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Lance Barber on his long-awaited 'Comeback'

It is almost unheard of for a TV series to get a second season nearly 10 years after the first. But with so many recent changes in the viewing landscape, nothing about television is business as usual anymore.

Which brings us to "The Comeback," a spiky behind-the-scenes Hollywood satire that first aired on HBO in 2005. The show's long-belated second season began airing on the cable network last month and continues through Dec. 28. It remains as deeply observant and sharply acted as ever.

Created by Lisa Kudrow and Michael Patrick King, it is equal parts horror show and comedy, starring Kudrow as sitcom actress Valerie Cherish, a woman both ridiculous and recognizably human. She is deluded but not dumb. And forever hiding her true feelings behind a strained smile — it's heartbreaking, really. She is the type of person who cannot get out of her own way, even when opportunities drop in her lap.

She is infuriating and self-centered and worried about all the wrong things. She is not a bad person so much as one blinded by the validation she believes comes with celebrity. If she's not famous, who is she?

This consuming hunger has led her to put up with all manner of abuse, much of it at the hands of a character called Paulie G, a loathsome dude-bro TV writer who was Valerie's boss and nemesis in the first season. He is back for the second season, wreaking emotional havoc and setting gender politics back by a few decades. Played by Second City alum Lance Barber, Paulie G's rage practically shoots out from his eye sockets like laser beams. He is Valerie's worst nightmare — and she his.

"She's a trigger," Kudrow told me. "She's pushes a button in him. She's a mirror of his own desperation. He tries to avoid walking by those mirrors all the time, and then there she is."

The character may be an ogre, but he is based in truth. The writers on "The Comeback," Kudrow said, all have a Paulie G story of their own.

"When we were interviewing people to write for the show, they all thought they knew who Paulie G was based on — and everyone had a different person in mind. So there are a lot of those guys out there, that's what that said to me." (For a real-life example of how odious Hollywood can get, just take a look at the recently hacked Sony emails between producer Scott Rudin and studio head Amy Pascal.)

Barber said he has "come across a couple people who are, for lack of a better term, obnoxious in this business. But I have yet to come across a diabolical jerk like Paulie G, thankfully. But I know that he exists. I know the character was based on a number of people, maybe even someone specific, although I've never been told who that was."

(For the record: "I didn't have that kind of experience," Kudrow said of her time on "Friends." A writers' assistant did bring a lawsuit against the show, however, claiming the male writers spoke in graphic terms about their sex lives and sexual preferences; the writers justified it as part of their creative process. The lawsuit was eventually thrown out. "Yes, that's right," Kudrow said when I mentioned the lawsuit. "The writers can get like that. … Well, don't go near there (the writers room), was sort of my attitude. I'm clearly not an activist." Watching "The Comeback," I would say she very much is, but in a far more sly fashion than could ever be achieved by going through normal channels.)

A Michigan native who moved to Chicago in 1995 to study sketch and improv, Barber toggles between larger-than-life fury and small, nuanced moments in the role of Paulie G. He is at his most unsettling when giving Valerie a silent look that says, "Go away and die." As one fan of the show tweeted: "Paulie G is the only sitcom character that can steal the show without saying a word. He has the gift of 'The Look.'"

"I come from a family that is wonderfully high in emotion," Barber said, "and I have some of that in me, as well. I try to remain more reasonable, but I might be quick to emotion, and I think that comes out on my face."

Early in the season, Valerie gives Paulie G a gift and the response it provokes is an aria of facial expressions. He is clearly a taken aback and quietly touched by the gesture. And then he turns on a dime when Seth Rogen (who has a small role on the show this year) makes an awkward joke that curdles the moment. If you could strangle a person with nothing more than a glare, Barber would be the man to do it. This shift, from vulnerable to disgust, happens without a line of dialogue.

"I think it's Lance's improv background that allows you to see all his thoughts," Kudrow said, "because improvisation is about justifying everything that's happening. You just trying to justify the most unjustifiable things. So maybe that's why you can see it on his face."

More than a stock villain, Paulie G is a miserable, complicated man who might just have some real talent and a small bit of self-awareness buried beneath his layers of dysfunction. "I was always able to find a little sympathy for Paulie G," Barber said, "because the character of Valerie Cherish is fairly intolerable! To be in a room with a person like that for too long can really try on your nerves, so it isn't hard to get there as an actor."

At the beginning of the new season, at least, Paulie G is trying to tamp down some of that wrath. The effort is short-lived. "He's fragile," said Kudrow. "He's like a scared animal, which is the most dangerous kind because they can attack out of fear at any moment."

I wondered if Barber has ever been tempted to lean on Paulie G's reputation when looking to end an interaction with someone difficult in real life: "I have come in contact with people who are hesitant and nervous in my presence because of that character, for sure, but I have not taken advantage of that."

Kudrow isn't surprised. "It's always the nicest guys in the world who can play the biggest creeps. He's pure decency, and he's playing the creepiest, most troubled, flawed person ever."

In 2005, "The Comeback" was Barber's first big role. The show wasn't widely watched at the time (it gained a cult following in the years since via streaming), but it had a major impact on Barber's career.

"People in middle America did not watch the show, perhaps," he said, "but everybody in show business did. Literally 80 to 90 percent of the auditions and job offers that came afterwards were the result of that show. I would rarely walk into an audition when 'The Comeback' wouldn't be mentioned by some producer or casting director who was a fan. It made my career, enormously."

In Chicago, Barber studied at Second City and after five years working at the theater's box office (and performing at iO Theater, where he studied with the late improv guru Del Close), he was asked to join Second City's touring company; he decided to give Los Angeles a shot instead. He has since had recurring roles on "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" and the MTV series "Faking It."

He still spends a lot of time in Chicago. "I have family in the Midwest," he said. "My wife's family is in Chicago, so it's our home base when we come to make the rounds. We were just there for Thanksgiving a couple weeks ago. And because we have young kids, we get back as often as we can."

"The Comeback," he said, has been more than just another gig. "I'll be lucky to have a role that rich and well-received again in my career. Not only was it one of my best and favorite jobs in the world, but it was just so flattering that people wanted the show to come back badly enough after 10 years."

I asked Kudrow if they ever needed a tension-breaker after shooting a particularly intense scene. What exactly is the proper etiquette for someone like Barber, who is psychologically destroying his co-star, take after take? Send a gift basket?

"Oh my God, I should send him a gift basket," Kudrow said. "Lance is the nicest guy on the planet. He's such a nice, good guy and a good actor. And professional too. A director might say, 'Lance, try it this way,' and he's like, 'Yup!' And he doesn't even need time to think, 'How am I going to justify that interpretation?' He just does it. He's unbelievably facile.

"Mostly we're laughing because the scene made us laugh — even if it's something really uncomfortable. It's like, 'That was ridiculous!'"

I mentioned that someone online had noted seeing Barber at Whole Foods with his wife and kids and that he seemed — surprise! — perfectly nice and normal.

"Yeah, somebody married him!" Kudrow said. "He's got children that he's nurturing with! And he is, he's really nurturing with them." When I told Barber the Whole Foods story, he laughed.

"I guess that's one of the best compliments you can get as an actor, that people think that you're your character. I've heard that a lot over the years: 'Are you really that much of an a--hole?' And I say, 'No, but thank you so much for thinking so.' No, I'm just an actor pretending."

Each week Barber watches the show with his wife. "She usually watches the show squeezing my arm to a painful level and viewing the screen through her fingers. She is a fan of the show but it works on her like it's supposed to — it's very uncomfortable. I enjoy watching it with her for that reason."

"The Comeback" airs 9 p.m. Sundays on HBO through Dec. 28. Go to hbo.com/the-comeback.

Sundance news

Chicago filmmaker Joe Swanberg ("Drinking Buddies") will debut his newest indie, "Digging for Fire," at the Sundance Film Festival next month. Co-created with "New Girl's" Jake Johnson (a Chicagoan as well, who also stars) the film's cast also includes Anna Kendrick, Rosemarie DeWitt, Sam Rockwell and "Veep's" Timothy Simons. At Sundance, Swanberg will be joining his wife, Kris Swanberg, who also has a film premiering at the fest called "Unexpected," which she shot in Chicago earlier in the fall.

Low budget, highly weird

"This tale of a pop star in hiding is at moments quite funny and offers just enough surrealism to appeal to substance-enhanced viewers," according to the Hollywood Reporter, reviewing the indie "I Am a Knife With Legs," which screens this week courtesy of Chicago Filmmakers and the Chicago Cinema Society. It plays at 8 p.m. Saturday at Chicago Filmmakers and 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Columbia College Chicago. Go to chicagofilmmakers.org.

For Christmas:A free movie

The Paramount Theatre in Kankakee will screen the original black-and-white version of "Miracle on 34th Street" for free at 10 a.m. Saturday. Go to classiccinemas.com and click on "special events."

Sundance: Short films

Programs of eight animated and eight live-action short films that played at the last Sundance Film Festival screen Monday and Tuesday nights at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave. For schedule visit musicboxtheatre.com.

nmetz@tribpub.com

@NinaMetzNews

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