When Netflix dropped the first trailer for its original sketch comedy series, The Characters, back in February, nobody really knew what to make of it. The premise — give eight upcoming comedians a half-hour episode with which to do as they please — was promising, but considering just how fickle sketch comedy can be, the outcome was anyone’s guess. Reviews were predictably mixed when the series premiered on March 11, but one name stood out — Lauren Lapkus.
That’s because the 30-year-old comedian, whose most recent gigs have included spots on Orange Is the New Black and Jurassic World, is known for her hilarious character work on Comedy Bang! Bang! and several podcasts. So, if anyone was going to help Netflix’s first attempt at variety programming, it was Lapkus. Sure enough, hers is one of the best written and performed episodes in the bunch. We talked to her about her creative process, as well as her uncanny ability to contort her face for extended periods of time.
How were you first introduced to The Characters?
I think I was one of the first people they’d spoken to. It was over a year ago, at least. They approached me about this idea to see if it was something I’d be interested in doing, and at the time I thought it was a cool idea and hoped we could make it happen. Then a year later, it was happening, so it was great.
Netflix tends to give comedians free rein. Was that the case for you?
Yes, it was really amazing, actually. It was one of those things that I’d definitely heard about before with them, and I experienced that on Orange Is the New Black. There was a lot of freedom there for them to make some very interesting story lines. But seeing it firsthand was great, especially during the writing process because they were just so open-minded. They allowed for us to do anything we really wanted to do. They had really great notes and great guidance, but they were also just as cool with us taking it however we wanted.
Your episode is very well-scripted. Did you write everything down beforehand, or was there any improv on set?
I revisited a bunch of my old podcasts to see which characters struck me as being important, or which ones I really wanted to explore more. Some of it came from the podcasts themselves, or branched off of stuff that I’d already done before. There was some improv in it, but not really. I think I expected to improvise a lot more than I actually ended up doing during shooting. Most of it was scripted during pre-production.
It’s evident that you and your team spent a lot of time fine-tuning the episode before you shot.
Thank you! I have to give a shout out to Nick Wiger, who was my creative consultant. He was really amazing and helped me with structure. He’s a really talented writer.
Did you interact with the other Characters cast members at all during production?
No, we just saw each other from time to time if we were using a similar location, but we really didn’t know anything that the others were doing. We weren’t involved in each other’s episodes at all, except I think Kate Berlant and John Early. They starred in each other’s episodes. But yeah, it was really cool to have it all be a total surprise.
Was that helpful?
I think it was kind of freeing, because we weren’t influenced by what the others were doing. For me, it was helpful to not know, because I wanted to see what I would create without any knowledge about what anyone else was doing. You know, just not being influenced by what everyone else was working on. During the writing process… I knew most of the cast beforehand, and Kate and I were texting throughout the writing process. Giving each other pep talks to get through our individual cases of writer’s block. It was really helpful to have her then. We just wouldn’t share what we were writing. Just a text like, “I can’t take it!”
How much production time did Netflix allot you for your episode?
It was definitely a pretty quick turnaround. I think once we found out, it was official and that we were going to be writing the episode, it was pretty quick. There were a few drafts during the writing process, which lasted just a few weeks. Each draft took a few days to a week to write and revise. After that, the shooting process was even faster — about two and a half days per episode, I think. I think we ended up taking a little more time in the end, but it was really quick. Even though I’d known about it for a long time, I wasn’t prepared for it. I guess I could have been, but I was waiting to see if it was really going to happen. And once it did, we were off to the races.