Back in the 1950s, Roman Catholic priests were known to relax, kick back and watch “Gunsmoke” after long Saturday nights in the confessional.

Last spring, Broadway actors found a similar respite ritual after putting in a full 8 perfs. Come Sunday night, they often gathered together to enjoy a communal rest in front of the tube. The show? HBO’s new comedy series “The Comeback,” starring Lisa Kudrow.

Legit thesps, especially those with a TV pedigree, could relate: In Valerie Cherish, here was a workaday actress, not exactly a star, who was so desperate to keep her career alive that she stooped to making herself the subject of a reality TV show called, with all due self-imposed humiliation, “The Comeback.”

And there was more mortification: For her day job, Kudrow’s Cherish played an aging supporting character named Aunt Sassy on a “Friends”-style sitcom called “Room and Board,” which pit her against a beer-drinking, pizza-chomping creator-writer named Paulie G (Lance Barber). Aunt Sassy, “Room and Board,” Paulie G. Does it get any lower on TV than that?

“The showrunners and writers can be more difficult than the actors,” says Kudrow. “And supporting characters are not given the credibility of a lead. There is a hierarchy, and it is blatant.”

Having done “Friends” for 10 years, Kudrow knows of what she speaks — but with significant qualifications. “I know how a show gets launched, the basics,” she says, “but the intimate details of ‘The Comeback’ had nothing to do with ‘Friends,’ which was always very collaborative.”

Also unlike the long-running “Friends,” “The Comeback” lasted a mere 13 episodes. Actors loved the show, but the rest of the TV-watching world, according to Kudrow, broke into three distinct groups: “One group thought Valerie was a masochist and (wondered) why she doesn’t stand up for herself. The other group thought that nothing could stop her and she was strong. And the third group was, ‘Man, what an idiot!’ “

Which brings to mind the advice Lee Strasberg once gave a student: “You laugh well. You cry well. Now do both at the same time.”

On “The Comeback,” Kudrow proved she could play masochism, strength and idiocy all at the same time.

SOUND BITES

Lisa Kudrow created the Valerie Cherish character for the Groundlings. “So she was easy to slip into,” says the actress.

But how would Val develop and evolve if, in fact, there were more seasons to come?

“On the DVD, Michael Patrick King and I wrote two new scenes,” Kudrow reveals. “They’re on hiatus from ‘Room and Board,’ so Valerie thought it was silly not to have the cameras on her. So she goes on ‘Dancing With the Stars.’ “

Regarding a whole new second season, Kudrow believes the character had the potential to grow, especially after Jay Leno embraced her barfing brouhaha in the final episode: “Valerie’s attitude would be a shade different. We ended with her a success. How would she use that power? Would she get Paulie G fired? His replacement could be so much worse.”

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