Woman Crush Wednesday: Ellie Kemper

One of our favorite series has returned for a new season: Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, the Tina Fey-created comedy about an optimistic, plucky young woman who moves to New York City after having spent the last 15 years living in a small underground bunker against her will. True, this premise doesn’t exactly sound like comedy gold; but the show is fun, bubbly, absurdly quotable, and boasts a tremendous cast, led by Ellie Kemper as the title character. This week, we’re crushing on Kemper, who carries the show with contagious charm and confidence– we dare you not to smile while watching her on screen.

Ellie Kemper and her character seemingly have a lot in common. For one, they both possess sunny dispositions and are balls of energy. Midwesterners by birth, Kimmy and Kemper found their way to New York City. But the similarities end there– unlike her character, Ellie Kemper is well-educated, and, rather than coming of age in a bunker in rural Indiana, she grew up in an affluent, supportive household in St. Louis.

Kemper is smart. Like, really smart. As a student at the elite John Burroughs School in suburban St. Louis, her strong performance in the classroom made an impression on her then-teacher, Jon Hamm. (Because, of course Jon Hamm would be her teacher.) According to a statement Hamm made to Vanity Fair about his one-time pupil: as a student, Kemper “was a preternaturally confident and prepared student. She was easily one of the youngest (and smallest) in the class, but on stage was clearly miles ahead in confidence and ability.” Her academic skills got her a ticket to the Ivy League. After graduating from Princeton in 2002, Kemper went on to study English at Oxford. That impeccable academic pedigree means that Kemper understands the power of words and wordplay, a trait that has served her well in improvisational comedy.

But don’t let Kemper’s seemingly charmed life make you believe that she hasn’t proven herself. In fact, she has. Like any comedic actor worth his or her salt, Kemper’s paid her dues and has the training to legitimize her talent. She’s trained with the legendary T.J. Jagodowski at Chicago’s iO (formerly ImprovOlympic) and New York City’s Upright Citizens Brigade.

Yes, Kemper takes comedy seriously. More specifically, she takes women in comedy seriously. In a Ted Talk that she gave in 2013, Kemper explained that, when Bridesmaids was released, journalists kept asking her and her cast-mates, “Are women funny?” The question, Kemper explained, annoyed her:

Are women funny? Yes, some women are funny; and no, some women aren’t funny. It’s similar to how some women are tall and, you know, some women are short. It’s like how some women ride the train, while some prefer to take the bus. Women are different!

Implicit in Kemper’s point is that women are human beings– we shouldn’t be surprised to discover that some of them are funny. She then pointed out that the issue isn’t whether or not women are funny; the real issue is whether or not studios fund female-driven comedies, due to (mis)conceptions about audiences and their expectations. Kemper even wrote a piece for GQ that turned the “Are women funny?” question on its head.

Ellie Kemper is our #WCW because she is a whip-smart and articulate critic that works to change the conversation about female comedians.

Photo Credit: Eric Liebowitz/Netflix


Parissa is a grad student. Aside from loving anything British (she'd make a great duchess), she is also passionate about theater, period dramas, and small college towns. She is excellent at movie trivia. Some of her favorite things include: The Sound of Music, Gone with the Wind, Game of Thrones, and Outlander.

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