How Aidy Bryant Stealthily Became Your Favorite ‘Saturday Night Live’ Star

The breakout star of ‘SNL’ recounts her journey to Studio 8H, talks about her favorite sketches, and consoles one mourning journalist who recently lost his fish, Beyoncé.

10.31.14 9:45 AM ET

For one, oh-so-brief moment, Aidy Bryant thought I was one of Iggy Azalea’s backup dancers.

The Saturday Night Live star was told I’d be in a green room at 30 Rockefeller Center waiting for her so we could start gabbing about her breakout year on the show. But when she opened the door, a harem of toned and dreaded hip-hop dancers were lounging on couches staring at her.

“I was like, I feel like this is not where I’m supposed to be,” she tells me later, after we finally find each other (in Fred Armisen’s Late Night With Seth Meyers dressing room, no less). “All these casual poses. I couldn’t handle it. I was like, ‘I don’t think any of these people are Kevin…’”

Bryant had just finished taping promos alongside Jim Carrey for that week’s Halloween episode, an honor one can only imagine rivals spending three seconds mistaken for Iggy Azalea’s backup dancer.

“I’m still not over it,” she says, recalling the surreal nature of filming alongside one of her childhood comedy heroes—“The One,” she calls him. This is Bryant’s third season on the show, which, because of a strange sequence of events and an unexpected revolving door of cast members, actually makes her one of the SNL cast veterans at this point.

“But I still get super excited,” she says. “I try to really make myself, even if I’m tired or something, go and watch the musical guests rehearse just so that I enjoy it all. Sometimes you’re like, ‘Ugh. I want to go to see, but I’m sitting under a blanket…’ But then you go, ‘What am I doing? I’m going to go watch Iggy Azalea do a personal concert for me.’”

Fast-forward a few days after that personal Iggy Azalea concert and SNL is airing live from New York, with Bryant quietly stealing the episode’s most talked-about sketch—a Halloween costume party that devolves into a dance-off between Kate McKinnon and Jim Carrey to Sia’s “Chandelier”—with her delivery of just one line. She’s dressed in a red dress and cardigan, and her co-worker is trying to guess what her costume is. A meatball? A red marble? “I didn’t dress up. I forgot,” Bryant’s character, Joann, says. “I’m just a woman trying her best.”

That fleeting comedic moment exemplifies Aidy Bryant at her best.

In her two-and-a-half years in Studio 8H Bryant has stealthily and unassumingly become one of the show’s most valuable cast members, parlaying her knack for playing the quiet, precocious prim Everywoman (Joann, “trying her best,” is one example) who sometimes has an unexpected randy, wild side into a series of breakout sketches. Look to “Booty Rap,” easily the best sketch on this season thus far, for proof of that.

“I like to play characters that have an inner confidence about them that maybe you wouldn’t expect them to have and that they aren’t afraid to unleash occasionally,” she says.

She was 25 years old when she was hired, one of the show’s youngest hires ever. And her stories about landing her SNL job are as hilarious as you would hope.

She was in a Chicago antique mall with her mom when she found out she got the audition. She stepped outside to take the call, and couldn’t relocate her mom when she went back inside to give her the news. She regressed to the mental state of a toddler lost in a J.C. Penny department store. “I was like, ‘Mom! Mom!’ Just screaming,” she says. And her conversation with Lorne Michaels when he offered the job was so bizarre she actually had no idea she was hired when it was done. 

Now she’s an Emmy nominee—for co-writing the song, “(Do It On My) Twin Bed”—lives in New York with her boyfriend Conner O’Malley, who writes for Late Night With Seth Meyers; counts Lena Dunham as a close friend; and is sitting in Fred Armisen’s dressing room talking about how she got to this point.

She’s thoughtful about it all, and more importantly gleeful about it, taking care to answer my questions about the state of Saturday Night Live honestly while being sure to belabor the point that she truly cannot believe that she’s on this show. She’s also incredibly warm and easy to talk to. Before I know it, we have leaped from talking about her impression of newscaster Candy Crowley to her consoling me over the death that morning of my fish, Beyoncé. (“You gotta play ‘Halo’ for your angel-fish,” she instructs.)

It’s the kind of wide-ranging, fun conversation that Saturday Night Light enthusiasts live for, covering how she made into Studio 8H, the stories behind her favorite sketches, what she thinks about some of the show’s headline-making cast change-ups, and how she’s come into her own on comedy’s most revered TV platform.

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Meet Aidy Bryant.

How did you find out you were going to audition?

I was at Second City performing a show that we had just written. I think maybe the night after our opening night—or something—our Second City producers were like, “OK, Lorne is coming tonight and some of the producers and writers from SNL.” So we were all like, “Arghhh!” So nervous. But it was my second show at Second City, and we run shows for almost a year. So by that time I was way more comfortable, and I really felt like it was a show that I wrote for myself in that it showcased me in a way that maybe I didn’t in the first one. So I was like, “OK. If they’re ever going to see me in any capacity, this is how I want them to see me.”

That’s a nice, rare feeling to have.

One hundred percent. Also, those people who only send in a tape or something only get to show them five minutes. They saw a two-hour show where I do all kinds of things. It’s a small cast of six. There was a huge relief in that for me, that they got to see who I really am.

Was sending in a tape to SNL ever something that you thought you might end up doing?

I think it maybe would have been. But I was still really new. I was 25 when I was hired by SNL. So I still felt like I was learning and trying to get as good as I could before I sent in a tape. You know? I was just trying to get better before I compiled some audition. But after they saw that show they called my manager and were like, “OK, we’d like to fly her in for five minutes. We liked some of the stuff she did in the show, so if she could just come in and turn that into five minutes.”

Then you don’t sleep for the next three weeks?

Oh my gosh. Fully when I got that call I was at an antique mall with my mom. I stepped outside to take the call and when I got back inside I couldn’t find my mom, and I was like, “Mom! Mom!” Just screaming. I was losing my mind.

How long between that call and going to New York?

Probably like a week, maybe. In total, I went back and forth four times, which is not super normal.

They auditioned you four times?

Well two of them were meetings. I almost think it’s like a “crazy test.” You know, to see if you can hang. And then two of them were auditions. The first one Cecily [Strong] and I both went to. That one was an all-girl audition. They just saw a bunch of ladies. The second time we went, it was sort of their favorite of the ladies and their favorite of the guys. A whole mix.

Do you remember what you did for your big audition?

I did Adele…

I’m sorry—are these stories you have to tell over and over again to every new person you meet? Are you sick of it?

No! I love it. Please…I love it. So I did Adele. And I’ve never practiced a bunch of impressions, so other than that I just did original characters. I did Ethel Merman in one of my auditions [she laughs at herself as if she can’t believe she’s even saying that] but the rest were kind of just different slices of different types of ladies that I like to play.

Did you leave with a feeling like, “I think I nailed this”?

I don’t think I thought I nailed it. But I had heard stories about when you go in there to expect zero laughs. Like, they’re not going to laugh at all. And pretty much right off the bat they were laughing. So I was feeling, like, “Oh my gosh! I’m a queen!” [fans herself] “Sorry everybody! I’m the star now!” But then they kept laughing. It is a really bizarre feeling to perform for like five people. You get so much energy from an audience, and when it’s just five quiet people at a table that’s not the same.

Is your getting the actual phone call that you’re going to be on the show a story that’s as good as getting the call that you’re going to audition?

I didn’t get a phone call. I met with Lorne. It’s funny because I wasn’t fully sure he was hiring me. I was kind of confused! He was like, “You’re very young. You have to learn. But I think you’ll do very well here.” I was like, “Does that… does that mean…” And then he stood up and shook my hand. I wasn’t fully sure that meant you’ll do very well here now, or that you’re young and we’ll give you a few years to get better and then we’ll check in on you. So I kind of left like, “What. Happened. To. Me?” And then one of the producers called and was like, “You know you were hired, right?” And I was like, “I did not. Thank you very much. Bye.” Then I celebrated.

It seems like these days the halls of SNL are less of a scary, dark place than they were a few decades ago. Like the environment has changed and maybe, though it’s intimidating, coming in as 25-year-old might not be as terrifying as it could’ve been then.

It is overwhelming. And it is really scary. And you are aware of people who are some of the funniest people ever and still got fired after one year, or two years. That is very present in your mind. So you want to work as hard as you can, but you also want to figure out where you fit in this moving machine. This is a train that’s been barreling on now for 40 seasons. You’re not going to come in and change it. You have to figure out where you can help it just move the best. That’s the trickiest part, and it takes a little bit of time. But once you figure it out, it’s the best feeling. But it’s still, not that it’s a dark place, but it definitely tests you personally and comedically and all these things, that you really have to know yourself coming in to succeed.

How did you feel after your first year? Did you feel like you did well enough that you were definitely going to stay? Or was there a terror that you were going to get cut?

It’s weird. I don’t think I knew for sure that “yes, I’m staying” or “no, I’m not,” but I definitely feel like I had the chance to show my personality or sensibilities a little bit. Like, little wins. Last year was very different for me because I got to do so much more and so much stuff that is my type of thing. But that first year with “Girlfriends Talk Show” and a couple of Weekend Updates that I did, I feel like I was starting to just barely tap into some of who I am. At that point I knew that they could kind of see what I do, and they either like or they don’t. But I knew that I did my best stuff, and that it was expressed on the show in some way. And thankfully they brought me back.

Did you get a sketch on your first episode?

No. I was in a sketch, but I didn’t write one. I had like one line in my first episode.

Do you remember it?

I forget exactly what it was, but it was something along the lines of, “Hey, I like your dress.” It was so fast.

Even though it was just a line in a sketch, were you like, “I am saying a line in a sketch on SNL?” Were you nervous?

It’s funny because I was so nervous for it. I was like, “Don’t mess up. Don’t mess up.” This one line. “You have a nice dress. You HAVE a nice dress. You have a NICE dress.” And then other times I’m like, “What are you doing? You’ve performed for like 10,000 people before.” I can handle this. It’s one line. But it’s the most exciting thing ever. You’re allowed to be nervous.

What was your first big sketch?

It’s tricky. The first big sketch I had, but I didn’t write it, is when I hosted a presidential debate. That’s probably the first time that I spoke more than three lines and really had to execute something that was hard.

Were you Candy Crowley?

Yep. There was a lot pressure about it, because I couldn’t have cue cards around me because it was in the round. And the script kept changing so much, so they dressed cue card guys up as extras and would sit them in the audience and they would pop up with a line and then sit back down. It was just very technical and difficult and not normal for the show. I’ve never had anything like that since then, and it was my first big thing. It wasn’t like, “This is who I am, Aidy Bryant. This is my type of comedy.” But it was the first time that I showed Lorne and Seth and everyone at the show that I could handle the pressure and execute.

Did you do “Live from New York…” that episode?

I did. It was the best thing ever. I think people, especially production people and writers, were very aware that it was my first big thing. And Tom Hanks was there for my first episode. He was in the cold open. When I finished, Tom Hanks and Bill Hader came on either side of me and ran me down this hallway. Everyone lined the hallway and was clapping for me. I had to change really quickly, because I was in the next scene, so we ran down this hallway where people were clapping and I was changing my clothes in this little booth. And Fred stuck in the card for me that said, “Live from New York…” and gave me a hug. I had no pants on, but I was like, “Yay! You’re the best!”

That might be the cutest story ever.

Now my parents have the card framed in their house. But then I would say a couple of shows later, Louis C.K. was the host. I had done a Weekend Update thing at that table read, and it was the first time that I got laughs in the room that were from something I had written. I was so happy, and you don’t get a lot of feedback. I was just glad to get the laughs.

What was the character?

It was a social media expert who invented all these tweets about the election. And then afterwards, Louis C.K. came up to me and was like, “You’re really funny.” And I was like, “Thank you so much,” and then immediately went to my office a full-sobbed. That got on the show, and it also happened to be the first time my parents came to the show. It was such a beautiful, full circle kind of thing.

Candy Crowley. Is that someone you ever imagined doing an impression of? How do impersonate someone so serious and make it funny?

She’s someone who’s not goofy. She’s just really good at her job. I think that’s why I kind of like her. I really enjoy playing tough, strong ladies. I enjoy the fact that she’s good at her job and tough and cool and kind of a badass and in this world that is mostly men. That’s what I like to turn up about her when I play her. Like, “Yeah. I got it. And I’m proud of it. And I’m Candy.”

You got to do her in the season premiere, which you were so good in. Speaking of the premiere, the Booty Rap…

The Booty Rap. That was so hard to execute live. Everything about it was live, the rapping, everything. When we did it in the dress rehearsal one of the music cues was late and we both flubbed a rap line. And anytime there’s a bunch of movement in a scene, more is going to get messed up. There was so much back and forth, but somehow by a miracle everything went perfectly.

Is the art of the Nicki Minaj-style rap something you knew ahead of time that you were a baller at?

I don’t know about that. So I wrote that sketch with Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider. We were all just talking about that video and it was so much to take that we thought it would be a fun idea to put it in really normal circumstances.

You’re so good at playing the prim, coquettish girl with the unexpected wild, randy side.

Is that who I am? Maybe

Even in just the premiere, with the mom in the action figure sketch and the Booty Rap girl, there were two great characters who were, like, unexpectedly sexual.

I like to play characters that have an inner confidence that maybe you wouldn’t expect them to have and that they aren’t afraid to unleash occasionally. There’s fun to be had there.

What are some things you’ve done on this show that you were like, “I really just can’t believe I’m doing this…”

The best example of that would be my first year when Kevin Hart hosted, we wrote a sketch called “Foam Party.” It did not make it to air. But SNL built this insane club set that was basically like a giant hot tub, or something. It was all filled with foam. There were tons of extras and we were all in the foam. Kevin Hart played this foam party DJ and I played this woman who lost everything she loved in the foam: her social security card, her antique combs that were her mother, all these crazy things. Eventually she lost her bichon frise named Diane. Looked exactly like the foam. When that got cut from dress, I couldn’t believe that, oh my god, we built this gigantic working foam club in three days and then it was just straight up cut out of the show.

What are some of your favorite Weekend Update desk appearances?

I haven’t done Update that much, but probably one of my favorite things I’ve ever done on the show was “Worst Lady on the Airplane.” I did that with Seth, and that was one of his last few shows. I just feel so close to Seth and he so changed my life and my boyfriend’s life. He taught me so much and he’s so important to me. And to do this thing where I could feel the tide was changing for me on the show, where I was allowed to do more things that were my flavor, and to just get up there and make my friend laugh a little bit was great.

In the past few years there’s been so much changeover of cast. Veterans left, new cast members came, a lot of new cast members were fired. How much of that bleeds into you guys in the studio? Do you feel pressure of being on a show “in transition”?

I mean we’re definitely aware of it. We hear things. Some of us read more and some of us don’t. One of the things we talk about a lot within the cast is how much the show now is broken down into three-minute chunks and dissected. I don’t think that happened in the ‘90s and the ‘80s and I wonder if there’s a purity to that that I envy sometimes. I think that if you went to go see a stand-up show or a sketch show live, you’d take it for what it is and just enjoy it. “I had a good time, and that’s what matters.” But it’s become such a math problem of “who has the most to do this week,” or “who had the most screentime?”

There really are those rankings that exist after each episode airs every week.

I know! I think sometimes I almost feel like, it’s just a comedy show. You know? Just enjoy it and then go to bed. That’s what I do. I don’t know how much I take in all of that. But of course we want to do a good job. And there are certain reassuring things, though. I feel like even when Will Ferrell was on, people were like, “This show’s horrible!” And those were some of the best episodes ever, you know?

Exactly. Even the best times of SNL each week had some really amazing sketches and some real stinkers. And currently, SNL each week has some really amazing sketches in an episode and some really bad ones. Nothing’s changed.

Yes. I think people also underestimate how much we really do write it all in six days. It’s so fast. We’re on to the next one by the time all the people are analyzing the last one.

In my review of the premiere this season, I wrote that I feel like this could be a big moment for the female cast members on SNL. In a way that there hasn’t been since Amy, Tina, Maya, and Rachel. Where there was a plethora of strong women, instead of just, like, Kristen Wiig doing every sketch each week. The female bench is deep.

A big part of it is that we all really enjoy being together. And that’s not, like, the beautiful logline. We are really close. My favorite things have been when we get to do all-girl anything, really. That’s part of why Kate [McKinnon], Chris, Sarah, and I wrote the “Do It on the Twin Bed” thing. We were like, let’s get all the girls in a music video.

The SNL Pussycat Dolls.

I mean, you hit that nail right on the head. We just really enjoy it. I think we all really enjoy each other’s successes a lot. It feels very cool to be part of a girl gang.

And you’ve gotten to go on this whole ride with Cecily. She was in Chicago with you, right?

Yeah! And we knew each other. And I knew Vanessa, too. Actually, Vanessa, my boyfriend, and I did a show in Chicago a few months before she got hired. It’s really special to me that I’ve known these girls for years and now we get to perform together.

When something happens like Cecily being taken off Weekend Update or the whole brouhaha about “there needs to be a black female cast member,” what is it like for the cast?

I don’t know. I kind of trust the show, at this point. I really do trust their instincts. Of course we all talk and ask how each other is feeling. We really wanted to make sure Sasheer felt welcome and that we didn’t think it was just a diversity hire, that we think she’s hilarious and that’s why she’s here. And even Leslie bumping up, it’s thrilling because, god, she just makes everyone laugh so hard all the time. And Cecily is so good at characters. So I’m happy to have her in more of that stuff. I think we all just try to make sure everyone feels OK.

What is the most unexpected thing to have happened from all of this?

This is a very broad answer, but I feel like the amount of people I admire who I know think of as friends blows my mind. Just through doing this show I’ve gotten to be friends with Annie St. Vincent or Lena Dunham, people whose work I’ve admired for a long time and now I feel close to them. Even just meeting Paul McCartney and having him talk to me like I’m not some girl screaming on the side of the road.

No big deal.

My first year Kristen Wiig hosted the week it was my birthday. Sometimes we go to this host dinner on Tuesday nights with the host and a couple of cast members and the producers. It happened to fall on my birthday and they had a little cake for me. I could not comprehend the fact that Kristen and Lorne and Bill and all these people are singing “Happy Birthday” to me. Like, what is happening? Last year I went to a shitty bar with friends.

What is the weirdest thing that’s happened?

I love Instagram. I find it to be one of the truly positive social media things that exist. I like that it’s, “This is a nice thing that I saw. Good day, everybody.” And an old photo of my mom and my feet was on Instagram. And someone named something like, “Vampire Man Randy,” commented on it and wrote, “sex feet.” I was like, that’s weird. Then he tagged me in one of his posts, and it was a horrific pencil drawing of my face. [Laughs]

My boyfriend printed it out and put it in his office. It is insane looking. I basically look like an egg with eyes, that then has a ton of lipstick on. Then I went through all of his other photos and they’re all photos of feet with lotion on them. And then one pencil drawing of my face, and one pencil drawing of the Genie from Aladdin. It rocked me to my core. “Should I delete my Instagram? What do I do?” Even now I’m like, if Kevin puts this in his article, is this man going to see and try to find me?

And finally, what is the thing from your time here so far that people ask you about the most?

I would say “Dyke and Fats.”

“Dyke and Fats” was brilliant.

That was my proudest moment on the show.

I love it because it so brilliantly owns these things that everyone always used as identifiers for the two of you when you were first cast, Kate’s sexuality and your weight, as if those things somehow mattered.

It just takes so much of the power back. That’s something that I love. The thing I like about it, like, “Hey, everybody, this is what we are. And also fuck you.” It’s just so fun. Also Kate and I are best buds and got to roll around and eat donuts. That’s pretty great, too. Truly the best day of my life.