Talking to Lauren Lapkus About ‘Comedy Bang! Bang!’, Improv, and ‘Orange Is the New Black’
Lauren Lapkus may not yet be a household name in the world of comedy, but she is fast on her way to becoming one. Lapkus, an improv performer since her high school days, has accumulated an impressive list of achievements over the past three years: appearing in a sketch with Ryan Reynolds on Jimmy Kimmel Live; starring with Laura Prepon on the NBC sitcom, Are You There, Chelsea?; and, most recently, acting in the supporting role of correctional officer Susan Fischer on the Netflix hit Orange Is the New Black.
However, any comedy nerd immediately recognizes Lapkus from some of her memorable appearances on the podcast Comedy Bang! Bang!, where her characters like Traci Rearden (or Twaci Wiewdan) and Scott Aukerman’s nephew Todd have taken listeners on bizarre and hysterical tangents. Not to mention the fact that Lapkus and her characters have stood toe-to-toe multiple times with CBB titan Paul F. Tompkins.
Needless to say, Lapkus is a multi-talent that anyone who enjoys comedy should be paying close attention to. I had a chance to chat with her last week while she was taking a break from shooting of Season 2 of Orange Is The New Black.
I read that you started in improv when you were a senior in high school. What about performing improv kind of clicked with you once you began?
I had always been funny in school, but I never got into any of the plays except for some sketch stuff. So it was a way for me to use my humor to take control of my own situation and not have to rely on what plays were being put on at school in order to perform. It also helped me open up as a person because I think I was more of a mean, sarcastic kind of funny, and improv allowed me to find a more positive way to express myself.
After high school, did you immediately continue doing improv during your college years?
Yes. Well, I’m from Evanston, IL and I took improv classes at the iO Theatre in Chicago during high school and I stayed in the city and went to DePaul [University]. I chose it mostly so I could keep doing improv locally. I kept taking classes at iO, did some shows at The Annoyance Theatre, some things at Second City in their Skybox Theatre, which is kind of like their side venue.
When you finished college, you went to New York, but only for one year. How did you spend your time while you were in the city?
I worked as a babysitter, which gave me just enough money to survive. I didn’t want to have a full-time job because I was trying to audition for things all the time. I had a commercial agent, who would send me on a commercial audition like once a month, which is always stressful and exciting. I had my days and nights mostly free, and I joined UCB and Story Pirates, which is a theater company that I still partake in sometimes in LA. I also formed some indie improv groups and we would go out and do shows, which was really fun.
Where would you perform with those groups?
There were a bunch of spots. Under St. Marks, which is, as you can guess, an underground theatre. I tried to do anything at UCB and they had a show called School Night, and I would do that every so often with my friend Laura Willcox. It was just a seven minute set and it was always really fun.
Did you move to New York with any friends or did you just kind of do it on your own?
I moved with a friend named Candy Lawrence who is currently doing standup in Chicago. We had a sketch team at that time called The Money Kids and so we moved with the plan to do sketch at the time, so I also performed with her as well.
When did you move to LA?
January of 2010.
It seems like once you got to LA, things kind of took off for you
Yeah, I mean, it worked out pretty well because I finished my UCB classes in New York just in time to audition to get on a team in LA, which was right when I was coming out to the West Coast to look for an apartment. I auditioned and got on a team, which was really huge because getting to perform lets you be seen in town and was just hugely important in getting my managers and eventually doing a bunch of cool stuff. When I first got to LA, I was also doing shows at the iO Theatre there and the head writer for Jimmy Kimmel also performs at that venue regularly, and she had seen me perform, and she got me on his show doing a bit with Ryan Reynolds.
How soon after you moved to LA did you have the audition for Are You There, Chelsea?
I think it was about one year.
What was working on a live audience network sitcom like?
It was such an exciting experience. I grew up watching multi-cam sitcoms all my life and to be a part of one was the coolest thing that could have happened. It was also totally overwhelming, but in the best way. It really made me feel like I had to rise to the occasion. Also, getting the chance to perform in front of the audience was a great blend of both worlds: TV, which I was new to, and theater, which I was familiar with.
What were the shooting days like?
The days we shot would be a five or six hour shoot at night with the audience. I would get stressed out, but never to a negative point. It was just constant excitement. I think I was just high off the general energy.
I first found out about you through Comedy Bang! Bang! How’d you end up on the show?
I had been doing ASSSSCAT at UCB for about a year or so and Scott [Aukerman] would do monologues there, so he just basically asked me to do the podcast. And doing that podcast is the most fun thing ever. When I get to record one, it’s like the best hour or two hours (however long it goes on) of my month. You basically just get to live in an improvised character for a long time and that’s just an ideal situation. And, of course, Scott is just so cool because he lets me be the weirdest person I can possibly be.
Like your recent appearance on the CBB episode “Todd’s Life 2.0”?
Yeah, I mean, I really wanted to listen back to that one because when we walked out of the studio, I was like, “What did we just do in there?” That was Eric Andre’s first time on the podcast, and he asked me, “Did I do that right?” And I told him that it’s just very weird.
Where do you come up with characters like Todd or Traci Rearden?
Basically, I’ll just come in with my character’s very, very basic game. Like with Traci it’s just that she can’t pronounce “r’s”. Like, I really don’t have anything more than that. And with Todd, he’s just that annoying kid who is always being punished. I just try to keep it very simple, so I can go with the flow on the show. The best part of the podcast is that it can go in any direction, so I want to be as flexible as possible so that I can follow the direction the show happens to take.
You’ve been on two CBB episodes with Paul F. Tompkins, who is basically the show’s master guest. What is it like performing with him?
It’s great. It’s just one of those situations where you find yourself operating at the top of your game because everyone around you is so awesome. I’m always just really excited to go in there because I’m so focused and so there the whole time. You really can’t spend a second thinking about anything else because those guys are just so fast.
Do you take anything from performing with guys like Scott and Paul F. Tompkins?
I’m just inspired by those guys because they have been performing for a really long time and they elevate everyone around them. Some of the shows I’ve done with them have been in a bigger group or just a few people and you see everyone operate at the top of their game. The best part of all of these podcasts now is that people anywhere in the world are able to just listen in whenever and whenever they want and they are getting an amazing improv show, whether they are at work or in their car. In one of the forums, I saw this one girl who said she listens to comedy podcasts all day while she’s at work, and I just thought that was awesome; that while you are at a desk job that you hate (I’m assuming this girl hated her job) that at least you can entertain yourself with something you really enjoy.
How did you get the part on Orange Is The New Black?
I got the audition through my managers just like any other audition. I self-taped it at home, which was kind of funny because, when you do those self-taped auditions, you can’t really tell how it goes since it’s just you in a room at your house or apartment. So you kind of find yourself going, ‘I guess it was good, I’ll just send it!’ But I didn’t expect to get the role because it’s a corrections officer and I thought, ‘There’s no way I’ll ever be that.’ I figured I’d just forget about it because it wouldn’t happen, but then I got the part and it was really fun since I’ve never gotten to play a role like that before. Being in a position of “power” like that and not being able to assert any real power is a fun game to play.
You’re currently shooting the second season. How far into the process are you?
We’re about halfway done. I think episode seven or so. It’s been great going back and forth between LA and New York, and I’m thankful I had that one year in the city because I have all these friends there and a little life going on that I can just jump into. It’s not isolating or anything at all.
When is the second season set to premiere on Netflix?
We just know that it’s 2014. That’s about it.
What’s the main difference in shooting this show than anything else you’ve done before?
I guess the main difference is that there are so many women on the show, and it’s great to be a part of something that’s cutting edge in that way. Just a cast and crew full of so many diverse women. I think people are also really responding to the show. It’s just very exciting to be a part of a show that is taking off and connecting with an audience. The fans are just so supportive. They are constantly posting awesome fan art and gifs, and it’s just been very cool to see it take off that way.
Besides Orange Is The New Black, what else can we see you in coming up?
I’ll have a recurring role in House of Lies, which starts in January. I also shot a movie this past summer with Adam Sandler called the The Familymoon, which will be out in May of 2014.
One final question. Growing up, were you a fan of Kerri Kenney? I recently watched the “Whistleblowers” sketch you did and it reminded me of a character she would have done back in The State.
Yes, I was! I actually got to work with her on Are You There, Chelsea? She is hysterical and she is one of the sweetest people ever.
Matt Domino loves the NBA and writes fiction in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared in various places and he runs a blog called Puddles of Myself.