by Robert Salazar
May 2, 2011
Funny Girl :
“Queen of Improv” Wendi McLendon Covey as good-time girl Deputy Clementine Johnson in Comedy Central’s hit series “Reno 911!”
On name recognition alone, I wager that most wouldn’t be able to identify Wendi McLendon-Covey, the woman dubbed “The Queen of Improv,” by a source no more illustrious than TV Guide itself. Nonetheless, if you ran into McLendon-Covey at the grocery store, it would be impossible not to do a double-take: For six seasons — a veritable eternity in sitcom years — McLendon-Covey starred as promiscuous, overly made-up Deputy Clementine Johnson on Comedy Central’s hit series Reno 911!
As “The Queen of Improv,” McLendon-Covey didn’t inherit her throne; Instead, she ascended to it, starting out at the famed improv and sketch comedy school The Groundlings Theatre as a recent college graduate with no experience. After graduating from the LA-based school, which also boasts alumni Pee-wee Herman and Will Ferrell, McLendon-Covey became a permanent member of the company, an experience that set the stage for her upcoming film debut in this month’s Bridesmaids (starring fellow Groundlings alum Kristen Wiig). The Review — fittingly — spoke with McLendon-Covey on the eve of the Oberlin Improv Conference.
So you studied creative writing as well as liberal studies and then you moved into improv. Can you talk a little bit about that transition?
[It started when] I saw shows at The Groundlings [Theatre]. Every time I went I was in awe of the performers, and I thought, “Oh my gosh. I want to do that so badly.” But it took me four years to actually pick up the phone, and call to see about the classes ’cause I was too shy. And I thought, “You know what? I’m gonna go, and I’m gonna do this, and I’m gonna take everything with a grain of salt. If I’m not good at it, I’m not gonna go back. But they kept passing me through, and I managed to get through all of the levels without having to repeat any.
What were some of the mistakes that you made when you first started improvising?
The hardest thing for me to get over in the beginning is that free-fall feeling: going up there with absolutely no idea. That free-falling feeling really bothered me, but that’s the only way to do it. You can’t pre-plan, and when I see people who have [planned sketches beforehand] it just breaks on my nerves. When someone comes up there and you can tell they’ve just been waiting to say a certain line they thought of that was funny and it has nothing to do with the scene, and you think, “Oh, you’re just going for the cheap laugh.” That drives me nuts. You have to let it just simmer for a little.
There’s nothing funny about trying to be funny.
Exactly, you have to keep adding information to the scene and keep it active and something will come up.
Can you talk a little bit about your work on Bridesmaids?
It’s hilarious and it’s not a chick flick, [although] the title can confuse you. Men love it just as much as women. It’s very funny. I’m very proud of it. I got the seal of approval from my own sister, who hates most of what I do. Let that guide you to the theater.
What’s the difference between working in improv and theater and working in TV? Specifically, what do you think is the difference between creating your own character (as is the case with improv) and working with an already-written one?
[Bridesmaids] was scripted, but they filmed it two ways for every scene. We would do it as scripted, and then they would let us improv for a while, and what was funniest [won] out. They let us create our own characters. We had rehearsals where we would just talk and talk and talk about, “Well, my character does this and your character would react to my character this way and blah blah blah.” It was very informative because it gives you ideas as to how other people are going to be reacting to you.
You’ve also forayed into the Internet with your webseries, GILF, which you wrote, produced and starred in. Could you talk a little bit about that, as well as the popularity of the DIY (do-it-yourself) comedy scene?
That whole world came out of the constant frustration from hearing people say, “I never hear from my agent, and I don’t know why I’m not working.” Who do you think is gonna have sympathy for you?… No one ever told you that you were gonna strike it rich, you do it ’cause you like it, and if you make money from it at some point, great, but there’s gonna be a long time where you don’t make money. And that is true with anything in life that you like to do. So are you gonna sit back and wait for your agent to call you when he gets 10 percent of money and you get 90 percent? Or are you going to go make things happen yourself? No one is going to look at you the way you want to be seen unless you show them. And plus, if some fifth-grade Spanish project that was shot in the hall is going viral, why can’t you go viral? People get development deals for doing things like that. There’s no excuse anymore for not putting it out there.