Kristen Wiig: The Anti-Comedian

Kristen Wiig is calm, cool and totally secure. So how'd she get so funny?

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Photograph by Peter Hapak for TIME

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She zipped through the Groundlings' classes and won tons of stage time performing absurd characters, including a very serious composer who writes music for Disney's Main Street Electrical Parade and a chatty Target salesclerk. By 2005 she was on SNL doing the Target Lady nearly every week. In fact, there are weeks when it feels as though Wiig is in every sketch. "There are two people who arrived fully formed — her and Dana Carvey — where you saw what they did in their audition and you put it on the air," says SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels. "She has that thing that Phil Hartman and Dan Aykroyd had, which is absolute precision, but also this lightness that isn't what they had."

The precision of idiosyncratic looks and gestures is what lets Wiig take one-note characters (a woman who can't keep a secret! A woman who one-ups everyone else's story! A Lawrence Welk–era backup singer with deformed hands!) and make them compelling in their quirkiness. "As much as she goes to extremes and flies off on a broom, her characters are grounded," says Bridesmaids' Rudolph, who also worked with Wiig on SNL. "There's an uncomfortable quality to a lot of them that's painfully funny." Because her characters are simple, she's smart enough to retire them long before other SNL cast members would. She'll no longer do Penelope the one-upper or Gilly the mischievous schoolgirl, not even at Michaels' request.

Otherwise, though, Wiig seems willing to do anything — including making herself unattractive and being physically uncomfortable. In the hilarious, punky MacGruber movie, not only did she dress up as former SNL co-star Will Forte, but she also got in bed with him in 100° heat in New Mexico. "I dripped sweat onto her, body hair falling onto her. You can see these huge droplets of sweat hitting her in the face," Forte says. "I don't remember her even asking any questions about it. It was her birthday also. That was how she spent her birthday — getting mercilessly pounded." Though she didn't complain about it on set, you actually feel for her during the pounding.

"She has that sadness and vulnerability that comics have but don't always show," says three-time SNL host Jon Hamm, who plays Wiig's slimy boyfriend in Bridesmaids and helped cast her as his co-star in the upcoming comedy Friends with Kids. "She's also beautiful. She'd be horrified if she knew I was saying that. This is a lady who can wear coconuts on her boobs and talk out of her butt, but as soon as you say she's pretty, she gets super-embarrassed. She's always shrinking into a hoodie or a knit cap and doesn't want to be noticed, which is adorable."

Yes, adorable, but less so when you're trying to get her to talk about herself. Even she is surprised she is getting all this attention, especially as a comedian, which she didn't see for herself. "I went through my high school yearbook recently," Wiig says. "I was surprised people wrote I had a good sense of humor. I don't remember being funny."

Then we sit there quietly for a moment, putting clotted cream on scones. It's not unpleasant, actually. It's kind of like taking a car ride with a good friend and not needing to talk all the time.

Still, I'm thinking tea was a bad call. The hotel had scotch too.

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