Although she’s appeared in everything from big-budget blockbusters like Jurassic World to small-screen darlings like Orange Is The New Black, Lauren Lapkus is perhaps best known for playing characters that don’t exist in linear stories. The comedian has made a name for herself in both the improv and podcast worlds through her own invented characters who live fantastical and often dirty lives. These personalities show up on her weekly podcast, With Special Guest Lauren Lapkus, and appeared on the episode she helmed for the Netflix series The Characters. People across the United States will be able to witness Lapkus’ thought process in real time as part of the 2016 Comedy Bang! Bang! tour. How does Lapkus come up with her best characters, from Ho Ho The Naughty Elf to kid detective Murphy O’Malaman? In January, The A.V. Club talked to her about that process backstage at Riot L.A., where she’d just finished a live recording of With Special Guest Lauren Lapkus hosted by Wild Horses.
The A.V. Club: How do you come up with a specific character? You’ve been almost 20 characters on Comedy Bang! Bang!, for example.
Lauren Lapkus: For those I either think of a voice or a certain kind of game for the character, something I like about the character. All I come in with is the voice and the general idea behind the character, so I usually don’t give myself too much information in advance.
For Ho Ho, I just wanted to be an elf who gives toys to bad girls and boys. That’s all I really knew going in. And then it becomes what it is with everyone else improvising along. For my podcast, With Special Guest, I don’t know anything in advance. The other people give me any information about my character that they want, and that’s all I have to go on. So that’s fun for me because I can come up with less in advance, and I like to be able to just go with it in the moment.
For me it’s all about keeping it really simple and letting it grow within the confines of the show as opposed to coming in with a whole thing. Sometimes I’m doing Comedy Bang! Bang! with other people, and I’ll notice they’ll come in with the character and they kind of have almost a plotline that they want to get through with the character or certain things they want to happen during the show. I think that’s really fun, but I just like to fly by the seat of my pants a little more.
AVC: If you’re doing CBB with one of those people, do they tell you the storyline going in or do you have to guess on the fly? For instance, when you were on with Joe Wengert and he was doing his Brad Hammerstone character, did he let you know that Brad’s actually Scrooge McDuck?
LL: That’s kind of what I was thinking of, like Joe has a secret that he wants to get out or something. He doesn’t say anything in advance, but the way he plays it, he kind of lets it out a little bit at a time, so you get that he’s getting at something and you want to help him and help it come out. That’s such a fun style for him.
AVC: And on With Special Guest, you can be a different character each time.
LL: Yeah. And it’s all based on what they want me to do. I did an episode where Eliza Skinner made it so that it was the apocalypse and everything was happening in this totally different world. It was fun to be able to have to figure out what the entire world was.
That changes everything. It adds so much to the show, because it’s not just a character. It’s an entire fake world that we’re existing in.
AVC: How do you keep track of your characters over time? Do you remember all the backstory for Ho Ho now, for instance?
LL: I try to remember a lot of it. When I was first doing Comedy Bang! Bang!, I would re-listen to episodes to remember what I said about the character. Now it’s kind of seeped in a little more so I can remember it without having to revisit it. It’s also kind of fun when Scott [Aukerman] and I have to guess together if something is true or not about this character or if that was a pre-existing thing.
I don’t really try to study up on it anymore, but I think the characters live there a little more, especially the more I do them.
AVC: There’s a CBB Wiki, too.
LL: There is a Wiki! I actually discovered that once and found it was really helpful to be able to see all the facts of the character. I should revisit that.
AVC: People are amazingly into that show.
LL: It’s surprising to me. I think it’s so cool. It was one of the things I thought was really cool when I got into this podcast world—how intense all the fans are and how much they remember everything. Even the fact that they are so excited to hear it every week is so great. It’s a whole world that I was not even a part of and didn’t know about.
AVC: It had to be flattering when you started becoming a regular or a fan favorite.
LL: Oh, yeah. It’s so cool. It’s definitely unexpected, but it’s really fun.
AVC: To have those people and that world expand at times into With Lauren Lapkus, that’s great.
LL: Definitely. Comedy Bang! Bang! is the only reason anyone listens to my show.
AVC: Well, and Jurassic World.
LL: Maybe that has something to do with it, but I think it really helps to have those built-in fans who know the show.
AVC: Is there a character you’ve wanted to do that you haven’t figured out how to do?
LL: When I first started my podcast I came in with the idea that I would come in with my character planned in advance and then let them tell me what they were doing as we were starting. But it became hard to be on the same page, and I wanted to be in whatever world they wanted to create. So with my own show, I have let go any idea of what I would want to happen. I just do whatever anyone wants to do.
For Comedy Bang! Bang!, it’s fun to come up with new characters for that, because they can either live once or come back again and again. I just did a new character, Big Sue, and the voice is based on Big Ang from Mob Wives. I just wanted to do her voice and see if I could do it, and then that was all I really came in with. I just want to be her and say that she likes pizza a lot, and that’s really all I did. But then I just did the Comedy Bang! Bang! TV show, and Big Sue was brought to life. [Angela “Big Ang” Raiola died February 18, 2016, after this interview was conducted.—ed.]
That’s what’s so great about Comedy Bang! Bang! You can actually take a character from the show and bring it to life with amazing wigs and the makeup they do. They’re so good.
AVC: Would you want to do that with With Special Guest? Do you think it’s possible?
LL: It’s funny—because I don’t revisit any of the characters, it’s hard for me to even get attached to anyone. With my Netflix special, I was able to take podcast characters of mine and bring them to life. I had a couple from my own podcast and a couple from Comedy Bang! Bang! that I used.
AVC: Do you have dream guests for With Special Guest?
LL: Paul Reubens is a dream guest of mine.
AVC: And everyone’s.
LL: He’s everyone’s dream guest.
I would love to have Judd Apatow. I would love to have Amy Poehler. Those are the people that I really admire.