The Pain Makes It Funny: Christine Lakin Interview

Your new internet crush explains why awkward comedy is the best comedy

Unlike many former child stars, Christine Lakin is healthy and well-adjusted, but it’s never too late to fix that.

Last summer the actress who grew up playing Al Lambert on Step by Step made herself the “subject” of a mockumentary called Lovin’ Lakin, in which a fictionalized version of herself attempts to re-establish her career right where it left off. Its short episodes feature guest stars like Seth MacFarlane and Kristin Chenoweth enduring the awkward desperation of a fame-hungry fool.

But while the character she carefully distinguishes as “Lakin” is painfully deluded, the actress Christine Lakin is a savvy delight who wrote, directed, starred in, and even sang the theme for this 10-part series. She cast herself in awful situations such as teaching a foul-mouthed, racist acting class for children, ambushing Kristen Bell in a “networking” attempt turned scream from the mouth of purgatory, and auditioning for a coming-of-age role while dressed in a whole lot of mini and not a lot of skirt.

Unlike Lakin, Christine has plenty to keep her busy. She regularly voices Family Guys Joyce Kinney, guest stars as Jackie on Melissa & Joey, and judges the online viral video competition Internet Icon (returning the last week of May). She also created the live show Worst Audition Ever, in which entertainers share their most humiliating and horrifying experiences to comic effect.

Worst Audition Ever returns to Casita del Campo on Tuesday with a special “Worst Family Ever” episode, so it seemed the perfect time to get her thoughts about the comedy of existential horror. She answered our questions with a slight tinge of southern accent and a large serving of southern charm.

Man Cave Daily: When you’re playing a Bizarro version of yourself, do you try to find a middle ground between using your real personality and satirizing that kind of person who has a very different idea of themselves in the world?

Christine Lakin: It was more a satire of the idea of fame. The character is much more a person who can’t let go. These are people you meet every day in real life in California: people who have egos the size of an airplane, who just can’t seem to understand that life doesn’t revolve around them, and it certainly doesn’t revolve around the entertainment industry. Sorry, but there are things more important.

Especially in the celebrity-driven episodes, it really gives celebrities a chance to play a version of themselves, but to be the ones that are normal. I think that’s fun because it gives other people a sort of license to be the Jim from The Office in the situation, and Lakin is the Michael.

If you were this bundle of fun, would you give up?

If you were this bundle of fun, would you give up?

MCD: Is any of it based on real-life experiences?

CL: Well, there are people that say, “Oh my God, you were on that TV show? So did you just give up after that?”

Sometimes people don’t understand that the things they say are completely tactless. I guess if you don’t have any other sort of self-confidence that can completely destroy your ego. It doesn’t really bother me, but in an industry that very much prides itself on everyone still knowing their name, that could be really ego-shattering. That’s the fun that I wanted to make of her, that she thinks everyone knows exactly who she is., and everyone consistently is like, “Who are you? What show were you on? Oh, right, the robot—Small Wonder!”

In the last episode, when Seth MacFarlane says, “I loved you in Small Wonder,” she just nods her head, “Uh-huh, uh-huh,” because it’s better to be that girl than to be nobody, even if it’s wrong.

MCD: How did the running gag come about of you being mistaken for Tiffany Brissette, who played the robot VICI on Small Wonder? Had that actually happened?

There's great comedy in the Uncanny Valley.

There’s less comedy in the Uncanny Valley than you’d think.

CL: No, but there were times when I was younger, people would say, “You were on Family Matters, right?” I don’t think I was ever actually mistaken for her, but it was a show that I watched all the time growing up, and a show that I particularly loved. I just thought it would be funny. We’re kind of the same age, and that’s a show that’s always been one of my personal all-time favorites.

MCD: Watching you get into multiple versions of your real and perceived personas felt like an exercise in identity self-destruction. Has doing it changed your outlook on your career?

CL: In some ways, yes. Twofold: Number one, in some ways you can’t escape. And the people, especially child actors that try to escape, try to do something totally different or totally create a new image, are the ones who get themselves in trouble.

In order to own your image, you have to figure out a way to do that. For me that was humor. I’m very thankful for the childhood I had, especially in this day and age. I’m thankful that I had a job for so long [laughs]. I had a great time. I grew up on that show. Do I want to talk about what Patrick Duffy was like for the rest of my life? Not necessarily, I’ve done a lot since. It’s been a long time and I’m a different person now.

So the other side I wanted to write, produce, and create something. And in doing so, I was able to get a handle on a different side of my creativity and what I wanted to pursue. Lovin’ Lakin was really great because it was the first thing I ever wrote, and it showed me, “I think I can do this.” I had a good time doing it, so it took the mystique off of it.

A lot of actors or creative people say to themselves, “I have some great ideas; I just don’t know if I can put that together.” It was actually quite easy to do, and I really enjoyed it. It opened a new door for me in some respects.

MCD: How close was the final product to what was in your head? You guys did a lot of improv.

CL: It was pretty close, if not better in some regards. I wrote out all the episodes with Ross Patterson, who’s a really good friend of mine and I’ve done several of his movies. He helped me put all my ideas and thoughts into script form. We went back and forth I wrote a couple, he wrote a couple. I always ended up having final say on what I thought was good, and what went in.

Then we took the scripts and shot them, but in some ways threw the scripts out. I knew what the beginning, middle, and end of each episode was. I think some of the best stuff we got in each episode was from the improv.

MCD: A lot of where you go for comedy is where people would be crying in that moment.

CL: That ridiculous nature of life is my sense of humor. I like stuff that’s a little bit dark. One of my favorite series is that Lisa Kudrow show The Comeback. And I love The Office. So those were two big influences for me when I created Lovin’ Lakin.



MCD: What’s the official status of Lovin’ Lakin season two? 

CL: Ha! You tell me. We won the Grand Jury Prize at the L.A. Webfest and I’m going to Marseilles in October for their webfest, which I’m completely stoked about. I’d love to do another season. I had a blast doing the first one. But you can only beg, borrow and steal from people’s talents so often. We’re hoping someone would like to come in and produce a second season so we can financially make it happen and actually pay actors in more than grape sodas this time around. Maybe a Kickstarter campaign is the answer. That’s in vogue now, right?

We arced it so that at the end of season one she booked a job. Season two would open with some footage we already shot of her getting to set, walking around, and it’s very rapidly clear that she’s been cast as an extra.

We’d also see more of her support group, which is called CAA: Child Actors Anonymous. It’s a play on words with the agency, CAA [Creative Artists Agency], the way we did the signage. Child Actors Anonymous would be a group of people you know from ‘90s TV — Melissa Joan Hart, Kellie Martin and my friend Rider Strong…it’d be a fun way for people to play versions of themselves.

I wrote Melissa Joan Hart as a total b****, smoking, and bitter that she acted opposite a stupid cat for years, and now she has to work with Joey Lawrence, and is she ever going to get her own show again? I’ve done Melissa & Joey and I pitched her the idea, and she’s like “I would love to do that anytime.”

MCD: Any chance of a showdown with Tiffany Brissette?

CL: Oh, God, that would be AWESOME!

MCD: Especially if she’s getting work because people keep mistaking her for you.

CL: Absolutely. I have to find her.

Continue reading for why pain is funny, and how chaos makes it more important to please the audience.

MCD: Beyond audition stories, you’ve got worst family vacations, dates, breakups, and holidays. What’s different about dwelling in the realm of such emotionally vulnerable humor? Does it make it easier to connect with the audience? Harder to sell the comedic aspect?

CL: We branched out from auditions because a) it’s a primarily insular world to actors, which is interesting but not totally universal to everyone and b) there are so many humiliating subjects out there we thought, hell, let’s explore those!

I think traditional standup as we knew it in the ‘80s and ‘90s is dead now. Humor changes every 10 years or so and storytelling has started to take over–especially here in LA. It’s much less about the setup/punchline of a joke and more about the extended journey of the joke. Getting to know the tone and cadence of the performer. It’s a slower burn. Chris Rock’s comedy is in this realm as is John Leguizamo and certainly Louis C.K, who has really re-popularized and made it his own over the last few years.

Why is vulnerability funny? Well I think it’s because the audience either relates to it–or–feels so bad for the schmuck who has had this terrible experience that laughing with the person telling the tale somehow makes it ok. It also makes it ok to laugh at ourselves. To not feel perfect. To have an insane family, or a bad breakup or a career-shattering disappointment. We’re human after all. In the end, everyone feels better about themselves. Which is weird to say because you wouldn’t assume that would be the outcome of listening to or telling a humiliating story…but it is. I think it’s because the storyteller owns the story–vs. the story owning them. Get me?

I find the moment people walk down to the basement theater of this Mexican restaurant with their cocktail in hand, they know they are in for something. It’s seedy, dirty, surprising and exciting all at the same time. It’s not glossed over or overly produced…the stories we tell are intimate and personal and gritty and raw and the space is all of that plus alcohol. How could we lose?

We are no holds barred from the top of the show–so in that aspect, I think the audience immediately respects the balls-out nature of these stories and they’ve always been very supportive of the performers right off the bat. The show we are working on now–Worst Family Ever–has been interesting because I think people assume from the title that it’s going to be uncomfortable or painful or dark…I think in the moments these stories happened that would be true…but in telling them years later, they are hilarious and awkward and endearing and relatable. This show is not a gripe session or a depressing rant on dating and family and career. If anything, people tell me it’s cathartic in the way therapy can be. So that’s cool, cause I was just setting out to make people laugh, not to Dr. Phil anyone…but I guess laughter is therapy in itself.

Standing on a red carpet at a Maxim party is about as far from our definition of failure as possible.

Standing on a red carpet at a Maxim party is about as far from our definition of failure as possible.

MCD: Why is failure so funny? 

CL: I think because it’s honest and vulnerable. Self-deprecating humor–when done right–immediately connects us to the comic. We feel bad or empathize or shake our heads or feel better than the person telling the joke, which makes an audience invested. Success isn’t funny, even if it’s honest. It’s just bragging. Bragging about failure is unexpected. And the unexpected or unusual is always at least interesting…or at best hilarious.

MCD: You seem to thrive in improv and live performance. Is that your preferred space, where anything can happen?

CL: I do indeed. I started my career in theater when I was six, so I think theater will always be my first love. It would be my only if I could actually make a living in L.A. doing it…but that’s another story. Yeah you have to be somewhat of an adrenaline junkie to love theater and improv. You also have to be the kind of person who loves to create, collaborate and rehearse…knowing that the second the lights come up and you’re on stage it all goes away and you’re there in the moment dealing with whatever happens. I love that part. The unknown. It keeps things interesting.

I work a lot with The Troubadour Theater Company here in L.A. (@thetroubies) and we are mostly known for mashing Shakespeare with popular music in a very unique commedia dell’arte way–lots of breaking the fourth wall, stopping the show, improvising…so that family of screwups has been a creative gift to me over the years as it’s a unique and safe place to play, create and perform. Not many things like that around. There’s a lot of trust on stage and group mentality in improvised moments, which is when some of the best stuff happens.

We once stopped the show because a patron’s cell phone was ringing. So as we do, someone from the cast goes into the audience and tells them to answer and then asks to speak to the person on the phone. Matt Walker (director of the Troubies) does so and ends up having a conversation with the kid on the other end of the line…”Uh huh, yes, we’re doing a show right now. No I’m onstage! Where? The Falcon Theater. What are you doing? Just sitting at home? Why don’t you come over?” Blah blah blah…hands the phone back–we go back to the play. At intermission, this kid actually shows up. So what do we do? What any normal theater company does…we took him backstage, tied him up in Christmas wrap (it was a Christmas show) and brought him out near the middle of the second act as our hostage. He watched on stage for a bit and then we let him sit in the audience by his friend. Truly madcap and unpredictable.

Pictured: Illustrious. Except not at all.

Pictured: Illustrious. Except not at all.

MCD: What was your audition story that inspired you to create Worst Audition Ever?

CL: I couldn’t think of stories for the longest time. I think I blocked them out. When I hosted, I told a smattering of stories about the job. I did a very illustrious movie with Paris Hilton [2008’s universally panned The Hottie & the Nottie], and I told some stories from that year of my life, which was pretty funny.

Did you have fun doing it?

CL: I did! I had a lot of fun, actually. It was a little wild. She definitely is not what she projects. She’s a lot more savvy than people give her credit for.

We went out once in our costumes, which meant that she looked normal, and I looked like a fugly troll. She wanted to go out to a club as our characters, her as herself and me as The Wicked Witch of the East.

Me being a people pleaser, I was like “You want me to go out looking like a troll? [sardonic:] Okay, yeah, sure, no problem!”

So I had the makeup artist do what he did—which was hideous–and put on these fugly clothes. There was TMZ and all these paparazzi at these clubs, so we basically staged that we were going into a club and they wouldn’t let me in, and that she would come out and get me, and use it as this whole promotional thing.

As it’s happening, I’m thinking to myself, “I cannot believe I’m doing this. I am such an a*****e. What possessed me to say yes to this?”

The TMZ people are feeling bad for me, there’s a paparazzo who’s trying to get me inside the club. It’s all getting ridiculous. We get in, and I proceed to get drunk, because what else do you do in this situation?

And at the end of the night, the club owner comes up to me and says, “Thank you so much for coming out tonight. So…what do you have?”

“Uh…another tequila, I guess?”

“No no no…I mean: what disease do you have? You’re from the Make-a-Wish foundation, right?”

MCD: What makes awkward pain funny?

CL: I think it’s the vulnerability. When someone stands up and owns it, and you’re a participant watching it, it makes the audience feel better about themselves and not quite so bad about the times they’ve been embarrassed, ashamed, vulnerable, or awkward. If you can laugh at yourself, that’s the best way to pick yourself back up, and not have something cripple you. It definitely humanizes everybody.

MCD: When you create projects of your own, you lean toward comedy. Do you prefer comedy to drama?

It’s like how people say “Do you prefer musicals to plays?” It’s hard to say.  I am always more drawn to comedy.

MCD: Why do you think drama gets more respect?

CL: It’s harder to make someone laugh than make them cry, so I have a lot of respect for people that do solely dramatic work. I just don’t live in that headspace. Everything I see in life is a chance at comedy. 

MCD: You also work as a choreographer/utility dancer. Did you have to suppress your own instincts and training to dance badly in Lovin’ Lakin‘s audition episode?

Winning smile.

Dance like nobody’s watching, portray a fictional version of yourself who’s terrified that’s true.

CL: I have indeed. I trained a lot as a kid but stopped competitively dancing once I was acting full time. I fell into the choreographer role in L.A. theater because many times I had more training than others and somehow I choreographed a few shows and then started to get nominated for stuff…it was wild. That led to a few recommendations in TV and before I knew it I had done 5 episodes of True Blood, some 90210, some MTV shows, a film…as well as a bunch of other cool stuff. I love it. It’s like directing but in a completely different way. Dancing badly for Lovin’ Lakin was not hard. I’m a competent dancer but I stopped training at age 12 so making fun of bad dancing came pretty easily. There’s nothing I love more than regional pageant videos. The dance routines are amazing. And by amazing, I mean horrifying. And basically I’m a clown. I’ll do anything for a laugh. I mean, by this point are you surprised?

MCD: Lovin’ Lakin had an episode where Lakin got extraordinarily creepy with Patrick Duffy, in strident denial that he wasn’t her real dad. Later on, the tables were turned when a blind date didn’t distinguish between her and the character of Al Lambert. Is the series asking us to side with her in her desperate quest for acclaim, or should we be laughing more at her on a fool’s errand?

CL: It’s both, part and parcel. She doesn’t want to not be his daughter in real life. That feels safe to her. That feels like it always should be, because it provides her comfort and clarity in her place in the world. If she can be a part of that group and have him as her dad, then she’s still sort of that person. And that’s the world she wants to be in.

The world she doesn’t want to be in is with strangers on a date, trying to let that go and be vulnerable, and be herself. And all he cares about is “Can I take a picture of you with this backwards hat on?” which is slightly pedophiliac. [laughs] To some degree it’s a double-edged sword.

MCD: Have you ever had a date like that in your real life? Where your career intrudes on a personal connection? (Or attracts a creep?)

CL: The dating thing has been interesting. Like, you go to a bar and start talking with someone: “So what do you do?”

“I’m an actor.”

“Oh, have I seen you on anything?”

Our face exactly.

Pictured: loveliness. Not pictured: backwards hat.

Ugh–now do I give you my resume, or do I tell you you probably haven’t seen me in anything, and therefore I look like I’m not a very good actor so I never work? It’s weird. You don’t want to look like you’re bragging, because honestly I really don’t care. I’ll end up saying, “Oh, I was on a TV show when I was a kid. It was called Step by Step.”

Then people either get totally weird, and ask a bunch of questions…and then the date is less about you, and more about something you did as a kid. Or they say “I’m sorry, I never watched it.” And I’m like, “Don’t be sorry! I really don’t care.” But they feel badly. [laughs] It doesn’t bother me. Really. I promise.

Nobody’s ever asked me to pose in a hat. That was just something from my own twisted, dark mind.

You can see a lot more of Christine in Hulu’s complete run of Lovin’ Lakin, her regular appearances on Family Guy, and the online viral video competition Internet Icon, But why wait? If you’re in the Los Angeles area, go see her live on Tuesday at Worst Family Ever! Just…don’t ask her to wear a backwards hat. 

To hell with the world; we'll take the girl.

To hell with the world; we’ll take the girl.

Brendan McGinley is editor round these parts when not writing comics or Cracked columns. He’s vulnerable and awkward without the comedy on Twitter @BrendanMcGinley.

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