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From Whitney Peeps to Pamela from Big Bear.
Not every comedian can boast that they’ve performed 70 different characters. Lauren Lapkus can.
One of Lapkus’s standby characters, Whitney Peeps, opens her 30-minute Netflix special The Characters. At the beginning of her episode, Peeps strolls out of her dressing room, long blonde hair draped over her horribly bronzed skin, framing glistening, Barbie-doll-sparkly eyes. “Real women don’t rush,” she croons to herself and the man who escorts her out of the dressing room. “I just had to put my face on. And my ass.”
Peeps hosts a Bachelor-esque spoof about a woman who is “a single celeb who’s famous and a celebrity, looking for love in a pool of non-famous, non-celebrities.” The show forms the underlying storyline for the special, which follows Peeps and the more complicated romances of people in the real world. Lapkus also plays an immature teenage boy named Todd, a jealous wife named Pamela from Big Bear, a disassociated pole dancer named Bamanda who dances to extremely sad tunes and randomly humps audience members, an intensely sad Greyhound bus traveler, and the star of a fake TV show called The Lonely Woman.
“For me, what really excites me about my characters and what pushes their core is the kind of dark, sad side of life,” Lapkus told the Daily Dot. “They’re all really heightened versions of people. They’re so extreme—you wouldn’t really know a person like that, really.”
Lapkus tested out many of the characters on her podcast, With Special Guest Lauren Lapkus, where the guest is the host and Lapkus improvises a character.
“I’ve done 70 different characters on my podcast,” she said. “But in terms of characters that I revisit a lot, I think there are 10 that I know more in-depth. It’s cool because having done my podcast, I can go back to an episode, flesh out a character, and then use it more.”
One of the kookier personas in Lapkus’s Characters episode is Pamela from Big Bear. She appears in the parking garage of Dick & Boners—a parody of Dave & Buster’s—and aggressively confronts the woman who is sleeping with her husband. Pamela first appeared on James Adomian’s episode of her podcast, “The Tom Leykis Radio Program.”
“James plays this radio host, Tom Leykis, who is a misogynist guy,” Lapkus explained. “Pamela calls in and she’s just like, ‘I hate you,’ and totally belligerent. It was improvised but I don’t think we got really deep with what we were talking about with her. It was cool to see what she would really look like and say to a regular person in society.”
Additional characters made their way to the stage in other ways. Lapkus performed Whitney Peeps on Comedy Bang! Bang! and improv for UCB’s Bangarang! and ASSSSCAT. The process for picking characters to flesh out The Characters came about in a natural way.
“Bamanda the stripper is from a live bit at UCB for years,” said Lapkus. “She would dance to Tracy Chapman’s ‘Fast Car,’ but I would like hump an audience member and all that stuff. I wanted to put that in the special because I don’t perform it live anymore, like I feel done with it, but I wanted it to live forever.”
If you haven’t watched her darkly humorous episode of The Characters, chances are you recognize Lapkus from her role as shy prison guard Susan Fischer on Orange Is the New Black. Even while confined to a prison set, her comedic sensibilities came through.
“The moments when she had to be tough were hard for me, a meek person acting tough,” said Lapkus. “I think those moments become funny because in the moment I don’t even know that I was being funny but people saw it as being funny because it was this meek person being like, ‘Stop talking!’ and no one takes it seriously.”
Lapkus’s performance background is entirely improv and sketch comedy. As a teenager, she kept trying to do theater at Evanston Township High School in Illinois. (The author also went to school there.)
“I auditioned for every single play every year, and the only thing I would get into was YAMO, the student-written, directed, and performed musical comedy review,” Lapkus said. “It was really devastating. You remember the writers’ showcase? My friends were running it and they wouldn’t even cast me.”
This led drama teacher Aaron Carney to suggest that she try the comedy route.
“Mr. Carney suggested I take classes at iO Chicago,” Lapkus explained. “So I started going to iO Chicago when I was a senior in high school, based on his recommendation. For me, that was me taking it into my own hands, rather than waiting for a play to accept me.” Her desire to keep performing, oddly enough, set her up nicely for a career in comedy. Once you’ve been rejected so many times and it feels like there’s nothing to lose, you’re more willing to try anything. For Lapkus, that willingness to try anything happened in comedy.
The eight-episode Netflix series marks a bigger shift in the possibilities for comedians who focus on sketch and improv. For standup comedians, it’s a career benchmark to get a one-hour special. The comedian works on jokes that they know well and have performed hundreds of times. The Characters offers something similar to a one-hour standup special, but for sketch/improv actors who’ve probably gained visibility through UCB, iO West, or Second City. The series suggests another route, a way to bend the rules and open up a new road for sketch/improv comics—but only if they’ve got a broad set of characters up their sleeves.
Lapkus has a recurring role in Judd Apatow and Pete Holmes’ new HBO’s show Crashing, which got picked up last January. In May, she’ll tour with Comedy Bang! Bang!, visiting 18 cities in 21 days. Will more characters appear? We can’t see any reason why not.
Alicia Eler is the author of 'The Selfie Generation: How Our Self-Images Are Changing Our Notions of Privacy, Sex, Consent, and Culture.' She is the visual art critic at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis. Her work has been published in the Guardian, Glamour, Harper’s Bazaar, New York Magazine, CNN, LA Weekly, Chicago Tribune, and Chicago Sun-Times.