But it is also clear that she is beginning to understand the expectations—and limitations—that come with even a small dose of celebrity. “With the lip-ring thing,” she says, “lately I’ve been thinking, I’m almost 30—how old is too old to have the lip ring? Will people be saying, ‘Why does that old lady have a lip ring?’ Now I have to think not just for me, but for all these people who watch the show. Sometimes I want to cut off all my hair or dye it blue like I used to, but it’s, ‘Uhh . . . probably shouldn’t do that.’”

On the set, as Santa Maria rigs her own microphone into position and hand-coifs her long brown hair, she continues to worry over the script. “I hope this sounds pretty conversational,” she says. “I don’t know why this was such a bitch for me to write. I keep wanting to go off on a rant about tradition and religiosity.”

With the cameras rolling, she delivers the material smoothly. “Most of us have been to a funeral and we’ve seen a coffin get lowered into the ground,” she says, “but what’s happening inside that coffin, especially after weeks or months?” She and Sprinkle pause with unspoken assent when a truck rumbles by outside—the stage is an ad-hoc affair wherein a window that was sheet-rocked off still admits traffic noise—and Santa Maria picks the story back up once the truck has passed: “It’s pretty hard to become one with Mother Nature when there’s cement, wood, rubber, steel, and embalming fluid protecting you from the elements.”

Four minutes later, she wraps it up and heads back to her desk, still muttering misgivings about the feel of the piece. Soon, though, she is cooking up her next episode—quite possibly about climate change, another subject she takes very personally. “I get pretty political in my theories,” Santa Maria says, then gives one of the head-tilts that punctuate her on-camera delivery, embodying that particular contradiction that situates her somewhere between her beloved Carl Sagan and, say, Tina Fey. “When I think it’s necessary to get through the b.s. that arises because of politics, I’m gonna address it.” Got it.

 

More in Cover Story

Safe at the plate?

Read More »

Fred Schruers is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.