Comedian Lauren Lapkus Shares Why Audio Improv Is Getting Far From A 'Bad Reception'
Actress and Comedian Lauren Lapkus sat down with editor Aaron Schwartz at the annual San Francisco Sketchfest and spoke about her role in the Audible Original 'Bad Reception' and her career in comedy.By Abby WestJan 30, 2019 8:52 AM
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Lauren Lapkus is one of the best in the improv comedy world. An Upright Citizens Brigade alum and a main player in the groups ASSSSCAT and Wild Horses, Lapkus has also won a SAG Award for her role in Orange is the New Black and was nominated for an Emmy for her work in the Funny or Die web series, The Earliest Show. Her credits include everything from a recurring role on Big Bang Theory to 2015's Jurassic World. You can currently find her in season three of the HBO hit Crashing and in the upcoming indie film, The Unicorn, coming to theaters this February.
Along with her many notable TV and film credits, Lapkus is also one of the stars featured in the Audible Original, Bad Reception--an entirely improvised comedy, set entirely on the phone. A cast of over 40 top comedians and improvisers brings to life (and completely makes up) the story of South Grampers, Northern California--the Movie Theater Butter Capital of the World. We caught up with her at Sketchfest in San Francisco to talk about this hilarious project and the fun of doing improv for audio.
Note: Text has been edited and may not match audio exactly.
Aaron Schwartz: I'm Aaron Schwartz. I'm the comedy editor at Audible. And I'm here in San Francisco with actress and comedian Lauren Lapkus, one of the stars of the Audible original Bad Reception. Hey.
Lauren Lapkus: Hi!
AS: So, off the bat, how did you get involved with Bad Reception?
LL: I've known Justin Michael through doing UCB (Upright Citizens Brigade) for years. I've known him probably almost 10 years now, which is kind of crazy. And he just invited me to come do it and it was so fun.
AS: It's such a big cast that I imagine you guys need to be all together in order for it to work.
LL: Yeah. I think he did it in pieces, but we did have a big group there the day that I was there. There were probably eight people in the room. And we took it bit by bit, and we each had a bit of a premise before the scene of what word we had to get out. But we got to improvise the dialog and have fun with it and let it go somewhere. All we pretty much knew was what had happened previously in the show that he'd already recorded.
LL: So we had this as the jumping off point, but it can go anywhere from there. You know?
AS: So the popcorn movie butter [scene], that was there already?
LL: Yeah, yeah. [Laughs].
AS: Cool. I just wanted to make sure. Obviously, like you said, with UCB, you've been doing improv for a long time, and you're awesome at it.
LL: Thank you.
AS: And you're no stranger to audio-only improv because your podcast was Special Guest With Lauren Lapkus, which I binged a bunch of episodes on the plane over here.
LL: Oh, good.
AS: And it's awesome.
LL: Thank you!
AS: It's so good.
LL: Thanks for listening.
AS: From what I know of improv, which isn't a ton, but, it can be a very physical art. It's very, you know, there's the audience and there's your troop and then there are props. And so what's, I mean obviously the difference between audio-only improv and live improv is big, but is it ... I don't know. Can you explain it? Can you explain it? Yeah.
LL: Yeah. I mean, I think it's kind of cool because for so many years I was doing just live improv on stage before there were really podcasts, before I knew what a podcast was.
AS: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
LL: And there was one format, uh, for long-form improv that I always really liked, and it's called the bat.
LL: And the idea is that you turn off the lights and you have a full audience.
LL: But you turn off the lights and it's all just audio.
AS: Uh-huh (affirmative).
LL: And it was always so fun because you could do anything. I just remembered like I played a pineapple or something, and it was like that seems so much harder to do if you can see me.
AS: Sure. Okay, yeah.
LL: So the, the form, the format of doing podcast is so freeing because you really can be and do anything. I love being able to describe myself as being like the size of a dollar bill and the audience can visualize that much more easily than if they're seeing me walk around on stage and I'm 5'10.
LL: So I think there is something really freeing about getting to just do comedy in that format. I think it's why it's so popular, too. And it's also great because people who don't have access to go to an improv show in their town, they can listen to this and, I mean, it's entertaining to me listening to my friends' podcast while I'm traveling ...
LL: Or bored and, yeah. It's great media.
AS: Yeah. And you can break [form], too, and then re-record it.
LL: Yeah, yeah. Oh yeah. Try not to, but yeah, you can.
LL: Yeah (laughs).
AS: So it feels like there's been like a huge kind of jump in its popularity in sketch comedy. Even comedy in general.
AS: Why do you think that is?
LL: I mean, I don't know. I think part of it is like by having the internet and our phones on us all the time, we're always like looking for some content.
AS: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
LL: Like, it's you waste, I mean ... I shouldn't say you. I don't know about you.
AS: No, I definitely do. (laughs).
LL: I waste my life on my phone and I waste so much time on Instagram, and scrolling through things that are so meaningless to me. And whenever I find something good, it feels amazing. And then when you find a podcast that you enjoy, it's like, oh my god, I want to deep dive into this thing. It gives people the idea like, I should make my own thing. Everyone's doing it. I can create my own content and people can access it anywhere at any time. I don't know. I think it's kind of helped that whole boom. And I also think that a lot of TV shows and movies, like the whole entertainment industry, has started to see improv as being valuable in how it enhances the show if the actors are able to throw out a funny line and add something to the scene. And so many writers that I know on TV have an improv background. So I just think that it's starting to become clearer that this path can lead to something in the entertainment industry.
AS: Gotcha. Mm-hmm (affirmative).
LL: When I started, I never saw that I could be on TV from doing improv. I think it's become more clear over the years, and just with more people having success that way. But when I started, it was really just like SNL was the end goal.
LL: And it seemed like the only way that this was useful.
AS: Uh-huh (affirmative).
LL: But it does feel like it's becoming more useful in other ways.
AS: Yeah, definitely. Now, does doing that ever get easier? Improv? Because I feel like ... So I go to my job every day. And it's different every day, but I know what to expect. And I feel like if you're doing a job where you don't know what to expect when you're about to be on stage in front of an audience ... That sounds terrifying and I'll never be able to get used to it.
LL: I know. It is terrifying, but I think it's also all I like now. [Laughter]. I really like not knowing. And it really helps with acting because when you get a job, you go to a set that you've never been to, especially if you're like a guest star. You show up and there's already a cast. It's like being the new kid at school on the first day of school every time you get a new job.
AS: Oh, that sounds terrifying. [Laughter]
LL: Yeah, and it makes me really nervous. I often feel like oh, I hope I have someone I can talk to, or I hope no one talks to me. You just don't know what to think of it. But having the improv background really does make it easier, because I can talk to someone. I know how to be more comfortable in a conversation like that. I think what changed for me a lot when I started doing improv, was that I felt more at ease in social settings.
LL: And it just kind of made it so that if anything weird happens, I can react and just live in the moment. So it does make it a little easier than it seems. And it makes life a little easier than it seems. It's like scary definitely at first, and there are times where it'll hit me like, what? We're about to go do something and I, we don't know what it is?
AS: [Laughter] Yeah.
LL: Sometimes I'll think, what are we doing? But then it always works out and then you have all your teammates to rely on. It's really safe.
AS: I can't wrap my head around it, it's so terrifying.
LL: Yeah. Yeah.
AS: I don't know. Just like walking through life is a little bit terrifying. You know? [Laughter]
LL: I agree. Oh, I agree. I think it makes me a little less scared to walk through life. I can get up right now and do an hour of I don't know what I'm gonna say. So that should help me in any other area where I feel nervous.
AS: Yeah. I should take an improv class.
LL: Yeah. [Laughter] I recommend it. It's really good. Even just level one, just kind of get out your nerves a little bit.
AS: Uh-huh. You've obviously done a ton of comedy and a ton of comedic movies. But you've also done some drama stuff like Orange is the New Black and Jurassic World. What's your difference in approach to taking on something like that? Is it scarier since you're so comfortable doing improv? Is it scarier to have a script than it is to riff?
LL: There can be times when it is, especially if it's a lot of like jargon that I don't understand.
LL: Like, I remember I had to do a commercial years ago that was all about this technology that I had to explain. And I found that I had to go into overdrive about focusing. Because I was like, what is coming out of my mouth? I don't understand.
AS: Uh-huh (affirmative).
LL: It's not fun. It's just work. But with drama, I really enjoy it because I think the improv background helps since I didn't study at Julliard or something.
LL: I can at least live in this moment and react honestly as best as I can. And that carries you pretty far. Before a dramatic jump I am definitely more focused and concerned than I would be before a comedic thing. Like, okay, I hope I can pull this off and get that emotion across.
AS: Yes. I saw [Jurassic World] in theaters and my favorite moment in the whole movie was toward the end, when everything was coming down and everybody's evacuating, you're evacuating, and Jake Johnson's character, Jake, who, Jake Johnson, I'm a big fan of, too.
LL: Yeah. He's great.
AS: He's like, "I'm gonna stay." And it is like this string music playing and his character goes in to kiss your character, and your character goes, "I have a boyfriend."
AS: Me and my friends were dying.
AS: Because it was so unexpected. How much improv did you get to do in a movie like that?
LL: We got to improvise a good amount within our little scenes. The director, Colin Trevorrow, was really open to us like being the comic relief and throwing out stuff in those little moments. We have so little time to get something before we have to get all the exposition out, too, because we're the people kind of explaining what's happening.
LL: But that ending scene we did get the opportunity to play around with that. We did a couple different versions and we improvised within. So it was, that was really fun.
AS: It's so funny.
LL: And I'm so happy with what they ended up with because you never get to have that moment with that type of character who's like the Greek chorus. They never get to like have that big oh wait, I actually have like a whole life that you don't even ask me about?
AS: [Laughter] I know. Yeah. But he goes, "Oh, you never, you never mentioned him." You're like, "I'm at work."
LL: [Laughter] Yeah.
AS: It's the best. That was the best moment of the whole movie, right? Another thing you brought up a little bit earlier is your teammates when you do improv. So I'm not a comedian, but I'm a writer. And I'm in graduate school for fiction writing.
LL: Oh, cool.
AS: And aside from the curriculum, and the books, and the writing I have to do and all that, the thing that I think I've been getting most out of it was the community. And being able to like have a really terrible workshop and just have your story torn apart. But then go to the bar with them all afterwards, and everybody's just like, "Damn, that was hard. That was hard."
LL: Yeah. [Laughter]
AS: But that's been the most beneficial part, having the community. I imagine improv is the same.
LL: One hundred percent. I fully relate to that. I moved from Chicago to New York and then to L.A. from there. I think the only thing that made it smooth for me was having that community built-in right away, where I'm on an improv team and these other seven people are expecting me to show up, and I can't just be depressed or scared or not go, and that helps a lot. These are all my best friends for the last 15 years that I've been doing this. The people that I met doing comedy have been the people that I've bonded with so easily. I think because we all kind of come from a similar state of mindset, even if you don't have similar backgrounds. But that we're the funny one in our group of friends. Then, wait, we can all be the funny one.
LL: That's so fun. But it also helps in those moments when you have a really horrible show and you can all look at each other and be like, okay, so we all can take the blame for this.
AS: [Laughter] Yeah.
LL: But let's not do that again. But we still like each other and it was still fun, and it's really safe. It feels good. I think that's one thing I don't envy about being in stand-up, because I think having to do it all alone would make me feel really lonely.
AS: All your success is everybody's success.
LL: Yeah. It feels good.
AS: And every failure ...
AS: Because this is Audible, are you an audiobook listener?
LL: I am.
AS: Yeah? Okay.
LL: I really enjoy audiobooks. It's been a little bit since I've listened to one. I really loved Phoebe Robinson's You Can't Touch My Hair.
AS: Oh yeah. Sure.
LL: I loved Amy Poehler's Yes Please. I like hearing comedians reading their books. So it's not shocking to you, though, my choices. But I really like hearing them through the voices of those people. I love reading memoirs, but I think hearing a memoir read out loud is like just really cool.