Evanston’s diversity helped propel surging comedian and actress Lauren Lapkus
I have only positive memories of my childhood and growing up in Evanston. I’m always so happy to come home. It’s so calm. I come back a few times a year, always for Christmas—I’ve never not been here for Christmas— then, usually once in the summer, and one other time if I can. I want to come home more because my brother has a kid and he’s going to have another. It always just feels so good to be here. My parents’ home is so quiet. I realize that everywhere I’ve lived in L.A. I’ve heard constant noise. I sleep so well here.
I grew up around the corner from Orrington Elementary School, near Lighthouse Beach. My parents’ house is nearly one hundred years old. It’s a brick home with a copper roof. That’s how I always spotted it growing up, by that green copper roof. I grew up with my parents and my brother, Julian, who is three years older. My mom was a teacher and my dad an architect. The house is small, but my mom uses every little inch, so it’s very curated and decorated. It looks like a catalogue. The home feels cozy, while still being full. In some homes, you feel like you can’t relax. Everyone can relax in our home, but it’s still very nice.
I love Evanston because all the homes are unique. It’s not a cookie-cutter place. In L.A., where I live now, the architecture can be really cookie-cutter. There are a lot of areas that were done at one point in time, either all in the nineteen sixties or in the nineties, and all the homes are really similar. It’s cool to come here where every home is different. I still love that. It’s just the best area to grow up. I stand by that. Every time I come home, I realize just how great it was to grow up here because it’s such a safe place but also such a cool, liberal, diverse town. There are so many types of people.
People see Evanston as a suburb, but it doesn’t feel like that to me. There’s so much you can do. It’s a full, developed place to live, and you have the city right there, so you can do anything. You have so much diversity, and it is so liberally and artistically driven, too. It feels like such a creative place to live. So many people from my high school have gone on to do amazing things, so I feel like there must be something going on here.
There were so many opportunities to do plays and similar things that made it easy for me to follow my passion. I did shows at the children’s center and the Fleetwood Jourdain Community Center. I did children’s theatre performances in fourth and fifth grade, and then in middle school, at Haven Middle School, there were so many opportunities to perform. Same with high school. The shows that Evanston Township High School do are really good. I feel really lucky to have been able to do that stuff.
Around the neighborhood, we definitely did a lot of bike riding. We did that all the time. One story I like to tell is when we met Princess Diana. The Northwestern University president’s house was right there, and Princess Diana came to visit. My friend and I rode our bikes over there and waited for her to come out. All these people were waiting, and she shook our hands, and I took a photo of her on my disposable camera. Then, we rode our bikes around screaming, “We shook her hand.” We were so excited. It was amazing. I think I was 10. When she passed away, it was actually really shocking for me because I didn’t know many people who died. So to have that experience of meeting this person and to see how big of a deal it was when she died, it affected me. I remember thinking, “Wow, I shook her hand and everyone in the world cares that she died. That’s weird.” That stands out as one of my favorite memories of my childhood here. It’s just crazy that I had that opportunity.
So many people from my high school have gone on to do amazing things, so I feel like there must be something going on here.
I was always allowed to walk to downtown Evanston and buy Beanie Babies, right when it was becoming a thing. I was in fifth grade, and my friend and I felt like we discovered them. We’d save six dollars and go buy a Beanie Baby and make clothes for it. I probably had like fifty Beanie Babies at one point. And my mom—she’ll hate that I’m telling this—sold two of them and I was devastated. People were actually paying money for them so she was smart to sell them, but I remember being really mad, even though I was way too old to care; I was probably in middle school. The rest of the Beanie Babies are probably rotting in a box somewhere.
At home, my brother and I watched so much TV. My mother will think that sounds bad, but it wasn’t to me because I loved it. I think that’s why I have the job I have now. We always liked watching TV together and making fun of it and dancing around to music or whatever. We watched pretty much every sitcom. “Full House” and “Saved by the Bell” were my favorites as a kid. I also watched “Different Strokes,” “Facts of Life,” “Perfect Strangers,” I could go on. I feel like I have a good education in TV because I’ve done a few multi-cam sitcoms, and the experience that I’ve had watching those shows helped me recognize the pace and dynamic of that kind of show. It’s just in my bones at this point from watching it so much.
I always liked “Saturday Night Live.” I would watch that all the time. I loved Chris Farley and Adam Sandler. Those are people I really admired. I got to work with Adam Sandler a couple years ago doing the movie “Blended.” That was so cool, to meet him and work with him. That era of SNL was really influential to me. I had the opportunity to test for SNL and fly there. It was so thrilling to be on the stage and feel that energy. It went well and it was so fun. It was really a dream come true just to be there.
Once I had the opportunity to start performing, I was in “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Hobbit,” and that got me in. I was in probably fourth or fifth grade when I got the bug. I liked to be funny and I liked to entertain people. I would always get those comic relief roles. It just felt so good to get that kind of response. It felt like you had a little bit of control. That was part of it as a kid, when you don’t really get to have any control, but in that moment on stage everybody is watching you and responding to you. It feels good. In high school, I would do YAMO, which was the student-written and -directed show, and that was really exciting for me because it’s a comedy show and a lot of fun. I wouldn’t get into a lot of the plays, only into YAMO. I would audition for everything and always be devastated when I wouldn’t get in. So my teacher Aaron Carney, who used to work as a set designer at Second City and thankfully was working at ETHS, suggested I take classes at the iO Theater. That was amazing for me.
My senior year in high school I took it into my own hands. Every Saturday I took the train into the city and took classes with adults. That was really cool. That’s when I started to really hone those skills and get into comedy, realizing that I could do it and not have to worry about whether I was going to get into a play or not.
Those classes were the reason I stayed and went to DePaul for college. I just needed to stay in Chicago and keep doing improv.
I did early-decision with DePaul and I knew by November senior year that I was going to stay. It’s crazy when you know what college you’re going to go to and you’re still in high school. I was more focused on trying to be an adult and doing improv than anything in high school.
One of the things that is difficult for some people when they move to L.A. is finding community. I think there is something to be said about that, even the improv community here. It’s easier because you are all walking or taking the train together to and from shows. The friendships are easier to build in that way. I feel very lucky I’ve had comedy in every city I went to because that community is very strong and you meet people automatically. I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t have that. It’s so hard to meet people in L.A., but if you’re doing something community-based, like comedy, you have to meet people. I’ve had friends who have moved to L.A. who don’t have that built into their lives, and they have to meet friends at stores and bars. That’s a way to do it, but I don’t know if I’d be good at that.
I used to go into the city a lot, especially in high school. We used to go shopping on Belmont and on Michigan Avenue. That was always really fun. And once I started doing classes, I started being more independent with it. I’d go by myself. I felt like I was doing something cool, because I was eighteen but everybody in my class was twenty-five. They’d go get a beer after class and I’d have to say, “I can’t get in. I have to go home.” It felt cool to even have to say no.
I feel that, now, I’m at a really cool point in my career. I’m excited to start creating my own things. I did a special [“The Characters”] for Netflix that I wrote and starred in. It’s like a sketch comedy special. That’s really exciting, to be doing my own material, and I want to move more in that direction the next few years. It’s so empowering to do stuff that is exactly my humor and exactly the message I’m trying to send about what I like and what my comedy is like. It feels good to have control over that. I’ve enjoyed the types of shows I’ve been on, but I’ve never had the opportunity to put what I do out there in this grand of a scale. And, with Netflix, it’s exciting because I feel like people just watch everything on there.
It’s so empowering to do stuff that is exactly my humor and exactly the message I’m trying to send about what I like and what my comedy is like.
I do my own podcast called “With Special Guest Lauren Lapkus,” where I feel a lot of my characters come from. I do the “Comedy Bang! Bang!” podcast, which is a really fun one. In the Netflix special, I was able to bring those characters to life.
Evanston did a lot for me in terms of confidence and independence. And I think a lot of my friends from here have similar traits like that. I really believe that there’s something with the type of person who wants to live here that shapes people in that way. A lot of my friends’ parents had similar parenting styles, and they gave us independence and believed in us and told us we could do what we want to do, and this city allows for that because there are so many opportunities for creative arts. My two best friends from here, one’s a writer and one’s a painter. I feel like there’s something interesting about that, and Evanston must have influenced that in some way.
When I’m back here, I have my places. I go to Old Orchard with my mom, and we’re constantly shopping. We go to downtown Evanston, and the Baha’i Temple is my favorite building so I’m always happy to see that building. It’s just so beautiful, and I always used to hang out in that area with friends when I was younger. It’s just a place to be. It’s so pretty. It just feels like a special building in our town.
Everything is so beautiful out here. It’s so gloomy this week, so dark and dreary, but everything looks cool. All the buildings are so great. They are all individual, and that’s so special. And it’s also just the relaxed vibe of being here. L.A. is more relaxed than New York, but Evanston is more relaxed than both of them. You can really just take your time. I like that about being back home: not feeling the pressure.
— As told to Publisher Joe Coughlin
Lauren Lapkus is known for playing prison guard Susan Fischer on the Netflix series “Orange is the New Black,” and she also appeared in the TV show “House of Lies,” “Comedy Bang! Bang!” and the movie “Jurassic World.” Her newest project, a thirty-minute sketch comedy episode of “The Characters,” is currently on Netflix.