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Why is it that the plastic faces, absurd body language and outrageous confidence of unimaginable characters can ring so suddenly and hysterically true when brought to life by a skilled comedian? Harmony Moonglass, Big Sue, Sarah from Date-Zaster, Todd and “international philanthropist” Whitney Peeps never existed before Lauren Lapkus unleashed them on us, but out they spring, ridiculous yet recognizable as heightened versions of people we know. The crazy (or terrifying) part is how she seems to spawn them as quickly as they escape to places like Comedy Bang! Bang!, and her own mind-boggling podcast With Special Guest Lauren Lapkus.
A childhood spent filming sketches with her brother, watching sitcoms and taking improv classes as a high school student will do that to a person. Growing up in Evanston, Illinois, she wanted nothing more than to be Adam Sandler or Chris Farley; she settled instead for graduating DePaul University, moving to New York and promptly joining UCB Theater (she’s still a member of its flagship Asssscat show). At that point, a lot of hopefuls would focus on getting an agent; Lapkus focused on having fun, finding her own performance opportunities and doing as many good shows as she could.
It set her up well for a 2010 move to L.A., where she quickly found a sketch community and the first big breaks of her career. Her gawky, wide-eyed naiflike persona read younger than her 25 years and got her cast in a Jimmy Kimmel Live! sketch as a staffer fired by Ryan Reynolds. That led to small movie roles and her first TV series, Are You There, Chelesea?, on which she played Dee Dee, quite possibly the world’s weirdest roommate. The following year a self-taped audition led to a two-season run as prison guard Susan Fischer on Orange Is the New Black, where no other actress could’ve made her character’s attempts to be mean more nuanced, pathetic or funnier. Looking at her relatively short track record versus her talent, it seems amazing she’d be cast in the 2015 blockbuster Jurassic World the next year, but she was one of the best things about it. Collider said Lapkus and fellow supporting actor Jake Johnson were “responsible for a good deal of the movie’s most effective one-liners while still managing to give their characters a warmth and sincerity lacking in most of the main players.”
Last year, she wrote and starred in the inaugural episode of Netflix’s sketch show The Characters, the best overview of her internal clown factory to date. In its review, The A.V. Club called her “…one of those sketch comics who never seems happier than when she can slather on the makeup, wigs, funny teeth, and strange voices and make a spectacle of herself. Indeed, Pamela, the cranked-out psycho that’s one of the many characters she plays here would be right at home beside some of [Amy] Poehler’s most dangerously insane Upright Citizens Brigade characters, sharing with them a crazy-eyed scabrousness that’s vivid enough to be as frightening as she is funny.”
And to a kid who grew up idolizing the cast of Saturday Night Live, next year must already feel completely surreal – she’ll star opposite Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly in Sony Pictures’ comic take on Holmes and Watson.
But despite the rush of screen work, Lapkus remains one of the most adroit comic improvisers in the business, with or without an audience that can actually see her. In a recent profile, The A.V. Club declared, “At this point, Lapkus is basically a queen Midas of any podcast episode she touches, and listening to her regularly hold her own with veterans, it’s easy to understand why.” She is a regular on too many to mention, including the aforementioned With Special Guest Lauren Lapkus. Each week her guest is actually the host of their own podcast, with Lapkus appearing as a “guest” on their show. Still with us? The “host,” usually a fellow improv vet , dictates in the moment who Lapkus will be. Splitsider called it “a wonderful reminder of how powerful and transformative tomfoolery can be in the right hands.” That would be the hands of someone who commits in a way that would scare a lot of actors. In her view, “You can’t really get as much done when you’re worried about looking gross. It’s also not as much fun.”
We may never completely understand what makes someone jump with abandon into creative situations most of us would do anything to avoid. In that regard, comedians like Lapkus deserve far more credit – and gratitude – than we usually give them. “To me, the most important thing about comedy is the joy it can bring to the performers and the audience alike,” she told Backstage a couple years after her move to L.A. “I love making people laugh…Some of my favorite moments are when I’m doing a scene with friends and I can’t stop laughing. Not quite professional behavior, but if everyone in the room is laughing, it makes it a little more acceptable.” Those moments of shared, uninhibited hilarity are not only acceptable, but as an audience of humans, some of the best we’ll ever have.