By Nina Metz
With the new Hulu series “Shrill,” which premiered earlier this month, Aidy Bryant is one of the few “Saturday Night Live” cast members to star on her own show while also maintaining her role on the NBC late-night comedy.
Based on the 2016 nonfiction book of essays “Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman” by Lindy West, the series follows the professional and personal trajectory of a fat woman in her 20s living in Portland, who gradually begins to come into her own.
Blending comedy and drama, her story is rooted by the presence of her best friend and roommate (a breakout performance by Lolly Adefope) and her less-than-satisfying romance with a likeable loser (played by Luka Jones).
If you’re alert to them, there are Chicago connections throughout the show. Bryant herself is an alumnus of Columbia College Chicago and the local sketch and improv scene, she was performing at Second City when she was hired on “SNL.”
Fellow “SNL” alum Julia Sweeney, who lives in Wilmette, Ill., plays her well-intentioned if exasperating mother, and Evanston, Ill., native Samantha Irby (author of the books “Meaty” and “We Are Never Meeting in Real Life”) is a writer on the show.
Annie works at an alt weekly, just as West did in real life, and she has an antagonistic relationship with her editor. West’s editor at the time was Chicago native Dan Savage (played mercilessly here by John Cameron Mitchell).
(West tells Vanity Fair the character in the show is “really not Dan” but he does have “these notions about fat people that he thinks are kind of progressive in this weird way, and she is correcting him. That’s true to my relationship with Dan.”)
Bryant was in Chicago recently with her husband Conner O’Malley (a Chicago native and veteran of the local comedy scene), and she stopped by the Chicago Tribune to talk about “Shrill,” her desire to move back to Chicago and her thoughts about staying on at “SNL.” The following is an edited transcript.
Q: One of the things I’ve seen Lindy talk about was when you both went to pitch the show to various networks, you really had to be vulnerable in these meetings. What was your comfort level with that?
A: This has definitely pushed my limits of that in some ways. And even just doing press, I’ve now done a month-and-a-half of press and this interview feels very easy and nice and normal, but it doesn’t always feel that way. Sometimes they’re like: “So, you were fat and you hated yourself, how did that feel?” And it’s like: Wow, OK, I guess I just have to lay bare all these things (laughs) that I’ve dealt with or written about.
It’s interesting to do it in a controlled environment on the show, where I controlled the edit and I get to deliver the lines and we know what music’s underneath it.
And then in the press it’s like, I’m saying these things from a genuine place, trying to connect with this person, and then sometimes it’s like: “She hated herself and now she’s feeling good!”
It’s weird for it to become entertainment in some ways because it literally is my personal journey, and I’m still trying to find my voice and I still have days when I feel not confident. So it’s a bizarre experience to open yourself up completely to the world.
Even when we were pitching it, to go into these rooms and use your own personal story as a way to sell something is complicated and painful in a weird way. But I always felt like the greater purpose made it easier. I want this show to be on TV. I was very excited about that because when I was growing up, that was hard to find.
Q: To me, you’ve always been a confident performer. On the show, your character has a troll who recognizes how confident she comes across in her writing _ and “Shrill” is showing us that she’s not always so confident. Do you relate to that?
A: I totally relate to that, 1,000 percent. In my teens and early 20s, I was unsure of myself and worried about my weight or how I looked in clothes or whatever.
But I always felt really good doing improv, and I think that is part of why I was like, I’m going to do this all the time, because I feel good doing this and there’s an immediate positive reaction from an audience that’s telling you: You’re good.
I think for me, that was kind of addictive. And the stronger I felt there, and the more I started to move up the ranks in Chicago, I was like, there’s something here, and that’s the empowering thing that allowed me to have that feeling in other places in my life. I don’t think I’ve thought about that before but that’s very observant of you and true.
Q: The show has a lot of people of color who are part of her world. So many shows don’t. Was that a conversation you all had ahead of time?
A: We always knew Fran (the best friend) would be black, but other than that we were open-minded and saw a lot of people for different roles. We just wanted to cast people who were interesting. This is what I’ve always felt, especially from Chicago, is that the performer is the thing, so I just wanted people who had a lot of personality on their own that they could bring into the character. Patti Harrison (the transgender comedian who plays the editor’s snarky-sweet assistant), I didn’t know her well but I knew of her, she had done shows with Conner.
So we didn’t set out to check boxes, but we wanted to fill this world with what our worlds look like.
Q: I’ve noticed one journalist remark that she got a lot of feedback for using the word “fat” when writing about the show, because some people feel it’s a derogatory word.
A: I think that people have a lot of emotions about that word. And I used to, too _ so I understand.
To me, it’s a descriptor. Just like you can be tall or short, you can be fat. To me, using it just takes some of the power and pain out of the word. Because I am fat. It would be a lie to say I’m not fat.
So I can say it and not feel like it’s going to destroy me. And that feels better than living in fear of someone thinking I’m fat and trying to make sure that my shirt lays in a way where I don’t look fat. That’s a hollow thing to chase.
Q: You’re character has a sex life, which means there are sex scenes in the show …
A: Yes, lord (laughs).
Q: Had you done sex scenes before?
A: Absolutely not. Or if I have done a sex scene, it was a jokey one at “SNL” where it’s … jokey winking to the camera, and this was, like, sincere.
So that was scary. But I also kind of felt like I was serving a greater purpose here. I want these types of things to be shown. This has been my reality in relationships, to have fulfilling sex, and I felt like I never saw that represented in an earnest way on TV. So every time I got freaked out I would be like: Just do it (laughs)! And I was lucky, I had really great scene partners who I trusted and loved and that makes a big difference too.
Q: Before you went to “SNL” you were performing at Second City. What most people may not realize is that working at Second City suddenly means you’re getting paid full-time to do comedy. That’s a huge life change for most performers. What were you doing to support yourself before that?
A: I did (the Chicago-based musical improv show) “Baby Wants Candy,” so we toured with that show to Indiana and Ohio. I could live just barely on that, and then I worked part-time at a barbershop.
Q: What kind of work did you did at the barbershop?
A: Sweeping up hair, baby! Folding towels, receptionist stuff. I worked at one on Southport and Addison. They were very cool, they would let me go for weeks at a time on tour.
I graduated from Columbia in 2009, and I was doing sketch and improv in college, so I guess I started performing in 2005 or 2006. I did Second City for two years and then I was hired to “SNL” in 2012. So I was here for about six years.
Q: You and your husband started dating in Chicago. How did you meet?
A: Weirdly, we both were performing at the Annoyance in these things called “Triple Features,” which were 20-minute plays and they would do three in a night, so I was in one, and he was in a different one. Afterwards he was like, “You were so funny!”
And I hadn’t watched his, but I was like, “And so were you!” Like, fully lied to his face right off the bat because I thought he was cute.
And then it just so happened that the next night we were both performing in shows at iO, and we saw each other again and were like, “Oh, hey!” And then he asked for my number.
Q: He’s a former writer for “Late Night with Seth Meyers.” Did you both go to New York at the same time?
A: He came with me right away. We had been together for a while, and we didn’t want to break up and didn’t want to do long-distance. So it was like, come with me on this adventure, let’s see what happens.
It truly was an incredible miracle and an accidental fluke of timing, he got accepted to this Just for Laughs showcase of new faces, and Seth Meyers was there and saw him, not knowing he was my boyfriend but was just like, I love this guy and think he’s a genius. So he basically was like, I want this guy to be part of developing my talk show.
So it was a really crazy time for both of us, putting into action everything we had been working on together here for years and years. It was a weird, wonderful miracle that we both got amazing jobs in New York in television at the same time basically. I still to this day remember a weird moment being like, “Seth, that guy you hired, that’s my boyfriend.” And Seth had hired me at “SNL,” so I feel like we always owe it all to Seth Meyers.
Q: Do you see yourself staying in New York even after “SNL”?
A: I don’t know, I think we honestly always feel like creatures of Chicago. To me, this is where I found myself and where I’m meant to be in a lot of ways. We love to come back _ Conner’s family is here, we come back a lot. We were just at O’Hare and like, “This just feels good!” (Laughs) It’s so stupid, but we love it!
Even the lady who picked us up from the airport, she was talking about Dinkel’s and all these Chicago bakeries and that’s all we want to do, talk Chicago bakeries with other people who grew up in Chicago! Conner’s really from the city, he grew up in Lincoln Square, so that’s part of what I fell in love with too.
We love living in New York, but I don’t know where we’ll go or what will happen.
Q: I always wonder if someone can have a career at your level and do it from Chicago.
A: It’s something we’ve talked about a lot because I want to have kids someday and I would love to live here.
But I don’t know, it’s really hard. Even living in New York, I was not there for five months (last year) because I was writing “Shrill” in LA and shooting in Portland. Then throw another city in the mix? It’s a lot. And I’m a homebody, I like to go home.
Q: On “SNL” it feels like you and Kate McKinnon have a mind-meld relationship.
A: (Laughs) Totally. We started together, so you always feel very close to those people because you’re kind of clinging to each other in the beginning. And then Kate and I shared an office and we’d write together.
Also we just click. We get each other and we’re of the same mind about: We take our work seriously but we also want to be friends and don’t want to put work ahead of being friends. You put in a lot of hours at “SNL,” that is the hardest thing, so you cry or you get tired or you get sick or someone in your family gets ill, and you’re still at work. So (laughs) you can’t help but become really, really close.
Q: There was that “Weekend Update” bit you did together earlier this month with that basket of raw meat and you were trying not to laugh …
A: Yes! That is a favorite of mine! It’s one of my favorite things ever.
Q: Part of what was so funny was that neither of you could ignore how rank the meat smelled _ do you think it had just been sitting out until the show?
A: OK, so we did not have the meat at rehearsal during the day. The premise was, it was a business sort of like Omaha Steaks called Smokery Farms, where they were only selling the meat of mean animals so you don’t have to feel bad.
(Laughs) Anna Drezen, who wrote it with Kate and I, she has a dog and I have a dog, and we often talk about our dogs together and we talk about how they remind us of pigs and how it’s making it hard for us to eat meat. And Conner has completely stopped eating meat because of our dog, basically. It’s become, like, a problem (laughs)! So we were talking about that and that’s how we got that idea.
So during rehearsals that day we were using pictures of meat. And then we were like, eh, maybe it’s better if we have the actual meat packages or whatever.
When we got out there for dress rehearsal, the prop was much smaller and you kind of almost couldn’t tell what was happening. So for the live show it was much bigger, much more meat (laughs) and all jammed in this thing.
And we didn’t see it 20 minutes before, we saw it right as we were coming out and I think it had just been in a closet, waiting. Or maybe it was in a fridge, I don’t know. But it was very pungent. And Kate is vegan or a vegetarian, I think vegetarian, and I barely eat meat. And we were both like, this is wild! So for us it was like, how can we move on without acknowledging what’s happening, you have to!
Q: How did the ’70s cop show parody “Dyke and Fats” come about? Les Dykawitz and Chubbina Fatzarelli, Chicago cops, “kicking crime to the curb and doing it damn well!”
A: Basically we were in our office and Kate would lovingly be like (in third person): “Man, Dyke is tired”, and I would be like, “So is Fats.” Or if we had written a sketch that ate (garbage) we’d be like: “Dyke and Fats strike again!”
We talked about, what if we could put that in something? So we wrote it with Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider and thinking, they’ll never put this on the show, it’s too maybe harsh for NBC to hear “dyke” and “fats.”
We asked (then “SNL” head writer) Seth Meyers about it and he said, “Put it at the table, why not? Let’s see.” And it did very well at the table read and so, yeah, I couldn’t believe they let us make it.
It’s truly one of my favorites and one of my proudest, because we were pretty new to the show still. I love it, I think it takes some of the power and pain out of those words.
Q: I know everyone has been asking you how much longer you see yourself on “SNL” …
A: I know, and I wish I had a gorgeous answer. I’m kind of just approaching it the way I approach everything in my entire career, which is one day at a time. And I think it will suddenly become very clear to me that, OK, I can’t manage both these things. Or, I want to take a break. But I’m not quite there yet.
In my early days there, it was all-consuming and it took every ounce of energy and strength to be there, I was so scared. But it’s really different now. Now I love going there. It’s relaxing. Even doing all this press, I’ve been like (happy sigh), I get to go back to “SNL” next week! It’s a comfort level but also a protective level, where you’re in this bubble, and I feel so relieved to be going back next week in a weird way, you know? Because I’ll get to relax (laughs) which is an insane thing to say! I just love being there.
Q: Do you feel like at this stage you can be the person who helps newer performers find their way?
A: Yes! Fred Armisen was that for me. And Kenan Thompson, and Bill Hader and Jason Sudeikis. They all helped me so much in different ways when I was starting, even just understanding the mechanics of, “Hey, that’s your camera and that’s your single (shot) and that’s the wide (shot).” Who knows any of that when you first start? And it’s live, so if you don’t hit your mark or whatever, now you’re blocking someone else’s shot because your shoulder is in their single. So not only are you trying to perform comedy, but you’re trying to manage those technical elements.
And unless someone explains it to you patiently and thoughtfully and shows you the difference, you’re not going to know.
Q: I assumed there was a person there, a producer or someone, specifically to show new cast members the ropes about those things.
A: No! There’s nobody! Nobody tells you anything! It’s trial by fire. So that’s why I’m so grateful to them.
And also, if you look at what I’m doing, I’m fully stealing the Fred Armisen model: I shoot in Portland, I use his exact same crew (from “Portlandia”), I’m shooting in the summer just like he did (when he was also simultaneously on “SNL”), his partner on “Portlandia” Carrie Brownstein directed one of our episodes. I just adore him.
So I hope I could be any kind of help the way those people helped me.