03 The Positivity of Vanessa Bayer

Kind. Well-adjusted. Mindful. Disciplined. These are not the words commonly associated with professional comedians. But Saturday Night Live cast member Vanessa Bayer represents a new breed of comic actor—one whose work thrives on happiness, hard work and healthfulness. “Everyone goes through difficult things in life,” she tells Jonah Bayer. “Comedians are the ones who choose to laugh about it.”

I have to admit I’m a little biased when it comes to Saturday Night Live cast member Vanessa Bayer. Mainly because I’m her older brother. As such, I’ve witnessed her grow from a bubbly child performing Paula Abdul songs with ribbons in her hair, to an amazing comedian who has thrived in the business, whether as a stand-up, or as part of an improv group, or in SNL sketches alongside some of the biggest names in entertainment.

The constants throughout Vanessa’s journey have been a backbone of hard work and an unflagging optimism. While I was personally lured by the siren song of rock ’n’ roll and viewed schoolwork as a distraction from my twin goals of listening to Megadeth and making bongs out of anything within reach, Vanessa was always an adept student, who spent much of her free time studying, and subsequently maintained a 4.0-plus grade point average. (The fact that I still don’t understand how that “plus” part is even statistically possible is testament to our very disparate high school experiences.)

That said, Vanessa has also faced adversity throughout her life, from her battle with leukemia as a teenager, to the rejection inherent in a performance-based field like comedy. But whether Vanessa is impersonating Miley Cyrus, telling a perfectly paced joke about a difficult time in her life or improvising onstage at a comedy club, she brings a spirit of positivity to everything she does, which is why I respect her more than anyone else on the planet.

Here, we discuss the importance of creating something good out of experiences we initially perceive as negative, finding inspiration in childhood innocence, tapping “real world” experiences to feed your art, and harnessing mindfulness to foster creativity.


Comedians are known for having dark personalities but I know firsthand that you’re pretty well adjusted. How did that happen?
I think comedians are sometimes given a bad rap in the sense that they’re portrayed as tortured, but I don’t think all comedians are necessarily negative, jaded or tortured; there are a lot of positive people doing comedy. Everyone goes through difficult things in life, but comedians are the ones who choose to laugh about it. We draw on those experiences because the strongest comedy comes out of things that aren’t easy to deal with or struggles that are universal.

Boyz II Mensch: Jonah at 13, the inspiration for Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy? Photo courtesy of Bayer family.

The characters you’re best known for—like Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy and your impression of Miley Cyrus—have a real childlike innocence about them. Is that a trait you consciously mine for your work?
I do find a lot of comedy in innocence. I also think kids are so funny because they’re really free—when you’re a kid, you’re not judging what you’re doing. For example, with Jacob, some people think it’s a loose portrayal of you, Jonah, when you were little, matching a lot of the gestures you do even today. The fact is, kids do so much funny stuff and they don’t even realize they’re doing it—they’re not hyperconscious about things the way adults are.

Would you say Jacob is more or less awkward than I was at 13?
They’re pretty close. I would say that you and Jacob probably have the same dad who you both think is so funny, even though he tells a lot of dad jokes.

It seems like when we were growing up, we had entertainment that was either intended exclusively for kids or for adults. Do you feel like children’s programming has a lot more crossover appeal now?
Yeah, that’s the thing about Sesame Street and the fact that it’s always been popular—adults can watch it, too, because it’s funny. Do you remember all the “Letter B” stuff set to the melody of “Let It Be”? When I interned [at Sesame Street] in college, they said it’s one of the things people remember most about the show from their childhood. I think a lot of that animated stuff is so smart now; it’s not over kids’ heads, but there’s stuff that adults can find in it, too.

Do you think your experience at Sesame Street primed you for a career in comedy?
Sesame Street is really funny and it showed me a certain kind of humor, but I also think that, with every job you do, you get more comedy experience. Before I started doing comedy full-time, I was working at an ad agency where I came in contact with a lot of people who didn’t necessarily know how funny they were, or I got involved in funny situations that stem from being in such a corporate environment. If you just went to school and then tried to become a comedian without doing any work in the real world—it wouldn’t be impossible—but it would be harder to find inspiration.
Obviously comedy isn’t a failsafe career choice like music journalism. Did you ever have any doubts about pursuing it full-time?
I feel really lucky because, once I was in college and started doing a sketch group, I was so into comedy and felt so much that it was where I was meant to be that I didn’t doubt it. There were times where I was working when I would get frustrated with my job and I would be like, “I want to do comedy all the time right now!” But in general, I always knew it was what I wanted to do, and now I’m fortunate that I had a chance to do all those other jobs at the time because I know I wouldn’t be as good of a comedian if I hadn’t done all that other stuff first.

What did you perform for your Saturday Night Live audition? How did you prepare?
I had been working on some characters and impressions for a year before I auditioned for SNL. I remember I took a character workshop where I polished my impression of Miley and some other characters, and a year later, the opportunity came up to do a showcase in Chicago, so I already had some material ready. I did Miley, one or two other impressions and some other original characters—like the child actress character I did on the first season [of SNL]. Then they flew me to New York a couple of weeks later, and honestly, even though I was nervous, I was so excited to be up on that stage auditioning for them that I actually really enjoyed the process.

How did the Miley impression come about and how much did it change by the time it appeared on air?
About a year before I auditioned for SNL, I had seen some of her stuff and started working on an impression of her because I thought she was such a cool and interesting person. I just started doing it and it was fun to do it, so even when I auditioned it was pretty similar to how it is now. So the impression has stayed the same but we’re always careful to make it funny and fun and not make it mean. She’s also, like, 21 years old, so it’s not cool to be bashing her. Or anyone, really. Unless it’s like Jerry Sandusky or someone. I feel like he’s fair game.
What’s your process for creating a celebrity impression?
For me, the best research is really watching interviews, because that’s when people are talking the most and being themselves. Movies can be good references, too, especially if they’re playing a character that’s close to their personality. The most fun impressions aren’t always the most accurate, because sometimes if you can just get something down about the person, that’s fun, too.

What about original characters?
A lot of the original characters are based on people from my past. The drama student character is based on when I did middle school drama and when I was a drama instructor as a camp counselor. A lot of my characters are based on things from my past because everyone has really funny people in their life and I think [those characters] are relatable, too.

Have any of your inspirations ever called you out on it, saying they recognized themselves in one of your characters?
Well, a lot of the faces I’m making in the opening sequence of the Miley sketch are based on photos our cousin posted on Facebook, and she and her parents figured it out. Obviously it’s a compliment to her that she makes such interesting faces, but it’s so funny that I was just making wacky faces and they immediately knew it. There are also stand-up jokes I do with friends’ names in them and I think people are generally flattered to be a part of it as long as it isn’t super negative. Once in a while people will figure out that they’re in your act and you’ve just got to act really cool about it.

How do you come up with good material in the moment, whether it’s onstage as part of an improv or during an intense writing session?
With improv, you’re really lucky because you’re onstage with other people and everyone is just responding to one another, so when, for example, I’m performing with my improv group Revolver, from Chicago, I’m just playing off them. You almost have to empty your mind a little bit in order to make the choices that seem natural, and if you come up with something and don’t overthink it and just do it, that helps with writing, too.

But a lot of times with writing, it’s what would seem funny, and so much of that is inspired by real life. I think some of the most fun characters are the ones who are most relatable, in the sense that they make you think, “I have that person in my life.” I think that’s why Jacob works, because everyone knows that little bar mitzvah boy who’s awkward and thinks of himself as a little mensch and doesn’t realize how cheesy his jokes are. So many people have said to me, “I know that little kid or I was that little kid.”



Mindfulness can boost creativity. To explore, try this simple guided meditation by our resident shaman, Robert Guard.


What exactly do you mean when you say “emptying your mind”?
I guess what I’m saying is that sometimes I’m in an improv show and I’m on the side of the stage watching my team, and instead of just listening to what’s happening, I’ll be thinking of what I’ll be doing next and that’s not a good thing to do because 1) I’m not listening to what’s happening in the scene as it’s currently going so it’ll be hard to reference that later on and 2) I’m getting inside my head.

If you’re engaged with the other person and listening to them, then the natural thing you want to do is trust your instincts and that will have a better result than anything you deliberate over. Sometimes I see amazing improvisers and I’ll wonder how they’re so quick, and I think—the reason I don’t know is because I’m not one of them—it’s because they’re so present and in the moment. They’re listening so intently that naturally great stuff is free to come out of them.

What else do you do, either onstage or offstage, to help get your mind into that “empty” state?
Before I do an improv show—especially with Revolver—we’ll do a lot of quick thinking games where it sort of helps you loosen up and not overthink things. Sometimes I’ll meditate if I can remember to do it, yoga helps, and honestly any kind of working out is good because you’re taking the focus off your mind and onto your body. I also think I get a lot from hanging out with my friends; it doesn’t help me empty my mind per se, but it helps me talk through things and realize what I’m thinking. It helps get stuff out of your head and then you leave more room in your brain, if that makes any sense.

When you were hired by SNL, everyone asked me if you were funny as a kid, but I feel like you got more into comedy through your college sketch group, Bloomers. I know you did a lot of impressions of family members, but I feel like comedy came to you later in life.
A lot of funny women I know weren’t class clowns, but they had interesting experiences. I think being a female class clown isn’t rewarded in the same way it is for a guy. And by the way, I think plenty of male comedians weren’t necessarily class clowns, either. But I think when you’re a young girl, you’re not rewarded for being wacky in class, so you have to come at it in a more intellectual way sometimes. Almost all of the girl class clowns I can think of were considered “misbehaved.”

But you were also a really good student. Do you think that work ethic helped you in comedy?
Yeah. When I decided I wanted to do comedy, my work ethic helped me because there’s a certain discipline to it. Also, it was a thing where all of my friends growing up, who are still mostly my best friends, were so athletic and I wasn’t. I was good at school and I liked excelling at that stuff, but then when I started doing comedy in college I was like, “Oh, this is another thing that I get. This must be what it’s like for [my friend] Gwen to swim.”

Speaking of growing up, how do you think having leukemia in high school affected your comedy career?
I think the way we dealt with it, especially having a dad who was an outwardly funny guy, was through a lot of joking with one another, and I think that’s also the way I handled it with my friends, and ultimately it made all of us comfortable.

This doesn’t really sound funny now, but at the time I’d say to people, “You think you’re so cool because your hair is real,” when I was wearing a wig. I think because we could all joke about it—not in a mean way—but just in a way of saying, “Let’s laugh about this because it’s more fun than crying about it,” that was really healing for all of us, so my friends didn’t feel alienated from me and I didn’t feel alienated from them.

We used laughter as a way to deal with it, and that was so positive that when I had the opportunity to be in a sketch group in college it was much deeper for me than just making people laugh. It really feels like a beautiful way to go through life, because when you’re laughing you can’t really be sad.

When you were sick, we took a family Make-A-Wish trip to Hawaii, which was pretty sweet. It must be a pretty powerful feeling to meet Make-A-Wish kids now on the set and share your story with them.
Oh yeah, I love it. It’s so great to be able to meet those kids and, even if they don’t have the same disease I had, to be able to hang out with them and tell them that I went through something similar and you can really accomplish anything in life if you put your mind to it. It’s one of my favorite perks of the job.

Conversation edited for length and clarity.