We weren’t pursuing a Web series at first, it was just like, “Wouldn’t that be funny? Okay, back to work.”
Photo: © 2011 Showtime
Lisa Kudrow in Web Therapy.
When it became real, Don said, “We gotta figure out who this character is. Who is the therapist that thinks this is okay? Because it’s not okay. That’s how we came up with this person who, on paper, looks like she might be kinda smart. You know, she went to University of Pennsylvania and [Wharton] business school and worked at a legitimate finance company – but there’s something a little scammy about her…
A little scammy for sure.
She’s a little scammy and self-centered and self-promoting.
She has this modulated, ultra-fraudulent kind of voice. That seems like kind of a hook for the character.
It’s a hook for me as a performer, for sure.
Was that an early hook in developing her?
Yeah, there’s a real woman who doesn’t sound like that, but that’s who I had in mind for the character. This woman, who I know, is actually intelligent, successful, poised, sexy, articulate and everything that Fiona Wallice sees herself as. That’s how she thinks she’s coming off to the rest of the world. That’s my point of reference, and then once it’s filtered through me, she comes out an idiot.
An illegitimate attempt to be that real woman.
In the early stages most of the writing here was just between you and Don, yes?
Initially, Don and I because Dan was working on a series. And then when Dan was available, he’d come in and say, “Oh, this won’t do!” and, “You think that’s enough?” He really helped push us to come up with tent poles for our story arcs, so that the performers know where they’re headed, otherwise we don’t have anything to put it together.
[At the beginning] we really had, like, “He’s a Mormon and Fiona doesn’t like Mormons.” So after that couplet, we realized that was not a story.
That’s a hard day’s work.
It really takes the three of us.
Now that it’s been picked up by Showtime, how has your writing process changed?
It hasn’t changed too much. Initially, we thought, Well, let’s just improvise and maybe we can get away with being a little looser, [but] no, that doesn’t work. You have to really outline.
So for Showtime, what’s the gameplan? You’re kind of chaining the existing webisodes together, right?
Yes… [but] even the longest three we put together were only like 17 minutes, and that’s not a half an hour on Showtime. So we realized we had to do something, but we didn’t want to just fill it out with titles and graphics. We decided, let’s clarify the narrative and weave other things into it. We shot other webisodes that we could use, giving her more of a backstory, how she got started. That was kind of tricky but fun. It was really a fun challenge to go back to something we’d done two years ago.
Yeah, that’s really a unique situation.
We would put everything on cards and then up on a dry erase board and look at it and watch the webisodes and see what we wanted to expand.
To what extent did you feel the expansion actually sped up the pacing of the show, rather than slowing it down or making it feel longer?
Well, that was the one thing we were worried about. This could potentially feel like the longest 26 minutes, you know? But we were surprised that it was so engaging. We had intended for most of these new webisodes to be super short, but we wound up using them over multiple episode arcs.
Then we had Lily Tomlin as Fiona’s mother, and we didn’t want that to be short, so we had to just kind of fold these into the existing episodes. And we had to be mindful of…
Yes, where that story can pick up and how it gets spread out over the rest of the season.
So will you be shooting more stuff for Showtime?
No, we’re going to shoot more webisodes, and we will again compile stuff for Showtime if they want more.
So Showtime is just using material from season one and two of the webisodes.
Because we have a new media contract with the Guild. We didn’t want to go non-union. When we started this show everyone was saying, “What are you wasting money for? Go non-union.” We had just finished the writers strike that was about what’s going to happen with the Internet. So we didn’t feel right [about that].
You’re honoring your Guild.
We are honoring our Guild – the Writers Guild, SAG, and the Directors Guild. Everyone was pretty helpful in defining what this [show] would be. For a lot of these Guilds, this was the first time this had come up. We need this new media contract in order to be able to afford to do it.
Are you optimistic about the new media future of writers?
I’m optimistic on a creative level. When it comes to a big, fat moneymaking level, it’s not there yet. They say; when you think of TV money, just remove a zero. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to that with the Web.
Money was not – couldn’t have been, better not have been – the goal.
This way you’re able to operate in a creatively free and secure environment and then whatever happens, happens?
That’s right. Then you see where it goes. We were pleasantly surprised that there was funny material there, and there were arcs. We can’t help but do that. We didn’t consider this to be something for TV, but the instinct to set up something, create conflict and then resolve it at the end…
It’s something innate in storytelling.
Right. That’s basic for whatever the genre.
How many beats are in these outlines?
It varies wildly. We have a range of outlines so Don knows where we need to end up. We need to be able to offer help to me and the other actors because there’s really no time for us to figure it all out.
Do you have a bible on the show for continuity issues?
No, not yet, but I think soon we might need one. It’s getting kind of complicated, but God it’s so fun.
Wait ‘til the novelization. It’s gonna be huge.
Exactly. Can I say one more thing?
Because these are so short, the more detailed the better.
The more detailed the outline?
Why do you say that?
Because it could end up going on and on and on.
You need to keep things tight because time is short?
Yeah. But we haven’t, have we?