Cookies help us deliver our Services. By using our Services, you agree to our use of cookies. Learn More.

What Only Hardcore Friends Fans Know About Ursula Buffay's Origins

Phoebe Buffay (Lisa Kudrow) of "Friends" is known for lots of things: her sketchy history, her slightly odd, yet sweet-natured, personality, that "Smelly Cat" song, and the fact that she has a similarly-spacey twin sister named Ursula. 

Ursula, you may recall, was sort of an "evil twin" version of Phoebe who featured in several episodes of the hit NBC sitcom. Throughout the run of the series, we got a number of examples for why the two sisters remained estranged from one another. There was the time in Season 1 when Ursula ghosted Joey (Matt LeBlanc), as well as the fact that Ursula used Phoebe's name while working in the porn industry ("The One Where Chandler Can't Cry"), and the little matter of Ursula selling Phoebe's birth certificate to a Swedish runaway ("The One Where They All Turn Thirty").

And if you count yourself as a true "Friends" superfan, you'll know a bit of trivia about Ursula that others don't: Ursula actually came first and predates Phoebe as a character.

Ursula was a recurring character on Mad About You before Friends

In "Mad About You," the NBC comedy that also aired on Thursday nights from 1992 to 1999, Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt played a newlywed couple in New York who were dealing with life in the big city. One of Paul and Jamie Buchanon's hangouts was Riff's Bar, home to a rather dim-witted blonde waitress whose name was Ursula. She was introduced in the show's first season and stayed a minor character throughout its run.

After Kudrow was cast on "Friends," she wanted to remain with her other show, so an explanation was needed. "Everybody realized, 'Well, then we need some explanation for the audience, why you're seeing the same girl with the same voice at 8 o'clock and 8:30 on two different shows,'" she told the Television Academy Foundation in an interview. When asked if the two characters being twins seemed realistic, Kudrow said, "Sure. Oh my god, they were two versions of different idiots. I mean, not idiots, that's mean."

With Phoebe and Ursula established as twins, that also meant that "Friends" and "Mad About You" existed in the same universe, a connection explored during other episodes, such as when the Thursday evening NBC shows set in New York (minus "Seinfeld") all suffered a blackout in late 1994 (via Esquire). There was also the time Jamie and her best friend Fran (Leila Kenzle) made an appearance on Ursula's first "Friends" episode, where they mistook Phoebe for her sister.

 "Friends" producer David Crane told fans during a 2019 screening that bringing Ursula in required permission from "Mad About You" creators Danny Jacobson and Paul Reiser. "They were incredibly generous and let us do it, which is nuts," Crane said (via Entertainment Weekly). "I wouldn't let anybody do that with a character on our show!"

Ursula was portrayed a bit differently on both shows

Even though Ursula was an already established character, the "Friends" writers tweaked her personality to fit their show's needs. Kudrow told the Television Academy Foundation, "I saw Ursula as this nice person, just didn't pay attention to anything. And Phoebe was a nice person, she was fiery, there was more to her ..." She also said she believes it was the "Friends" writers who turned Ursula into "this evil person." 

Apparently, Kudrow was not a fan of the filming process that turned her into twins. "Lisa really did not have a good time doing them. She did not like acting with a double, and in a way she might have made it more difficult for herself because her double was her actual sister, [Helena]," "Friends" executive producer Kevin Bright remembered (via Entertainment Weekly). "I think feeling the [stress] she put her sister into by being the double was more in her head at the time, so those scenes were a little bit tricky to shoot. But it ended up being a lot of fun when you put it together."

But that didn't stop her from playing both roles. Overall, Kudrow appeared in 23 episodes of "Mad About You" as Ursula, including the series finale. If you're interested in watching Ursula's appearances and comparing her to Phoebe, you can catch "Mad About You" on Amazon Prime Video: all seven seasons are available for free with your subscription.