I come bearing a warning: do not try to classify Lauren Lapkus, for she is a mighty blur of dramatic gadgets and gizmos. On paper, Lapkus is a comedian. Or a comic actor? Oof — I'm already confused. She's based in improvisational comedy. The Illinois native got her start, like many of the great comic actors of today, doing improv in Chicago. (Lapkus took classes at Improv Olympic, one of two powerhouse comedy schools in Chicago, the other being Second City.)
Her career, though, doesn't read as purely comic. Perhaps her most recognizable role was Susan Fischer on Orange Is The New Black, a series that may be categorized as comedic but is oftentimes decidedly not. But then there's her work in Jurassic World, where she plays a savvy — and, of course, goofy — engineer. (Legend has it she improvised the line, "I have a boyfriend!" in the film.) Add to that her podcast With Special Guest Lauren Lapkus, her monthly improv show at Upright Citizens Brigade, and her role on the web series The Earliest Show, and the recipes reads comedian.
Okay, but then there's Crashing. The upcoming HBO series, which premieres February 19, is the semi-autobiographical tale of stand up comedian Pete Holmes, who divorced from his wife at age 28. (Holmes hosts a podcast, You Made It Weird, which frequently features tales from this period of his life.) The series is riddled with comedians such as Artie Lange, Aparna Nancherla, and Big Jay Oakerson, all playing versions of themselves. Lapkus, though, plays Holmes' straying wife, Jess. The role isn't purely comedic or dramatic — Jess is vulnerable, and that is comedic, dramatic, and everything in between.
When I spoke with Lapkus over the phone, I discovered that she, like Jess, defies categorization. In an industry that delights in playing category mancala, Lapkus floats above it all. She's a hybrid of comedian, actor, and creator. Like other modern multi-hyphenates, she hasn't 'carved a space for herself,' she's permeated the boundaries so she doesn't need to do any carving at all.
This interview has been edited and condensed to remove all traces of fangirling and babble.
Refinery29: "Let's talk about Crashing."
Lauren Lapkus: "The story is based loosely on Pete's real experiences, so basically the character Pete, much like the real Pete, got married at a young age. Pretty religious upbringing. So they got married at a young age, and a few years into their marriage, she realizes that it's not enough for her — this is the fictional version, I don't know what happened in real life — and she cheats on him, and he comes home to find her cheating on him. So their marriage is basically over. And then, throughout this whole time, Pete's struggling as a comedian and trying to make it, so this is his opportunity to kind of, you know, leave the comfort of his home and move to New York City and crash on different friends couches in order to get up at open mics and try to become a professional comedian."
So, I'm familiar with this narrative via Pete Holmes' podcast You Made It Weird. Were you at all familiar with the divorced-at-28 tale?
"Not really — it's kind of good to not know all the details because we improvised a lot within the show, and I would feel more uncomfortable bringing in real facts from their relationship. So, it was cool to not know all the exact details, so we could be a little free with the dialogue."
How does Jess continue to factor into Pete's narrative?
"I don't know how much I can reveal! Anyone can imagine that divorce is messy and you don't just stop seeing that person forever. So, they have to deal with each other for a little bit longer."
Yeah, I always wondered about the wife's side of things. The wife who sleeps with an Italian guy named Rocco. [Editor's note: this is a fact I picked up from Holmes' podcast.]
"Yeah, I did hear about that. I think they've taken some creative liberty with the guy."
That name in and of itself is ripe for comedy.
"I know. It's amazing."
So, you have an improv comedy background — but you're not exclusively comic. Case in point: Orange Is The New Black, where you played a security guard. Is this purposeful?
"I didn't know too much about Orange Is The New Black going into it, because it was a whole new territory, and Netflix was just getting into creating shows. My character had some comedic elements, so it didn't seem like a huge leap at that moment, but I think I was able to push myself into more dramatic stuff. It was really satisfying. You know, I've always been open to that, but because my background is really improv and sketch-heavy, it felt like naturally I'm going to do more comedy and be more inclined to get those roles, but that Orange Is The New Black role opened me up to roles that are more dramatic. Which is so great because I think for a show like Crashing, there are a lot of dramatic elements to the role, and [I was able] to use my improv in the more dramatic stuff."
How do you feel like improv helps the dramatic stuff? Does it help at all?
"I think it helps a lot. Crashing is one of the first opportunities I've had to really improvise dramatically on film. It was really freeing because you can get really deep with somebody. Pete — knowing that it's Pete's personal story — and that he was going through a lot of the feelings again and he was going to a place where it really happened to him made it easy for me to go there with him. I don't know what will actually make it into the final cut of the show, but there are a lot of moments where it's sad or serious, and it felt great to be able to blend my improv world with that."
Oh, wow — so you were able to improvise a serious conversation. [Editor's note: this is really hard.]
"Yeah, Judd [Apatow] and Pete just allowed so much freedom with the dialogue. Of course, we shot their hilarious writing, and that was amazing. And then they allowed us to improvise moments and find new things within each scene, so it was a really cool environment."
I want to touch on The Characters. Just because I want to take any opportunity to talk about it.
"That was a really cool experience — each one of the comedians who got an episode, we each had total control. You know, as long as you stay within budget and everything. But I was able to do basically anything I wanted within that. And that was my first opportunity to write something and shoot it and make exactly what I was picturing and Netflix was very cool with all of us getting really weird with it."
It feels like Netflix has opened a platform for comedy that hasn't been there before.
"Yeah! Well, I think it was particularly special because there aren't a lot of opportunities [for sketch and improv performers] — you know, when you're a stand up comedian, you can do an hourlong special. For sketch comedy, that's not really a thing that's happened yet. So they were really paving a way for that, which was a cool thing to be a part of."
You have a bajillion extracurriculars — what I have written in my notes is 'why is she so goddamn busy?' So, er, why are you so busy?
"I think it's so important because it allows me to do exactly what I wanted and put out something that's totally personal and unique every week — that's why I love doing my podcast. I didn't ever expect to get into that game. Comedy Bang Bang and Improv4Humans is like — having Scott [Aukerman] and Matt Besser invite me onto their shows was so huge, and I didn't know at the time, but it obviously because a huge part of my life. And I both of those shows, as well as so many great improv podcasts, allow you to live in characters a little bit longer, and I think that's something that when you do improv on the stage, you're not afforded, usually. And also the fact that it lives forever, which is, you know, a little bit scary at the same time. But you know you do these improv shows every night and they just go away and it's fun, and it's really fulfilling, but there's something about having a tangible product at the end that feels good and it's really addictive."
Do you struggle to maintain your own podcast?
"Yeah, it is a little bit hard at times. Right now, I'm taking a 4-month hiatus from my podcast to film this movie, and that was a hard thing to decide, but it also was really good for me, because I have to put it out every week, and I've never missed a week, so that becomes a bit daunting and overwhelming at times. It can also burn you out at times. I'm excited to go back and do more!"
Why'd you start your podcast in the first place?
"I'd been doing a bunch of Comedy Bang Bang episodes at that point and Scott — Aukerman, he's one of the founders of Earwolf — he and the guys over there said, "hey, do you want to do your own show?" They're always looking for new people to host shows. They have so many great people on that network. It wasn't something that I'd really thought about, but I figured why not? It's not everyday that you just get to make art and have people put it out into the world for you. I just had to take the chance."
Yeah, part of the reason I love podcasts is it feels like unconditional comedy.
"I think it's really cool that anyone can listen to it for free — that's something that really appeals to me about the podcast world. Anyone can access it, and I think if I had that when I was younger, or wanting to get into the improv scene, it would've blown my mind to listen to anything like that. I listened — [laughs] — to Nichols and May albums and that sounds very old now, to listen to something from the '50s or '60s when now, there's a new thing coming out of someone's brain that you can consume immediately."
You have an improv group called "Wild Horses." I first want to applaud the name. It's a great name.
"Thank you. I came up with the name — I guess I'll just take this opportunity to take credit for that."
Was it important to you that it be all female?
"Well, the team was sort of formed out of nowhere. I was invited to perform at an all-female festival in Portland called "All Jane, No Dick," and they asked me if I had an all female team, and I was like, "Yes!" Then I quickly put together an all-female team of three other girls I thought would be really fun to travel with. And we ended up having really good shows and feeling really good about it. So we decided to keep performing together, and I'm so happy that that all happened because it's become, like, my favorite thing to do."
How often do you guys get to perform together?
"We perform once a month at UCB, and now we're also going to have a monthly show at Largo once a month starting in March."
Still — it's just — you do so much!
Requisite question alert: you're a female in comedy. Specifically, improv comedy, which is a totally different landscape than stand up comedy in a lot of ways, but it's still very dude-heavy.
"You know, I've been doing improv for 14 years or something, and I started when I was really young. When I started, being a girl wasn't really a concern for me, it was more like my age, and like, do I have something to say? And, as time has gone on, I've realized more how important it is that I am a woman. Not just me, but that there are so many amazing women doing comedy now. You used to always be like "Oh, there's that one girl in every improv team, it'd be cool to be that one girl!" You're not really thinking, "I wish there were more us!" You just wanna be the one who gets the thing when you're first starting out.
As I've gotten older and wiser, I would say that there's room for so many women out there, and what's so great is my team Wild Horses is my most fulfilling performance experience every month. We start the show by having a conversation with each other where we just check in about our lives, and even though we're really close friends, we always learn something new about each other. We're always really vulnerable. And then we bring out a celebrity guest, and have like a really loose dinner party-style conversation with them where we get to know them and share more about ourselves. And then we do improv based off that. And that whole show makes me feel like, 'Oh, it's so amazing to be a woman.' Because it feels like the kind of thing that you'd only get from a group of women. That you'd share personal stories about yourself that are embarrassing, or make you wanna cry — but you can make it funny still — and it feels like a particularly feminine quality that we're able to bring to the audience and it feels so good."
I've never heard about that opening — I think that's the technical term — before.
"Yeah, the show is done like a talk show for the first half. We sit on stage at a table, drink wine and chat about our lives, and we each share something that we recently experienced or were thinking about. And then we bring the guest out. We each have questions that we have on little index cards that we ask each other about. And it just kind of feels like a slumber party, where you can just like ask anything and share anything and people end up sharing their most personal stuff that they would never expect to say before they walk onstage. And it makes the improv really rich because there's so much to pull from and it's really personal for all of us and for the guest. It just makes it so much more fun. I love doing improv off of a word, and letting anything inspire you, but there's something really fun about pulling something from people's real lives."
Were you trying to create the feel of a slumber party?
"We were trying to recreate The View, basically, but we're all actually friends with each other. And there's no censors or anything. There's just a vibe — like we all hug each other when we come out, and we hug the guest as if we haven't seen them backstage a few minutes ago, but then the conversation can get really dark and weird and embarrassing. Which brings me back to Crashing. It's really fun to improvise within a narrative that exists within real life."
So, Crashing exists within the New York comedy scene — how do you feel like the show pays tribute to comedy?
"Well it's really cool because it shows the struggle of becoming a comedian. Of course, it's focused on stand up, but it's really relatable to improv, and really just trying to find your way in your career, and figuring out what you wanna do with your life. Because I think watching Pete, who is passionate but unsuccessful at the beginning, hold onto his dream and follow it — of course, you know that in real life it pays off for him — it's really fun to watch somebody flounder and try to figure out themself. It's pretty painful to try to be funny onstage when no one wants you to."
Did you have a similar experience to Pete's coming up?
"Yeah, of course. It's really painful to have to learn how to do improv and not put so much pressure on yourself to be so funny all the time. Because I think that's something people struggle with. Of course, when you start doing improv, it's because you've been told that you're funny. So you think, oh, everything I say should be super witty. But then you realize that, like, no scene can move forward if two people are just trying to be funny. Beginning improv classes is kind of painful and cringey and you doubt yourself a lot. And your first few shows are definitely gonna be like that. But then those moments of success feel so good that it keeps you going forward. I definitely think I relate to Pete's story but also the benefit of improv is that you have a whole group of people to lean on and to point at like, "that was a bad show! And I blame all of us." So I can't go home and feel that bad about it."
Would you ever do an autobiographical piece of work like Crashing?
"Yeah, it's something that I think about. I don't know if it would be so much about my career as much as my personal life. I do think it's really interesting to hear people's personal stories. So maybe in the future that'd be something I'd be interested in."
Who are your comedy idols?
"Amy Sedaris is definitely one of them. Tracey Ullman — there's so many sketch performers that I really admire — Maya Rudolph. I really loved the Chris Farley era of SNL. I always hold — do you say 'I hold a candle' for that? Is that a phrase?"
I think it's 'hold a candle to'? I don't even know.
"Right now, I really admire Sharon Horgan — she created and starred in Catastrophe on Amazon."
Oftentimes in your career, you've embodied that sort of "goofy sidekick" archetype. I'm thinking specifically of Are You There, Chelsea? For me, it's nice to see the woman take on this comedic role, because I feel like the comic relief so often falls to the male.
"Yeah, I think so often when you're a little bit quirky, you fall into the quirky best friend category. Which I have no problem with and think is really fun to play. But I've been noticing more shows where the quirky best friend is more the main character. And I think that's really exciting and fun, and an interesting one that we don't usually get. You usually get the sexy lead and then the friend who says something funny, and I'd rather watch the weird friend do something the whole time. A show that comes to mind that's a great example of that is Fleabag, which I just watched and loved so much. In the past, that character could have been placed next to the main character, you know, saying something sardonic every once in awhile. And here, we get to see her whole perspective on the world, and I just ate it up."
The goofy sidekick deserves her own show!
"Definitely. Another example is Insecure on HBO, which I love. You know, she's, like, a little bit awkward and says things that are quirky, but it's so much more fun to watch that person."
How would you classify your role in Crashing? Comedic or dramatic?
"I get to be both, which is really fun. One thing that I loved about doing this show is that Pete's the struggling comedian but his wife [Jess] is oftentimes funnier than he is, and I love that he allowed that to be the case."
Thank you so much!