In the comedy world, where women remain outnumbered, Ellie Kemper ’02 gets the laughs

Photo: Josephine Sittenfeld ’02

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.)

“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.

Kemper, second from left, with “Office” co-stars, from left: Brian Baumgartner, Oscar Nuñez, Kate Flannery, Zach Woods, and Mindy Kaling, photographed at an NBC Universal party in Beverly Hills in 2010.
Kemper, second from left, with “Office” co-stars, from left: Brian Baumgartner, Oscar Nuñez, Kate Flannery, Zach Woods, and Mindy Kaling, photographed at an NBC Universal party in Beverly Hills in 2010.
Photo: WireImage

On a Sunday night while “The Office” is on a filming hiatus, Kemper can be found in the tiny theater of the Upright Citizens Brigade in West Hollywood. It may be as unglamorous as theater gets. Kemper is appearing in a show called “Gravid Water,” as she does about once a month. It is a variety of long-form improvisational comedy known as “on book/off book.” An actor (in this case, Kemper), who is “on book,” memorizes a scene from a play that she must recite without any deviation from the script. The other person on stage, who is “off book,” knows nothing about the scene but plays off whatever the actor gives her. And the actor, in turn, must then reply to the improviser’s line with whatever the next line in the script happens to be. From that juxtaposition, the two build a scene.

Kemper, in jeans and without makeup, has just flown back from St. Louis, where she emceed a gala at the Peabody Opera House. She starts out her scene by declaring that she has just French-kissed a boy. The improviser, Stephnie Weir from MADtv, plays it easy at first, trying to figure out where the scene will go. To Kemper, this is the key to successful improv. It is a “yes, and ... ” skill. Let her explain: 

“If you give me a piece of information, I can never negate it. [Whatever I say] has to help advance the scene.” In other words, if the actor asks about the improviser’s mother, the improviser can’t reply, “My mother is dead.” That puts the scene in a corner it can’t escape. “I think that rule is just good manners,” Kemper continues. “That’s how you make a conversation.”

Even though she has a full-time job on The Office and continues to audition for movie roles, Kemper makes it a point to do the occasional improv show, in part to keep in practice, in part because that is where her professional roots are — other than in the front hallway, that is.

Kemper in her role as Erin, the receptionist, on “The Office.”
Kemper in her role as Erin, the receptionist, on “The Office.”
Photo: Chris Haston/NBC

Kemper went to Princeton as a field hockey player, not as a comedy writer or performer. Her major acting experience in high school was a theater class taught by a returning alumnus, Jon Hamm, now the heartthrob lead in the TV series Mad Men. “Everyone,” she recalls, “was like, ‘Yay, we get this really handsome, tall theater teacher.’” 

She has been asked many times to name her childhood comedy idols but says, “My answer always disappoints me.” That is because she didn’t really have any idols. Like everyone else, she lovedSeinfeld and watched Saturday Night Live, but was never more than a casual fan. Although she admires Woody Allen, she admits sheepishly that the first Allen movie she ever saw was his 2005 drama, Match Point, which is something like saying that your first Bruce Springsteen song was “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.”

One comedic role model may have been her mother. In addition to being one of the first women at Princeton, Dotty Jannarone was one of the first women to write for and perform in the Triangle show. She and another female classmate, Carey Davis ’73, contributed lyrics for the 1972 show, Blue Genes. After graduation, she performed in amateur musicals at McCarter Theatre and closed her career as Miss Adelaide in Guys & Dolls while her husband (now chairman and CEO of Missouri-based Commerce Bancshares) was in graduate school at Stanford.

With those war stories in mind, when Kemper decided to quit sports at the start of her sophomore year, she auditioned for Triangle and Quipfire!, the improvisational troupe, and got in to both. She performed in Triangle as a sophomore, then tried her hand at writing the following year, contributing an all-female skit about curling that, she says, “everybody hated.” The skit was dropped from the show in the last week of rehearsals.

On the other hand, a 10-minute mini-musical, “Where’s Walrus?,” which she wrote with Adam Ruben ’01 (now a molecular biologist who does standup comedy), did make the show. It’s the story of a boy named Little Willie (played by Jarrod Spector ’03, who since has starred on Broadway in the showJersey Boys), who desperately wants a walrus to protect him from bullies. The skit was a hit even though, Ruben says, neither he nor Kemper had any musical experience, and they later discovered that the tune to two of the three songs they wrote essentially was a variation on The Beverly Hillbilliestheme.

There were a few women writing for Triangle at the time, Kemper recalls, but she doubts that they brought either a different perspective or a different sense of humor to the show. “It was my first time writing comedy,” she explains. “I felt very intimidated, but I don’t think it was because, ‘Oh, I’m a girl; I’m intimidated by all these guys.’ I think it was, ‘I don’t necessarily know what I’m doing, and I’m around all these guys who have been writing for a longer time.’”

Tommy Dewey ’01, now a successful actor, remembers it a little differently. He met Kemper in auditions and “knew that she had that special X factor.” In comedy, he thinks, “a girl has to be willing to go to the mat in terms of making a fool of herself,” a recklessness he believes men possess naturally. Kemper, though, was game for anything. “She could be innocent in ridiculous ­situations.” 

In her senior year, Kemper auditioned for her only straight dramatic role, in Theater Intime’s production of the Tom Stoppard play The Real Inspector Hound, which conflicted with Triangle rehearsals. She did, however, continue to work with Quipfire!, and that has had a more lasting impact on her career. The group rehearsed weekly in the Wilcox common room and performed at Theater Intime four or five times a year, adding a road trip to Hawaii. Blythe Haaga ’05 recalls performing in her first skit with Kemper. “I almost caught myself laughing at how funny she was,” she says.

Kemper acknowledges that she is a born performer. She remembers thinking, “This is enjoyable, and I feel like I have a handle on it. That was a great realization.”

After graduation, however, she spent a year studying English at Oxford, with the vague plan of becoming a teacher, but decided to return to New York and try the much riskier life of comedy instead. Contrary to what one might expect, she had her family’s full support. “I would never have had the gumption to consider theater after college,” Dotty Kemper says, “and I can’t tell you how much I admire Ellie for her self-discipline, determination, and hard work.” 

Kemper started taking classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade and the Peoples Improv Theater. Performing with other students in group shows, Kemper did well enough early on that she was able to get an agent who in turn got her auditions for TV commercials. She quickly landed a string of them, for Dunkin’ Donuts, Kmart, Cingular, and others, and residuals provided her with enough income to pay the bills and continue doing improv at night. She also landed an unpaid internship on Conan O’Brien’s late-night TV show, writing and performing in a few small roles in skits.  

A performer who also can write always has a leg up, Kemper says, so soon after returning to New York, she and her then-apartment mate, Scott Eckert ’03, began writing skits and shows of their own. Over the next few years, they put on more than half a dozen shows. On their best days, they felt like Elaine May and Mike Nichols.

“We wrote sketches together that were funny to us,” Kemper says. “I don’t know if they were structurally correct, but we had so much fun doing that.” 

“It’s paying your dues,” Eckert adds, “just performing in small spaces for a few people.” The shows would run for a month or two or three, and then Kemper and Eckert would have to come up with something new. “The problem,” he adds, “is that no one will pay you until you’re a success.”

Kemper won raves for her comedic role in the feature film “Bridesmaids.” Here, she walks past the movie poster as she arrives at the premiere in Los Angeles in April.
Kemper won raves for her comedic role in the feature film “Bridesmaids.” Here, she walks past the movie poster as she arrives at the premiere in Los Angeles in April.
Photo: Michael Buckner/Getty Images

Improv proved a perfect training ground for the kind of performing Kemper is doing now. “How do you find what’s up in a scene?” asks Eckert, who continues to write and perform. “How do you take a character and do something with it? In improv, you have to be very present, and listen to every word your partner says.” It is not surprising that many cast members on The Office, which sometimes is loosely scripted, come from improv backgrounds.

Kemper also branched into writing for humor publications and websites. After a year of sending badgering letters, emails, and suggestions, she landed a job writing for The Onion, and also has been a regular contributor to McSweeney’s (where her essays included, “Listen, Kid, The Biggest Thing You’ve Got Going For You Is Your Rack”) and CollegeHumor.com.  (She wrote for PAW, too: Read her “Ode to Wawa” in the Jan. 19, 2011, issue.) 

But as she freely admits — and as her mother would have pointed out had Kemper not — her first love is performing. “It’s more fun!” she explains. Starting in 2007, she began to land a few small roles in cable series and made-for-TV movies.  

That work earned Kemper some industry attention, but it also forced her to move to Los Angeles because, as Eckert says, “that’s where the jobs are.” Still, it took a ­three-cushion bank shot around the NBC casting department to land her part on The Office. It worked this way: In 2008, Kemper auditioned to be a cast member on SNL, but did not get it. She next tried for a part on a new NBC sitcom, Parks & Recreation, but did not get that, either. She was impressive enough, though, that the Parks & Recpeople recommended her to the producers of The Office, which along with 30 Rock is the flagship of the network’s comedy lineup.

At first, her character was slated to be in only four episodes, filling in when the show’s regular receptionist, played by Jenna Fischer, was promoted to sales. Those four episodes were expanded to six episodes, which were expanded to a regular part in the cast. In the fictional purgatory that is the Scranton, Pa., office of paper company Dunder Mifflin, Kemper more than holds her own. One reviewer praised the “infectious joy and sweetness” she brings to the show, while another called her “appealingly goofy.” At the end of her first full season, Variety named her one of 10 “comics to watch.”  

Success in her Office role enabled Kemper to land her first movie roles, including a small part in Russell Brand’s Get Him to the Greek and then a much more prominent role in Bridesmaids. HerBridesmaids character has some choice comedic bits, including when Kemper ditches her polite reserve to lock another bridesmaid in a passionate kiss when they think their airplane might crash. On the movie poster and the DVD box, all the bridesmaids strike gangsta poses in matching pink dresses. And there is Ellie Kemper, looking tougher than any of them, front and center.

This has been an adjustment season for “The Office,” the first since the departure of star Steve Carell. While she hopes to remain on the show as long as it runs, Kemper says, she would like to broaden her range. She recently finished playing a teacher in a film adaptation of the old TV series 21 Jump Street, which will be released later this year. 

“If and when [The Office] ends,” she says, “I think I would want to be in a place where I could be in more movies, where I could write some movies, and if possible, do that from New York,” where she feels more at home.  

With her level of success, it might seem odd to ruminate about the challenges women still face in comedy, but for some reason, women still are less likely than men to forge careers being funny. As recently as 2007, the late Christopher Hitchens wrote a column in Vanity Fair titled, “Why Women Aren’t Funny.” His rather tortured answer had something to do with the biological imperative of women’s role as mothers, and men needing to be funny to attract women, but the piece, on the whole, came across as an anachronism.

In a rebuttal article, several female comedy writers explored why women finally may be cracking what author Alessandra Stanley called the “crass ceiling.” Nora Ephron attributed the rise of women writers to cable TV, which provides countless more outlets. Fran Lebowitz theorized that today’s female comedy writers were lucky enough to come along at a time when the culture had changed. As Tina Fey put it, “You still hear people say women aren’t funny. It’s just a lot easier to ignore.”

Maybe it reflects a generational divide, but if that crass ceiling does exist, Kemper professes not to have seen it, at Princeton or since. “I do think that there are a smaller number of female writers,” she acknowledges, “but I don’t feel that it’s underrepresented, at least in Hollywood.”

Eckert says that the odds may be stacked against women comedy writers, but “there are outliers, like Ellie, who defy them. She’s a winning performer, very talented on stage, a good writer who can create her own content, and very smart. That combination is extremely rare.”

True, being smart can help. Still, although The Office relies on a dry, arch, maybe even intellectual brand of humor, Kemper’s Princeton degree hardly sets her apart on the set. Just among the show’s cast, Mindy Kaling went to Dartmouth, John Krasinski to Brown, and B.J. Novak to Harvard, to say nothing of the writing and production crews. Even the character of Andy Bernard, the new boss played by Ed Helms, went to Cornell.

“It doesn’t come up that much,” Kemper jokes about their Ivy League background, “but we all understand a capella.” 

Mark F. Bernstein ’83 is PAW’s senior writer.