Vivian Zink/NBC
Natalie Abrams
February 28, 2018 AT 12:00 PM EST

From an early age, Lyric Lewis knew she was funny.

Her nickname as a child was motormouth, because of her penchant for rattling off everyday facts with oddball inflection just for laughs. In Living Color and Saturday Night Live were must-watch TV of her youth, Jennifer Coolidge and Kim Wayans her comedy icons.

“I always felt like that’s what I wanted to do, was be a bit goofy while acting at the same time,” says Lewis, who was actually a classically trained theater major at Syracuse University. One day during her freshman year, a substitute teacher taught a class on clown acting, giving Lewis her formal introduction to improv. “That was the first time that I really got even the slightest taste. After that I was like, ‘Okay, I really just need to research the people that I love and do the type of comedy that I want to do.'”

That led the now 32-year-old actress to Hollywood, where she quickly rose up the ranks of The Groundlings improv troupe before booking the new MADtv. That gig lasted only a season, but Lewis didn’t let the setback slow her momentum. In fact, she was in the middle of testing for another pilot when she got the call that she’d snagged the role of saucy history teacher Stef on A.P. Bio. “It was literally as the other people were coming out to bring me in the room. My team had to talk me through how to leave gracefully and not rub it in anybody’s face that I got it,” says Lewis. “It was incredible, and I cried outside in the parking lot. I felt like the sky was bluer, the trees were greener. It was crazy, because this is what we all want. In a weird way, it’s still surreal when they’re like, ‘All right, it’s done, you have a job now.’ It’s crazy.”

Now she and costars Mary Sohn and Jean Villepique steal the show as Midwest educators working with a philosophy professor (Glenn Howerton) who begrudgingly moves home and becomes a high school science teacher. “Stef is very funny,” Lewis says of her character. “I feel like she has a great sense of humor. She’s actively dating very weird men, which would’ve been very reminiscent of a younger, not engaged Lyric. She’s adventurous in that sense and she loves to teach. She’s very much strong-minded. She’s not afraid to do little side hustles to make extra money. I feel like I have a lot of those qualities.”

But Lewis’ career goals don’t top out with the success of A.P. Bio. “I love Tiffany Haddish. I tell people that I’m available to play her sister whenever,” she says with a laugh. “Tiffany, girl, I’m available for drinks — or anything!”

A.P. Bio airs Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. ET on NBC.

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