Creating Characters with Lauren Lapkus

From sitcoms and guest appearances on television to the mega-blockbuster Jurassic World, Lauren Lapkus’s acclaim is growing. A mainstay in the comedy podcast world, she created some of the most memorable characters on Comedy Bang! Bang! before beginning her own podcast with improv-themed characters entitled With Special Guest Lauren Lapkus.

It seems equally fitting she would star in a series based around her specialty: characters. Leave it to Netflix to create an innovative show specifically for improv and sketch comedians. Netflix Presents: The Characters is one show, eight comedians, multiple personalities and most importantly – no rules. Each comedian was given a 30 minute episode to create whatever they want with no limits.

I spoke to Lauren about developing her episode, how podcasts prepared her, and why some characters are harder than other to bring to life.

What did it mean that you were given the chance to create with no rules?

That was so amazing, I think they did such a cool thing by allowing us to do whatever we want. I think for me it was the ultimate freedom. I have never had an opportunity even close to that. In improv you can kinda make up your own rules, but this was such an extreme level. I’m just really thankful for this opportunity; I’m so pumped for it.

How did it develop, did Netflix have you and the other cast members in mind?

They approached me about doing it. I had a meeting with Netflix about a year before this and they floated the idea by me and I was really into it. When it came to be I was really happy to be a part of it.

What was your process coming up with the idea for your episode?

I really wanted to include characters that I had done before whether on my podcast or on stage. I kinda made a list of characters I wanted to include either from Comedy Bang! Bang! or With Special Guest Lauren Lapkus and decided those were most important to me, so those things came first. From that point on I built the narrative structure around them.

Did you revisit aspects of a character you brought out previously or did you bring the character to life brand new?

I listened to some old episodes where I had improvised and maybe forgotten about it. I just used whatever I remember as a jumping point and take it wherever I want with the narrative of the show. There was one character I did in my special, “Whitney Peeps,” who I’ve also done on Comedy Bang! Bang! the TV show so she already had a physical look to her and I tried to stick to that to keep it consistent. Beyond that, I had more freedom.

Does introducing a character on a podcast help the way it develops? Is it an easier medium to do what you want or does it compare to performing live?

Definitely with a lot of these characters they’re really larger than life, so doing them on a podcast is a little bit easier because you can describe them any way you want. You can help the listener imagine what they look like more than you can when you’re on stage. What was so awesome doing the special was that I was able to actually bring them to life and get all the hair and makeup and costumes that would make them look exactly how I imagined or as close to it as I could come without changing my actual body. It was really, really fun to get to do that.

I just wonder how Traci Reardon could ever be conceptualized as a real person.

I know, I know! So many characters that I’ve done on podcasts have really absurd physical descriptions. She is definitely absurd… I mean she has a shaved head and a million piercings all over her body. I don’t know how I would be able to pull it off, but I’d love to try and do it at some point. But yeah, she doesn’t make it into the special this time.

But someone like Todd seems a lot easier to bring to life.

Yeah, and Todd is in the special so I’m really excited for everyone to see what Todd looks like.

Has having your own podcast been an exciting way to develop your improv skills in a permanent role?

It’s been really huge. I actually never knew what it would be like and never expected to have my own podcast. When I was given the opportunity I was of course going to jump at the chance. It’s so much fun, and I love being a guest on other people’s podcasts. The format I created for myself makes me push myself more because my guest is the host of the show and they decide how it’s gonna go and who my character is. They don’t tell me until we start recording, so I really don’t have any prior knowledge to what’s gonna happen, and once we get going I have to improvise as that character for an hour. For me that’s a really big challenge that’s helped me grow as an improvisor and force myself to do characters I would never think of. It has definitely helped me with my special as well – kind of feeling confident taking a character from there and pushing it to the next level and do my best to bring it to life.

Was it a good opportunity to use people you’ve worked with before or that you had in mind while writing?

Yeah, it really was. I lived in New York for about a year before I moved to LA. In that time I met a ton of people doing UCB and it was really great cause we shot in New York I was able to use all those friends in the special, it was really cool. For parts that I didn’t have someone in mind for, we cast from local New York actors and found some amazing people including Susan Blackwell who’s a Broadway actress, she’s incredible. I’m really excited to have her in my episode.

Did you interact with the rest of the cast, were you able to see what direction others were going?

Actually we all have no idea what the others are doing. It made it kind of fun and mysterious throughout the process. I hope what I’m doing makes sense compared to what everyone else is doing. In a way I think it’s really cool to not know so we aren’t really influenced by each other so everything you see is completely unique to each performer.

It’s very exciting to see a Netflix show embrace comedy that focuses on characters.

It’s really awesome. I think one thing that the other comedians who’re doing the special can relate to is that if you don’t do standup you don’t really have an opportunity to have a special. There hasn’t been anything like this before that I’m aware of. It was really cool to have the platform created for us where you can take what you do as an improv and sketch comedian and deliver it to the masses in a bigger way than you ever could before. In standup there are clear goals you can get, like getting a half hour or an hour special, but the sketch performer doesn’t really have those goals and opportunities. I’m really excited for it because I feel like a lot of people across America who don’t have a UCB-type theater in town wouldn’t have that kind of comedy in person very often. It’s exciting to bring that to everyone.

Kaitlynn E-A Smith is a copywriter by day, writer by night, MA fashion grad and (mostly) creative mind. Follow her on Twitter to read her thoughts or Instagram to see her cats.

Creating Characters with Lauren Lapkus