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.
You filmed in New York, and since you attended the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, I’m sure it was easy enough to reach out to them for help.
I involved all my friends in New York, pretty much. All the people I’d met doing improv classes at the UCB, as well as the Story Pirates theater company that I’d been in when I was there — I used all my New York resources. At first, I was disappointed we weren’t going to be in Los Angeles, and then I realized, “Wait, I know a million funny people in New York. It’ll be fine.”
Were there any characters or ideas you had to cut that you’d like to revisit?
There are definitely a bunch of characters that weren’t included. During the writing process, I just picked who I was going to use and stuck with it, but I’d be excited to get to explore other characters I have that didn’t make it in. A bunch of my podcast and Comedy Bang! Bang! characters would be a lot of fun to do if I ever had the opportunity to do anything like this again.
Speaking of New York, you did some voice work for Animals. on HBO recently.
I played Jacob, who’s a little boy pigeon, and a dog in the “Dogs” episode with my Wild Horses podcast friends.
Phil Matarese and Mike Luciano, the showrunners, talked at length about using improv during the recording sessions.
It was really fun. We always did group recording sessions, and everyone who was in the scene would be there in the booth at the same time. We were able to improvise and it really made it so much fun. I love doing voiceover work, but it was even better to get to improvise with friends. Seeing it animated was really cool, too.
Do you have a preference for either? Both live action and voiceover character work seem to be your thing.
Both are fun. It’s been really interesting getting into the podcast world. It was something I never really expected to do, but I’ve found it to be a really enjoyable way to improvise because you can get so in-depth with a character, play a character for an hour and describe them at length while not having to physically project any of that stuff. You can’t really… You can do a lot more in a podcast in some ways than you can in improv shows. I do think it’s really cool, but of course I still love doing stuff with my actual body. [Laughs.]
Right, especially with your live-action character work. I can’t even try to wonder what it’s like to contort your face into Whitney’s smile or Pamela’s constant look of surprise.
[Laughs.] I actually don’t even think about it. I’m just so used to performing like that and doing really big characters that it doesn’t really phase me.
So, what’s next?
Well, I’m really excited to be going on the Comedy Bang! Bang! tour for all of May. We’re going to 18 cities, I think — me, Scott Aukerman, Paul F. Tompkins and Neil Campbell. That’s going to be a lot of fun. Then I’m appearing on a new HBO show called Crashing with Pete Holmes that’s directed by Judd Apatow. A lot of great people.
All eight episodes of The Characters are available to stream on Netflix. Meanwhile, here’s a preview of Lapkus in action…