In the first season of HBO's The Comeback, the daily duties of life, such as remembering colleagues' names and avoiding humiliation, were difficult for Lisa Kudrow's Valerie Cherish. A sitcom actress of intermediate fame, Valerie was cast in Room and Bored, a hacky network comedy, and was simultaneously followed by cameras for a reality show about her comeback. Both situations were fraught with peril. But beyond Valerie's own self-sabotage, she also had a terrible antagonist in Paulie G. (Lance Barber), the co-creator of Room and Bored, who irrationally loathed her.
The rebooted Comeback finds Valerie nine years later, desperate, again, to be back in the public eye. Without giving away the steps that lead her there, she soon lands a high-profile role: playing herself — or, rather, playing "Mallory Church" — in Seeing Red, an HBO dramedy written by Paulie G. about his time as a heroin-addicted comedy writer (and the additional torments dealt to him, as he sees it, by a difficult aging actress).
If The Comeback in 2005 was layered with references to the entertainment business, its resurrected version (premiering on HBO on Nov. 9) has become a Russian nesting doll of them. So in order to reflect the increasingly porous barrier between film and (quality) television, The Comeback's show-within-the-show will feature Seth Rogen — stay with me for this — playing himself playing Mitch, the fictional Paulie G. (as well as Barber as the "real" Paulie G.). Rogen will appear in two of the show's eight episodes.
Michael Patrick King, who co-created The Comeback with Kudrow, told BuzzFeed News they knew they needed a movie star to be the lead of Seeing Red, both to represent HBO's reality, and to explain why Valerie would do something as self-destructive as reuniting with Paulie G. — "a higher echelon of star to play opposite Valerie, as part of her own heroin as to why she does the show," King said in a telephone interview.
"That was the trickiest thing, because we always knew we didn't want to create a 'Dash Riprock,' or some, like, fake star, and hire an unknown," King said. "We didn't even want to hire a star to play a fictional star. We wanted a star to play a star. That was really important — the same way we want Lisa Vanderpump to play Lisa Vanderpump." (Yes, that happens too. Along with other cameos.)
In the original Comeback, Barber's Paulie G. is physically imposing and angry-eyed, but represents a certain type of successful comedy slob who also has a measure of charm. Describing their casting thought process, King said: "The Holy Grail would be to get Seth Rogen. He's the right everything. He's, first of all, ungettable. He's genuinely a superstar of movies. And he's a perfect translation, type-wise. And the other big trick is, Seth himself feels so real; it would feel real within a fictional situation, which is what we try to do with everybody we cast on The Comeback." He continued: "All roads led to Seth. But we didn't know what those roads were going to be."
Through a combination of connections — Kudrow had been in Rogen's Neighbors, and Rogen's manager had represented King during his acting years — The Comeback was able to get him. The key, though, was that, according to King, Rogen "liked the first show, so he got a kick out of playing Paulie G."
Yet Rogen is a busy person. Did he just happen to be free during The Comeback's sped-up production early in the summer?
"No, no, no, no, no, no!" said King. "No. No. No." He dissolved in laughter.
"We prayed and worked and scheduled and shifted and looked for openings," King said. "And then finally got a moment when he could come and do this. He signed on without seeing the script."
Even sober, Paulie G. represents someone who, King says, is "not safe" for Valerie. And Rogen plays him in Seeing Red in all his disgusting glory. As for the fictional version of the real Rogen who is, King says, "lovely," you will have to watch The Comeback.
The physical resemblance is real enough. King described the first time Rogen saw Barber on the set. "Lance came walking by, and they had never met," King said. "Seth looks at me, and looks at Lance as Paulie, and goes, 'I get it. I see it.'"