For fans of improv, Lauren Lapkus has become a drug of choice.
Tune in to any number of podcasts and you might hear her in the guise of Ho Ho the Naughty Elf, a small creature who helps Santa by delivering knives and other weapons to bad girls and boys each Christmas. Or perhaps she’ll be Traci Reardon, a high school student who works at Claire’s Boutique and Baskin-Robbins, has a number of questionable piercings, and lives with her deceased grandmother. By turns vile, vulnerable, and certifiably insane, some of her characters don’t even have a name.
However, they do all have one thing in common: a brilliant young improviser with a limitless imagination.
A product of L.A.’s Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, Lapkus, 32, first gained attention as a frequent guest on Comedy Bang Bang, the podcast hosted by Earwolf co-founder Scott Aukerman. Soon enough, she landed her own show, With Special Guest Lauren Lapkus — where fellow comedians like Nick Kroll and Paul F. Tompkins invent a premise for a program and serve as host before inviting a character played by Lapkus on as a special guest.
With nearly 150 episodes under her belt, Lapkus admits she never envisioned the show enjoying such longevity when it first launched.
“I had no idea where it was going to go or how long I’d be doing it,” she says. “Considering the format, I probably didn’t expect to be doing it for this long, because it really is a challenging format for me and the guest.”
If creating a new character every week wasn’t exhausting enough, Lapkus is also a member of several improv groups in Los Angeles, including a role in the cast of ASSSSCAT, the UCB Theatre’s flagship show. She’s also teamed up with fellow improvisers Mary Holland, Erin Whitehead, and Stephanie Allynne to form Wild Horses — an all-female group that consistently sells out monthly residencies at the UCB Theatre and Largo L.A. and now has a podcast of their own.
Lapkus says that despite her group’s undeniable chemistry, they actually originally formed out of necessity.
“I was invited to do an all-female improv festival in Portland called All Jane, No Dick,” she recalls. “The person running it asked me if I had a female improv team, and I just said yes and then figured out who I would want to bring with me. We had such a fun show together that we decided that we should keep doing it.”
It was a wise decision, as Wild Horses has quickly become a fixture in the L.A. scene. Their podcast, Wild Horses: The Perspective, offers listeners living outside the area the chance to hear recordings from the live shows. While all four members of the group have enjoyed individual success with careers in film and television, as a quartet they are simply unstoppable. No place is off-limits, and while they rarely work blue, they are more than willing to tackle certain topics with refreshing frankness. As the improv community at large continues to push for more diversity and fresh voices within its ranks, Lapkus recognizes that having an all-female improv team with the success of Wild Horses is no small feat.
“It’s really awesome,” she says. “I think we constantly look to each other after the show and go, ‘How do we get to do this?’ It’s so much fun, and we also feel it’s a female show, which feels really gratifying to do.”
Each show begins with a segment where Lapkus, Holland, Whitehead, and Allynne share a bottle of wine on stage and discuss what’s been going on in their lives — a conversation that often leads to surprisingly candid reveals that are both hilarious and intimately relatable.
“When I listen back to the show,” Lapkus says, “there’s always something where I’m like, ‘I can’t believe we talked about that.’ Examples can range from pulling down your pants to fart when you’re at home to the rats that were living in the wall of my house that I was actually really embarrassed about. It’s really anything that you wouldn’t want to tell an audience full of people, but then we find ourselves talking about it.”
Somehow, Lapkus has also managed to find time to appear in films like 2015’s Jurassic World and the upcoming Holmes and Watson alongside Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly. While the chance to work in movies and television definitely means there’s less time for improv, she says she can’t imagine a day where it isn’t a part of her life.
“I think I will always continue to do it on some level. It’s also just like a huge part of my social life,” she says. “I find that if I skip shows because I want to rest or have some alone time, I’m like, ‘Oh, I haven’t seen my friends in a while.’ So it’s a good way to keep having friends.”
“With Special Guest Lauren Lapkus” with Lauren Lapkus and Mary Holland
Friday, Jan. 19, 10 p.m., Swedish American Hall, 2174 Market St. $25; sfsketchfest.com.
“Wild Horses: The Perspective”
Saturday, Jan. 20, 10 p.m., Marines Memorial Theatre, 609 Sutter St. $30; sfsketchfest.com.
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