After the brilliant second season of HBO’s The Comeback left us in tears and wanting more, we were anxious to know more about the show that, not only has kept its devoted fan base for nearly a decade, but served as the vehicle for her greatest performance yet. Here she delves deeper into the history the series and, to our excitement, reveals she and Michael Patrick King are working on a ideas for a third season of The Comeback and there’s more Valerie Cherish to come.
When Friends was ending, did you plan to become more creatively involved in the projects you’d be working on?
At the time, I thought I would always be able to do independent films, not even guessing that independent films would go away. So I thought I’d do that, and if I want to do TV again, I’m really going to have to be creatively involved. I thought I better get more used to the idea that I’m an actual producer and not just someone with vanity deal because I’m on a show. You get the deal because you’re on a show and then you actually have to do the work to demonstrate otherwise. So that was the goal, and I was really not expecting to do a show that soon after Friends; it just happened. I thought, Oh well, it’s happening now, what can I do? But then I thought, maybe it’s okay because it’s not even trying to be anything like Friends—that would be a disaster.
Were you concerned that it being so soon after Friends and Sex and the City people would be expecting something much more connected to those shows?
Yeah, part it was that people were expecting it to be Phoebe in Manolos, and it of course had nothing to do with that, nor would it. We wouldn’t try to do anything like that. It was just an idea that came up and we started talking and it was, well this is great, let’s do this. We weren’t expecting there to be a huge audience for it, that’s why we were so happy to be at HBO because it had always been the place where the requirement was not for everybody on earth to want to tune in, just their subscribers. It just seemed like the perfect place to be in at the time.
Did you and Michael have one singular inspiration for Valerie or was she a composite of different people you’ve known? Was it the same for the peripheral characters like Paulie G?
Valerie is a composite of different people that I brought to her and Michael brought to her. We just kept track of all the little humiliations of life you wouldn’t want caught on camera and then broadcast. Nowadays you’re thankful if there’s no camera around because it’s expected. My only experience on a sitcom was just how the schedule works, when the network panics then what happens, that kind of thing, but Michael had run shows and been in the writers room of many shows for years and years. Then the writers we had come on they also had a ton of experience—and they all thought they knew exactly who Paulie G was. Everyone had a different idea and they were certain it was that person, but that’s how many Paul G types you can imagine existed. So they informed a lot of that part of the story.
How did you conceive of the show’s format and did you know from the start that you’d want the show to consist of the raw footage from a reality show?
Our idea started with, Oh my god reality TV, I can’t believe it’s happening. People are signing up for this! What a mistake, do they know what they’re getting into? We were initially going to call it Raw Footage and it was going to be the raw footage from a reality shoot, so just the unmanipulated footage. Then we realized we couldn’t do that, so we thought it was just going to be one camera all the time, but we immediately thought we couldn’t do that. Finally we decided it would just be a rush assembly, so it wasn’t perfectly produced and manipulated. We really wanted to demonstrate that, although the editing is not manipulated much, you could see how much the producer is working things. So it has to be shot this way and that’s what drove the look of it. It wasn’t, oh let’s do something different.
When we were talking about it, we thought, well can it be like this? And then we looked at each other and went, that’s different, I haven’t seen anything like this, can it be done? How do we make it clear what’s happening? Are people going to understand what this is? Then we just figured it out because that’s what was important to us, to tell that part of the story. So we never set out to do something different, it was this idea and we followed it.
When first watching the show, it made me incredibly anxious. She was constantly being humiliated and you couldn’t tell whether to not like her or feel sorry for her. But eventually that question is stripped away when you realize that she knows exactly what she’s doing and how smart she is about the business. Her smile may be fake but her intentions aren’t and you begin to admire her for that.
In the beginning were talking about how unlikeable she was because she was so phony. Like with Mickey, she’s often like, you’re talking but no one’s interested in that, put a pin in that, or here comes something more interesting and having to do with me. I know Michael felt that we need to make people feel bad for her or win them over. I just thought, I don’t think we need to do much because we’ll see that this is a mask and we’ll see something underneath that—so we had to find that balance.
All of the everyday insults that are mostly minor, but because there’s a camera on her so close, you see it register and then you see her spin it, so it feels like a huge impact. She knows it’s happening, but she won’t take it in, she won’t have it. She’ll spin it into something else for the cameras or for herself, and I think that’s what was unclear. I knew she was spinning it for herself and that’s just how she copes. You can’t be in this business if you see reality completely. Not even reality, but your interpretation of reality is always going to be, oh this is too hard and you can’t stick with it.
At one point I couldn’t help but think how sore your cheeks must have been from smiling that much.
It’s very fun to be her, wondering if she’s selling something, are you buying it. That’s a very fun thing to try and communicate. Her priorities are so off, but I also just admire her perseverance. Even if you don’t agree with what her goal is, it doesn’t matter, ultimately we have to admire a person who won’t give up. Ironically I guess it was also, well, if you’re going to be in reality TV this is how you have to be and this is who we see: people who just spin and lie. People who say to themselves, nope it will be okay because I’ll sell this book. And then you have people who do know exactly why they’re doing it and they don’t care that their name is going to be associated with very bad behavior.
So how did HBO approach you about bringing the show back? Did you have any idea?
It was a complete shock. We were asked to go into HBO and talk to them about The Comeback. and we didn’t know what they meant—a movie, a special, some episode? What do they want? But then before we went in to talk with them, we talked about what we might want. But we went in there and they said, yeah, whatever you want. If you want to do an hour, if you want to do six episodes or a movie, you tell us and we will do it. And we went, Oh my god, we’ll do it, we’ll make six episodes—that then turned into eight. They were wonderful and said, we’re not going to audition The Comeback, we’re just not, so you tell us what you’re going to do and we’ll do it. Then we went away and thought about it; we wanted to let them know what we had in mind because HBO was such a huge part of what this round was going to be about and we needed to know that they were okay with that. They were fantastic!
Now that reality TV is such a massive part of our culture and so engrained into the collective unconscious that we see it as normal, did that factor into how you want about writing this new season and what would have to have changed in the last nine years?
We knew this show wasn’t going to be a conversation about reality TV like the first season was, because we’ve accepted it now. It’s here, it’s been here for ten years or more and that’s not what we’re talking about. So we just decided to embrace that it’s been nine years and what has she done. She was feeling like she was a pioneer in reality TV, because she was before the Housewives, and she wants back in because she got it wrong. She took herself too seriously before and she’s going to do it right now and she’s making a pilot presentation for Andy Cohen. We had that almost immediately. We thought maybe that’s what this whole round is about, until Michael had the idea that Pauly G has written an HBO show. Then we thought that she’d have to audition for the part of herself, and it’s a horrible version of herself. Then I said, “Well can’t she get it, what if she got it?” And we both went, Oh my god that’s what the whole thing is about. That audition was a lot of, how do we justify this happening, because we wanted it to happen but how can we make it believable. We figured it would be interesting to repurpose an actor, so that would already be attractive to them and then how meta it would be, because it’s all meta. Then we decided to just go meta meta meta, just too much that now maybe everyone will be sick of that.
We also felt like there was unfinished business with Pauly G. I don’t think we ever fully explained why his hatred of her was so intense. We could see that he was definitely a person in crisis back then, which we had no idea about, and just that he is her. He’s every bit as desperate, but she says it out loud. He sees her and he is just horrified—”Is it showing?” Everything about her feels like he’s looking in a mirror.
How did you feel when the show came back and to see how excited fans still were after all this time?
I don’t know how to put it, it was the best feeling. We would hear about people that were so excited and that was thrilling, and then terrifying if you gave it enough attention, which we tried not to because then you’re paralyzed. When it came out it was just holding your breath for the first interview. So you just try to figure out, did we do it or did we miss something, because we did this so fast we could have missed some huge big thing. In the final round of editing, when it’s about to go out, that’s when it’s, oh I don’t know about that, let’s not show it to anybody.
Did you know how you wanted the show to end?
Early on we did know how we wanted it to end, that she leaves the Emmys to go to the hospital. I have to say, when I saw an early cut of that final episode, when the “Cherish” music plays, I started crying and I thought I would never stop. It was just crying for ten years worth of this woman, and, Oh thank god, she’s a person, and I know I thought this is who she’s always been underneath. She’s always been a decent person but there were all these cameras on her and she felt like she needed to be an entertainer first, human being second. Now we know who she really is. I don’t know if I want the reality cameras to go away when we do more, because that’s fun to see that version of her.
So is it coming back? Will there be a season 3 of The Comeback?
We’re talking about what comes next, but we’re not in a rush. At first I didn’t talk to Michael about it, out of panic, but we were done in December and I thought, oh god that means we have to start up again next month. I don’t know if I can, it’s too soon, I’m too tired. And then we talked about it, and said we don’t have to, we can wait a year and a half. Then HBO said, yeah, whenever, whenever you have it, let us know. It’s wonderful. I don’t know, would feel like shit but we’ve got to get moving now and hopefully it will be good enough.