Just like that, Wild Horses was born, with Lapkus making it all up as she went, alongside fellow actresses and comedians Stephanie Allynne (“The L Word”), Mary Holland (“Veep”) and Erin Whitehead (“Comedy Bang! Bang!”).
“We realized looking back that we’d actually hung out a few times just the four of us,” Lapkus recalls. “We went to see Beyoncé and we had a craft night, but we hadn’t really thought of ourselves as a group.”
Wild Horses is now a regular show in Los Angeles, an occasional podcast and a project the four performers take on the road. The group made their D.C. debut at the Kennedy Center in 2014 during the Bentzen Ball and will return to the performing arts center this weekend for a pair of shows as part of a series of improv comedy shows at the Club at Studio K. (Holland has to skip these shows so “The Mindy Project’s” Zoe Jarman will take her place.)
Unlike most improv shows, Wild Horses performances typically begin with an hour-long conversation with a guest (such as Conan O’Brien, Natasha Lyonne or Nick Kroll) that can quickly spiral out of control.
“We like to create a dinner party vibe in our show,” Lapkus says. “It’s really a loose conversation that can go anywhere. We’re drinking wine onstage. It’s girls getting loose and sharing.”
It’s not, however, the typical celebrity interview you might see on a late-night talk show.
“We all have questions for them but they’re usually really random, like, do you believe in magic? Or have you ever seen a ghost? We usually don’t talk about their job,” Lapkus says. “We’ll talk about their weird experiences in their life or just anything they want to share. And we encourage our guests to interrupt us and to ask us questions and turn it on us.”
That leads into a 30-minute improv scene inspired by the conversation, which is where the four performers get a chance to shine (and get silly).
“We definitely have a shorthand with each other,” Lapkus says. “But we continue to surprise each other. We share a lot of really personal stuff and a lot of improv shows don’t allow for that.”
Growing up in Chicago, Lapkus, 34, was a big Chris Farley fan and wanted to become a comedian. She tried out for school plays in high school but couldn’t crack the casts, though she did perform in some variety shows. Her senior year, a teacher suggested she take improv classes at the city’s famed iO Theater.
“It ended up being so life-changing,” Lapkus says. “I really didn’t know how it would lead to a career. Especially in Chicago where it’s really all about the craft of it. That you are doing it for the sake of doing it and not really thinking about the bigger picture.”
She moved to New York and enrolled in classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade, the bi-costal improv theater chain/school co-founded by Amy Poehler. After taking enough classes, she moved to Los Angeles and tried out for a UCB Harold team, the best way to break into regularly performing at the theater.
“It was so, so important for me,” Lapkus says. “It helped me get representation, which led to getting commercials and TV shows.”
Her big break came in 2013 when she was cast as a prison guard on Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black.” Around the same time, she was becoming a fixture on the booming comedy podcast scene, appearing regularly as unhinged and loopy characters on Scott Aukerman’s “Comedy Bang! Bang!” podcast. (She’d later co-star alongside Zach Galifianakis in Netflix’s Aukerman-directed “Between Two Ferns” movie, released last year.)
Lapkus has a big year ahead: She just launched a new weekly podcast co-hosted with Nicole Byer (“Nailed It!”) called “Newcomers” where the two are working their way through the Star Wars franchise for the first time. (“It’s kind of crazy to feel like I actually get some of this after all these years of actively ignoring it,” Lapkus says.) She’s also starring alongside David Spade in the upcoming Netflix movie “The Wrong Missy” and is picking up regular voice-over work.
Lapkus has built a career in which she splits time between being herself (like on “Newcomers” or her regular Instagram Story posts about her favorite reality series, “The Bachelor”) and playing characters, many of which she makes up on the spot. It’s a balance that works for her, though she does have a preference.
“Talking as myself is more taxing than doing improv,” Lapkus says. “When I’m doing an improv podcast, I’m like, okay, I don’t really have to think about anything. But talking as yourself, you want to make sure your opinions aren’t going to get people mad. I have more of a filter as myself than I do in improv.”
If you go
Saturday at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. at the Club at Studio K at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. kennedy-center.org. $25 (9:30 p.m. show sold out).