April 07, 2016, BY Matt Hughes

There's a line Ellie Kemper has heard over and over again in contemporary comedies, and each time it makes her cringe.

"Someone explains something to a character, and the character says, 'I don't even know what that means,'" said Kemper, who stars as the titular character of the critically acclaimed Netflix comedy Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

To Kemper, the line reflects an ironic detachment and cold cynicism that just isn't funny.

"There's a lot of cynicism [in comedy]," Kemper said. "What I like about the writing in our show is that it is hopeful, and it is different because it doesn't make fun of the fact that it's bright and optimistic."

Kemper's April 4 interview at Bucknell University was, likewise, anything but cynical. The actress, who also appeared in the 2011 film Bridesmaids and as Erin Hannon in four seasons of NBC's The Office, shared insights about the highs and lows of her career at a mile-a-minute with a beaming smile in her homey Midwestern twang. She did, however, address the cynicism of others, particularly those who've suggested that women aren't funny.

Kemper was interviewed at the Weis Center for the Performing Arts by Bucknell Professor Sheila Lintott, philosophy, who studies gender and comedy, in conjunction with the Bucknell Forum series Revolution Redefined. Now in its second year, the series explores social change and how it has — or has not — evolved over time, as well as how individuals can grow to become global citizens who make meaningful, lasting impacts on society in a variety of ways. Other recent speakers in the series include creator and producer of The Wire David Simon, musician and actor Common, and actress and transgender activist Laverne Cox.

Responding to a question from Lintott about suggestions that women aren't funny — in particular Christopher Hitchens' provocative Vanity Fair essay "Why Women Aren't Funny" — Kemper paraphrased a description she devised for her 2013 TEDx talk on the topic. The question of whether women are funny or not, she said, "is sort of like being at a cocktail party and then someone coming up to you with really bad breath.

"It's like, why did you have to come up?" she said. "It's just so unnecessary, and like, brush your teeth! It hangs there in the air, and what do you do?"

Ellie Kemper raises her hand in response to a question from Professor Sheila Lintott (left). Photo by Brett Simpson, Division of Communications
Ellie Kemper raises her hand in response to a question from Professor Sheila Lintott (left). Photo by Brett Simpson, Division of Communications

Kemper said she never encountered gender discrimination as an up-and-coming improv performer at Princeton University or after college in New York City, where she performed with the People's Improv Theatre and the Upright Citizens Brigade. But she has seen the question of whether women are funny lurking behind some media reviews of her work, particularly the film Bridesmaids, with its female ensemble cast.

"This [description] in the media came up of, 'It's a chick flick that doesn't suck!'" Kemper said. "I could see why the media latched onto that, because that's a talking point. They need to write articles about something, and it was a female ensemble. But it wasn't news ... to anyone, or surprising to me, that a funny movie was made by all women."

Kemper added that she sees more opportunities ahead for funny women on television, both on camera and in the writers' room. She noted that Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt was co-created by Tina Fey.

So many women are creating their own shows and starring in them and running them," she said. "I think that is a very powerful position to take."

Kemper would rather be positive about her work, focusing on sincerity over cynicism, and she thinks that approach resonates with viewers. She believes it's what made the first major show she appeared on, The Office, so successful.

"I think [The Office] is a kind show — as cringeworthy as it is, I think there's a kindness in it," she said. "I've talked to so many people who've watched it when they were sick, and it's helped them feel better. I think there is something very nourishing about it ... it's weirdly not cynical."