Sometimes diversity can be a strange subject to address. Michael Scott of The Office struggled with it deeply, and more and more we’re seeing and hearing people in the industry speaking up about how Hollywood can work to resolve the diversity problem. On the one hand, it’s simple—more talented people of color, more women, and more people of varying sexual orientations and identities both on and off screen. But when you’re talking about characters, it seems you always have to remind people that “more” is not synonymous with “more of the same.” That is to say, asking for “more black women” does not automatically equate to “more black women Shonda Rhimes would create.” Enter, Charla Lauriston (yeah, I said it).
From working alongside Tina Fey on the unbelievably hilarious Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, to joining Hannibal Buress on his new Comedy Central series Why? With Hannibal Buress, Lauriston has been making some serious moves in the comedy world. And it all began with the first season of her web series, Clench & Release (Lauriston is the creator, writer, and protagonist). It’s tempting to describe the series—now with its second four-episode season on YouTube—as a cross between Broad City and Issa Rae’s Awkward Black Girl, but nothing really encompasses what this show is, other than the show itself. It is a positively unique mix of Lauriston’s stand-up routines and short sketches that take her character on drug-induced adventures in the city, and through the grind that is a comic’s life. Along the way dates, family, and friends make for lots of clenching and releasing—and not in the way you think (not necessarily, anyway). Paste caught up with Lauriston to talk about her hilarious web series, working with Tina Fey, and her mission against black respectability politics for women in entertainment.
Paste Magazine: I have to ask about the theme music, because everyone seems to love it. What is this song?
Charla Lauriston: It’s called “Tired of it All,” and my friend Doug Fischer wrote it. He was actually a friend of the Season One director Rakesh Baruah, and everyone just really liked it.
Paste: I love it. And what about the title—how did you come up with it?
Lauriston: I was thinking about how my jokes always come out of awkward or stressful situations—which is really the point of the whole series. I wanted to create sketches around these jokes. Like with the chicken-shaming—that was a joke and then I made the sketch around it. So I was thinking about how the jokes actually come out (laughs). It’s usually that I’m in some kind of weird situation where I clench up, and then I go on stage and release it.
Paste: That makes sense! Although I definitely thought it was a sexual thing.
Lauriston: Everyone thinks about vaginas with the title, and I didn’t even think about that when I was making up the name—those vagina exercises. But I think vaginas are awesome and I love being associated with them, so I don’t mind.
Paste: Can you talk about working on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt?What would you say you learned from your time on the series?
Lauriston: People call Tina Fey’s writer’s rooms “boot camps,” and now I know why. It’s because you spend so much time in there just feeding each other jokes and making sure that every line has a purpose. Every line has to have an intention, and the way that they craft language is very purposeful. So now, whenever I write something, I ask myself, “Okay, what is the purpose of this?” And every scene should be funny. Every scene should have a joke, or it’s not a comedy.
Paste: Speaking of intentionality in writing, one of my favorite moments in this season was so small, but so hilarious. Charla walks into the drug store for Plan-B and we overhear this ridiculous conversation between the two guys who work there. We overhear, “She started rubbin’ ya boy’s feet with coconut oil”—I loved that.
Lauriston: You know what’s funny—that was improvised. I specifically used comedians who are smart and who I think are funny. Pretty much everyone in the series is a comedian, from the landlord knocking on my door, to those two guys in the pharmacy. Their names are Reggie and Kevin—everyone is a comedian. I just love shooting the scenes first with the script, and then we do let people kind of do whatever they want to. [Season Two Director] JJ Adler is great. She really caught people in their best moments so that they could shine. And the actors, they’re just really good.
Paste: Yes, I also loved the women in the Plan-B line-up.
Lauriston: Yup, all comedians. And I feel like the New York comic scene moves so quickly sometimes, one of those people could start doing something really big at any moment. Some of them have been on The Nightly Show on Comedy Central, another one writes for @midnight, so they’re all legitimate people who were good enough to come out and stand in line for Plan B.
Paste: (laughs) That’s awesome. Now I was thinking about how in Season One you pose this question, “What is the black code?” Is it not eating fried chicken in front of white people, or is it not calling other black people out in front of white people for eating fried chicken?
Lauriston: Right, and it’s not calling other black people out for eating fried chicken.
Paste: Got it. And I love it because I think it speaks to respectability politics, something I really see the whole series doing. Charla is not “respectable,”—she’s not Olivia Pope, she’s not even Cookie from Empire. It’s so great. Did you find yourself actively wanting to fill that void of this sort of loser-ish, occasionally coke-sniffing, Plan-B purchasing black girl who’s given permission to be a mess?
Lauriston: I love that you asked that. You are so on top of this shit, Shannon.
Paste: Well, thank you!
Lauriston: Honestly, that is exactly what I want. You see so few black people on TV and then when you do see them there’s always this expectation that they’re perfect or that they’re good. And that’s why I loved The Wire so much because you had all of these characters, and it didn’t matter whether they’re black or white. They’re just human people, and sometimes they’re good and sometimes they’re bad. So I really wanted to do this show with this black girls who’s fine—she’s fine! (laughs) But she gets to mess up, and she can not be great, and she can, like, do coke with a homeless man and not get arrested. She can do anything a white man can do, and she’s fine. I wanted to show this black girl that’s just a person, and not necessarily an angel or a hero.
Paste: Mission accomplished. So the Season Two finale “Sisters,” featuring the incomparable Ursula Lauriston, was incredible. I have an older sister and my best friend in college did too—it feels like this special club of dorky, artsy people who have these cooler, older sisters who are just better at things. Why was it important for you to bring her into the story?
Lauriston: For two reasons. The first reason was because in the first season the narrative really depended on Ahmir, and I wanted to get away from that. I didn’t want to have to depend on a love interest for Charla. There are other things in her life that I wanted the series to focus on. Ursula’s a big important part of my life and I wanted to show that.
And the second reason, well, I feel like the second reason is really the same as the first reason (laughs). It’s pretty much just one reason.
Paste: (laughs) One reason is good.
Lauriston: But going back to how the show is based on these actual jokes, I had that one joke about how I was really lame in middle school and my sister was really popular. And I wanted to showcase that joke. Ursula was great too—she’s never acted in her life. I had zero expectations. I didn’t think she’d be bad! But I didn’t know if she’d be good, so I was like, “Holy shit! She’s better than me in a bunch of scenes.” She was even there while we were shooting the restaurant scene. She wasn’t supposed to be, but since she was there and I was going to have to change my hair and my make-up—so I could go from normal face to coked-out face—it was perfect. She got to dress up like perfect, Dream Charla, and I was able to stay with my coked-out face.
Paste: What’s next for you?
Lauriston: I literally just moved to L.A. last week because I’m writing on Hannibal Buress’ new show. It’s called Why? With Hannibal Buress. It’s all still very fresh and new, but everyone is great and I’m really excited. As far as Season Three, I’m going to keep pushing it. Clench & Release is my favorite thing that I’ve ever done. I love working with other comics, and showcasing them. The first season I got to work with Rakesh, who’s an amazing director. This season it was JJ, and she’s amazing. Getting the feedback is great too, so I’m going to keep pushing it.
Paste: I’m so so excited to have gotten a chance to speak with you! I can’t wait for more of your work.
Lauriston: Thank you!
Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor & a film critic at Paste, and a writer for Pink is the New Blog and Heart&Soul. This New York-based freelancer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes all follows (and un-follows) on Twitter.