Jennifer Coolidge: Best in Comedy

When Jennifer Coolidge first decided to pursue acting she didn't intend to go down the comedic path. Rather she spent most of her formative years seeking dramatic roles. "I was really going the serious route," said the Boston native in a recent interview. "Meryl Streep was my hero. I wanted to be that type of actor more than anything."

However, she wasn't able to curb the comic virtuoso within. During acting class she often found herself imitating her fellow classmates, who according to Coolidge were "very serious and had no sense of humor at all." A friend who witnessed these daily shenanigans encouraged her to audition for New York's Gotham City Improv group, where she realized she had a knack for comedy. "I got to write my own stuff and improvise. Everything went in a completely different way. Not only did it go in a completely different way, I started getting jobs for once in my life."

Her skills led her to Los Angeles, where she continued to nurture a career in improvisational acting as a member of the Groundlings. It is precisely her inimitable creativity that prompted a Seinfield casting director to offer Coolidge her breakthrough role as one of Jerry's girlfriends in 1990—"The first real job that got me other jobs," as Coolidge put it.

Perhaps best known for her performance as Stifler's mom in American Pie, Coolidge has done equally memorable work in the films Legally Blonde, Zoolander, Down to Earth, and, one of my favorites, Christopher Guest's Best in Show, a parody of the world of purebred-dog competitions. Her beautifully understated performance as the lesbian trophy wife to the incredibly rich and frail elderly steel baron is one of the film's highlights. Coolidge crafted this precise, memorable persona using her own style of improvisation, which often draws comparisons to the great screwball comedienne Judy Holliday.

Best in Show showcases Coolidge's special gift: conveying humor through the curl of a lip or the wink of an eye. She is someone who doesn't need words to make us laugh. As evidenced in the scene in which her character talks about the commonality between herself and her elderly husband, she delivers such lines as, "We both love soup and… snow peas," and, "We like talking and not talking; we can not talk or talk forever," with a dry wit and straight-faced expression that is undeniably hilarious.

But she cannot watch her own on-screen performances. "To be honest, sometimes I'm horrified because you don't really know what you look like," said Coolidge. "If I really knew what I was doing on-screen, I would try to stop doing it."

Like most innately funny performers, Coolidge has no particular theory of comedy. She admits to taking any project that she can put some spin on. "I always like to get a role where I think, Ah, I know this is probably going to be played like this, but I'm going to do it like this."

Coolidge doesn't mind the label "character actor" as long as she gets to work. "I don't know what I am," she said. "I guess you can call me a character actor in the sense that I'll never be an ingénue. You know that's over. My shot was missed. I take a normal person and make them more of a character. I don't know what that would be called."

At the very least, she should be called a master comedian.