Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Ellie Kemper on her journey from <i>Onion</i> headlines to <i>Kimmy Schmidt</i> to memoir writing

Ellie Kemper on her journey from Onion headlines to Kimmy Schmidt to memoir writing

Photo: Rich Fury/Getty Images, Graphic: Rebecca Fassola

Ellie Kemper has made a career out of playing sweet, unflaggingly optimistic characters like cheery receptionist Erin on The Office and the Emmy-nominated title role in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Now that Kimmy has wrapped up its final season, Kemper has turned her sights to writing, releasing the charming nonfiction collection, My Squirrel Days, which contains stories ranging from field trips during her St. Louis childhood to going to the Emmys while sporting an unfortunate bang fringe. Her new, literary departure may not be as unusual as it seems, as Kemper has a long history of penning McSweeney’s essays and even writing headlines for A.V. Club sister site The Onion. The actor took a few moments to talk to The A.V. Club about her career so far and her literary turn. From the first nanosecond of the conversation, it was clear that Kemper is as sunny in real life as her most famous characters.

The A.V. Club: So you used to work here at The Onion.

Ellie Kemper: I did.

AVC: I’m probably in a conference room you once sat in.

EK: Are you in Chicago?

AVC: Yes.

EK: No. I’m so much older than that—it was New York. And also, I want to be clear, I was a contributing writer. I did not attend the Monday meetings. I made friends with [former editor] Joe Garden, and I submitted headlines. So I never actually went into work there. I would email every Monday morning, which is when the headlines were due. And then I would wait in eager anticipation until four o’clock when they would release them.

AVC: What was your favorite headline that got in?

EK: I guess my first one, just because it was so exciting, which was, “Grapes ‘Big Hit’ At Area Picnic.” I just liked it. So stupid. But yeah, I think that. Probably just because it was the first time. You feel such a great sense of satisfaction.

AVC: Speaking of writing, your book is such a fun read. You’re one of those writers where the reader can hear your voice on every page. Do people tell you that a lot? 

EK: That’s an enormous compliment. That was something I was hoping to achieve in this book, so that means a lot to me. And do people say that to me a lot? Kind of, yes. And I don’t know what to think of that. Even in an email or something, I think that voice comes across.

AVC: How did the book come about?

EK: I initially wanted to write a book, but I didn’t know what form that would take. I thought, okay, well maybe there will be some more absurd McSweeney’s-ish pieces in there combined with some stories from childhood or just funny things that have happened to me. But the object was always to try to make a funny book.

I don’t like calling it a memoir, although I guess that’s technically how it will be categorized. Because I’m certainly—I guess I shouldn’t say this—I haven’t had a life exciting enough to be called a memoir, I don’t think. But it is a collection of stories from childhood and being an actor and doing improv. I think because I couldn’t come up with a way to combine those two elements of fiction and nonfiction, that’s when it turned into revisiting childhood and more of a collection of stories.

AVC: I was happy to read about your improv, because I saw you at the Onion Comedy Festival a few years ago. You did this long-form improv with two friends, and you kept looping things all the way back around. I was with my TV editor Erik Adams, and I asked him, “Is this improv like you’ve ever seen before?” And he’s like, “No, this is absolutely next level.” That’s a creative force that I don’t think a lot of people have. 

EK: I have to give the full credit where credit is due. That was Christina Gausas and Scott Eckert, who are geniuses. I promise I don’t throw that word around. They’re just like, “Oh, okay this is… coming from some place else.”

That kind of improv is the kind I love the most because it’s long-form, and while there is a structure, it’s a loose structure, so when you do bring it back around, the whole thing is kind of mysterious. Because when I’m watching a really good improv show, it feels like—did you just read that piece on termites that was in The New Yorker? [Laughs.] Because the termites individually are not that smart, but when they come together as a whole, they create these unbelievable cities and towns. I’m going to drop the termite comparison, but the point is when I’m watching something like this, you think, “Well, okay, how is this happening?” I see it unfolding before me, and then all of the sudden, it’s being made into this beautiful whole, as in W-H-O-L-E, and I don’t notice it happening individually. Then all of the sudden, it appears. And so, I feel like even when you’re doing it, I guess you’ve either performed enough together or know each other well enough or know improv well enough to just trust that something is going to come of it. But it really is, to me, still mysterious when something is cohesive like that as you’re making it up.

Sorry, I have to apologize about the termite thing. I just read this. Although apparently not very carefully, because I can’t remember what it is that the termites build, but apparently, termites are smart when they work together.

AVC: How much does your improv background come into play on something like The Office or Kimmy Schmidt? Did you find yourself using those skills in a structured sitcom like that?

EK: Not really. On The Office, there was certainly more room to improvise and to risk a little bit. But mostly, I would say that the director or producers would ask, maybe, Steve Carell if he wanted to have a little fun. He could go off, because he’s really good at improv, and maybe not everyone is. So I think there was room to improvise on The Office because of its looser style, and it’s shot like it’s a documentary, and it’s supposed to be rough and grainy.

On Kimmy Schmidt, there’s no improv at all. It is to the script, it is word for word, and I sort of like both styles. In a looser structure, you feel like it can be a little bit more organic, just because you are adding on to the scene in the moment. But I also appreciate that strict structure because on a show like Kimmy Schmidt, the jokes are so finely crafted that the language is key, so you can’t really veer too far from what is written in the script.

AVC: There are also things in the book, like when you’re talking about your overdeveloped quads, and it reminded me of Kimmy’s super-strong arms. Does any of your life filter into Kimmy’s?

EK: Yes. And I’m worried about that because I feel similar to Kimmy in a lot of ways, not all ways that are welcome. She was away from the world for 15 years in a bunker, so of course all these things are being seen through the lens of a 15-year-old, because that’s how she reemerged. But I sometimes worry, yes—on the lighter side, in terms of pop culture references, I’m right there with Kimmy in real life, because I’m a dinosaur and also don’t get a lot of pop culture references.

For the darker sides of her personality, I’ve had a very sort of blessed life. I’ve been lucky. So I don’t necessarily share that with her. But I do sometimes worry about—or, I would worry more with Erin on The Office because she really wasn’t that smart. And so, I would start to worry, “Wait. Are these writers writing Erin according to how they’ve observed me behaving?” And then I would get worried about that, but I think there’s definitely some similarities between me with both of those characters.

AVC: Now that you’ve wrapped up filming Kimmy, what’s that like for you to not have her around anymore?

EK: It is weird. The whole thing ended… It felt very sudden. We finished at the end of June, and the last six episodes will screen in January, so they haven’t finished editing them yet, but we have finished filming, and it felt like a sprint to the finish. There was so much going on, and it was all coming together at once. And then, very suddenly, it was over.

And, you know, there might be a movie. They have been talking about that. I don’t really have more information than that there might be, but I would be excited, obviously, to do that. Because I do think the writers gave the characters a really graceful and honorable—[Laughs.] I don’t know why honorable came into my mind—but they gave them a very loving send-off. So if there is no movie, I will feel happy with the way all the characters’ stories are wrapped up, but I think it would be fun to just see if I can do it for them.

I feel corny saying this, but I was inspired when I was playing Kimmy because I do think she’s an inspirational character. She’s unspeakably tough and resilient. Now this might sound a little bit mushy, but the role has changed so much since we started filming Kimmy, and I really do think that she’s a great symbol of resilience and strength. So, both personally and globally, there were a lot of changes since we filmed the pilot. And I—in a maybe, again, corny way—have looked at her for strength. Because she went through something unimaginable and something most people will luckily never have to face. But she still emerged from that thinking the best of people. Or choosing to hope for the best in people. And I think that that’s really admirable.

AVC: She says, “I spent all these years in the bunker. I’m going to do this!” Part of her energy is in response to this horrible thing that happened to her. She’s even going to try even harder to have this great life.

EK: That’s exactly right, and I hadn’t thought of that until now. But it is kind of like FOMO to the nth degree, where it’s like, “No, I missed this before. I’m not missing this again.” And in that way—because it is her starting-over story. I remember when [show creators] Tina [Fey] and Robert [Carlock] were describing the show at the beginning—it’s basically a fish out of water, except the circumstances are extremely heightened. So she’s making a new life for herself in New York, as many people have. You become an adult, you’re maybe trying to reinvent yourself, and like you just said, she is so determined not to miss out on things that she already missed out on. That makes her more ferocious. Ferocious is a strong word, but yeah. Maybe that’s what she’s experiencing.

And I love—every character on that show is like a misfit. Somebody else said this, this is not my observation. I think that Reverend Wayne is just about the only straight white man on the show. There’s boyfriends here and there, but I think that’s worth noting. And the show is about people who, for whatever reason, can’t necessarily find their niche.

And this is mysterious to me as well, how Tina and Robert manage to do this—because the show has such a tragic premise. And it’s so dark, and it’s so awful. And they made this brilliant comedy around that, and I don’t really know how they did that. But the characters that they created, they’re all looking for some way to fit in. And I think how they manage to be so funny while doing that is really insane, because they did pull that off in every single character. The jokes aside—the individual jokes will be brilliant—but then, the characters themselves are just so dynamic, and I was so relieved when I met Tituss [Burgess], because I was like, “Oh, okay.” I had seen him on 30 Rock, but he just took the character of Titus and you’ve seen the results. It’s bananas.

AVC: I love to watch it with my kids. They’re 11, and you and Titus are their favorite people in the whole world. I hope that’s not bad parenting, because most of the sexual stuff is so hidden that it just flies right over them. 

EK: I should interject: I hope that’s not bad parenting! You said it, not me. My child is 2. He doesn’t have an attention span to watch television yet, but I think it’s a great show for young children to watch. 

A lot of the times, the jokes will fly over my head until the third time I’ve seen it. Like, “Oh, that’s what it is!” So I feel like, like you said, both parents and children can watch it because they’re picking up different things. I would think it’s over their heads. And I think it’s great that it has such a strong woman at its center. That’s a good thing for any child to be watching. That’s my sales pitch. I’m like, “Keep watching it.”

AVC: Was Tina Fey there every day?

EK: Yeah. So, I don’t get it. I mean, she’s there, but she also, you know, made Mean Girls, and then she’s also a mom. She will be there giving notes on a detail that I thought, “Oh, I hadn’t thought about it in that way before.” And I guess—I keep saying mysterious—but she’s always calm. She’s quiet. I’ve never seen her rattled. I really don’t understand how she does everything. I know you’re not supposed to say that, but I don’t really understand how she does everything so well. It’s unbelievable to me.

AVC: You describe it like that really well in the book. And it’s really not surprising that she would be that successful, but you also want to know what’s her secret? 

EK: What is the secret? Once you witness an unusually successful person, you realize, “Oh, they are…” they work really hard. Which, again, sounds obvious. Of course they work hard. But seeing it, for some reason, is surprising to me. I don’t know why. But to also be a good person on top of that. That’s the part I don’t know what the secret is. I do think maybe people don’t sleep as much as I do. I think that has something to do with it. I think that some people just don’t—I’m not saying they don’t require it. I’m saying that they just don’t sleep. So maybe that’s where I’m losing time.

AVC: It’s like Mark Wahlberg getting up at 2 in the morning. Sure, you can get stuff done then.  

EK: I knew that. I’m always telling Michael—that’s my husband—I’m like, “You know, I’ve got to be Mark Wahlberg about that.” He’s like, “Why are you always referencing him?” Because somewhere along my life, I picked up that he wakes up at 2:30 to work out. And doesn’t he go to church every morning? I think he does. He gets more done by seven o’clock than, you know, anyone does. But I think that has a lot to do with it, because I get, like, seven or eight hours of sleep a night. So I don’t know.