Series 12: For the Love of TV | Episode 04
Kimmy Schmidt’s Ellie Kemper Dishes on the Office, Tina Fey, and Her Squirrel Days
Between her roles in The Office and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, you knew Ellie Kemper had to be delightful in real life—and we’re thrilled to confirm you’re absolutely right! Today Ellie joins our For the Love of TV series, as we continue to dive into the personalities and the “behind the screens” perspectives of some of our favorite TV people! Come along with Jen as we hear about Ellie’s roots in St. Louis and getting high school improv classes from Jon Hamm (yep, THE Don Draper . . . and Ellie’s future TV “husband”), navigating life as an intern on Conan and a writer for McSweeney’s and The Onion, and how she broke into Hollywood (fun fact: Tina Fey wrote the TV pilot for Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt JUST FOR HER). Plus, we hear how Ellie has dusted off her writing chops to produce her hilarious debut book, My Squirrel Days.
Narrator: Hi everybody, my name is Remy. Welcome to the For the Love Podcast, with your host Jen Hatmaker, my mom. She writes books and speaks to crowds. But she mostly loves talking to amazing people, every week, on this podcast. Thanks for listening. We hope you enjoy the show.
Jen: Hey, everybody. Jen Hatmaker here, your very glad hostess of the For the Love Podcast. Welcome back to our little podcast community. I’m so happy to have you here, as always.
Guys, today’s a biggie. It just it. It is a biggie. I mean, first of all, how much fun are you having in our For the Love of TV series? I am so all in. You know how much I love TV. It’s one of my favorite things. Talking to all of these brilliant, creative people that make it possible is just so delightful and fun.
Today, without a doubt, you already love her. We all do. Every one of us. We are incapable of anything but loving her. She has starred in two of the most beloved comedy series of the last decade, The Office and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, as well as super major box office smashes, Bridesmaids—you guys, I’ve probably seen Bridesmaids 15 times—and 21 Jump Street. Hilarious. She is kind. I mean, really, wait till you hear this interview. It’s like she’s our best friend who just piled on the couch with us. She is so warm and talented. Smart, she’s a super smarty Princeton grad. I’m so pleased to tell you that Ellie Kemper is our guest on the show today.
A little bit about her background, which we’ll talk to her about, but she grew up in St. Louis. Then she went to Princeton and majored in English. Did some graduate studies, actually, at Oxford, then went to New York and started at the very beginning and worked her way up. A lot of us met her for the first time as Erin Hannon in season 5 of The Office. Then, of course, our beloved Kimmy Schmidt. We’re going to talk about all of that, which she just wrapped up her fourth season with.
As creative people often are, Ellie is very talented beyond acting. She was an English major at Princeton, so she is a writer. She’s written for GQ and Esquire, and New York Times, McSweeney’s, The Onion. She just released her first book of essays, and it’s called My Squirrel Days. It is a riot, and it’s also tender. You must run your little legs out and get a copy. We’ll talk about that, too.
Ellie and her husband, who’s a comedy writer also, Michael Korman, they live in New York with their two-year-old baby son, James.
You guys, lucky us. Lucky us today. Help me welcome to the show, Ellie Kemper.
I’m just giggling. I’m sitting at my desk and I’m laughing because I’m so happy to have you on the show. Welcome, welcome, welcome.
Ellie: Thank you so much. I am so honored to be a guest on your show. I’m giggling too. I’m ecstatic to be here. Thank you for having me.
Jen: Oh, you are so beloved to so many of us. We just feel like, Finally. We’re getting to talk to her! My gosh, what took so long?
Ellie: You are the sweetest person for saying that.
Jen: I am not sweet. Nobody would say that. Nobody would say that.
Ellie: No one would describe . . .
Listen, thank you again. I’ve told my listeners, I mean, obviously they know who you are, but I’ve given them some high-level stuff about you, some of the projects you’ve worked on, and your trajectory. But this is the first thing I want to ask you, because the internet told me that—and I just want to know if this is fake news—that Jon Hamm was your teacher in high school. Is this a true story?
Ellie: That is the most real news you will read or hear today. Yes.
Jen: I can’t believe it.
Ellie: Can you believe that?
Jen: No, I really can’t.
Ellie: I am one lucky person. He went to my high school. He graduated before I got there. He is, still is, ten years old than I am. When he graduated college, he came back to teach theater for a year at John Burroughs School, that’s our school. When I was a freshman, he taught the improvisation section of our theater class.
I do remember, specifically, that he was a very good teacher. You know, sometimes when someone’s good at something, they’re not necessarily good at teaching it?
Ellie: He happens to be excellent at both.
Jen: Oh my gosh, and he’s so dreamy. I mean, did everybody have a crush on him, of course?
Ellie: I mean, yes.
Jen: I mean, there’s no way to not.
Ellie: Matinee idol, but also you have someone who’s just like . . . He was barely out of college, too, so you feel like, Oh, he’s kind of friends with us. No, he . . . it’s so funny. When I started seeing his face, I was in Los Angeles and saw his face on the sides of buses as Don Draper, that is so crazy. Now I can’t look at him without thinking of Don Draper, of course. He’s phenomenal.
Jen: I just love it. I just didn’t know that, and so that makes it even funnier that he’s your demented TV husband on Kimmy Schmidt.
Ellie: I know.
Jen: You’re just having this full-circle thing with Jon Hamm.
Ellie: That felt so surreal, when they announced that he would be playing the reverend. It was like, Wait a minute, I know him!
Jen: Okay, like you just mentioned, you’re from St. Louis. You’re from the middle of America’s heartland.
Jen: So you’re a kid, what were you like? What were you interested in? What was your family like? Is this the direction that you were pointed? Is this career in the stars for you?
Ellie: Sort of, although I’m not sure that I recognized that at the time. I’m so envious. I don’t know if you knew exactly what it was you wanted to do when you were a kid.
Jen: I did not.
Ellie: Do you wish . . . I kind of wish . . . I can see it both ways, but I kind of wish I had a definitely idea of what it was I wanted to do with my life.
Ellie: I think that helps guide you.
Jen: It can, and I know people like that who were so clear so early on that we could just take one look at them when they were seven years old and be like, “We know exactly where you are going, and you’re going to be amazing at it.”
Ellie: Right, right. I didn’t have that. It sounds like you weren’t necessarily sure, either.
I know that I always loved performing and I loved writing stories. Millions of other children love doing that, too. That was . . . I was about to say a hobby. Do kids have hobbies? That was an activity that I indulged in a lot. I didn’t really give much thought to what it was I wanted to do until later, when I was in college and beyond.
As a child, I come from a very loving and supportive family. Again, luckiest person on the planet. It was nice to know that I did feel a sense of . . . There was never explicitly said so, that I could pursue something that interested me and that they would support that decision.
Jen: That matters.
Jen: When you have that sense of, My parents are into me and they believe in me, and the sky’s the limit. You’re little sister Carrie’s a TV writer, now, too. Something was in the water at your house. I was just talking this morning to my friend Kim Paisley for the podcast. We were laughing about when we were both growing up and we did the programs, the shows, for our families, which could also double as hostages because they had nowhere to go. Did you guys do that?
Jen: Oh, yeah.
Ellie: First of all, bless our parents.
Jen: I know, God bless.
Ellie: Bless them. God bless. Now, you have four kids or three kids?
Jen: Oh my God, I have five. It’s so dumb, I know.
Ellie: No, you don’t. No you don’t.
Jen: I don’t know what to say, it’s so many.
Ellie: When you say you have five children, I understand the . . . I have one, I have one child. I understand the concept. I don’t . . . it’s like, you don’t know it till you’re in it, I guess. Now, as a parent, do you just have so much more appreciation? I have endless . . .
Jen: Oh my gosh.
Ellie: I always respected my parents. “I respected them,” that sounds so formal. I always appreciated everything that they did for me. I now have a gratitude that I didn’t know was possible, because they are poor parents. They endured so much stuff.
Jen: Poor parents.
Ellie: They’re fine. But yes, holding our audience hostage. Creating those programs. You meant like the actual paper programs, right?
Jen: We had a production. We had microphones that we plugged into our little recorders. I think they had to have lasted three hours. I mean, they were just a nightmare for everyone. We wouldn’t let them leave. They were our hostages.
Ellie: Through the costume changes and the scenery changes, and they just had to . . . Also, by the way, sometimes we would do an encore a week later. We’d be like, “We’re bringing it back out.”
Jen: “You’re welcome, everybody.”
Ellie: “You’re welcome.”
Jen: “More where that came from.”
Ellie: “We’ve got a New Year’s Revival.”
Jen: That is so true, we did that exact same thing.
Ellie: Right, right. What is the age range of your kids?
Jen: My youngest is a seventh grader. Then I have two in high school, and I have two in college. They drive cars. And let me tell you something, I know you think you don’t want that little one to ever drive. Yes, you do. You do. You’re going to be like, “Hand him the keys.”
Ellie: “Get yourself there.” Yeah.
Jen: “Get yourself there. Also, drive your little brother and sister. Go get some milk and tampons.” It is a whole new world.
You went to Princeton because you’re smarty smart.
Jen: Majored in English. I mean, shouldn’t shock any of us that you ended up writing a lot. You wrote a whole book, which we’re going to talk about in a minute.
Let me ask you this, when you were in Princeton, talk to us about your studies. Who did you want to be? Did you have a person that you put in front of you and went, That is the kind of career I want, or, I want to pattern after this person, or, I respect this work and I’m reaching for this idea. Did you have that?
Ellie: It was not fully carved out. If I had to do a search into my subconscious, I would say that during that time at Princeton where I was studying—but also playing field hockey for the first couple years, then really focusing on performing and doing improv comedy—probably in the back of my head, percolating, was an idea of, Oh, if I could have anything close to the career—listen close to what I’m about to say, how I’m going to finish this sentence. You’re going to think, Yeah, everyone would like that. I was like, “Well, I’d like to be Elaine on Seinfeld.” Of course, I continue to idolize Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Maybe there was a notion of, Well, okay, you will graduate from college. What is it that you want to do after that? Well, if you were to say, “What would be your dream?” I think something in that realm would be the dream.
While was there, I think—I don’t know how you plan your life. I really think I do it, even now, year to year, kind of. In college, I wasn’t thinking about what to do after college until probably senior year.
Ellie: Yeah. You know, I went to Chicago the summer before my senior year. I felt like I saw so much improv there. I saw actual adults doing the work, then it seemed very within reach, like, “Oh, I see people who have day jobs and then are doing improv at night.” That seemed like something that you could go after.
Jen: So, you’re thinking at the time, you’re gravitating toward improv. That’s the space that is speaking to you and where you feel like you are coming to life. After college, you move to New York, right?
Jen: Tell us what happened there. How did your career start taking root, and where did you start getting traction? What did you discover in New York as an actor, and this path is starting to lay out in front of you?
Ellie: Yeah, you know, whenever you’re starting a new phase, I think there are so many hiccups and speed bumps, I guess, and feeling like, Am I making any progress? This is depressing.
Ellie: Yeah, that can be tough.
Well, I signed up for classes right away at the People’s Improv Theater, which is affectionately known at the PIT, and the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater. My parents helped me pay for those classes. I want to be upfront about that, because not everyone when you move to a new city can immediately sign up for improv classes. I was lucky that I was able to do that.
I started taking classes there. I started doing some temp jobs during the day. I worked at a bakery, doing odd jobs here and there. I remember typing for a . . . I was like a keyboard . . . What are you? If you’re not the dictator, you’re the . . .
Jen: Like the . . . the person . . .
Ellie: The typist?
Jen: Let’s just say typist.
Jen: I just feel like that is what you were. You were a person who types, also known as a typist.
Ellie: A typist. Also, what was that? $25,000 Pyramid? I was like, “If you’re not the person saying the words, you’re the what?” Okay. The typist.
Jen: The one with the fingers on the keyboard doing the letters. Yes.
Ellie: Typist, typist. Okay.
Those were jobs, of course, to pay rent and earn money.
Jen: Of course.
Ellie: Starting to take those classes felt like, Okay, well at least I’m headed in the right direction. Once I completed those classes, then you are able to start submitting—I don’t know how it is now, this was a million years ago—but submitting shows to those theaters. That’s when I really felt like, Oh, I’m getting to put stuff up that I wrote. You know, that I wrote with my friend Scott, that I wrote with my improv team, Big Black Car, and feeling like it’s a performance but it’s something tangible that you can give a friend a postcard and say, “Come see my show.”
I don’t know how much the internet has changed all of this. I sound like I’m a thousand . . .
Jen: Oh, good point.
Jen: So you literally mailed this? You mailed it in the mail? Like a mailman would take it?
Ellie: Or left a stack at a restaurant, like that kind of thing.
Jen: Oh my gosh.
Ellie: I know.
Jen: It’s such a hustle. It’s just so much hustle.
Ellie: Such a hustle, and you’re emailing the same group of friends. I mean, we did have email. I don’t want to act like I was in the Dark Ages. But emailing the same friends over and over. Bless them for coming. I keep saying bless them, but bless them for coming to see those. I held my friends hostage, but you need to fill the seats in some way.
Jen: I’ve had a lot of comedians on the show, and they all say that. They’re like, “In some of those early days, a full 70% of the people in the room are like my roommates, my best friend, my parents.” God love them for filling seats and getting you through that phase.
I get tickled any time somebody says, “Well, you know, this comedian just made it all the sudden.”
I’m like, “They did not all the sudden make it. They’ve been in these bars and at these shows. They have been the road, and living out of crappy suitcases.” No, it’s so much work.
Tell us about interning a little bit at Conan. This was kind of a big deal, right? This led to a meeting with a writer who was fairly important in your life.
Ellie: Yes, yes.
Ellie: Yes. I was an old . . . I wouldn’t say “old.” I was an older intern, as far as interns go. Most of my fellow interns were still in college. My younger sister, Carrie, who we talked about a second ago, had interned at Conan, I think, the summer before her senior year. I must have been 24. I asked her, I was like, “Could you pass my name along to your boss?”
Ellie: Yeah. She passed my name to Aaron Cohen, who, I guess—are you hired as an intern? No, who took me on as an intern.
Ellie: I interned there for about, I think it was half a year, six months. That’s exhilarating. It’s so exhilarating. First of all, you’re not getting paid, which is crazy but that’s how it goes. Listen, you feel very important.
Ellie: Right? It’s thrilling to be in an environment like that, I think.
Jen: If I was interning at Conan, I would literally drop that into every conversation about once every twelve minutes.
Ellie: That’s exactly . . .
Jen: Yes, of course you felt important because you were.
Jen: So what happens in those six months? Who are you meeting? Who are these conversations? How does this lead to the next phase of your life?
Ellie: Who I’m meeting is, I intern in the casting department. I’m now friends with Cecelia Pleva, who is the head of casting there. That turned out to be very helpful to me, not only because she was a great person to work for. After my internship ended, she would call me to do bits on the show. That was huge. Students who were performing at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater just coveted these opportunities to perform on Conan. You work for two hours, it’s a great paycheck, and you’re on national television. That was huge. I was very lucky that she would call me.
I got to meet a lot of the writers. One of them, in particular, is my now-husband, Michael.
Jen: Yes, it worked out.
Ellie: It worked out. I should mention that he was—well, first of all, we were friends. We were hanging out a lot. That’s how I met him. I always think it’s nice when something romantic develops from something where you were just, at first, friends.
Jen: Like just a real relationship.
Ellie: Right? It doesn’t always . . . There are any number of paths a romance can take. It was nice. I knew him very well before I married him. I should hope you do.
Jen: And then you married him.
Ellie: And then happily married, fast forward. He was a younger writer and as I said, I was an older intern. We’re three years apart, so I was close in age. We started hanging out all the time, which was fun, but also just meeting all the other writers there. It was weird because I don’t know if all interns in that kind of area are trying break into comedy, or if they’re trying to do more the producer side of things, or what have you. I definitely wanted to be in comedy, so it was really neat me for me, and I’m friends with a lot of the Conan people now.
Jen: Oh, sure.
Ellie: Yeah. It was nice to be able to work for, but feeling more like it was alongside funny people like that.
Jen: Totally. That’s some of the funniest writing, some of the funniest people. That show has just turned out really top-drawer comedy for a really long time. What a wonderful place to learn.
Around the same time, too, you’re putting this English degree to work, because you are a writer. This is what you have studied. This is what you’re good at. In your 20s, you’re writing for McSweeney’s. Love. Oh my gosh, do you not just love McSweeney’s content?
Ellie: Now and everyday, there’s something new that’s just a balm on our souls and just so absurd, kind of. Very, very funny. I loved the material on that, both their online stuff—
Jen: Oh, it’s so smart.
Ellie: Yeah, they’re very smart.
Jen: Yeah, some of the best pieces I’ve ever read are out of there. I get writer envy because it’s so clever and so well done. The Onion! You wrote for The Onion.
Jen: Give us one of your Onion headlines you’re particularly proud of that you wrote.
Ellie: “Nation Grossed Out by Sight of Young, Happy Couple.” I had officially broken up with my ex-boyfriend. I was like, “You just get out of here.” That prompted that headline.
Writing for The Onion, I adore The Onion. It’s so brilliant. Of course, now, it’s like, Who even knows what’s a satirical headline and what isn’t?
Ellie: Fact, that is a fact.
I had to keep badgering the features editor to let me . . . I shouldn’t say I “kept badgering him.” I kept trying to write better headlines so that he would submit them to a meeting, and that took a very long time.
Jen: Did it?
Ellie: Yeah, it took a year, which I think is a long time.
Jen: Wow, feels like a long time.
Ellie: Feels like a long time to be sent . . . Joe Garden was the editor’s name. Again, what a hero. He could have just said, “You now need to stop,” but he never did. I adore him.
Jen: Like, “Ellie, you need to read the room. We’ve said no 12 times in a row.” Yes.
Ellie: It’s an interesting conundrum for anyone. When do you know? I’m not sure. I think the answer always varies. When do you know that you should call it quits? If you don’t keep on, then . . .
Jen: Absolutely, thank goodness you didn’t. Those are never a loss for me. All those are, I learn a lot from that. There’s something that builds inside of us, I think, like a tenacity. I’m convinced that to some degree, rejection is good, to have to power through it, put your head down, get better, and learn from it. I don’t think that is a terrible thing. I applaud you to sticking to it for a whole year.
Jen: Let’s talk more about your writing, because you have this amazing skill set and you’ve honed with all these essays and online pieces and articles.
You’ve written your first book of essays. I would love to hear all about it. It’s called My Squirrel Days. Phenomenal title, which I want to know about that. Will you just talk a little bit about how this book came to be and what we can expect out of it? Also, what was that writing process like for you, because writing a book is different than writing an article?
Ellie: Writing the book was awful.
Jen: I love it.
Ellie: You know.
Jen: I do.
Ellie: It’s one thing to have a story or an idea in your head. As you know, getting it down on the page is . . . you just want to throw yourself out the window.
Jen: You really do.
Ellie: It’s so weird, because I’m like, I’m not in physical torment right now. I’m not in pain. At the same time, get a babysitter, hide yourself away for three hours, and try to write. Well, okay.
Jen: It’s empty. You’re brain’s empty.
Jen: You have nothing.
Jen: You have no words.
Ellie: Yep. You emerge with nothing and you feel like, What were those three hours and that wasted babysitter money? Because you have nothing to show for it. I can only assume that that’s just part of the experience. Even though there’s like two words on the page and it’s just your name, I can only hope that your brain was working through some of the stuff.
I do think that process was very difficult. I also think it was, as any difficult thing is, very satisfying when you did complete an essay, or when you did feel like, Okay, I captured something I was trying to capture.
I set out to write a funny book. I always thought it was going to be a little more along the lines of McSweeney’s or The Onion, something more absurd and something more, I guess, comedy driven.
Ellie: When I started writing, it felt like there wasn’t really space for the more absurd fiction pieces. It was turning into more a collection of essays about me. It took a turn, I think. That sounds like it took a dramatic turn. My goal, I think, changed as I was writing it.
It’s also hard, because I wanted to tell personal stories but I’m fairly private. I didn’t want to reveal too much or anything I was uncomfortable with revealing. That was a tricky task for me. Because If you sign up to write a collection of personal stories—and I imagine you encounter this on your podcast all the time—well, what are you going to share with and what do you need to keep to yourself? That’s tricky.
Jen: It is. That’s a tight needle to thread. When you’re writing a memoir—and a couple of my books are real memoir-y too—it feels pretty vulnerable.
Jen: There is just this, Here are the words, and this is my actual lived life. Now I’m going to put it in your hands. You just have to trust the reader to be gentle with your story and to be compassionate. They sometimes are and they sometimes aren’t.
I find being an author very tender, sometimes. I get the dilemma. You want to at once be accessible and transparent and offer something real, and true, and genuine. But also, it’s your life. You just don’t want it completely laid bare for the world to dissect however they feel like it.
Jen: I get it. I really get the dilemma.
Ellie: How do you get through that? I mean, especially in an age where everyone shares everything on social media? I don’t know, is there a checklist or something you go through? I’m still not clear about that.
Jen: Yeah, you know, I don’t know either. You would think 12 books in I would have a good answer for this.
Ellie: Yeah, I would.
Jen: But I do not. I just don’t know what to say about that. That really doesn’t speak well of me.
What’s interesting now is I’m such a parent, because there’s so many kids, so a lot of that I have to get permission on. So some of that, I have to go to the kids and be like, “Is this a story we can tell? Is this a thing we can talk about?” There’s that grid I have to pass everything else through.
But, I don’t know. I feel like at the end of the day . . . I’ve said this before. When I think about my reader, I am thinking, Okay, I am going to think the absolute best of my reader. The best. I’m going to think of her highest self, her most fantastic ideals, her best dreams. I’m going to give her every benefit of the doubt. I am going to assume that I am for her and she is for me. And I kind of write to that person.
I’ve noticed before that if I’m not careful, I tend to write accidentally to my critics. It comes across as kind of pissed and just stark.
Ellie: That is so . . . How perceptive to recognize that. You’ve written a bunch more than I have. Absolutely, I have that little voice in my head when I’m writing, the critic’s voice, or potential critics. That is so powerful to be sure that you’re not . . . I guess, what? I don’t want to say “going down to that,” but that you’re not engaging in that. Yeah.
Jen: Right. It doesn’t have this very tight feel of being defensive.
Jen: I don’t know. I don’t want to live like that, so I definitely don’t want to write like that. While that does leave us out there, a little bit laid bare and vulnerable, if you will, I’ve never regretted it. I think that readers are smart, and they pick up on who you are and how you feel.
That’s exactly what they’re going to find in your book too. It’s just all you. You tell a lot of honest stuff in there. I think everybody’s hungry for that, for sure.
I really love some of your mom hacks that you include.
Ellie: Oh, thank you. I should be asking you about mom hacks. I mean, does any mom know . . . My mom just recently disclosed to me, she’s like, “Well, no one knows what they’re doing.”
Ellie: I was like, When it comes from your own mother, it’s so powerful.
Jen: Totally. I love that our moms are telling us this. I’m always trying to tell younger moms behind me the same thing. This whole idea that we’ve got this down and there’s some system or formula that we figured out to get it all right or to get us these guaranteed outcomes, that is all a lie. Nothing about that is true.
You’ve done this. You’ve given us this in this book, that you are a mom who is a real person. You’re juggling a family and a job, writing and experiencing. It just makes us feel better that you have the same dilemmas as the rest of us.
Ellie: Makes me feel better hearing from you about that. But, yeah. I don’t understand any of it. It’s really hard! The guilt that you feel when you’re working, and the guilt that you feel when you’re not working. The guilt thing, I know that’s a well-trod discussion. I’ll tell you, it doesn’t seem to go away. You tell me, I don’t know if it subsides. I know at a certain point you’re eager for a break and you need time for yourself. It’s so multi-layered and complicated to me.
I don’t know . . . I’m not sure I’m supposed to say this. I don’t know if dads feel the same, if they have the same struggle with this. My husband obviously loves James with his entire being. I don’t think he feels bad, you know, at leaving for an afternoon. You know what I mean? Having some time to himself.
Jen: Of course I know. You’re telling the truth. It’s true. If I was interviewing him right now, this would probably not be a piece of the conversation we’d be having, of the juggle and the balance. It does feel like it’s disproportionally centered on the moms. We kind of bear an interesting weight.
Literally, never in his life has a person asked my husband, “How do you balance it all?”
Ellie: Oh, I know.
Jen: I get asked that in every interview.
Ellie: I know.
Jen: You’re right. You’re right. Those are just gender norms that are left over from a long time ago, but we still feel the tremors. That’s just a fact. We do.
Ellie: Here’s the thing, and this is when I really snap at my husband. I don’t know if it’s just our brain chemistry, like, that of women, but we do everything. I come home from work and then I’m managing the household. I’m absolutely managing it. I’m figuring out what sheets we need to wash. I’m figuring out what James is going to have for lunch the next day.
It’s not like if I tell Michael, “Oh, can you figure this out?” Absolutely, he will. It doesn’t occur to him, because I’m the manager.
Jen: Right, exactly.
Ellie: I didn’t sign up for that, I just am.
Jen: Yes. You can’t turn it off. And it might not get done, if that drawer does not get opened in that part of your life. It’s not a matter of just going, Well, I’m just not going to do it.
Ellie: That’s what it is. If you don’t do it, then it won’t get done. That’s exactly right.
Jen: I know. I’m with you.
Ellie: I’ll snap at him when he’s asking me . . . He’ll ask me this all the time, “Does this shirt go with these pants?” I don’t know why he asks me. I have no sense of fashion. I don’t know why he’s deferring to me.
I will yell. I’ll say, “Michael, that is a decision I don’t have the brain space to make.”
He’s like, “You could have just said yes or no. I wouldn’t know if you were lying.”
I’m like, “No.”
Jen: “It took you more energy to tell me that.”
I know what you’re saying. “I just need to have this one moment where I’m not making a decision. Just this one thing. Just pick pick your shirt. I don’t know, wear it with the khakis. I don’t know.”
Ellie: I don’t know. I’ve decided I have a limited amount of energy in a day. I don’t want to use any energy on that part. Although I did just expend—
Ellie: We get it.
Jen: What have you figured out? Have you offloaded some stuff? At this season, because your son is just two. He’s little. Your career is red-hot, amazing. Have you kind of taken a look, like the 35,000-foot view, and go, For now—and maybe this isn’t forever—but for now, this, this, this, and this is a no?
Ellie: You are smart to throw that out there. I have the problem of thinking that everything is . . . I don’t take the 35,000-foot view. I take the two-inch view. I’m like, “No, this is major in this moment.”
You are so right, because if you realize, “This might be a limited amount of time. In the long-term, you’re not going to remember that that didn’t get done, or this was not done, or whatever.” That’s hard for me, personally, to do. I think it’s necessary because you have to see the forest for the trees. You have to prioritize. That’s a new skill that I’m trying to master.
Ellie: I’m bad at prioritizing.
Jen: I’ve learned to be better at it, only because after a while it’s a pace that feels unsustainable. I am kind of a type-A, get it done, foot on the gas. I can probably handle that longer than most. But I start to feel it. My body starts to tell me the truth, like, If you do not sort this out and start saying no to about half this stuff, we’re going to have a mutiny.
I know. It is tricky because there is also this sense—I don’t know if you feel this way, I bet you do—that in my work, in your work, there’s this little voice in my head that says, “If you say no to this, you’ll never get it again. This is not going to loop back around. You’re going to get forgotten. You’re going to get out of the loop. You’re name’s going to get shoved to the side and it’ll be replaced by somebody who’s waiting in the wings.” That voice is very mean, and it wants me to never say no.
Ellie: That voice is holding you or me to an impossible standard. I also hear that voice. It’s like, Well, this’ll make it or break it. When I have found, often, when you do say no to something, weirdly, something else does come up, almost immediately, which you then also maybe should say no to.
Jen: Of course.
Ellie: What I used to be guilty of was making plans and then canceling. Mostly plans with friends, just social outings I would bail on. So I was like, Ellie, now you must be realistic. Are you really going to want to go to have dinner at the end of the long day of work, when you know you’ll want to go home and get into your pajamas? Just say no to that from the get-go. Then you’re saving time because you’re not feeling guilty by bailing, and you’re also getting the sleep you need to get.
Jen: Those add up. Those little decisions add up to restore a little bit of peace into your weekly rhythm. They seem small by themselves, but you string enough of those together and life feels a tiny bit more sane.
I’m with you. I’m always telling women, “I don’t believe in scarcity.” I don’t know why I act out of it sometimes, like, This is all that there’s ever going to be, so I’ve got to grab it while. That’s not really how life goes, either. I agree with you. That’s not my experience that you say no once and nothing will ever come back to you. That’s not really how the world works.
Let’s go back, a little bit, to your TV career, if you don’t mind. Of course, every one of us remembers your break-through, amazing role on The Office. That was so fun to watch. It was so amazing. You were having to replace the beloved Pam, which is a pretty tall order. You did it. You made America fall in love with you as Erin. I mean, you did it. We had no choice. We were captivated.
Ellie: The tallest order.
Jen: Tell us about it. How did you get that job? Tell us about your experience, just a little bit, in it and as that character? She is so fun.
Ellie: Yeah, first of all, thank you for those very generous words. I was a huge fan of The Office before being cast on it. I adored the show. I felt like I knew everyone on the show. I think the timeline leading up, or the series of events leading up to my audition for Erin was that I had written my one-person show, Feeling Sad/Mad with Ellie Kemper, because I had to get my name in the title—name recognition.
Jen: For sure.
Ellie: I got called in to audition for Saturday Night Live, which I did not get. So, talk about things not happening and then other things happen instead. I think by even auditioning for it, it put my name out there so other producers and agents started to know who I was. I signed with an agency after that, after not getting a part. That’s good, I think. Some very good thing came out of that.
It was my agent—at the time her name was Sharon Sheinwold—who set me up on a meeting with Mike Schur, who was one of the producers of The Office, and Greg Daniels. By the way, Greg Daniels wasn’t an afterthought. She worked with Mike Schur, that’s why . . . If Greg is listening to this, you are not an afterthought! You are The Office!
Jen: Not second place.
Ellie: Never. I just remember the email was like, “Meeting with Mike Schur. Greg Daniels will come if he has time.”
Anyway, that’s how it led from a show to a failed audition, to finding an agent who hooked me up with those guys. I just talked with them. I had a meeting in their office.
A month later, I now know that I auditioned for Parks and Recreation. I wasn’t really sure. It didn’t say Parks and Recreation. It was for a character named Donna. I didn’t know. I still don’t really know what it was for, because I’ve never seen a character like the one I read for, and I’ve also never seen the scene I read for. Who knows what it was.
Then I was called in a couple months after that for, I think it was a six episode arc on The Office, to be the replacement receptionist while Pam was working at the Michael Scott Paper Company. Then the story changed and Erin got to become the full-time receptionist.
Jen: She did.
Jen: She did. I loved that. I think the story changed because you were there. I can only imagine that they had you and realized, We would be dum-dums to make this a six-episode part for her. It just seemed like once you joined the show, you had always been there. I don’t even really remember it before you were on it. You just brought a lot of joy to that cast.
I would love to hear your thought on this. Just a few days ago,I was interviewing for the show Jameela Jamil, and she works on The Good Place. Mike Schur is the producer on that show too.
Ellie: Of course, yeah.
Jen: She just spoke of the environment that he creates on the set in such glowing terms, like such a great and a positive work environment. Was that your experience too?
Ellie: Y-E-S. I, as I said earlier, I’m the luckiest person on the planet. I would think that when you come in, fifth season of a show that is doing just fine without you, and the people on that show are so welcoming to you and warm and don’t bat an eye and are offering to help, I think that starts at the top. I think that’s an indication that your showrunners are gracious, classy people. I completely agree with that sentiment.
Jen: That’s a great point. When you come in five seasons in, now the dynamic is really going to show you what it is, when you’re not one of the founding cast members.
Ellie: That’s right.
Jen: That’s a great point.
Ellie: Yeah. I also think that the lead actor on the show, Steve Carell, a lot starts with him, too. Between Greg Daniels, Mike Schur, and Steve Carell, it’s like . . . the same situation on The Good Place, I’m sure, where you have these people who are good people to begin with. That’s a real luxury.
Jen: Just my favorite thing to think about is this: The Office is winding down—and this is just bananas—the chairman of NBC entertainment tells Tina Fey, who’s like, you know . . .
Ellie: Tina Fey.
Jen: A comedy goddess. I mean, it’s Tina Fey. She’s in her own category.
Ellie: Yes she is.
Jen: There isn’t a . . .
Ellie: There’s no one.
Jen: I don’t know how else to talk about her. He says to her, “I want you to write a pilot for Ellie Kemper.”
I don’t even know what to say. That is so amazing. Did you freak out? I mean, that is so flattering.
Ellie: Oh my God! Well, first of all, I do not know exactly what went down. I would imagine he threw out a number of people who he might be interested in making a show with. Got to be realistic about that. I, “Are you kidding me?” You know?
Jen: I know.
Ellie: First of all, first of all, Robert Carlock and Tina Fey are writing partners. She created 30 Rock. He was the showrunner. I think he was the showrunner. He was the executive producer. They work hand-in-hand.
Ellie: I adore that. In the first place, 30 Rock is the most incredible show you’ve ever seen on television, right? I mean, it’s just brilliant.
Jen: I know. It is.
Ellie: That is there, on it’s own. Separately, I so loved Tina’s Bossypants. I loved her as Sarah Palin. All of it. Like you just said, she’s in her own universe, in a good way. On her own plane.
Yeah, okay, that first meeting with them, I have never been so nervous in my life.
Jen: Were you so nervous?
Ellie: I mean . . .
Jen: Of course you were.
Ellie: Yes. You’re meeting these icons and you just don’t want to mess it up. I’m an anxious person. I get nervous for a whole bunch of stuff, but that felt like a new and previously unexperienced type of nervousness.
Jen: I cannot even imagine. Was this like super initially, “We don’t even have an idea yet”? Or, “We have a very developed idea”?
Ellie: I think it was initial. Maybe they had the idea and they didn’t tell it to me then. I was told it was sort of a general meeting, just to meet them.
I remember it because it was in May. I think The Office had definitely just ended that year. 30 Rock, I think had ended earlier that year. I think they ended in December of that year. It, to me, felt like a general meeting.
Then, only a couple months later, I had dinner with them again and they presented the actual idea that they had, which I definitely thought was not the actual idea.
Jen: I’m dying to hear. What did you think? I mean, in our lives, we have never seen a storyline like this.
Ellie: No, we have not.
Jen: It’s so, it’s just bonkers.
Ellie: It’s totally bonkers.
Jen: What were you thinking? Were you thinking, This is a disaster, or, This is brilliant, or something in between?
Ellie: Of course, I made it about me. My initial reaction was to make it about me. I was like, They’re definitely testing me. If I take them at their word, they will know that I am a fool, and that is the answer. I was like, “Okay.”
When they sent me the script I realized, Oh, they’re not. You’re an idiot, Ellie. You are an idiot, but in a different way. They did write the show. Here is the what, I felt so nervous about the premise, because it’s not . . .
For anyone listening who doesn’t know what it’s about, it’s about a young woman who was kidnapped when she was 14 and held underground in a bunker by a crazy man played by Jon Hamm. Fifteen years later, she’s rescued by the FBI. An NBC sitcom.
Jen: Obviously. Just as you do.
Ellie: As you do. That is why these guys are total magicians, because they managed to make that premise into a funny show. A brilliantly funny show. The writing on that show is bananas, like you said.
Jen: Oh my gosh.
Ellie: Any fear? I would not say I had any fear about the show. I had a fear about my ability to portray a woman who had been through that and also make it optimistic and funny. But the writing takes care of 99% of that.
Jen: It’s literally brilliant. Anybody who has been around me, it’s almost embarrassing how much I love Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. I’ve watched it all, the whole thing through, at least three times. It is so funny. It is just so funny.
Ellie: The jokes work. We’ll have filmed the scene, and not until I watch the show months later will I understand a joke. I’m like, “Oh, that’s what that joke . . .” Because they’re really—
Jen: That’s amazing.
Ellie: Right? Again, maybe I’m an idiot. They work on different levels, and it’s lightning fast. Like if you miss it, you . . . yeah.
Jen: Oh my gosh. The dialogue is so snappy and your castmates are just . . . The ensemble of your chemistry with your fellow actors is just so great. It feels like lighting in a bottle it almost just feels so special, you could never recapture it exactly like it is. It is so wonderful. What are they like?
Ellie: Again, I feel very lucky. The first person I met, the first actor I met there was Tituss Burgess, who plays Titus Andromedon. And, oh my.
Jen: I can’t.
Ellie: I know. If you, I don’t know what the situation would have been like if I’d met him and thought, I don’t know. This is going to be hard. I don’t know. Well, we would have persevered. It would have been manageable. You’d have had to make it manageable.
Thank goodness it was one of the . . . you know when you meet someone and you’re like, “No, no, no. I’ve met you before. I don’t know how. I know I have your number.” That was the dynamic. I still feel so grateful for that.
Then, are you joking when you put Jane Krakowski and Carol Kane and you’re like, Oh, there are icons. I’m now working with them. Yeah, between The Office and Kimmy Schmidt, I’ve been so lucky to work with people who are not only brilliant, but kind people.
Jen: Oh, I love hearing that. Any time I find out that actors that I love are good behind the scenes and they’re good to one another, I’m so thrilled.
Ellie: Isn’t it—
Jen: Because it’s not always the story, of course.
Ellie: No, it’s not.
Jen: It’s not. Just to be able to manage such incredible chemistry with one another, the show is so good. Tituss is just too much. He is too much for this world. I cannot handle how funny he is and how perfect you two are together.
Did it take you a while to nail Kimmy? Kimmy is so special. There’s nobody like her. I don’t know, how did you manage Kimmy? You brought her to life. My brain is thinking, Who else could have ever played that part? I can’t find a single person.
Ellie: Well, that’s nice of you.
Jen: You were right for this. They wrote it for you, and it was perfect.
Ellie: Well, so much of it is in the writing. I do feel like in terms of finding Kimmy, I think there was . . . I think that, certainly, the character has evolved. I don’t know if my portrayal of her evolved. In a similar way, I felt like, Oh, I have Kimmy’s number. I’ve met that fighter. I feel like there was something very vulnerable about her, but also she’s silly and she can be girlish. She can be naïve, but she’s so tough.
I feel like I, this sounds corny, I as a person derive so much strength from her.
Jen: Doesn’t sound corny.
Ellie: Well, it’s been so helpful, especially in our world, which is so tough, to think about something through Kimmy’s eyes. She doesn’t back down and she’s tenacious and fierce. She’s also, you know, doesn’t understand any current pop culture references. It’s like she’s just sort of this delightful warrior.
Jen: She is. Yeah, that is so great. I can imagine that there’s got to be moments where you’re like, God, what would Kimmy do here?” She would somehow manage to maintain her precious, endearing integrity, and also just power through it.
Ellie: That’s right.
Jen: She is just such a great character. I’ve never known a character like her, and you just bring her to life.
That show has brought so many of us so much joy. It is just the most amount of fun. I’ll never get tired of it. If you want to make 79 seasons, I will show up for every single episode. Please never stop.
Ellie: I know. I wish that were the case. I know. It’s a great, and of course, the group of people you work with plays such a part in that.
Jen: Let me ask you two more quick questions, and then off you go for the rest of your busy day.
Ellie: You too, my friend.
Jen: Here’s what I want to ask you: I love comedy and I’ve always been a fan and a very amateur student of it. Humor was a really big part of my childhood, and it’s a part of my career, too. I actually know how hard comedic acting is. Being funny is hard. Writing funny is hard. Acting funny is hard. It’s such a really specific skill set.
From your perspective, because this is your genre, what would you say is probably the most challenging thing about being a comedic actor? What is the thing that most people don’t know when they just watch you? It feels so natural. It feels so easy. What do they not understand?
Ellie: I think the toughest thing is understanding that not every attempt is going to be successful, and not every approach is going to be the way that works.
I will experience such humiliation if I do something a certain way and nobody on the set laughs. Something that’s supposed to be funny and you just feel like, again, you’re like, Why am I even doing this?
I would say that’s the toughest part of the job. That’s more a sensitive thing, I guess.Just feeling like you’re being put in a vulnerable position, you need to expose a little bit of yourself—I mean that figuratively—for the sake of comedy. I think that when it fails, it feels very personal.
Ellie: Right? Yeah.
Jen: Yes. It’s a weird vulnerability.
Jen: There is nothing worse in the world than being in a live room and you thought you said something funny, and it’s crickets. It gets in your head. You get so rattled.
Jen: I think that, yeah, that’s a great answer. Powering through that, doing it again, doing it better the next time.
Jen: And not letting that discourage you is really something. Dramatic actors don’t need the laughs. You can have a silent room, and you feel like you’re doing amazing.
Ellie: Right. That’s exactly what you want. I remember there was one scene during Kimmy where it was just a lot of like Kimmy was flailing around a lot. It was silent. I was just like, at that point I just told myself, Okay, you’ve got it. They’re discussing their writing. They’re discussing, “Oh, the light is bad.” You just have to believe that.Otherwise, you will go home and just never come out again.
Jen: That’s true. You have quite a bit of physical comedy with Kimmy. It’s some flailing.
Ellie: There’s some flailing going on.
Jen: Okay, last question. What’s next for you? What do you want to do? As you look at, let’s just say your next decade, do you have some things that you’d like to try? Roles you would love to take on? Any sort of new projects that you’re like, “I’d like to try my hand at that?”
Ellie: Yeah, I do. This is the first time that I’m looking for a new job, being a mom. I was never, when Kimmy came along, I didn’t have James yet, my baby. You know, it changes everything.
Ellie: Figuring out how any of those goals have changed now that I have a family has been an interesting puzzle to put together. We finished shooting Kimmy at the end of June, so I’m not really sure what is next. I would love to do more work in movies. I’ve always wanted to be in a Nancy Meyers movie. I’ll just say it.
Jen: Yeah. Put it out there.
Ellie: I’m putting it out there. That’s a very tangible goal of mine. I don’t have the decade plan. My husband and I talk about this all the time, “How do you have a family and you continue to work in the creative arts?” It is an exciting and challenging puzzle to put together.
Jen: It is.
Ellie: Yeah. I don’t have a definitely certain answer just yet.
Jen: Well, that’s great. The thing is, you’ve got the chops for all of it. You have shown us what you can do in TV. You have shown us what you can do in movies. You’ve shown us what you can do in literature. Gosh, what can’t you do? I just feel like anything that you’re interested in, there’s going to be an amazing space for you. It’ll just open up.
The good thing, too, is it feels like right now we have a lot of women to look to for mentorship, in terms of, “How do you manage your family?” You’re surrounded by a lot of really smart women in your field who have kids and husbands. It’s good for all of us, actually, to watch you guys figure it out. Like, Okay, this is what a healthy family can look like, still with a very vibrant career.
Ellie: I know, right.
Jen: We have more and more examples set for us, all the time. Once upon a time, it was a little bit more rare air.
Jen: I just feel like whatever’s the next for you, we just are here for it and we can’t wait.
Ellie: Right back at you. Thank you for saying that. I agree, looking to other people who you admire and are doing this is so key to helping clarify your own path.
Jen: Absolutely. Then I remember, the next generation is watching us, too. I love being able to show them that you can go for it. You can chase down these dreams that are so wild, and most people would say improbable, and still have this beautiful home life is so possible.
Listen, these are three rapid-fire questions, we’re closing out the show for everybody in the TV series.
Jen: So you just, top of your head. What was your favorite TV show as a kid?
Jen: Oh my gosh. Classic.
Ellie: Yeah, so good.
Jen: Before your rise into acting, did you have a, “I really want to work with them someday,” actor?
Ellie: Oh, probably Ted Danson from Cheers, because I had a crush on him.
Jen: Oh, who didn’t?
Ellie: Who didn’t?
Jen: Who didn’t.
Ellie: I know.
Jen: He’s as good now as he ever was.
Ellie: He’s just, he’s Ted Danson.
Jen: He’s Ted Danson.
Ellie: It’s like Tina Fey. They’re in their own . . .
Jen: Yes, we’re just orbiting around their moon.
Ellie: That’s exactly right.
Jen: This is the last question we ask. I ask every guest this question. This is a twist on it. Do you have a TV show that is giving you life right now?
Ellie: Honestly, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. I am . . . Wait, did I say it right? I always mess it up. Is it Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee?
Jen: That’s it.
Ellie: Anyway, I am loving it. It’s the perfect amount of time before I go to bed. It is always just funny people talking. I love looking at the diners they’re going to. I’ll be honest, it’s just a palate cleanser at the end of the day. I’m always, as you are . . . I shouldn’t assume, I would imagine, you’re exhausted at the end of the day from everything you’ve been doing during the day. I can’t stay up for more than 20 minutes.
Ellie: It’s not the deepest show. It’s the loveliest show, though.
Jen: Oh, that is a perfect answer. You know what, we need a little happiness and laughter in the world, right now.
Ellie: That’s exactly right.
Jen: It is not small.
Okay, listen. Ellie, thank you so much for being on the show. You are just as wonderful as we all knew. Thanks for making us laugh and thanks for bringing a lot of life and love into our homes, through our TV sets. It’s just great. You’ve served us really well, and brought a lot of joy to so many millions of us. It’s just so good to have you on the show.
Jen: We’re cheering you on, girl.
Ellie: Listen to me, thank you so much for taking to the time to talk to me. I’m a huge fan, and I really appreciate your taking any time to chat with me. Also, thank you for bringing so much happiness to the world! That’s exactly what you do, so thank you.
Jen: Absolutely. Whatever you do next, here we are. Okay guys.
Ellie: Right back at you.
Jen: All right, Ellie Kemper. Thank you.
I don’t know what we have to do to make her ours. Is there paperwork to fill out? Is there some sort of online form that we submit? I don’t know what it is. She is a gem. What fun to have her on the show today. Oh my gosh, I love my job.
She’s wonderful. Everything we talked about today is going to be over at jenhatmaker.com, under the Podcast tab. We’ll have it all linked out. The whole transcript is there, first of all. Then we’ll have links, and clips, and bonus material, and pictures, and everything you ever wanted, if you want a little bit more from this episode. She was so great today and I was so glad to host her.
This is such a fun series. I love for Love of TV. Oh my gosh. I could literally interview people for a hundred years about it.
Thanks for joining me today. Thanks for all your fun feedback on this series, too. I know we’ve had so many amazing leading ladies, you guys. They are funny and smart and entertaining. It’s been so much fun to talk to them about their careers and their shows. More to come. More to come, I tell you that much, for sure.
Thanks for joining this week and thanks for being loyal listeners. Thank you for subscribing. More and more and more of you subscribe all the time. If you haven’t, go do it. That just means every new episode will just pop up in your phone. You don’t even have to try and find it. There it is, just waiting for you. We release [the show] every single week for you. By we, I mean my producer Laura and her team, and my assistant and partner Amanda. We love doing this for you. This is our favorite work.
Thanks for being here, you guys. I hope you enjoyed Ellie as much as I did. I’ll see you next week for more.
Narrator: That’s it for today’s show. Hope you enjoyed this chat. Be sure to subscribe to my mom’s podcast and give it a “thumbs up” rating if you like it. From the whole Hatmaker family, hope you have a great week and see you next time!