To hear Ellie Kemper ’02 tell it, her rise to fame and fortune began in the front hallway of her childhood home in suburban St. Louis.
When they were little girls in the late ’80s and early ’90s, she and her younger sister, Carrie, would write skits and perform them for the family. In addition to an annual Christmas extravaganza, there were shows with such titles as “Marcia Clark for the Prosecution,” often done with a boom box tape providing the soundtrack. The girls had an appreciative — and captive — audience. As their mother, Dorothy Jannarone Kemper ’72, recalls, perhaps slightly tongue-in-cheek, “Critics raved: Delightful! Interminable!”
Soon, the Kemper girls grew more ambitious, filming skits with the family video camera, forcing their baby brother and a playmate next door to fill out the cast. In their basement “studio,” Ellie Kemper says, they managed to hook up two spare VCRs and do their own editing. (One early horror short, called “The Man Under the Stairs,” is a YouTube hit.)
A young Ellie Kemper ’02 stars in a homemade horror movie.
“I suppose I encouraged them in this,” their mother admits, “if you don’t count my constant admonishments to ‘Be careful with that — for cryin’ out loud, it’s not a toy!’ ”
Elizabeth Claire Kemper continues to perform in front of the camera, and to the same sorts of rave reviews, albeit from a much broader audience of people who aren’t all her blood relations. She is best known as Erin Hannon, the sweet-tempered receptionist on the hit TV show The Office. Last year, she appeared on the big screen as Becca, the sweet-tempered friend of the bride in the hit movie Bridesmaids. (She’ll soon have personal wedding experience — in December, she announced her engagement to writer Michael Koman.) Things have turned out pretty well for both Kemper girls: Carrie now writes for The Office, and the two are collaborating on a comic novel.
Mel Brooks, who knows from neurosis, once said that humor is just another defense against the universe. But what to make of someone from a functional, well-to-do family who is building a career playing nice, sweet-tempered characters? And Ellie Kemper is — let’s not mince words here — nice. Upbeat. Positive. Easy to work with. Patient with autograph seekers. And no doubt kind to animals. She is, in fact, the first to acknowledge that Erin the receptionist is pretty much just “an exaggerated version of myself.” Sometimes life imitates art, but it works the other way, too.
Don’t mistake sweetness for naiveté, though. If you think Ellie Kemper can’t get a little edgy, you must not be one of the 18 million people who have downloaded the viral Internet video she wrote and stars in, the one in which her character enthusiastically describes to her boyfriend a particular technique for a certain intimate act she would like to perform, one that, um, definitely wouldn’t be enhanced by the use of teeth or sandpaper.
PAW, a family magazine, cannot provide the link, but the video helps to highlight another dimension of Kemper’s career: She began as, and continues to be, a writer as well as an improv performer. In comedy, at least, it has been relatively unusual for a woman to fill both roles, but that seems to be changing before our eyes. We are living in a Golden Age of women who write comedy as well as perform it: Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Chelsea Handler, Whitney Cummings, Sarah Silverman, Wanda Sykes, Amy Sedaris, Mindy Kaling (Kemper’s Office castmate), and Saturday Night Live’s Kristen Wiig, who co-wrote Bridesmaids with Annie Mumolo, to name only a handful. Is there a distinctive female voice in comedy? Just listen.