It wouldn’t be that much of a stretch to call Ellie Kemper one of the fastest growing performers working today. From her start as a minor character on The Office, to finding herself close to household name status, Kemper’s innocent charm and optimism has helped her stand out from the crowd of nihilistic, angry comedy that’s been so prevalent the past two decades. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but comedy involves laughing, which starts with smiling, and few performers are as good at making the audience smile as the lovable Ellie Kemper, with her arsenal of roles at the ready.
10 Tess Thompson, Sex Tape
It’s hard to find much lovability in a movie with the title or quality of 2014’s middling Sex Tape, but even though Kemper is saddled with being “Rob Corddry’s unenthused wife” instead of a full character, she manages to squeeze some charm and laughs out of the little material she’s been given.
It can be either a positive or a negative that the general public has forgotten about Kemper’s role in Sex Tape, because on one hand, a still up-and-coming Kemper got a big spot in a studio comedy, but on the other hand, it’s Sex Tape. While this mediocre and very difficult to Google movie has been lost to time, it’s worth looking back on to notice Kemper’s early showing of going toe-to-toe with comedians far more experienced than her.
9 Karen, They Came Together
They Came Together is a very weird movie, a satire a little too in love with its massive cast and lofty ideas, opening in a conversation between protagonists Joel and Molly to the miserable Kyle and Karen, played by Bill Hader and Ellie Kemper.
How anyone would be miserable in a relationship with either of these people is beyond me, but in their brief screentime, these two work wonderfully off of each other, throwing in various side-jokes and comments. Much like her Sex Tape role, Kemper doesn’t have a lot to do here, but her charm and wit makes this role far more watchable than it normally would have been.
8 Crackle, Sofia the First
While Sofia the First, a Disney Junior show about a princess and dragons and the like, does feature multiple songs where Ellie Kemper sings as dragon Crackle, and that’s always charming information to have. Kemper’s quick wit is definitely truncated here in both the animated and programming for young children formats, but her kind and enthusiastic performance is hard to frown at, even if it is weird that you’re watching clips of Sofia the First on YouTube.
7 Herself, The Today Show
The most encouraging thing about watching Kemper’s month-long stint as a guest host on The Today Show’s “Today’s Take” segment is seeing how genuine this person is and how much of her personality has seeped into the roles that have made her so famous. Bubbly, honest, and far quicker and funnier than the mainstay hosts around her but without a shred of ego, Kemper shows how much of a subtle comedic force she can truly be. While it’s not her flashiest role, and had a very different audience than any of the other roles on this list, it’s a reminder that sometimes the people we watch and look up to can be exactly as warm as we’d hope they’d be.
6 Allison, Laggies
Kemper’s role as Allison, the bride-to-be that sets off the events of indie comedy Laggies, is one of the smaller roles in the film, and a character that makes up the shallow former life that Keira Knightley’s Megan walks away from, but even then there’s an earnestness to her performance that elevates Allison above the other suburbanites shown in the film.
For example, the movie takes a lot of pride in mocking an overly-planned, pretentious interpretive dance Allison does with her husband at their wedding reception, but Kemper performs it with no irony in her eyes, just an absolute focus on and love for her partner. Taking a role meant to be a one-off joke and elevating it into something tactile and relatable just goes to show how talented a performer Kemper is.
5 Katie, The Secret Life of Pets
There's no doubt that for The Secret Life of Pets, casting performers like Ellie Kemper is perfect for the studio's company philosophy that seems to be “make it cute and make it brandable”. As the human owner of the protagonist pet Max, Katie’s charm and affability is one of the best bits in this madcap romp of an animated film.
In both this film and its sequel, Kemper’s vocal performance works as a charming addition to a cast of household pets on a wild adventure. Kemper is cartoonishly charming enough in real life, it's barely a stretch to see her in animation at all!
4 Becca, Bridesmaids
One of two roles that brought Kemper into the spotlight (the other being later on this list), her turn as the innocent-until-proven-rowdy Becca in the smash comedy Bridesmaids expanded her far beyond a network sitcom to the world of feature films as this relatively untrained performer is in a line up with Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Melissa McCarthy, and Rose Byrne.
Becca is not one of the more notable characters populating Bridesmaids, but that’s just due to the vast array of talent on display here. On a rewatch, the seeds of Kemper’s talent are sown, and her coming out of this star-studded event film without being buried under the weight of the comedic chops on display put her on the map and into all of our hearts.
3 Ms. Griggs, 21 Jump Street
Kemper’s turn as Ms. Griggs in 21 Jump Street came at the very end of our culture finding ‘teachers wanting to sleep with their high school students’ funny, and the only reason this bit holds up is because the “high schooler” is a towering 35-year-old Channing Tatum. The sly irreverence of Kemper’s performance here, showing clearly her desire and her professionalism fighting, is what makes it such a charming and funny one. This movie is filled with people finding themselves confused at the ridiculousness of the central premise, but Kemper’s “let me check out your chest, check out your test” Freudian slip remains one of the funniest lines in an incredibly funny film.
2 Erin Hannon, The Office
The role that first brought Kemper to the limelight, Ellie Kemper started on The Office in 2009 at the tail end of the show’s fifth season as a potential love interest for Ed Helms’ Andy. While her character would shift to a love interest for Zach Woods’ Gabe as her role at the Dunder Mifflin company expanded, Erin’s brightness in the face of a famously mundane and cynical show helped her stand out from the crowd.
It was this role’s lovability that got Kemper every other role on this list, and without this breakthrough, the world may never have gotten to quietly smile along with this ginger stranger quipping her way through the ranks at a humble paper company in the middle of Pennsylvania.
1 Kimmy Schmidt, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Could it have been anything else? While Kemper came to light on The Office, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is where she became the notable name she is today. Twice nominated for the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series, in the middle of Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ tyrannical six-year winning streak for Veep no less, Kemper’s acting chops shone as kidnapping victim Kimmy.
By emphasizing the fear and loneliness behind her eyes, Kimmy’s optimism and lightness became all the more charming, a beacon of hope against withering darkness, and none of it would have been possible without Kemper’s stellar performance. This show rode on her skill and earnest smile, catapulting the character, and herself as a performer, into the public light where she is clearly destined to stay.