Meg Stalter is a fistful of glitter in human form, even while seated in a dimly lit room of her Los Angeles home. The actress and comedian appears for this interview wearing Pippi Longstocking braids and winged eyeliner—a signature look from her hallmark Instagram bits in which she demonstrates mastering the art of smizing. Stalter has an unwaveringly cheery personality to go along with the look—so much so that light seems to burst from the expressive sparkle in her eyes.
She has reason to be full of joy. Just a few days ago, Stalter found out that Hacks, the HBO Max series in which she stars, earned 15 Emmy nominations after its inaugural season. She is beyond excited—mainly because she wants “to wear something cool and go to the Emmys.” But that excitement is mixed with some feelings of imposter syndrome. “In my head, I’m like, ‘Oh my god, am I even allowed to be there?’ she asks, her eyes visibly bright through the Zoom screen.
As the breakout star from her first acting gig—which happened to air amid a pandemic—Stalter’s stunned reaction is warranted. “It’s so strange to be like, ‘Everything really took off during the worst time in history,’” she laughs. But funnily enough, it is during this particularly trying time that she’s very much having a moment.
Although the queer comedian’s success might seem sudden, it’s been hard-won. A self-described “theater kid,” Stalter has long cut her teeth between improv groups and the stand-up scenes in Chicago and New York, where she honed her awkward and familiar character comedy style for years. Prior to 2020, the comedian had landed gigs at city venues like The Hideout in Chicago and The Sultan Room in Brooklyn. But when live entertainment stalled at the hands of the pandemic, Stalter found herself alone in New York, realizing she needed to change her act. “It was scary to be like, ‘When am I gonna get to perform again?’ Because I love to perform,” she recalls. Like many comedians looking for a new venue, she pivoted to posting her comedic bits on Instagram. “It was really for my own sanity, but I found that doing Instagram Lives kept me connected to people,” she says.
Eventually, Stalter returned to quarantine with her family in her hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. There, her brother Nick helped her film some of her favorite sketches, like the tennis sibling bit “The Pigeon Twins” (“We’re sort of like the Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan of the tennis court”) and “Big Bitch Realty,” where she portrays a deranged realtor (“That one’s haunted. That one’s haunted. That one’s not haunted, but someone died on the lawn.”). Chances are, if you spent late pandemic nights doom-scrolling, you happened upon one of her character videos in which she’s mocking corporations’ performative Pride celebrations, or pretending she’s a liquored-up mom having a good Mother’s Day. Stalter quickly became synonymous with her desperate, clueless and (often) Midwestern characters.
Living in a handful of Midwestern suburbs and cities, in fact, has helped foster Stalter’s brand of comedy. At this point, she has been “around every kind of person.” And while they might be different people with nuanced personalities and dissimilar life experiences, the comedian has found parts of herself within them all. “Most of my characters are really delusional, confident, but secretly very nervous, and I think that’s part of who I am,” she says. “When you make fun of someone, you’re making fun of the part of them that’s like you.”
It’s a technique that’s apparent in her scene-stealing role as Kayla on Hacks, a series about the complex mentorship between an aging Las Vegas comic and a young comedy outcast. While Kayla is a nepotistic, inept assistant to a talent agent (Paul W. Downs), it’s impossible not to be endeared to the misguided character: There’s a sparkle of unbridled joy and chaos in Kayla’s inflection, she rocks aqua eyeshadow, is consistently unprofessional, and excitedly bursts into Instagram caption-ready phrases like “Bitch, you got this, bitch!” When Stalter read the script, she knew she had to get the part. For her, the role “felt natural.” If Kayla seems eerily similar to Stalter’s bits, that’s no coincidence—the Hacks star was encouraged to put her own flourishes on the character. “What I was improvising and what they wrote were so similar that I can’t even remember what line was already written,” she says. “If I said every line that was in the script, it would still look like I made it up.” Since portraying Kayla, Stalter has become increasingly aware of how relatable her character is. “So many times, people have come up to me and been like, ‘Oh my god, I had an assistant like that’ or ‘Everybody works with someone like Kayla,’” she notes. For her, characters are the funniest “when they feel so real.” “That’s why I think people like Kayla,” Stalter adds. “She’s saying something insane, but she’s relatable.” With the success of Hacks, Stalter hopes that season 2 will come with some more unhinged storylines for Kayla. “I’ve been pitching [that] I hope she has a bunch of male model boyfriends,” she says.
In the meantime, Stalter has gradually begun taking her stand-up routine on the road again. After more than a year with no IRL audience, “being able to perform again feels like drugs.” She’s also been able to experience firsthand how much her comedy connected people throughout the year. “There’s a group of young adults in a Twitter group with me who just have been watching [my] Instagram Lives, and they all flew out to go to the New York show, and we went to dinner,” Stalter says.
Beyond stand-up, Stalter’s ambitions for her acting career are seemingly limitless. While the lines between reality and fantasy may exist on her Instagram and on Hacks, she isn’t looking to be typecast. “I don’t want to ever get stuck in the same role or feel like I’m doing Kayla on a different show,” Stalter says. “And I would also love to do some serious or scary stuff.” The actress sees her career as an opportunity to constantly evolve. The only exception is her eyeliner. That won’t change anytime soon.