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Looking Back at Paul Rudd's Long and Joyous TV Career

The Living With Yourself star has been charming TV audiences with his trademark flair for the absurd for over 25 years now.
  • Paul Rudd in a circa 1992 promotional photo for his first professional acting gig in the NBC drama series Sisters.
    Paul Rudd in a circa 1992 promotional photo for his first professional acting gig in the NBC drama series Sisters.

    It's a reality of Peak TV that movie stars don't just stay movie stars. Everybody from Cate Blanchett to Matthew McConaughey to Meryl Streep has been lured to the small screen with promises of well-written characters and the space in which to explore them. The deep pockets of outlets like HBO and (especially) Netflix certainly don't hurt, either. As a result, it's no longer all that remarkable to see an unambiguous Movie Star like Paul Rudd — the Ant-Man himself; the I Love You, Man man; the Judd Apatow-needs-a-stand-in-for-his-marriage-material man — show up on TV. What does make it notable is that Paul Rudd is so reliably GREAT on TV. Whether he's showing up as a guest star, for a mini-arc, or as a peerless talk-show guest, when Paul Rudd is on our TV screens, we know we're in good hands.

    Rudd's TV career goes back farther than even his breakthrough film roles in Clueless and William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet. And now it's a thread getting picked up again with his new Netflix series Living with Yourself, a mind-bending comedy with a real Charlie Kaufman-esque vibe in which he stars in a dual-role, opposite himself.

    To help celebrate Rudd's return to his roots, we thought we'd look back at just how deep those roots go and (in so doing) re-visit some of our very favorite Paul Rudd TV moments:

    Sisters (1992-95)

    This NBC drama series about a family of four adult sisters in Illinois and their lives and loves was like if This Is Us killed fewer people and had more women marrying their sisters' exes. (It also won Sela Ward an Emmy!) Back then, a baby-faced Paul Rudd (not like he's ever aged, but still) played the boyfriend of Alex's (Swoosie Kurtz) rebellious daughter Reed (Ashley Judd). Reed and Kirby, Rudd's character, ran away and eloped and causing Alex no end of frustration. Looking back, it's pretty funny to imagine Paul Rudd as the guy you wouldn't want marrying your daughter.

    Wild Oats (1994)

    This short-lived FOX sitcom falls under the umbrella of mid-'90s sitcoms about verbose, sexually neurotic twentysomethings living and/or working in urban loft spaces in the post-Friends, post-Real World TV landscape. Rudd played one such twentysomething, who kicked off the series by courting his best friend's ex-girlfriend, played by Paula Marshall, placing this show also under the umbrella of "doomed Paula Marshall TV shows."

    Friends (2002-04)

    In the later seasons of Friends, as the venerable NBC sitcom was beginning to round into the home stretch, the show needed to set up a happily-ever-after for Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow). Enter Rudd as dreamy boyfriend Mike. In the show's waning seasons, highlights were harder to come by, but Phoebe and Mike's story managed to be sweet and their relationship hurdles more realistic than most (incompatible relationship goals! A thing!), and by the time they got back together and married in the snow, it was easily the highlight of the Friends endgame. Rudd only appeared in 18 episodes, but they were memorable appearances, and a just and kind universe would let Rudd and Kudrow play a couple again in the future, because they were great at it.

    Saturday Night Live (2008-19)

    Paul Rudd's four gigs hosting Saturday Night Live have spanned a decade, and have included him rapping with Pete Davidson, raising a mug of beer with Bill Swerski's superfans, and playing Pete Buttigieg on The View. But by far his best known recurring sketch is "The Kissing Family," which, yes, leaned hard on the notion that men kissing men is funny.

    Late Night with Conan O'Brien and Conan (2004-15)

    In addition to his work on scripted shows, Rudd has also established himself as one of the all-time great talk-show guests. One particularly delightful ongoing drama is the one he's carried on with Conan O'Brien since 2004, wherein Conan plays the Charlie Brown, naively hopeful that this time, Rudd has brought a clip from whatever movie he's promoting to play for the audience. Rudd, meanwhile, is the Lucy Van Pelt, reliably replacing said pertinent clip with the same scene from Mac and Me. It's the cinephile's version of a Rick-roll, and it's glorious every time.

    Parks & Recreation (2012)

    That Paul Rudd only spent five episodes on Parks & Rec as Bobby Newport, political rival to Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), seems crazy because he's such a memorable presence from what was arguably the show's most prominent arc. Rudd gave Newport a perfect mix of dimwittedness and placid friendliness to mask the political villainy he represented. He wasn't the ideal foil for Leslie Knope because his beliefs were opposite to hers, but that his charmed life made him the polar opposite of Leslie's drive to succeed.

    The Greatest Event in Television History (2012-14)

    Adam Scott's bombastic attempts to re-create the opening title sequences to classic TV shows was one of the most strangely specific — and remarkably star-studded — little corners of 21st century television. Only four such specials aired in the span of about a year and a half, but Rudd was there to help launch the concept in 2012, as the director on Scott and Jon Hamm's re-enactment of the Simon & Simon credits, and then was there to bring it home with the talent-packed finale episode, recreating the credits to Bosom Buddies.

    The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon (2014-19)

    Back to the talk shows again, this time with Jimmy Fallon, with whom he's taken up the recurring task of re-creating classic music videos, shot-for-shot. There was the Styx hot "Too Much Time on My Hands," Go West's "King of Wishful Thinking", and perhaps most Rudd-centric, the recreation of Dead or Alive's "You Spin Me Round." But easily the best moment of Rudd on The Tonight Show was in helping Fallon create Lip Sync Battle with this trophy-worthy double bill of Tina Turner and Freddie Mercury.

    Wet Hot American Summer (2015-17)

    Rudd's loyalty to the first movie that truly unleashed his comedic potential says a lot about the love that the Wet Hot cast has for this cult favorite. Between the 2015 Netflix prequel First Day of Camp and the 2017 sequel Ten Years Later, Rudd took us on an extended journey through the heedless youth and unearned confidence of Andy the bad-boy.

    With Rudd making his way back to Netflix this week — and with double the Rudd to enjoy — it promises to be yet another homecoming for the stealth TV fave.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Paul Rudd, Netflix, Conan, Friends, The Greatest Event in Television History, Late Night with Conan O'Brien, Living With Yourself, Parks and Recreation, Saturday Night Live, Sisters (1992 series), The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later, Wild Oats