Lisa Kudrow Describes Her Process of Finding Phoebe in ‘Friends’

July 22, 2018

While auditioning for a pilot, Lisa Kudrow was given a character whose life was full of tragedy and asked to play her in a comedic way. In this Archive of American Television interview, Kudrow describes how she found Phoebe Buffay, the quirky masseuse and self-taught musician in the wildly popular sitcom Friends. Starting in 1994, the show lasted ten seasons, so playing Phoebe proved to be not only Kudrow’s breakthrough role but an enormous part of her life.

In its pilot form, the show was called Friends Like Us, and Lisa was auditioning for one of the six starring roles–as one of the “friends.” At the time, Kudrow had already appeared as a guest on a few sitcoms such as Cheers and Newhart and had a recurring role on Mad About You. She’d actually originally planned on following in her father’s footsteps and forge a career researching headaches, but after becoming a member of The Groundlings, the self-described “very rational, practical” Kudrow saw she might have a real chance at having a career as an actress and comedian.

So here she was asked to deliver Phoebe’s monologue during the audition, and it contained all sorts of details about the character’s sad life. Phoebe’s mother had committed suicide, her step-father was locked up in jail, and eventually Phoebe ended up living in a car in New York with a drug addict who overdosed and died. Lisa was challenged to take this character and insert her into a comedy. Kudrow says of her process:

“I decided, well, the only way this is funny is if … okay, that reminds me of my friend from college who had to leave school because her parents thought it was making her irreligious, and they didn’t want to pay for it anymore. And she had to work in a nursing home. And she never got down about it–ever. It was always like, ‘It’s so funny where I work, there’s this one woman who’s so funny because she can’t think straight anymore, and it’s very funny.’ She found things to love about working in the nursing home. What an attitude! I always admired that, and it stuck with me. And I thought, ‘Okay, that’s what this person needs to have–that attitude. Doesn’t feel sorry for herself at all.’”

Kudrow designed Phoebe to regard her tragic life as essentially normal, if not common, and think of it as “not a big deal.” And the creative choices Kudrow was making seemed to be working. She kept being invited back for more auditions. Soon, she was auditioning in front of the legendary director James Burrows. Lisa knew him all too well; she was pretty sure he couldn’t stand her. Burrows had fired her during the pilot episode of Frasier. She had been cast to portray Roz Doyle, but Burrows told her, “This isn’t working,” and the role ended up going to Peri Gilpin. As soon as Kudrow gave Burrows her rendition of Phoebe, she recalls, “He doesn’t crack a smile–nothing. He just says, ‘No notes.’”

Well, something apparently was working this time around because Lisa was invited back–this time, on a huge stage with many production members in the darkened audience seats. Kudrow remembers being in a group of many other actresses who, like her, were potential Phoebes. Without naming names, Lisa said many actresses were complaining, some even walking out of the audition, because of the way it was set up. Kudrow held steady though, thinking to herself, “But when you shoot this in front of a live audience, there’s going to be like 200 people in the audience. If that’s going to get to you, how is this ever going to work? … So I was the one able to cope.”

Kudrow nabbed the role of Phoebe. And the rest is history–or as Burrows puts it, Friends is “a treasure in the history of television.” Kudrow went on to win a Primetime Emmy Award for her portrayal of Phoebe.