Before Lisa Kudrow’s The Comeback aired on HBO in June of 2005, the channel had already run four full seasons of Larry David’s cringe-comedy Curb Your Enthusiasm. Ricky Gervais had already completed the entirety of The Office. And so, too, had the entire six-episode first season of the American remake of The Office aired on NBC.
In short, what Kudrow and creator Michael Patrick King were doing with The Comeback is not, as so many people seem to think, being original. HBO aired 13 low-rated episodes of it and canceled it. For a reason.
Nine years later, The Comeback is back, as unwatchable and unfunny as the first time around.
Only this time, Twitter is there to trumpet the return with many fond remembrances of its cult status. As if something monumentally overlooked has been unearthed and allowed to finally get its due.
In reality, tonight’s return of The Comeback and final season send-off of The Newsroom should be seen for what it is – not the greatest of combos at HBO. Here’s to better days ahead.
Now, if you haven’t watched Curb or The Office or the American version of The Office or especially Gervais’ far more eviscerating, insightful, painful and – key element here – funny series Extras, which premiered a month after The Comeback and did what that show never could, then maybe there’s something you’ll find worth your time in The Comeback.
But that’s a lot of caveats, people.
It wasn’t just painful to watch The Comeback the first time around in 2005 — it seemed pointless. What it was trying to do had already been done in vastly superior iterations. This time, however, it’s almost unbearable. I could only get through two episodes, and I wanted to throw my TV through the window at the end of the first, and myself through the window at the end of the second.
What is it that people enjoy about this series? Cringe-comedy is one thing — every series mentioned above is a participant in the genre. But those other shows were also funny. They understood that the actual cringing is only one joke to be made in the construct of the series — there are plenty more laughs to be mined away from or combined with the cringing. The more effectively this is done, the funnier and, yes, cringe-worthy the basic element becomes.
The Comeback is all one basic element.
It begins and ends with the character of Valerie Cherish (Lisa Kudrow) trying and failing to be famous or loved or employed or somehow satisfied by the TV fame that eludes her. That is the joke. Over and over and over again. The glare of the camera on Valerie’s face as things go sideways is the whole of The Comeback. She tries to talk her way out of whatever goes wrong and, theoretically, that talking is where the funny bits are. Except they are so rarely there.
The original Comeback focused on Valerie being a modestly successful, not completely incompetent, comedy star getting another show (called Room & Bored) which is terrible. Simultaneously, a reality TV show documenting that comeback shows her desperate, shallow underside to the world.
Since then, apparently, Valerie hasn’t done much of anything, except work in “indie” films that are not indie films — they are made by film students (one of many jokes that is repeated again and again, with less gain each time). Down to a bare-bones, last-ditch attempt to document herself and sell it to Bravo, Valerie instead gets wind that Room & Bored creator Paulie G. has sold a series to HBO that is patently about their awful time together, and as she rushes to possibly kill it, she ends up taking the starring role playing herself/not herself.
Well, of course she does — that self-humiliation and desperate pursuit of fame is what The Comeback runs on. Maybe when The Comeback actually gets to the point where Valerie is playing “Mallory” there might be something further to be said — though it would take a miracle of comedy writing not seen in all of the original 13 Comeback episodes or in the first two from this go-round. And what is The Comeback going to say that Extras didn’t? It doesn’t understand the vocabulary of comedy to do it.
Valerie doesn’t grow. She suffers the same slings and arrows of her own making. Curb Your Enthusiasm is a classic because it learned how to put Larry in ever-evolving scenarios. The original version of The Office set the gold-standard on mockumentary cringe-worthiness because there was no end to what David Brent would do to others and to himself. And let’s not forget — there were other very funny characters in the original (and spinoff) Office that moved the comedy in different directions. Kudrow is the absolute center of The Comeback — it barely has any interesting side characters. Moving away from Valerie doesn’t provide an opportunity for different comedy so much as it just gives viewers still watching a chance to breathe for a second — a respite from the onslaught of one joke played incessantly.
By the time Extras came around for its two seasons, Gervais knew that the mockumentary conceit had to have some kind of end game. Not only was Extras structurally more interesting (allowing guest stars to go in fresh directions), Gervais and Stephen Merchant had given it that arc that would see a truly moving 90-minute finale (or Christmas special, if you prefer). Gervais’ character grew. He learned. His success was a failure and it took a toll – a toll examined with exceptional precision, making it much darker and more real than the one-trick pony of cringe comedy.
As this new version of The Comeback builds to Valerie getting on this HBO show about herself/but not about herself, there are exponentially more meta moments than funny moments. That is a problem. Yes, Valerie forgets people’s names. That joke is played as many times as possible. Yes, Valerie lacks self-awareness. Yes, she’s awkward and frantic and tries to cover up her bumbling and embarrassments by talking really fast — an exercise that seven out of 10 times has no actual punch line to it other than the frantic/embarrassed bit.
Is that a show? Is that even comedy?
Well, sure, there’s a tried-and-true comedic element — the call-back — that stand-ups use all the time. In many ways, the less funny the original joke is, the funnier the call-back to it will be. But this only happens during that stand-up comedian’s dubious set. If he or she replicated that bit every night — with the same failed joke and the same call-backs to the failed joke — they’d never work again.
Maybe understanding that part got lost in the nine years since The Comeback was last on TV.