''What is there to do in TV?'' asks Lisa Kudrow, sitting in her office on the Paramount lot in West Hollywood. ''There are reality shows, that's the newest thing. I'm not gonna do a reality show. I'm not comfortable with it.'' If pressed, Kudrow will demonstrate how uncomfortable she is with reality TV by mimicking what she thinks is the genre's most egregious moment a spicy-soup-eating contest from The Amazing Race 6 that got projectile fast. ''Blecchhhh!'' she erupts, doubled over in mock convulsions. ''They're vomiting on TV! Vomiting and crying! I've never seen anything more humiliating in my life.''
Over at the opposite end of the hall, where Sex and the City executive producer Michael Patrick King has his office, the view on reality TV is far sunnier. King, who met Kudrow through a friend during her days in the L.A. improv troupe the Groundlings, has a bad case of reality fever. Mention Tyra Banks' recent freak-out on America's Next Top Model, and he'll reenact the meltdown. ''SHUT UP!'' he screeches, jabbing the air in a Banksian frenzy. ''I HAVE NEVER YELLED AT A GIRL LIKE THIS!'' For King, reality TV is a ''late-night dessert'' not the end of Western civilization.
So what's a little conflict between friends? In this case, it resulted in a Frankensteinian hybrid of sitcom, reality show, and spirit-crushing tragedy called The Comeback (debuting June 5 at 9:30 p.m.). HBO's newest Hollywood navel-gazer stars Kudrow as Valerie Cherish, a vain, sad, fortysomething actress who was once semi-famous, and is now so desperate to be semi-famous again that she consents to a bit part in a tacky sitcom called Room and Bored. As part of the deal, she also must do a reality show chronicling her life as a has-been, and Comeback is shot entirely from the point of view of the reality TV cameras. Or, as Kudrow explains: ''It's a show within a show about a woman who was on another show.''
Okay, then. Valerie Cherish emerged a few months after Kudrow taped Friends' final episode. The 41-year-old actress who busied herself after the finale by shooting Don Roos' Happy Endings and pitching pilots with her production company, Is or Isn't couldn't stop thinking about a character she created with the Groundlings called Your Favorite Actress on a Talk Show. ''She's this actress who's self-important,'' says Kudrow. ''She wants to come off as genuinely nice. And she's not even that good of an actress.'' Kudrow and her producing partner, Dan Bucatinsky, thought Your Favorite Actress might be able to carry her own show but first, she wanted King and his producing partner, John Melfi, to meet her over lunch.
''I started having ideas like, What if it was more about the idea of the reality of a reality show?'' recalls King, whose schedule cleared after Sex and the City finished last year and the subsequent movie fell apart. ''Put her in an arena that is basically a war zone, which is an actress on a sitcom at a time when sitcoms and reality shows are at war for attention.'' Things moved quickly after that: Within six months, they met with HBO, signed a deal, and shot Comeback's pilot.