In ‘I Love That for You,’ Vanessa Bayer Sells Out

To hear more audio stories from publications like The New York Times, download Audm for iPhone or Android.

According to Vanessa Bayer, being diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia as a 15-year-old wasn’t all bad.

It got her out of gym class. The attendance lady at her high school never marked her as tardy. She told a boy she didn’t like that she couldn’t be his date for the homecoming dance because she had chemo that weekend. (She did n’t). Her father her talked his way out of a speeding ticket by using her illness as an excuse, a tactic he referred to as “dropping the L-bomb.”

Bayer survived the L-bomb. The experience didn’t change her, she said, but it did intensify characteristics that were already inherent — determination, resilience, a borderline delusional sense of optimism. Who receives a diagnosis of cancer and accentuates the positive? Bayer does.

“I was always a person who loved attention,” Bayer said chirpily. “This allowed me to get so much attention.”

Bayer is getting attention now. On Sunday, Showtime will premiere the first episode of “I Love That for You”(the Showtime app will have it on Friday), a sitcom that draws on Bayer’s pediatric cancer and her longtime obsession her with home shopping shows. She stars as Joanna Gold, a sheltered young woman and leukemia survivor who auditions to become the newest host on the Special Value Network. Nearly fired after her disastrous first hour on camera, she saves her job her by telling her colleagues that her cancer her has returned. (It hasn’t.)

Playing Joanna isn’t cathartic for Bayer — she doesn’t seem to need catharsis — but it does offer her a chance to work through her past, this time with even more jokes. “It’s really nice to be able to have some distance from that time and to be able to laugh at it even more,” she said.

Bayer grew up in a Reform Jewish family in the suburbs of Cleveland. A star student and a cross-country runner, she decided that she wouldn’t let her illness mess with her GPA, even when teachers told her she could coast.

“It lit this fire under me,” she said. “It was important to me that everybody saw me as someone who wasn’t weak.”

Diagnosed in the spring of her freshman year, she spent time in the hospital, then in outpatient treatment, completing chemotherapy just before her senior year. She graduated on time. As prom queen.

She first performed comedy as a member of Bloomers, an all-female troupe at the University of Pennsylvania. After graduation, she moved to Chicago and studied and performed at various improv theaters, which eventually led to a spot on “Saturday Night Live” in 2010. There she created characters such as Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy and Dawn Lazarus, an anxious meteorologist. But long before she got paid for it, Bayer had relied on jokes as a coping mechanism.

“I had to use humor to make everyone, including myself, feel OK,” she said, speaking of her time in treatment. Here comes that optimism again: “I also think it made me funnier.”

She was speaking, from a bench on the fringes of Central Park, on a recent Friday afternoon. The temperature had climbed to nearly 70 degrees, but Bayer, who had just flown in on a red-eye from Los Angeles, was bundled against the spring in a belted coat, a knit beanie and Rag & Bone fleece sneakers. She had a green juice in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. A medical-grade mask had left a red mark high on each cheek her.

Even sleep-deprived and apparently very cold, Bayer radiated positivity. She smiled approvingly at the gamboling dogs, the sweating men, the woman who had arrived for a constitutional in high heels and full makeup. “Nothing like New York birds!” she said, when a flock of pigeons flew over, Hitchcock close. In high school she was voted Most Likely to Succeed. Most Likely to Bake a Mean Casserole she would have tracked, too — even sitting in the middle of Manhattan, she emanated Midwestern normalcy and niceness.

“She almost doesn’t seem like an actress,” said Molly Shannon, an “SNL” veteran who now co-stars opposite Bayer as SVN’s superstar host. “She’s very steady and calm and grounded.”

The comedian Aidy Bryant, who worked with Bayer in Chicago before they both found their way to “SNL,” noted that Bayer has a way of turning that mildness into a strike force. When it comes to comedy, Bryant said, “She is a quiet, smiling assassin.”

“Vanessa has a real reserved, polite, wonderfully Midwestern energy,” she added. “Then she hits with a punchline or a funny reaction or her truly incredible smile, which she can weaponize as a force of pain.”

On “SNL,” Bayer became a dependable utility player, often infusing characters (football widow, early career Jennifer Aniston) with a manic intensity — eyes overbright, speech a tick too fast. Taran Killam, another “SNL” co-star, noted how calm the offscreen Bayer seemed, a composure he attributed to her history.

Advertisements

“It must have given her incredible perspective,” he said. “’SNL’ is a very passionate job, a dream job. It feels like it matters more than anything in the world. She would always be the first one to say: ‘Who cares? No big deal. So they didn’t like the sketch? Move on.’”

“SNL” has a famously punishing schedule. But Jeremy Beilera former “SNL” writer who joined around the same time Bayer did, noted how she met the stresses of the job with buoyancy.

“She only looks in one direction,” he said. “She said It’s only forward.”

In 2017, after seven seasons on “SNL,” Bayer moved on. Another comedian might have worried about what would come next. Unsurprisingly, Bayer stayed positive. “My attitude is just that stuff kind of works out,” she said. And it did work out, more or less, with guest spots, voice work, supporting roles in a few movies.

As she was leaving “SNL,” her management team asked her about dream projects, and her mind somehow flashed on home shopping TV. She had watched the channels often as a child: The peek into adult life fascinated her, and she loved the elegance of the hosts and the ways in which they would spin seemingly extemporaneous stories in their attempts to entice buyers.

She described the hosts’ particular rhythms and vocabulary as “the first foreign language I ever learned,” and the network most likely provided her first taste of improv, too. (In college, when it came time to write her first sketch her, she wrote one set in the world of home shopping, in which the host was selling cardboard with a hole in it. It killed.)

A few months later, over brunch, Beiler mentioned that he had, by coincidence, begun a series pilot set in the world of home shopping. They began to collaborate, even arranging a field trip to QVC’s headquarters in West Chester, Pa., where they met with two hosts, Jane Treacy and Mary Beth Roe, whom Bayer had idolized as a child, and also managed to score some free soft pretzels. (Everyone I spoke to mentioned Bayer’s enthusiasm for snacks, and most of them mentioned her gift her for scamming her way into free ones.) In the gift shop, they bought matching QVC mugs.

Back at work, with Jessi Klein as showrunner, they began to build out a back story for Bayer’s character, Joanna, that would give her stakes and drive. They decided to borrow from Bayer’s her own story her, particularly her diagnosis and treatment her and the way that those years of chemo and radiation stunted her emotional growth her for a while.

“I didn’t understand dating at all,” she said. “It was just playing catch up. Even out of college and into my 20s, I always was trying to fake being an adult.” In an hour’s conversation, this was the closest she ever came to acknowledging that pediatric cancer hadn’t been entirely a walk in the park.

Bayer didn’t mind lending Joanna her medical chart — she has never been shy about her diagnosis. As a teen she used it to win her family her a trip to Hawaii courtesy of the Make-A-Wish Foundation. (She had thought about asking to meet Jared Leto, but she eventually decided she would prefer to meet him as a peer. Years later, she did.) Colleagues at “SNL” have heard her introduce leukemia into the conversation just to get free ice cream, which jibes with advice she offered during our interview: If you are sick, use it to get whatever you can.

Bryant said, “She always takes the things that are hard and makes them something that she can use to empower herself or use to her advantage.”

Gradually, Joanna took shape, a woman more guarded than Bayer and more stunted, with her same love of snacks and her same gift for antic improvisation but none of her obvious success. A woman who lies about having cancer shouldn’t be a woman you root for, but Bayer has a way of communicating a kind of desperate brightness that makes terrible things seem less terrible, just because she does them with such enthusiasm.

What the camera recognizes is what Shannon, who also survived a major childhood trauma (her mother, youngest sister and a cousin were killed in a car accident), identified as a shared joy and determination to wring the utmost out of life.

“We don’t take it for granted,” Shannon said. “We feel so lucky that we’re alive. For real.”

There are many stories about illness. (Admittedly, there are fewer of them set in the world of home shopping.) But this is one — with its snacks and its sunniness and its heroine’s determination to exploit her fake diagnosis for all she can — that seemingly only Bayer can tell.

“I always wanted to do something about when I was sick,” she said contentedly, as the gentle chaos of Central Park swirled around her. “Specifically, the fun I had.”

Audio produced by Tally Abecassis.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.