When Lake Bell was 4 years old, she created her own late-night talk show. Growing up in New York City, her parents would tell her it was time for bed and she would stall by saying, “Wait a minute, because The Late Lake Show is starting now!”
Over the years, this passion for performance led to drama school in London and eventually a chance to audition for roles in Los Angeles, where a manager told her to “put on a push-up bra and go audition for Felicity.” She got a callback, but didn’t land the gig, instead making her TV debut in 2002 episode of ER. Her big moment came when she had to vomit on screen at the end of a long tracking shot through the hospital.
Bell played a lot of “wacky best friends” and other bit parts on television dramas like The Practice and Boston Legal, but didn’t really find her comedic voice until her friend Rob Corddry cast her as Dr. Cat Black in the cult hit Children’s Hospital on Adult Swim. It was on that show that she got some of her earliest directing experience, which led to her feature directorial debut In a World… in 2013, a wickedly smart rom-com that focused on sexism in the voiceover industry.
Six years later, Bell says she has witnessed the entertainment industry change “a thousand percent” when it comes to how women are treated in Hollywood, mainly due to the #MeToo movement and the greater awareness for gender parity that has come with it. For one, she says it’s no longer expected that every actress on TV needs to be drop-dead gorgeous. “You can be real,” she tells me on this week’s episode of The Last Laugh podcast, “you should look like a person.”
This new frontier is part of what made Bell want to return to television—after spending some time in the trenches of the indie film world—with ABC’s Bless This Mess, a big ol’ network sitcom she created with New Girl’s Liz Meriweather and co-stars in with Dax Shepard.
In this episode, we talk about how Bell got to where she is today, where she wants to go next and a lot more—including the time she tried and ultimately failed to improvise with Meryl Streep while filming It’s Complicated.
Why she wanted to make ‘Bless This Mess’ for network TV
“I was interested in network television because it was the antithesis of what I had been doing. When you make indie movies, you have such a small audience, which is not bad, it was just like, I’ve done that twice and I would love to bring my own sensibility to a larger audience and see how that fares and see if it’s possible. It’s not like network comedy can only be a certain type of comedy. I wanted to add my visual and tonal stamp on it. I say almost every day to my writers’ room that it’s important, among this silliness, that at the core of everything we have to talk about real things. It’s an opportunity to be real and cloak true, raw emotion and some cultural politics in a show that has some hijinks and some shenanigans and allows us to reach a broader audience with that kind of cultural conversation.”
How the industry has changed since she started acting
“My mom was like, if you’re going to be an actor, you have to study in England. And I was like, goddammit, can’t I just go out to L.A. and just get a push-up bra and audition for Felicity? I thought that was a good way to start and then you could get to a place where people paid attention to you and then you could do whatever you want. But it was a different time. Then I did start to get into the drama school thing of like, you’re a blank canvas, you wear all black and you neutralize your voice. So I remember going to auditions in all black, no makeup, blank canvas and that does not work in L.A. For TV, there was this concept that everybody had to be beautiful all the time. And I don’t think TV is like that anymore. You can be real, you should look like a person. And certainly when I cast as a director, I am very turned off when people come in looking like a model, male or female.”
How embracing comedy transformed her career
“I ended up doing a lot of drama stuff, because I was conservatory-trained. I couldn’t get a comedy audition. And then I got Miss Match, which was one of my first comedy gigs. It was a Darren Star show and I played the brunette best friend to Alicia Silverstone and I was super slutty and the butt of most jokes. That was the first time that day in, day out, my job was to be comedic. Alicia was the straight woman and I got to be the funny best friend. There were indie movies where I would audition for ‘the girl’ and I was just gravitating towards the wacky best friend. I was like, can I just audition for that? I want to see a movie about the wacky best friend. And then What Happens in Vegas was a really big turn for me, I think, because I met a lot of my best friends there—Rob Corddry, Cameron Diaz—that was a huge deal. It was a big movie for me and it was like, ‘Hey, this is a comedy person!’ And then Corddry asked me to do Children’s Hospital and it was off the races. I felt really lucky to be asked to get into that world and it genuinely made me happy. And especially with Children’s Hospital, which is so absurdist, there’s no logic and that was really satisfying. Dramas are so logical—you can’t do this and you can’t say that—and we could do anything.”
On trying to improvise with Meryl Streep on the set of ‘It’s Complicated’
“My first scene out of the gate in that movie is the one where Meryl and Steve [Martin] are high on marijuana and there’s me and Alec [Baldwin] and I’m supposed to exude this high status as Agnes and look down my nose at Meryl fuckin’ Streep! And look, I couldn’t be a bigger superfan. Not only is she the most incredible, accomplished actress, but she’s also a phenomenal human and makes the world a better place. So I got there and I knew my lines, but in the audition, Nancy [Meyers] had me improvise quite a lot. So I was in rehearsal with Meryl and I was improvising because I really thought that’s what I was meant to do. And the script supervisor came over to me and was like, ‘Hey, so I just want to show you the lines here.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, I was just improvising a little, should I not do that?’ And she was like, ‘No, no, no, we don’t do that here.’ And I said, ‘Oh, well Meryl was just saying some stuff and I was saying stuff back.’ And she was like, ‘Meryl was improvising? I have to go tell her to get back on book.’ And I was like, ‘No! I am not tattling on Meryl!’”