When Lisa Kudrow graduated from Vassar College,she had a career in neuroscience carefully planned. She'd work for her dad, a headache specialist, until she was accepted into a "graduate program at whichever very impressive university accepted me." (She told Kurt Andersen this in their interview, which we rebroadcast last week.) One thing led to another, and she became one of the most ambitious -- if under-appreciated -- television makers working today. Back in 2008, Kudrow was something of an internet pioneer when she created the online series Web Therapy, which ultimately got picked up by Showtime; the show is currently in its fourth season. And, after a lengthy hiatus, she's just returned to HBO, starring in the second season of The Comeback.
Kudrow gave the commencement address at her alma mater in 2010, and Kurt, who happened to be in the audience, said that it was the best graduation speech he'd heard. Like the characters she plays, Kudrow is wonderfully transparent about the less flattering aspects of her inner monologue:
I was also nervous about this career choice because I didn't really care for actors. The only point of reference I had was seeing them on talk shows. They seemed so affected, picking a cause of the month as if it's not about them at all. You know, they'd say, "Please, please save the planet as a favor to me. I'll love you for it, I really will." So I couldn't and I thought, "How do I hold onto who I am, if I'm trying to become one of them? I don't want to turn into an actress." Well, that's a problem, okay, because, as in most pursuits, "one's self" is one of the biggest hurdles to get over. You can't pursue something and be committed to it if you're apologizing for it at every party. Which I did for a while. I learned you have to surrender to the fact that you are one of too many in a highly competitive field where it is difficult to stand out...for now. Over time, through your work, you will demonstrate who you are and what you bring to the field. Just stay with it and keep working. I was collecting tools to cope with this uncertain path in case it got rocky later on, just in case. For now, it's good, though.
Kudrow was talking to students during a fallow period in her career; The Comeback had folded after one season in 2005, and she had just come off making a box office flop. After talking about her many failures (including getting fired from Frasier), she explains why doing unpopular work has been critical to her happiness:
Vassar has stayed with me because I carried those high standards that were nurtured in me here all along the way. I knew what was good and that's what I did and will always try to achieve good work. Even if the network cancels my show, I know it's good work and I'm proud of it. Even if people look at me with pity as they say, "You have aWebseries? Awww..." I know it's good work and I'm proud of it. A BBC series that's a historical documentary show on genealogy on NBC? Yes. Really? For American audiences? They won't like that. Yes, they will, because it's good. And they do.