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How Lauren Lapkus Became the Queen of Podcast Characters

Lauren Lapkus. Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Netflix

When you combine Comedy Bang! Bang! and With Special Guest, there’s likely no one who has created more podcast characters than Lauren Lapkus. What’s remarkable about these characters is how little planning goes into them. Lapkus will have a voice and a vague idea, but once she starts improvising, she just becomes that person, whether she’s playing a naughty elf, a very well pierced teen with a speech impediment, the singer of the America’s Funniest Home Videos theme song, a pizza-loving carpet salesman, or a meth-addicted Northern California hater. Outside of podcasts, you can see her unfiltered character work in her Characters special and the recent comedy The Wrong Missy, both on Netflix.

On Vulture’s Good One podcast, Lapkus discusses Pamela from Big Bear, her thoughts on truth in comedy, and more. You can read some excerpts from the transcript or listen to the full episode below. Tune in to Good One every Tuesday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Overcast, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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On the Differences Between Threedom and Performing With Wild Horses

They’re really different. The Scott [Aukerman] and Paul [F. Tompkins] relationship evolved very organically over time, where I was interacting with them on the podcast and then slowly becoming real-life friends with them but then getting asked to do more and more Comedy Bang! Bang! stuff, which inherently makes you friends with somebody because we were traveling all across the country and to Australia, all these places. So we’ve spent a lot of time together, and they’re great. We have such a natural rapport that I didn’t expect at all. I loved Mr. Show when I was younger and never would have expected that connection to happen. It’s been so great.

And now we do our show Threedom together, which is so fun. We have a dynamic that I don’t have with a lot of people, which is that we’ve sort of created this environment where we care about what each other are saying, but we interrupt each other and talk over the whole time and do bits and sing songs. Anytime someone says anything that sounds like a song, we all have that annoying part of our brain that makes it into a song. It’s a very easy dynamic. And I am really surprised by it when I think about it from the outside. But it was a very natural progression.

And with Wild Horses — that’s my improv group with Stephanie Allynne and Mary Holland and Erin Whitehead. That started because I was invited to perform at a festival in Portland, an all-female improv festival called All Jane No Dick. They asked me if I had an improv team, do I want to come do a show, and I was like, yeah. But I didn’t have a team. So I just asked them because we were friends, but we weren’t all super-close. We were in this big, huge book club together, and we had seen each other at UCB a bunch and performed sort of randomly together but never as a team. And so it was kind of a risk, but mainly I figured, Well, we’ll have fun, and we’ll go to Portland for free. We had a great time, and the show was so fun that we decided to keep doing it. And now we’ve been doing the show every month for seven years and sometimes twice a month. So it’s kind of taken off in this way that I never would have expected. But that show is so different in the sense that I think just having four women talking to each other, you’re going to end up with completely different conversations than I’m going to have with Scott and Paul, for many reasons. It’s a really safe space where we end up sharing embarrassing stories, really personal stories. It feels like a place where we can all share any weird thought that we’ve ever had and then it’ll be supported. Or if it’s not supported, it’ll be made fun of in a fun way. Which feels good.

If I interrupted half as much as I do during Threedom, I would drive home kicking myself the whole way: Oh my God, I was so rude during the show. It’s just totally different vibes that are both comfortable in different ways.

On Truth in Comedy

The way I interpret that is that you should bring a level of reality and honesty to everything in the scene. So my character can be really absurd and really heightened and out of this world, but at the same time, she lives by a set of rules that are consistent and there’s a truth to that. Also, a lot of times I’ll think my characters are so over-the-top and so crazy and then so many reality-show people or just people you see on the street are not that far from what those characters are. Really, if you let them have a microphone, they might say a bunch of horrible stuff like that. So there is a truth to that.

I think a lot of times what that means also is keeping things grounded. When I am a dollar-bill-sized elf flying around, that’s not grounded. But there’s a reality that you’re all agreeing to that you’re not breaking, and that’s really what that means. Like, if someone says, like, “You’re the size of a dollar bill,” and I’m like, “I’m six feet tall!,” then we’re having a weird argument. We’re not really agreeing on the truth of the scene. Especially when you go back to the work that I did when I was at iO in Chicago and what they were talking about with truth in comedy, I think so much of the long-form improv that I was doing at that time was more grounded and more relationship based. And then coming to UCB, you learn more about the game of the scene, which is, What’s the unusual thing? Let’s keep heightening that. So it can get a bit unrealistic, but it’s funny. It’s two different styles of play. So I think truth in comedy can mean different things in that way.

On Stripping to “Brick” in Netflix’s The Characters

That started as a bit that I did onstage at UCB. I was part of a show where I had to just do five minutes of a character bit, and I came up with that. I remember where I was, in my little apartment, like, I got to do something tonight. Okay, I’m going to do a thing where I strip, but I have like a thousand layers of clothes on. And the song that I ended up picking at the time was “Fast Car,” by Tracy Chapman. I just wanted it to be really depressing, and I planned to hump an audience member during that. I ended up doing that for years. It kind of became a thing that I was just doing all the time. I would pick a person in the front row of the audience and just dead-eyed hump them over and over again and return to them over and over again.

So when I got to do this special, I wanted to put that in there. But Tracy Chapman did not approve of me using the song. I don’t know what information she was given, but she did not approve. But then I thought of “Brick,” and Ben Folds did approve. Later, he reached out to me that he had seen it and thought it was funny, so I was really glad. I don’t know how it works with music rights and how directly they’re told about what is going to be done with the thing. So I don’t know if he was totally shocked by that or if he knew that was coming. But I was so happy I got to use that song, because I think both of those songs are amazing, but “Brick” is more depressing in this very specific way for many reasons and getting to use it was just so cool. I think there’s just this instant understanding of what’s happening when you hear that song. And then to juxtapose that with stripping is fun.

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How Lauren Lapkus Became the Queen of Podcast Characters