Chicago Tribune feature on "stand out TV sidekick" Lauren LapkusMar 30, 2015
Some actors seem destined to play the quirky sidekick. One suspects that was the consensus on Melissa McCarthy during her seven-year run as Sookie St. James on Gilmore Girls. Funny, yes. But future Oscar nominee? It makes you wonder if we should be paying better attention to all those supporting actors who flesh out a TV series - even those shows with unimpressive ratings and uncertain futures - because you never know who might become the next Melissa McCarthy.
Each TV season there's always a healthy dose of Chicago faces in the mix (McCarthy herself is a Plainfield native), and this year's crop includes a pair of funny women, both 26, leveraging their Chicago improv training into attention-getting performances. On Tuesdays, Britt Lower, a dark-haired gamine who grew up in Heyworth, Ill., plays the new tech geek on the CBS procedural Unforgettable, and Wednesdays over on NBC, Evanston native Lauren Lapkus gives happy naivete a new spin on the sitcom Are You There, Chelsea? This is the first big network break for each actress, and while the gigs may be short-lived - neither show has captured a sizable audience - one suspects this will not be the last that we see of Lower and Lapkus.
A couple of similarities jump out when you look at their careers side-by-side. Both spent the bulk of their college years - Lower at Northwestern and Lapkus at DePaul, elbow deep in the city's improv scene. Both moved to New York after graduating in 2008. And neither has spent a day waiting tables to support herself before the acting jobs started rolling in. Lapkus (who has since moved to Los Angeles) worked as a nanny; Lower (still in New York) scraped together rent money working as a face-painter at fairs and festivals. Not surprisingly, their paths have crossed here and there ("one of the funniest, kindest ladies I know," Lower said of Lapkus).
And both have experienced a modest amount of success so far. It didn't take very long before Lower landed her first job on the short-lived 2010 Comedy Central sitcom Big Lake" (starring fellow Chicagoan Horatio Sanz), which she described as a "crash course on how to work on a TV show." Ironically, "Unforgettable" films at the same studio where Big Lake was shot: "I'm one room down from my old dressing room there, which is bizarre."
There's a well-founded perception in Chicago that most improvisers have their eye set on Second City and Saturday Night Live, but Lower's path proves the exception to the rule; rare is the improviser who shows up on a one-hour police procedural spouting technical jargon. But to hear Lower tell it, the role is actually closer to her own personality that one might guess.
"I wanted to be a physicist when I was in high school. I was thinking about this last night: I was a member of this thing called Worldwide Youth in Science and Engineering (based at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), which was like, you go into a room and take tests about chemistry, and I thought that was so cool." Her science-nerd bona fides came in handy when she auditioned for the show's creators, Ed Redlich and John Bellucci.
Here's how Bellucci put it: "She has to be able to say this stuff with such pleasure, because Tanya (her character) is the kind of person who delights in tracking things down through data and through technology. It is so hard for people to be able to do that. It's really hard. It's hard to write it, but we get to sit here for an hour and puzzle it out, and they (the actors) have to do it instantly. And Britt did it instantly in the audition. She's actually chewing it up. You throw anything her way and she does it."
One of the nicer compliments Lower said she has received so far: "My high school science teacher was like, 'You said "algorithm" with such authority!' But to be honest, I do research everything I say. Because Tanya gets really geeked about, like, thermal imaging, so I try to get excited about it too, and that's not actually that hard for me. I know this sounds really weird, but if I have some downtime on set, I'll sneak off to my lab secretly and look at moth antennae under the microscope."
High school was a formative time for Lapkus as well.
"I never got cast in any of the shows at school except for the variety show every year," she said, "and I was always sort of devastated by that. So one of my teachers at the time suggested I take classes at iO (the improv hub in Wrigleyville) my senior year. It was crazy, I was so nervous all the time. I went in every Saturday for a full year basically, and all my classmates were 24 or 25 and I thought that was so old!"
At the time, she was self-conscious about the age gap. "I was worried because I didn't really have anything deep to talk about, so it was stuff like, 'I have a lot of homework.' I just felt like I didn't have the life experience to say anything. I was always stressed about that. But it changed my life to be able to do improv. I think I was always funny, but I was socially awkward, especially around older people, and improv really opened me up."
She picked DePaul "mainly because I wanted to stay in Chicago, because I was so addicted to improv that I didn't want to leave. That was my main activity. I went to school, got all my homework done, and then I was at iO every night, so that was my life, basically." She made an immediate impression on iO founder Charna Halpern: "There's something about Lauren that looks different and she seems like a throwback to another era," Halpern said.
Watching Lapkus play Dee Dee, the daffy, prudish roommate on Are You There, Chelsea? can occasionally bring to mind the dorky-but-pretty, sweet-natured comedy of Gilda Radner. "Lauren has a very strange sensibility onstage," said Halpern. "That quirky character she plays on the show is perfect for her."
Dee Dee is an exaggeration, but there are certain personality traits that sync up with Lapkus in real life: "I relate to the character a lot, because it's like: Loves The Bachelor and Hello Kitty and talks to her parents on the phone every night. And I was like: true.
"I do have a pretty happy-go-lucky attitude. But it's funny, growing up I think I saw myself as more cynical and sarcastic. Nowadays people don't see me that way at all, so maybe it was my own perception of myself. But I also think that improv opened me up so much that it did change my humor. When I was younger I would be more dry and sarcastic, but with improv I realized that the positive angle can work too. You don't have to slam things in order for it to be funny." A well-put, if ironic point, considering the persona honed by Chelsea Handler (who produces and co-stars on the show) is based entirely on tear-down comedy.
In a season with few breakout hits, the future for both Unforgettable and Are You There, Chelsea? remains unclear. The handicapping from ratings tracker TV By the Numbers predicts that Unforgettable will likely be canceled. And even though the numbers two weeks ago for Are You There, Chelsea? were above average when compared with all other NBC scripted shows (pulling in a 1.7, or roughly 2 million viewers), it appears unlikely that the freshman sitcom will be renewed, either.
As much as their careers have run in parallel ("She is coming to LA," Lapkus emailed last week, "and it looks like you just inspired us to get together!"), there's at least one aspect on which they diverge. Lower, according to her show runners, was a cool customer from the start.
Lapkus is a different stripe altogether. She self-deprecatingly admitted to being a profuse sweater (so much so that the wardrobe department now sticks underarm shields in her shirts).
"Honestly, Lauren kind of reminded me of myself when I first got That 70s Show, which was my first big show," said co-star Laura Prepon. "I remember we were all really wide-eyed, and Lauren kind of reminded me of that. Because you try to break into this industry that you know is so hard, and then when you finally land your first big show, it's just surreal at first. You're on a soundstage and you're acting and laughing and you're getting paid to do this job."
And if not this job, than surely the next.
Katie Dippold storied on making people laughMar 30, 2015
'Parks and Recreation' co-producer, writer Katie Dippold: Making people laugh
Why was her degree from Rutgers in journalism?
Katie Dippold - now one of the most successful comedy writers in the country - says she can only attribute her pursuit of the degree to a long-time love for the movie The Killing Fields.
Still, as she spoke to a class of aspiring newshounds at her alma mater last semester, the co-producer and staff writer on Parks and Recreation said there was common ground between journalism and making a living by making people laugh: In both pursuits, it's all about writing, writing more - and then rewriting.
Plus, "the only other thing I ever wanted to do was be an FBI agent, which is not a backup career, you know?" says Dippold, 32.
Dippold, a Freehold Township native, is one of 16 Parks writers included in the show's nomination for best comedy series at the 2012 Writers Guild Awards. The awards are announced Sunday.
This is the first time the Guild has nominated the show, an NBC sitcom focused on a small-town Indiana parks department, now in its fourth season.
Dippold has written seven aired episodes to date, among them "Indianapolis," in which Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) discovers his favorite steakhouse was shuttered by the health department. She was promoted to co-producer in September, at the start of the show's current season.
Comedy derailed Dippold's journalism career early on. During her freshman year at Rutgers, she shared a dorm with Chris Gethard - now an author and comedian who starred in the Comedy Central show Big Lake - who introduced her to the sketch troupe the Upright Citizens Brigade, the colorful band that once counted Parks and Rec star Amy Poehler in its ranks.
Soon thereafter, Dippold started spending her Sundays taking a train to Manhattan for improvisation classes at the Brigade. Later, as a production intern for Late Night with Conan O'Brien, she first entered a writers' room for a major TV show - as she was dropping off the staffs' take-out.
After graduating, she joined one of the regular UCB teams. By day, she was an assistant at a bank in Manhattan, where for three years, she says, she refilled printer trays and fiddled with PowerPoint presentations. But by night, she wrote sketches, performed and attended 1 a.m. rehearsals. Soon, she went on the road with the UCB touring company.
In 2007, she moved to Los Angeles to write for MADtv. After that sketch show was canceled in 2009, Dippold's manager sent an original pilot script of hers to Parks show-runner Michael Schur, who responded with a job offer.
Now, with the show's other staff writers, she spends 60 hours a week for nine months of the year clustered in a room - pitching scenarios, tracking characters and sketching out story arcs. They'll devote weeks to thinking about the story before penning a single joke, she says.
The writer of a particular episode has about a week to produce a script. When Dippold joined Parks in its second season, she remembers submitting a first script that hinged on the jokes. A rookie mistake, she learned.
"Oftentimes, your favorite jokes in the first draft will be the first to go," Dippold says, "because we have to make sure the story works."
This year, the show's season-long arc - which follows earnest Midwestern bureaucrat Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) as she runs for city council - had the writers grappling with big-picture questions and watching reruns of The West Wing, she says. They discussed how the election outcome would affect Leslie's relationship with campaign manager Ben (Adam Scott).
As part of their research on local government, the writers attended council meetings in Los Angeles County. Dippold found one meeting in Burbank unrelentingly dry; she and her comedy cohorts in the back row tried to restrain their laughter.
"There was one man who went up to the microphone, and you couldn't quite understand what he was saying," she says. "He was mumbling, but every now and then, you heard him say the word 'karaoke.' You could gather he was complaining about someone at karaoke, near where he lived."
And while she may not be working for a newspaper or a broadcast news program, to Rutgers media professor Steven Miller, Dippold is still very much a journalist. The mass media sphere of journalism extends to a series like Parks that skewers Middle America, he says.
"Social commentators inform more people in some ways than regular journalists do, because it comes from a satirical point of view," says Miller, who invited his former student to speak in his advanced television-reporting course.
Dippold hopes to write more screenplays and develop a TV show. She continues to improvise onstage with the Los Angeles-based West Coast branch of the Upright Citizens Brigade about once a week, but she says she lacks a burning desire to appear before a camera. Her brief scene as 'woman in line' in a 2009 Parks episode was cut - and she's okay with that. Somewhere along the way, Dippold grew ill-disposed to the notion of fame, preferring a backstage role.
"Being famous now sounds kind of terrible," she says. "It's not like how it was in old-timey Hollywood. It seems more like constantly having to be terrified when you leave your house."
Lennon Parham & Jessica St. Clair interview in ElleMar 30, 2015
The creators and stars of NBC's Best Friends Forever share a love that cannot speak its name -- not if the censors can help it.
Since Lucy met Ethel, TV has spun comedy gold from female partnership. But it's never been so eerily familiar as in NBC's hilarious new Best Friends Forever, about a pair whose sweatpants-and-Steel Magnolias cry-fests are interrupted when one's live-in boyfriend enters the fold. Here, series cocreators, writers and stars (and real-life BFFs) Jessica St. Clair and Lennon Parham indulge in some female bonding.
Elle: You met 10 years ago in the Upright Citizens Brigade, founded in part by Amy Poehler. Was it love at first sight?
Jessica St. Clair: I remember the night I saw Lennon across the crowded, dank basement underneath a graffitied supermarket, which is where we performed. She was wearing a sensible cardigan twin set --
Lennon Parham: It was from Express.
JSC: -- and I thought, Who is that nice girl? There must be something terribly wrong with her... just like me. But we didn't get to perform together much. There were so few women that we were usually split up.
Elle: Now, from Bridesmaids to shows like Parks and Recreation and New Girl, there's no shortage of women in comedy.
JSC: When we were coming up at the UCB, Amy Poehler was our mentor. She once told us that you don't play like a woman -- you play like a comedian.
Elle: Sitcoms are packed with adversarial female duos -- Carla and Diane, Grace and Karen. What made you go the other way?
JSC: We wanted to write about those very close friendships, the almost romantic... no, not almost, it is a romantic relationship that women have with their best friend.
LP: Forcing people together is an enjoyable conflict to watch, but I think it's even more enjoyable if they love each other.
JSC: And the broad archetypes women are put in -- the bitch, the shit, the good girl -- wouldn't actually all be best friends. We wanted to go back to Kate and Allie, Laverne and Shirley, all of the Golden Girls.
LP: They were archetypes too, but the foundation was that unequivocal love.
Elle: So, which Golden Girl are you?
JSC: How have I never asked myself this?
LP: You would be Blanche.
JSC: The slut?
LP: Because you're sassy!
Elle: BFF captures the way women speak pitch-perfectly. How do you find that tone?
JSC: We improvise and tape-record ourselves, and then we rewrite from there.
Elle: Wait, who acts our the male roles?
LP: I play a great man. Our producer once walked in while we were improvising a flirting scene, and we scrambled as if we'd been caught in the act.
Elle: So Hollywood hasn't changed you?
LP: We were two girls in sensible dresses and suede boots. Now we're just bitches.