Aidy Bryant On 'Shrill,' 'SNL' Thrills, And Not Feeling Bad About Her Body
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Aidy Bryant has been a cast member of "Saturday Night Live" since 2012. Now she's also starring in a new comedy series called "Shrill," adapted from the book of personal essays by Lindy West, who identifies as fat and feminist. West and Bryant are co-writers of the series. Lorne Michaels and Elizabeth Banks are executive producers. All six episodes will be streaming on Hulu starting tomorrow.
Aidy Bryant plays Annie, a young woman who's self-conscious about her size and annoyed at how comfortable people are commenting about it and offering advice on how to lose weight - people like her mother, her editor at the alternative weekly paper where she's trying to establish herself and complete strangers. But as the series progresses, Annie becomes more comfortable in her body, more confident in herself and more outspoken.
Let's start with a scene from the first episode of "Shrill." Annie walks into a cafe and notices on the community bulletin board that one of the flyers with tear-off phone number tabs has an amusing illustration, so she takes a picture of it. The flyer is promoting a personal trainer who calls her service get toned with Tanya. Annie doesn't realize Tanya is also in the cafe. As Tanya approaches Annie, two people nearby listen in on the conversation.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SHRILL")
KATIE WEE: (As Tanya) You can just take my number.
AIDY BRYANT: (As Annie) Oh. Oh, my God. You're tone Tanya.
BRYANT: (As Annie) I was just taking a photo so the tabs were available for other people. So...
WEE: (As Tanya) Here. Take it down.
BRYANT: (As Annie) Thank you (laughter).
WEE: (As Tanya) Oh. Wow. Your wrists are tiny.
BRYANT: (As Annie) Oh.
WEE: (As Tanya) You actually have a really small frame. There is a small person inside of you dying to get out.
BRYANT: (As Annie) Oh. Well, I hope that small person's okay in there.
WEE: (As Tanya) I know. It can seem impossible, but you can do this. You weren't meant to carry around all this extra weight.
BRYANT: (As Annie) Oh. Wow. Very cool.
WEE: (As Tanya) I know I can help you.
BRYANT: (As Annie) Well, that's very nice. Thank you.
WEE: (As Tanya) No, thank yourself for the amazing way you're going to feel after you give yourself permission to be well. Thank you, me. You could be so pretty.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) That was crazy.
BRYANT: (As Annie) Oh, no. No, no. That was cool. She wants me to transform like a Transformer.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) (Laughter) You're funny. You're like Rosie O'Donnell.
BRYANT: (As Annie) Oh.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I think that every time you come in here. I think, who does she remind me of? Rosie O'Donnell.
BRYANT: (As Annie) (Laughter) Oh, wow. Thank you.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Yeah.
BRYANT: (As Annie) OK. Well, have a good one, guys.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) You, too.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) You, too.
GROSS: Aidy Bryant, welcome to FRESH AIR. And congratulations on "Shrill." So let me start with a question related to the clip that we just heard. Have you gotten a lot of unsolicited, unwanted advice over the years from strangers or people who barely knew you?
BRYANT: Yeah, I have. I mean, even that clip you just played is something that was said to me. And someone did grab my wrist and say, you know, you're actually very small under - you're petite, you know? And I think for myself, I always felt like people were asserting things about my body or what I should want. And I always kind of smiled and said, OK, thank you, and tried to kind of just get through it with a smile, you know?
GROSS: What would it feel like to try to smile and say, OK, thank you, when you were actually pretty offended by what people were saying to you?
BRYANT: You know, it's weird 'cause I think instinctually, even though sometimes people have said things that are hurtful to me, I immediately am like, oh, that's OK. That's OK, you know? And I think one of the things that the show is about and that I've discovered even more recently - I now feel more comfortable sort of pushing back and stopping and saying, like, what do you mean by that?
GROSS: What do you say when you push back? Like, it's - like, my body's none of your business, or I'm comfortable the way I am. Like, what's a good rejoinder or comment to make?
BRYANT: Gosh, I mean, I wish I had, like, the perfect answer to this question, but I think that's kind of what I mean - is like, I'm still figuring that out. And I kind of case-by-case basis have learned to just sort of say, like, I'm fine. Thank you, you know? I'm all good. And that's something that's between me and myself and my doctor and my family or whatever, you know, that I don't really want a stranger's input on, you know?
GROSS: So do you always get the Rosie O'Donnell comparison (laughter) like in the clip?
BRYANT: You know, honestly, I love Rosie O'Donnell, and then I was hugely, like, a fan of hers when I was younger. But certainly, I think because there aren't that many fat women in media - and especially for me growing up, you know, in the '90s and early 2000s - it was, like, only Rosie O'Donnell or Roseanne. And those were the two I would get. And I don't know if that was always the most accurate description, but I felt like it was about size and sort of a way to categorize and put me into a box.
GROSS: So the series is based on Lindy West's essays - her autobiographical essays. But you're a big part of the writing team, and you're the star. So is the character that you're playing - Annie - a kind of combination of, like, your personality in your life and Lindy West's personality in her life?
BRYANT: Yeah, I think that's true. I think - you know, naturally, 'cause the words are coming out of my mouth, there is a little bit of my filter there. But I also think one of the things that we were doing in the writers' room was talking about, you know, these specific experiences that were in Lindy's book. And so many of them are so universal, even though the specifics might be different.
You know, I had had feelings of feeling embarrassed or shamed or I had ordered something different because I didn't want to be seen as a fat woman eating pizza or - you know, things that Lindy specified, I was like, I have an experience just like that. And so, quickly, you know, with our writers' room, I think those universal experiences became more specific through, you know, me and Lindy and all the other writers in the room.
GROSS: Well, I want to play another clip from "Shrill." And, you know, your character, like Lindy West used to, works at a weekly paper - like, an alternative weekly. And the editor there, who's played by John Cameron Mitchell, is - he sees himself as, like, the king of transgression. Like, he's done a lot of transgressive things. He knows all about transgression, but he's not receptive to any of your ideas. He sees you as being kind of, like, a nuisance - like, not very talented, not very attractive. And you're getting more and more sure of yourself.
He's finally given you assignment - an assignment to write about food. So you go to a strip club, and you're reviewing the buffet there. So there's, like, two or three women, like, you know, on the pole and stripping and dancing and everything. And you just start talking with them about how they do what they do and why they do what they do.
And your character is absolutely fascinated by this, and they have, like, a really meaningful conversation. And your character goes and writes a really - what I assume is a really interesting piece about this, which this, like, transgressive, self-important editor doesn't want. So let's hear that scene.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SHRILL")
JOHN CAMERON MITCHELL: (As Gabe) I'm confused about where my restaurant review is in this behemoth.
BRYANT: (As Annie) Well, I know it's not exactly the assignment...
MITCHELL: (As Gabe) No, it's not.
BRYANT: (As Annie) ...But I thought you would want me to follow my instincts. And also, you know, I didn't want to trash it. Like, the shrimp was very good.
MITCHELL: (As Gabe) You don't mention the shrimp. You got 2,000 words here about your feelings about pudding and someone named James Triple C-Section.
BRYANT: (As Annie) Well, she almost died, and now she uses her scar as sort of her calling card. She makes more money. It's...
MITCHELL: (As Gabe) I love the whole female empowerment [expletive]. I kind of invented it in the '90s. I was the original bass player in Bikini Kill.
BRYANT: (As Annie) Yeah, but you always say to find the truth in every story, and I think that that's what I did.
MITCHELL: (As Gabe) OK, but this is not your journal. I'm going to have to cut this way down.
BRYANT: (As Annie) Really?
MITCHELL: (As Gabe) It's all going.
BRYANT: (As Annie) I think it's really good, and it's under the word...
MITCHELL: (As Gabe) Annie, I gave you an assignment. I asked for a lap dance. You give me Twyla Tharp.
BRYANT: (As Annie) OK.
MITCHELL: (As Gabe) Not OK.
BRYANT: (As Annie) I get it. OK.
MITCHELL: (As Gabe) It's not OK, and I get to say OK in the end of the conversation. Don't...
BRYANT: (As Annie) OK.
GROSS: (Laughter) So that's my guest, Aidy Bryant, and John Cameron Mitchell. That's a really funny scene. I especially love the line about, I was the original bass player in Bikini Kill. And - so can you talk about what went into writing that scene?
BRYANT: One of the things we were trying to show is that Gabe - John Cameron Mitchell's character - that, you know, it's hard to see someone in a different light when you've seen them one way for a long time. And I think, you know, especially for someone who - like, Annie has had no boundaries and has had kind of no bite for a long time. To push back is totally foreign.
And, you know, for people in her life, it's sort of like, what the hell are you doing, you know? We don't know you to push back. And so that's kind of what she's doing. And I think the idea for this relationship is that there's a lot of mutual respect there and that he does want to foster her, but he wants to do it in his own way. And she's kind of trying to make her own way of it.
GROSS: And it's interesting, too - like, this character, especially in this scene, sees himself as having, like, invented female empowerment. But he doesn't get that, like, you're asserting your power. And he...
GROSS: And he doesn't get that fat is becoming, like, part of identity politics. It's become part of identity politics. Like, people have a right to decide for themselves what their shape is going to be or just, you know, accept what their shape is and not trying to, like, fight it and hate themselves for how they are.
BRYANT: Exactly. And I think, also, you know, part of it is listening. You have to listen to someone who maybe you wouldn't have listened to before. And I think, especially for people in power and also for people who have sort of felt like, no, I am on the right side of history, that can be a hard thing to do, you know, to really listen.
GROSS: Right. Because you're so right already? (Laughter).
BRYANT: Exactly. Yeah. You're like, I know what's right. And yeah, I'm woke, (laughter) or something. And it's like, I think sometimes it's easy to say all the right things but still not be open to learning or listening. And that's kind of what we're trying to show in that scene.
GROSS: So I'm wondering if you've experienced equivalent things in your years doing improv 'cause you started doing improv in high school, I think. And then...
BRYANT: Yeah (laughter).
GROSS: ...You were in Second City, and of course, on "Saturday Night Live." I mean, that's not improvised. That's sketches. But you can participate in the writing of the sketches.
GROSS: So were there times that you had to push back and say, no, this character matters, what I'm saying here matters, to people who thought that they were woke but didn't hear you?
BRYANT: (Laughter) Sure. I think, for myself, I often was one of two women in a room of 12 men, and that can automatically make it difficult to speak up. And, you know, even I remember sort of as I started to have success in the improv world, I was pretty young and I was sort of, like, surpassing people who were older than me and getting, you know, jobs at Second City, maybe ahead of people who had been waiting around for a long time.
And I remember feeling like, well, maybe I am, like, jumping the line. And maybe this isn't fair, and I'm not good enough to be here and - but then, you know, once you get there and you're doing the work, it's like, I know I have something to say, and I think there's a reason I was pushed ahead. And trying to find the momentum to speak up in a room of - that's a writers' room, (laughter), you know, that can be hard.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Aidy Bryant, and you probably know her from "Saturday Night Live." She has a new series that starts streaming on Hulu March 15 that's called "Shrill." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Aidy Bryant, who is a cast member of "Saturday Night Live" and now has her own series that starts streaming on Hulu March 15. It's called "Shrill," and it's adapted from the collection of personal essays by the same name by Lindy West.
I want to play one more scene from "Shrill." And this is a scene - again, your character is a writer at a weekly magazine who's not being taken seriously by her editor. And you decide you want to write about a pool party exclusively for fat women. And so you're going to go there in your capacity as a journalist. Your roommate is going there just to participate in the pool party.
Your character is very self-conscious about being seen in a bathing suit so she puts on, like, jeans and a loose-fitting shirt to go to the pool party. And people are saying, like, why are you all dressed? It's a pool party. You're going, well, I'm here as a journalist, you know?
GROSS: So, like, you're sitting in your clothes, dipping your feet in the water. But, you know, eventually, you decide you're seeing everybody be so comfortable in their bodies and dancing and swimming, you take off your jeans and shirt. You dance with everybody. You swim. You have a great time. But your editor's really mad at you because you haven't shown up for this kind of fitness bicycle event for...
BRYANT: Yeah. It's, like, a work health event.
GROSS: Yeah. So anyways, he's angry at you. You're angry at him. You go home and talk to your roommate and her new girlfriend, who your roommate met at this pool party. You're telling your roommate and her girlfriend here about how much you enjoyed the pool party and how angry you are with how your editor reacts to you as a fat woman.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SHRILL")
BRYANT: (As Annie) You know, I was, like, at that event today. And there were so many people just, like, living in their bodies and enjoying their life. And that was unbelievable to me. And also, it's like, OK. Cool, man. Very original point. You don't think the whole world isn't constantly telling me that I'm a fat piece of [expletive] who doesn't try hard? Every magazine, and commercial and weird, targeted ads telling me to freeze my fat off? And at this point, I could be a licensed nutritionist because I've literally been training for it since the fourth grade, which is the first time that my mom said that I should just eat a bowl of Special K and not the dinner that she made for everyone else, (sobbing), so that I might be a little bit smaller and so that I could have boys like me.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) My mom said that to me, too.
BRYANT: (As Annie) I honestly - I don't even blame her because - because it's a [expletive] mind prison, you know, that every woman, everywhere, has been programmed to believe, you know? And I've wasted so much time, and energy and money for what? For what? You know? I'm fat. I'm [expletive] fat. Hello? I'm fat. You know?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Yeah. I wish someone would've said this to me when I was younger.
BRYANT: (As Annie) Me too. Because it would have saved me so much time and pain.
GROSS: That's Aidy Bryant in her new Hulu series, "Shrill."
Tell us about writing that scene.
BRYANT: It's still hard for me to listen to, and it was certainly, to me, like, the hardest day of shooting and the hardest thing to write. Because I think, at least for me, and I know for Lindy and for, you know, the other fat women on our staff, it really was something that many of us felt.
And I really mourned for the time that I lost, you know, especially in my teens and early 20s, where I just hated my own guts. And I hated my thighs, and my arms and everything (laughter) about my body. And I felt like the worst possible thing that anyone could ever do would be to think that I was fat, to call me fat.
And I think that's part of what Annie going to this, you know, fat babe pool party helps show, is that she's not willing to participate. She's wearing jeans. She's there as a journalist. She's not there to attend. She doesn't want to be aligned with that. And that's such a sad place to live because it's what you are. You know? And to hate yourself that much. And I think the nice thing about that episode is that it kind of shows her starting to understand that it doesn't matter. To take on a label like that can actually free you from it. (Laughter).
And that's how it was for me, for sure, that, you know, the second I stopped being afraid of someone calling me fat, I was able to start to focus on my goals and my dreams, and to actually put that kind of energy, rather than to constantly be thinking about counting calories or starving myself or just hating the way I looked in jeans (laughter), to instead think about, OK, how do I get to "Saturday Night Live," and how do I develop myself as a writer, and how can I be a better friend or a better daughter? And, you know, to make my life better by doing the practical things rather than just sitting around and hating myself.
GROSS: The cereal story in there, where your character says that when she was young, there were times at dinner that her mother would make her eat a bowl of cereal instead of the food she'd prepared for the rest of the family in the hopes that, you know, your character would shrink a little bit, just get a little bit smaller. So did that story come from your life or Lindy West's life?
BRYANT: Yeah. It's not from either of our lives, but it's, you know, from one of our writers. And I think - you know, certainly that never happened to me. But I always was conscious of, not just my mother, but all my friends, my grandmother, every woman in my life that I knew.
And I think part of this is particularly when I was growing up. It was the '90s. It was, you know, the thinnest possible low - real low-rise jeans, kind of was popular - Paris Hilton, sort of in the early 2000s. It was like an aesthetic of thin, thin, thin, thin, thin. And I think for a lot of us, it felt like that was the only way to have any kind of successful life.
And this is certainly, I think, part of what compelled me to want to make this show, was I got to "Saturday Night Live" and I thought, I made it. You know, I made it. I got the dream. And then I got there, and I would do photo shoots with my cast mates, who are smaller women, and they would have, you know, 50 dress options, and I would arrive, and I would have two, and they both looked like something that the mother of the bride would wear.
And I was 25 years old, and I just felt like this isn't fair, you know, and it's not my fault (laughter), you know? I came here. I did my job. I'm funny. I wrote my way to this position. And now a stylist or a magazine or whoever is responsible, like, it's their job to dress me and dress me appropriately for my age and, you know - to me, those were the kind of moments where I was like, I want to talk about this.
GROSS: You know, just one more thing about your character, is that she seems very comfortable in her body when she's not around people who are judging her.
BRYANT: Yeah. I think for myself, so often growing up, I didn't want to hate myself. I kind of liked myself (laughter), and I thought I had something special, and I thought I was smart, and I thought I was funny, and I couldn't understand why that wasn't enough. And something Lindy and I talked about a lot was, like, we didn't experience or participate in, like, bulimia or anorexia or these, you know, painful eating disorders, and so many people, as we were pitching the show or whatever, were like, that's part of the story, isn't it? Because it's about food, and it's whatever.
And to me, I'm like, actually, no, I think it's about feeling like you're OK, but the whole world - magazines and your peers and even people that you want a date or whatever - telling you that you're not OK and feeling like, I think I am, but you're telling me I'm not, so I guess I have to go with that, and finally getting to a point of being like, I think I'm not going to participate in this system anymore.
GROSS: My guest is Aidy Bryant. She stars in the new comedy series, "Shrill." All six episodes will be streaming on Hulu starting tomorrow. After we take a short break, we'll talk about her work on "Saturday Night Live." And John Powers will review a 1970 film that's considered a classic of women's cinema. A restored version has just been released on DVD. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF BILL FRISELL'S "THE BIG ONE")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Aidy Bryant, a cast member of "Saturday Night Live" who's also now starring in a new comedy series called "Shrill." It's adapted from the book of the same name of personal essays by Lindy West, who identifies as fat and feminist. West and Bryant are co-writers of the series.
All six episodes will be streaming on Hulu starting tomorrow. Aidy Bryant plays Annie, a young woman who begins the series self-conscious about her size and annoyed at how it leads some people to be dismissive or condescending.
So let's talk about your coming-of-age. You went to a Catholic high school, which had a theater program that you were part of. So let's start with the Catholic high school part.
GROSS: Did you go to that high school because it had a great theater program or because you and your family were very Catholic at the time?
BRYANT: It's sort of none of the above.
GROSS: Very Catholic.
GROSS: How will people respond to that expression?
BRYANT: Yeah. I mean, I went to public school my whole life, and basically, when it came time for me to go to high school, there was this very, very highly academic high school that also happened to be a Catholic school (laughter), and so that's kind of how I ended up there.
I really was - wanted to be in, like, you know, difficult classes, and I loved learning, and I loved school - a full dork (laughter). And I was interested in going to an all-girls school, to be honest. I really was.
BRYANT: I just have always had wonderful female friendships. And my mother was a feminist, and my grandmother was a feminist. And so to me, I was like, oh, an all-girls school, how cool, how empowering, how - what a cool place to go and learn, basically.
And then, you know, I got there, and it was really challenging academically, but I think I also found it incredibly challenging because it was extremely, extremely catholic. And that meant, you know, they had a pro-life club, and they had a lot of things that, for me, were hard to be around when you're 15 years old, 17 years old.
GROSS: So how did you deal with the parts that you didn't like and that you didn't agree with?
BRYANT: I mean, certainly, I think some of those things are where I first lit my fires to feel like I'm not like this, and I want to be different than this. And I didn't exactly know what that meant. And I just sort of focused on my schoolwork and where I wanted to go next.
For me, it was big motivating factor in being like, I want to go somewhere that's absolutely the opposite of this (laughter). And that's kind of what I did when I went to Chicago.
GROSS: And in high school, you were the prom queen. What did that mean to be prom queen?
BRYANT: (Laughter) Terry, don't embarrass me (laughter) - I mean, bizarre. You know, I mean, I don't - what if it was like a "Carrie" situation but they never poured the blood on me? But I don't know. I mean, I think one of the things about school for me was I really learned how to be nice to everyone and to make everyone like me.
And I think in a lot of ways, I've spent a lot of time unlearning that, if that makes sense, because I thought - I think I thought surviving was being every single person's friend and trying to be liked. Like, you know, here I am going to prom. I'm, you know, named prom queen, but I hated myself.
So it's not like I look back on that as like, oh, my beautiful prom night. I'm like - I just remember that I wore a strapless dress, and the whole night, I was like, my arms are so fat. And that is my main memory of that time. So, you know, not my proudest.
GROSS: OK. Moving on.
GROSS: So you did improv in Chicago. You finally got into Second City. What are some of the characters that you did that you developed in Second City?
BRYANT: Yeah. I mean, I mostly was writing original characters. I'm sure to paraphrase them now will make them sound not funny at all. But I remember one of the ones that I wrote was a woman who was sort of so lonely she captured a bird and brought him into her house and made him her boyfriend. Another one I did - that I did in my audition for "SNL" was I wrote sort of almost like a Dolly Parton-style sketch but it was Dolly Mae Daniels and her all-ex-husband band.
BRYANT: And so you could imagine that wasn't - didn't go so well for her, but she tried to keep it moving and singing happily and then occasionally berating her ex-husbands.
GROSS: That's funny.
GROSS: So were you nervous for your "Saturday Night Live" audition? And just describe what the scene was like, what it looked like from your point of view as you were doing your audition.
BRYANT: Yeah. I mean, it's incredibly nerve-wracking. And I honestly - I couldn't eat. I couldn't sleep. I was so, so nervous. I was really fortunate in that Lorne and a few of the other producers had come to Chicago and they had seen my Second City show. And so that's where they saw me. And so they had seen me do two hours of comedy.
So I felt really lucky going in that I - you know, knowing I only had five minutes, I was like, well, they've seen me in front of an audience. And they've seen me do the stuff I'm most proud of. So, you know, it is really intimidating. You stand in the spot where the host does the monologue in kind of center stage. We call it home base. And you just do your five minutes.
And I had really been warned, like, they're not going to laugh. Just expect no laughs. Just sort of plow through it. And, you know, I got some laughs. And so I was like, OK, I can make it through this. And it's just over in a blink of an eye. And then you walk off, and you're kind of like, I guess I did it. It's over. And I really thought, OK, I auditioned for "SNL," and then I'll go home and what a cool experience. That's it, it's over now - and then it wasn't, honestly.
GROSS: How did you find out that you'd gotten cast?
BRYANT: Sort of a weird way. I had been flown back out to New York for a meeting with Lorne Michaels. And I met with Lorne. And he was sort of saying like, you know, you're very young, and you have a lot to learn. And so I was sort of like, oh, they're kind of letting me down gently here, you know. And I thought maybe he was sort of saying like in a couple years we'll check back in with you. And then he was like, but I think you'll do very well here. And I was like, OK. And then I left.
And I - it wasn't clear to me if I had been hired. I thought maybe he meant like you'll do well here someday maybe, you know. So I kind of left just like, am I hired or am I not hired? And then I got a phone call from one of the producers, was like, did you know you just got hired to "SNL"? And I was like, oh, I did not know that. Thank you. And she was like, we could tell you didn't know when you left.
GROSS: So did you feel like you couldn't just come out and, say does that mean I'm hired?
BRYANT: Oh, totally. I was like, I'll just sit here quietly and smile forever.
GROSS: One of the differences between "Saturday Night Live" and other theater work is I think usually on "Saturday Night Live" there's cue cards, literally cards that somebody is holding up. And you're probably not used to that. And being on camera for the first time and working with cue cards on the first time, I could see how that could be disorienting.
BRYANT: Yeah. I mean, I think this is kind of one of my favorite things about "SNL" is how technical it is. And I think people underestimate, like, when you see the greats of "SNL," part of what makes them great is they have a huge technical understanding of what's happening and - because it really is about you have to hit your marks. And you have to look at the right set of cards. And then for this shot, you're looking at a different set of cards so that it looks like you're looking at the person.
And you really are tracking things on, like, four different levels, which is like, you know, your comedy performance - but then knowing that you're on camera, in the right camera. And then you're reading things and tracking your eyeline. It's extremely, extremely technical, and I love that part of it.
GROSS: Why are there cue cards on "Saturday Night Live"?
BRYANT: Well, I mean, part of it is we literally are rewriting the sketches sometimes during the sketch. So especially in those final moments, when time is running out, just on our last show, we had a sketch where they were taking cards out as we were doing it to make it - take two minutes out of it to make sure we could fit the sketch on air.
And I think the feeling is that if you did it with teleprompters and if they went down for some reason or if there was a glitch, what do you do? You know, and so the cards have become really reliable. And the people who make the cards are incredible. And the way they move them is incredible. And it's really like a beautiful dance.
GROSS: So if they're rewriting the sketch or shortening a sketch just before you go on, does that make you more nervous? 'Cause you don't really know what to expect.
BRYANT: Yeah. I mean, of course. You know, and things are changing, and a lot of times you're reading it for the first time live on air. But now those are my favorite times (laughter) Like, I think it used to really scare me, but now that's, like, when I find it extra exciting. And there's kind of, like, an energy in the air where everybody knows, like, are we going to make it? Are we going to land this plane? And there's nothing better.
GROSS: My guest is Aidy Bryant. She's a cast member of "Saturday Night Live" and star of the new Hulu comedy series "Shrill." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Aidy Bryant. She stars in the new Hulu comedy series, "Shrill," which will be streaming starting tomorrow, and she's a cast member of "Saturday Night Live."
"Saturday Night Live" has gotten much more political in the Trump era. And you've played Sarah Huckabee Sanders. And so I want to play a clip of one of those sketches. This is a fake commercial on "Saturday Night Live" for a sleeping pill, called, HuckaPM. And the hook is, like, how do you sleep at night?
And it has a kind of double meaning, (laughter), 'cause it's a sleeping pill, and it's about, like, Sarah Huckabee Sanders' conscience. And every time in this clip when you hear, like, a bang or a crashing sound, it's because Sarah Huckabee Sanders has taken one of these sleeping pills. And it just, in a split second, knocks her out cold. And she's, like, falling and crashing into things because it immediately puts her to sleep.
So here is Aidy Bryant as Sarah Huckabee Sanders on "Saturday Night Live."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")
CECILY STRONG: (As narrator) Sometimes getting a good night's rest isn't as easy as shutting your eyes. When the workday you've had threatens to ruin the night's sleep you want, you need something that works. There's only one over-the-counter sleep aid that answers the question, how do you sleep at night? It's HuckaPM, the only sleep medication strong enough for Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
BRYANT: (As Sarah Huckabee Sanders) People are always asking me, how do you sleep at night? In fact, they scream it at me all day long.
BRYANT: (As Sarah Huckabee Sanders) Look. The caravan is heading straight for us, and it is filled with MS-13s and also chupacabras.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Come on, Sarah.
BRYANT: (As Sarah Huckabee Sanders) That's why when I'm ready for bed, I always reach for my secret weapon. Just one little pill is enough to ease me into the gentlest of...
(SOUNDBITE OF GLASS BREAKING)
STRONG: (As narrator) HuckaPM contains melatonin, extra-strength Quaaludes and what Michael Jackson's doctor called one-and-dones.
BRYANT: (As Sarah Huckabee Sanders) And no matter what tomorrow's workload brings, I know it won't keep me up at night. CNN is just ISIS spelled backwards - Sounds good to me, sir.
(SOUNDBITE OF THUD, LAUGHTER)
BRYANT: (As Sarah Huckabee Sanders) It's the only sleep aid I reach for. All right, guys, listen up. Birthright citizenship is over, and it's the Democrats' fault. We want you remember that. So let's pack up those babies and get them out of here. Thank you so much.
BRYANT: (As Sarah Huckabee Sanders) Wow, that was exhausting.
(SOUNDBITE OF THUD, LAUGHTER)
STRONG: (As narrator) HuckaPM. How do you sleep at night?
GROSS: (Laughter) So that was my guest Aidy Bryant as Sarah Huckabee Sanders. So who was the voice of the announcer?
BRYANT: Cecily Strong.
GROSS: OK. So who wrote the sketch?
BRYANT: So I wrote that was Kent Sublette, who is one of the head writers at "SNL."
GROSS: Oh, great. So I'm sure you were aware of the controversy when comic Michelle Wolf did the White House Correspondents Dinner last year and she told a joke about Sarah Huckabee Sanders. And I hate to paraphrase other comics' jokes. It always sounds so lame. But she said about Sanders, I think she's very resourceful, but she burns facts. And then she uses that ash to create a perfect smoky eye. Like maybe she's born with it, maybe it's lies. It's probably lies.
And even, like, people at the White House Correspondents Dinner thought that that was in really bad taste. And so with that in the backdrop, did that affect your writing of the sketch at all?
BRYANT: Gosh. You know, it's interesting that you bring that up because I do think that's something that I've always talked about with the writers at "SNL." And, you know, certainly I've been pitched jokes about her appearance. And to me, it's just not the most interesting part of who she is in our culture. And I think it's, you know, sort of not my angle on her.
And, you know, I mean, I remember the very first time I played her, there was a moment where, you know, she wasn't press secretary yet - Sean Spicer was - and she was - the way it was written was she was sort of in the wings watching Sean Spicer sort of menacing, wanting to take his job. That's how the sketch was.
And they had written sort of a reference to "Indiana Jones" where I've got a huge knife and I'm eating a piece of apple off that knife is sort of this like menacing tactic. And when that happened, there were multiple articles that came out that said that I was fat shaming her and that it was about her appearance.
And, you know, I think to me what bummed me out about that is the idea that a fat woman on screen consuming food in any kind of way would mean fat shaming is psychotic and not true and really doesn't - makes you not understand what the joke was. You know, if it wasn't clear, then that's on us. But I do think people are particularly conscious of how we're talking about these types of women. And at least for me, I've always just felt like what she says is what's important.
GROSS: I thought even Michelle Wolf's joke was about timing telling lies as opposed to...
BRYANT: Absolutely. Oh, yeah. And I think, in a weird way, it's the same thing as that apple thing, where just even a reference to her appearance that Michelle made - suddenly it's about her - shaming her or something. But I think if you look at it, it's about lies, right? And, like, yeah, Michelle's a friend. We've - I think she's brilliant, and I think she did a great job. And I actually think if you have that kind of reaction, it's probably because you're getting to the heart of something.
GROSS: So how did you prepare to do the character of Sarah Huckabee Sanders?
BRYANT: I mean, this is probably oversimplifying, but a lot of times when I have to look at an impression, I try to sort of, like, put them into a box that I can get my head around. So one of the things that I always felt in watching her in press conferences was that she sort of talked like a Southern, like - almost like a football coach or something. And she often starts her, you know, press conferences being like, hey, guys. And I always thought that was sort of a funny little detail that just felt very un-press-secretaryish (ph) or something. That's kind of how I'm going to approach this - a sort of no-nonsense, all-nonsense sort of attitude.
GROSS: Well, Aidy Bryant, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.
BRYANT: My pleasure. Thank you so much.
GROSS: Aidy Bryant is a cast member of "Saturday Night Live" and star of the new comedy series "Shrill." All six episodes of "Shrill" will be streaming on Hulu starting tomorrow. After a short break, John Powers will review a restored DVD edition of a classic of women's cinema. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JIMMY AMADIE'S "YOU'D BE SO NICE TO COME HOME TO")
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