It’s been 65 years. It’s damn past time Ethel had her turn to be Lucy.
She helped scarf down all those godforsaken bon bons. She was there, weathering the indignity of that black leotard, dressed as a martian. She played dutiful second banana to all her friend’s cockamamie schemes, and has done the same in countless incarnations since, all across pop culture. But when will it be Ethel’s turn?
For Donna Lynne Champlin, who plays 2017’s own little deranged version of Ethel, Paula Proctor on The CW’s uber-feminist-mental-health-spotlighting-musical-romantic-comedy spectacular, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the time is now. And she’s going to sing about penises.
“The Vivian Vance role is pretty well laid out,” Champlin says, referring to the actress who played Ethel on I Love Lucy. “I came into the job pretty clear that I was Vivian Vance, and happy to do that.”
When an intriguing woman named Rebecca (played by series star and co-creator Rachel Bloom) comes into the suburban California law firm where Paula works in the show’s pilot, the fortysomething mother of two is enchanted and agrees to help her win back her childhood love, Josh Chan.
Champlin, too, was enchanted by Paula and that storyline, especially having mastered the type in theater. (A former tap dancing champion, Champlin has been acting almost her life, with Broadway stints in shows including Sweeney Todd, James Joyce’s The Dead, and Billy Elliot the Musical.)
“I’m a character lady from the theater with red hair who belts,” she says. “I know my job. I know my place.”
At least she thought she did. Then she was cast on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.
When Paula starts exploring her past while belting out the Abba-reminiscent number, “First Penis I Saw”—we warned you: penises!—in this week’s episode, it won’t be the first time this Ethel’s had her Lucy moment.
In fact, the joy and brilliance of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is its matter-of-fact insistence on spotlighting how each of its supporting characters are also struggling to find out who they are, be it a Filipino electronic store employee, a divorcee who realized he’s bisexual in his fifties, a douchebag corporate boss, or a vapid yoga teacher with more to her than meets the eye. It’s especially remarkable considering the lead character they’re orbiting around can at times be a (very endearing) succubus of attention and affection.
In season one of the series, Paula was all about Rebecca’s needs, but not without getting to express warranted rage in the show-stopping “Rose’s Turn”-esque number, “After Everything I Have Done For You.” Season two was about refocusing on her own life: her children, reconciling with a cheating husband, dealing with an abortion, and realizing her dream of going to law school, which she sings about in a Disney princess-themed number, “Maybe This Dream.”
This season has found Paula still as devoted as any Ethel should be, helping Rebecca through the darkest moments of her mental health struggles. But it’s also been about going back and exploring where she comes from and what made her who she is, traveling back to her hometown in Buffalo and encountering her own first love. (Hence the phallic “Mamma Mia” number.)
“I am constantly surprised every time they consciously snap me out that best friend trope,” Champlin says. “I’m amazed at how much they open my eyes to my own limitations that I set on myself because of…society.”
She giggles to herself a bit at the sadness of that realization.
“It’s a joy and it is truly self-discovery for me as an actor and as a woman, that they kind of open my eyes constantly to how limited I have made myself, because I think ‘this is the gig and that’s the job and that’s the role and that’s how it goes,’” she continues.
But on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, they tell her that doesn’t have to be the case. “I’m like, really? I have a sex scene? Somebody’s attracted to me? I almost have an affair? What?” She gives one of those serene, genuinely pleased and appreciative smiles, those that warm and cozy up any room—including the hectic bar at the Beverly Hills Hilton where we’re talking. “I’m just happy to be here.”
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was the first TV pilot Champlin ever auditioned for.
She’s tread the boards dutifully her whole career, winning a Drama Desk and Obie Award along the way, and booked a few guest and walk-on roles over the years. (Yep, that’s her shouting at Michael Keaton in Times Square as he scoots on by in nothing but his skivvies in Birdman.) The casting agency handling Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is one she had worked with before in theater, it turns out. They called her in.
The reason she got the job is because she never thought she’d get it.
But, she says, “I had certainly never seen a role written for somebody who looks like me at my age, except for maybe three lines.” She made a promise to herself to have a ball. She took risks in her audition, thinking, who cares? Rachel Bloom and her co-creator, romantic comedy guru Aline Brosh McKenna, cared. She got the part.
She’s learned in the time since, though, that it may all have been destiny. She found out for, example, that she and Bloom are related by marriage: Bloom and Champlin’s husband share a cousin. “So it was nepotism!” she jokes.
But she and Bloom had also met years earlier, when Champlin was starring in the Broadway production of Sweeney Todd. Bloom was a student at NYU at the time and a fan of the show, so she went to a cast signing of the production’s original cast recording.
After casting her as Paula, Bloom revealed to Champlin that they had first met there, offering that she had worn a crazy orange coat as a memory jogger. Champlin gasped. She remembered the coat. She remembered the intelligent question Bloom had asked her. “So I think Rachel and I have always been orbiting each other and never really realized it,” she says. “But yeah, it’s kind of gross how much we love each other.”
Bloom obviously conceived Crazy Ex-Girlfriend about a very specific time in a woman’s life, when she grapples with society’s expectations of what a woman should be, not to mention her own. What’s been fascinating for Champlin, who is two decades past the period Bloom is exploring as Rebecca in the show, is to revisit her own experience at that stage of her life, and observe both the character of Rebecca and Bloom herself as they go through it.
“I vacillate between looking at her and just literally seeing myself 20 years ago, trying to ride that line between friend and just knowing things, having experienced what she’s experienced, and also just somebody who’s a coworker who’s never experienced what she’s experienced,” she says.
For example, Champlin never had the experience of creating her own TV show at age 27, starring in it, writing it, producing it, and collaborating on the music for it.
“I’m constantly astounded at how she manages so many different jobs, and then all the pressure that comes with every single job, and then all the critiques and the notes that come with every single job, and then act all day,” Champlin says. “So I vacillate between wanting to mother her, and wanting to go ‘yaaas queen.’”
But while she and Bloom share an obvious bond, it’s Brosh McKenna whom Champlin has a spiritual connection with. The screenwriter (The Devil Wears Prada and 27 Dresses) thinks of Paula as an avatar for herself. It’s at her urging and under her watchful eye that Paula has developed so richly into the kind of character that women hardly get to see on television, and the kind of role Champlin certainly never had herself.
“One of the ways to not show the truth of something is to isolate people from the picture,” Champlin says. “I’m a middle-aged, plus-sized woman. This is the first time that I’ve ever seen myself reflected in a realistic and authentic way without being a dramaturgical device or a butt of a joke. Or ‘Here’s your cream, Mr. Smith is waiting for you.’”
She remembers one particularly clarifying conversation with Brosh McKenna near the end of season one.
“The thing with middle aged women is we become invisible,” she says. “You become used to it. You see yourself disappear from the landscape. You see yourself disappear from advertisements, discussions, panels, television. It’s sort of so ingrained that you don’t realize. You just kind of accept it.”
Brosh McKenna didn’t want her to accept it. She was directing the finale of the first season, which included a big scene in which Paula explodes with anger at Rebecca.
It was warranted, earned anger, but a rage that we hadn’t yet seen in the character. Brosh McKenna kept urging Champlin to go further, be louder. When the episode aired, fans reacted with a bit of disgust. They called Paula “crazy” herself. They were annoyed that this lovable fortysomething doormat had asserted herself, had become a human.
Champlin found it fascinating. And all the more reason why she’s glad this show exists.
“There are people who want to live in a word where middle-aged, plus-sized women can have sex and have an outburst of anger without being labeled insane,” she says. “That’s the magic recipe of this show. They find this balance of finding things that are in the real world, and they explode them. Or they bypass that completely and create the world they wish existed. And people at home watch and gasp, ‘It’s possible!’”
So get Donna Lynne Champlin her bottle of Vitameatavegamin. Anything is possible.