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Our Favorite Theater Life Lessons from HBO’s ‘The Comeback’

February 18, 2021 by Geri Silver
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As we all wait not-so-patiently for live theater’s roaring return, there’s no better time to appreciate one of television’s most lovable — and theatrical — underdog stories: HBO’s The Comeback.

For the uninitiated: created by Lisa Kudrow (known to many as Phoebe from Friends), and Michael Patrick King (former executive producer of Sex and The City), the cringe comedy TV series stars Kudrow as Valerie Cherish, an actress best known for her role in a popular ’90s sitcom. After spending a decade relatively out of the spotlight, the series follows Cherish through two simultaneous forays to regain her fame: one as a cast member of a new network sitcom (Room and Bored), and the other as the leading role of The Comeback, a reality show chronicling her return to the public eye. 

Even though the HBO show premiered over 15 years ago, it’s hard to find another show that’s so deeply embedded itself into the hearts and minds of its fans. As Valerie Cherish, Kudrow plays a tragic hero you can’t help but root for as she bravely claws her way through the indignities of ageism, sexism, and reality TV. Though her awkward blunders are hard to watch, we can all admire her chin-up attitude while remembering that sometimes, life just isn’t as glamorous as you hoped it would be — especially in showbiz. 

Whether you’re bingeing for the first time or revisiting this cult classic, anyone in the arts and entertainment world can relate to Valerie’s struggles navigating our one-of-a-kind whirlwind of an industry. Here are eight hilariously relatable lessons we can learn from Valerie’s unforgettable Comeback journey.

Everything is better after a few rehearsals.

Like any acting pro, Valerie understands the art of delivering a comedic line. When she gets her first big moment in the pilot of Room and Bored, she doesn’t take the opportunity lightly. Hearing her privately rehearse “When I come home after a long day at work, I don’t want to see that!” over and over in the kitchen, as day becomes night and a whole chocolate cake is slowly devoured, we theater people applaud her commitment to the craft!

Is it embarrassing to witness? Yes. Would our own late-night line rehearsals be equally painful to watch? Also yes. Throughout the show, we’re lucky enough to witness Valerie rehearse several takes of now iconic lines for both The Comeback reality show and Room and Bored, and, though totally cringeworthy in the moment, you’ve got to respect the work ethic. 

There are no small parts, only small actors.

Is anything more fulfilling than landing a lead role, getting your script, and busting out that highlighter to mark your lines? Valerie waited years for this moment, and in episode 2, we witness her humiliating realization that her character’s role is reduced to sporadic one-liners while her younger co-star, up-and-comer Juna Millikin (Malin Åkerman) lights up her pages with dialogue.

If you’ve acted in a play or musical, you know how it feels — you’re either the one with the highlighter at the read-through, or the one peering jealously across the table. But if we can learn anything from Valerie, it’s truly that every single line is an opportunity to shine! 

Make ‘em laugh.

In the world of The Comeback, fans of the hit ’90s show I’m It! fondly remember Valerie’s comedic performance during an iconic office romance — and no one remembers it more fondly than Valerie. What might look like cheesy humor to the naked eye strikes a different chord to any theater fan who’s learned to appreciate the art of physical comedy (someone cast this woman in Noises Off!). And when it comes to living for applause, what actor hasn’t watched their own YouTube videos, high school musical DVDs, or shoddy bootlegs a few too many times to relive some old moments of glory? Own it and be proud of your work!

Fake it ’til you make it.

They say all press is good press, so it’s great news when Valerie’s aggressive new publicist Billy Stanton (Dan Bucatinsky) lands her a magazine cover. The bad news: It’s a yoga magazine, and Valerie doesn’t know anything about yoga. The good news: She’s an actress, so that’s nothing a little scenic design and a quick dress rehearsal can’t fix. Seeing Valerie’s overnight zen transformation is absolutely hilarious, and may remind you of yourself the first time you tried to “look natural” in a Soul Cycle class. But listen, if we all took such a bold approach to combating imposter syndrome in our artistic endeavors, we could be unstoppable.

When in doubt, bust out a song.

In episode 12, as Valerie records intro segments for her reality show, she realizes there’s no better theme song for her personal journey than Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.” From cast parties to karaoke nights to pump-up shower tunes, we’ve all had catchy songs inspire and empower us (hello, Robyn’s Dancing on My Own), and you can always trust a musical theater person to really let loose (with a healthy belt that protects your precious instrument, of course). We love seeing Valerie confidently butcher this classic without shame, and we’ve all been there. 

It’s okay to have a diva moment once in a while. 

In episode 12, our live entertainment nightmares become reality as Valerie shoots her infamous cupcake scene. It’s got everything — technical difficulties, tough crowds, creative differences. When an unpredictable confrontation erupts and tensions boil over between Valerie and writer Paulie G., a hilariously theatrical climax to a season-long conflict is some delicious and well-earned drama. It gets ugly, but hey, we’re on her side.

There’s nothing better than a true friend. 

One of the most rewarding aspects of life in the arts is having the privilege of meeting lifelong friends like Mickey Deane, Valerie’s hairdresser. He’s fabulous, has good taste, and is a loyal friend, always armed with a snarky remark to boost Valerie’s confidence and shade her haters. In an industry defined by late nights, long hours, and crushing rejections, it’s the friendships like this one that help us all get through. Valerie and Mickey warm our hearts and remind us to ~cherish~ those special connections! 

Don’t lose hope for your comeback.

Like its resilient star, The Comeback is the ultimate underdog story we all need right now. Not only do we cheer on Valerie’s journey back to stardom in the show, but we’re obsessed with the HBO show’s own rags-to-riches story: despite being cancelled after one season, HBO eventually brought back Valerie, Mickey Deane (Robert Michael Morris), her well-humored husband Mark (Damian Young), writer and nemesis Paulie G (Lance Barber), and reality TV producer Jane (Laura Silverman), for a second season in 2014, nine years after its initial premiere. It’s a heartwarming reminder that whether you’re in front of the camera or behind the scenes, it’s never too late to make a comeback. 

As we all plan our comebacks from a rough year, let’s remember these Valerie Cherish lessons: keep your head high, do what you love, and keep your most supportive friends close! This also feels like a good time to revive the campaign for Lisa Kudrow, in the role of Valerie Cherish, to make her Broadway debut as Roxie in Chicago. Because: yes, please.