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Ellie Kemper shares her trick to mastering late night TV

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Ellie Kemper overcame her fear of late night talk show appearances in a slightly unorthodox way, the actress shares in a New York Times essay published Thursday.

Kemper writes of landing her dream job on The Office, but realizing the flip side of that was the mandatory publicity that came along with it. Despite growing up a huge fan of David Letterman, the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt star wasn’t overly eager to be a guest on simliar talk shows. After all, she and her sister had spent their youth judging celebrities on their interviews with the late night legend, accepting his interactions with them as law.

“Every weeknight, my sister Carrie and I would meet in the kitchen to eat ice cream and let this goofball genius and fellow Midwesterner shape our worldview,” she writes. “The worst crime, I learned, was being boring, and I shuddered on behalf of the young, chatterbox starlets whose stories went nowhere.”

Kemper soon realized the tables had turned, and she too would might judged by viewers in a similar vain. Then came her first major appearance was on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno in May 2010. In her nerve-riddled interview, Kemper made a blunder and accidentally implied one of her siblings had died (they are all alive and well), but was graciously saved by Garry Shandling, who interjected to try and help. Nonetheless, the actress still came away from the show feeling like a failure.

With this experience, Kemper began to fully appreciate the amount of work that is required to make a segment on a talk show entertaining, and by the time her 2012 Late Night With David Letterman appearance rolled around, she was better prepared and decided that visual aids were her friend.

“I decided that I would feel more confident if I had something to show the audience, rather than rely on my stories, so I asked the segment producer if we could screen a home movie: a ‘horror film’ titled The Man Under the Stairs that I had made two decades earlier with Carrie and our neighbor Katie Purcell.”

It worked, giving Kemper an appearance she deemed “not a disaster,” but the best moment came during her third Late Night appearance in February 2015. Knowing that it would be her last time sitting down with Letterman before his retirement, the actress wanted to do something memorable, so she brought along a toaster that imprinted images of human faces on bread. The Emmy nominee’s toast to her childhood hero was a hit, and she and Letterman enjoyed a delicious snack featuring the comedian’s face.

Kemper concludes: “Thanks to bombing five years earlier, I got to experience a true moment of joy: I did a stupid bit with a comedy hero — and it wasn’t boring.” 

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