Aidy Bryant Is You, But Famous

The soup of the day at The Roxy Hotel is “asparagus and shrimp,” and now that Aidy Bryant has inquired about it, she feels obligated to consider it. “Okay,” she nods politely. “That sounds cool…” She doesn’t want the soup, I can tell. And neither do I — it sounds like something devised by scientists to make your pee smell — but this is the third time our server has asked if we’re ready, and social etiquette requires we pretend we’re close.

We are seated for lunch in a comically large red velvet booth, and we’re here to talk about Shrill, the show she’s been developing over the past year for Hulu. Adapted from the best-selling memoir by Lindy West that unpacks the modern politics of being fat, outspoken and female, it’s Aidy’s first time leading a scripted series. Only we haven’t gotten there yet, because we keep chatting like old biddies.

“What if I ordered a full lobster?” she jokes, when we finally scan the options. I tell her she should — I want her to order whatever she wants, because I decided 30 minutes ago, shortly after we met, that I want her to have whatever she wants in perpetuity. “That would be psychotic,” she says.

Something about her makes me feel at ease, like she inherently forgives my core incompetencies or has already seen me drunk. As our server patiently hovers, she finally makes her choice: “Can I please get the crudités with a side of fries?”

It’s a scientifically perfect order. When I tell her as much, she says it’s one of her go-tos when she’s traveling, “because I’m like, ‘I need some fries to have some fun, baby.’”

Over the course of lunch, three people approach our table to tell her she makes them laugh every weekend — some more lucidly than others. “Do I know you from somewhere or are you famous?” asks one (a trick question), before delving into a lengthy personal monologue, offering her some chocolates, and finally asking: “Will you please tell me your name?”

When he leaves, we exchange a look of joyful alarm. “There were seven confusing things about that interaction,” I say.

“I’m shaken,” she jokes.

But it doesn’t show. Aidy greets fans generously, with no detectable discomfort. She claims she’s not stopped that often — “It looks like I planted these people” — but I don’t believe her. She is approachable and maintains no “I’m famous” air, even though such an air would be forgivable. Later, she DMs me that she ate the chocolates in “a dark moment at work” and confirms they were delicious, so I guess stars really are just like us.

Aidy grew up in Phoenix, Arizona, where she attended a “very Catholic” all-girls prep school (there was a Right to Life club). She was surrounded by girls from Scottsdale, whom she describes as having a “Paris Hilton-y” vibe, and who wore tank tops and swimsuits year round. “I would not go back to high school for anything,” she says. “I was just always like, I’m the opposite of this. Nothing about me fits this.

In college, like most 17-year-old malcontents, she saw an opportunity to transform. “I swung really far back the opposite way and was like, I’m going to a straight-up art school in Chicago, where everyone had purple hair and their face pierced, basically.” That’s where it all changed, she says earnestly, aware of but unwilling to deny her corniness. “I met fat women who were cool and dressed cool, and all my friends were textile designers and graphic designers and painters and filmmakers.”

Although many past reporters have described Aidy a certain way in their coverage of her — with words like “sparkly,” “bubbly” and “unicorn,” perhaps as a nod at the traditionally girly characters she often plays on SNL, or the way she decorates her Instagram, with every pink and shimmering emoji in existence — in front of me, she reads far less Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She’s dressed in simple wireframe glasses and a baggy wool sweater. She’s conversationally generous and forthright, both darkly and theatrically funny, and she keeps derailing our conversation to ask me questions about myself. Chatting with her feels like catching up with someone you know intimately, or perhaps more navel-gazingly, like peering through a looking glass and seeing how you, a decidedly unfamous person, might respond to the dizzying condition of celebrity.

Fame found her at 25. After graduating college, Aidy found her way to Second City, the Chicago improv group famous for incubating comedic stars like Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. And after a few years of nightly improv shows, she was scouted by SNL and brought on as one of the show’s youngest cast members.

Naturally, she was terrified. “I had never been on camera before, so I didn’t know how any of it worked.” She spent her first year motivated by a fear of getting fired, which entailed over-preparing for pitch meetings and engaging in a kind of behind-the-scenes strategizing she likens to “dating in the early stages” — she was eager to show what she could do, but not always entirely sure what that was yet.

It took me a long time to get to this place.

Later in our conversation, when Justin Bieber’s recent marriage to Hailey Baldwin comes up, as it’s wont to do between Gal Pals, I ask if she remembers him hosting her first season. “I was in such a tidal wave of terror that I don’t even remember,” she says — so “far up her own ass” that she didn’t even register meeting him. It’s a thrilling expression of work jitters.

Several seasons and two Emmy nominations later, she’s officially swapped out that Bieber anxiety for the kind of productive fearlessness and lack of preciousness that pairs well with earned respect. Does she ever show up to “pitch” with no ideas? “One thousand percent, yes.” Does she ever have to do characters she doesn’t like? “Yes, all the time. Yes.” But she cares deeply about her work with a palpable zeal. She loves it and has no plans to stop. “It took me a long time to get to this place,” she says.

Aidy seems, dare I utter the unrelatable word, content, but that doesn’t mean she’s not constantly encouraged to be less so. SNL is an interesting career milestone in that, for many up-and-coming comedians, it’s considered the ultimate gig, affording a steady flow of money, creative work and national recognition. But cast members who find success on the show are quickly expected to use it as a launch pad for a solo comedic career. Aidy felt that pressure right away. “In my first couple years at SNL, I kept having book agents reach out and basically be like, ‘Write your Tina Fey, Amy Poehler memoir!’ And I was like, ‘I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. I need some more time!’”

She took it. She’s never subscribed to the brazen “do something that scares you every day” motivational camp, instead preferring the kind of pace that includes percolation. “I think there’s something to working in strict parameters for a while so that you can learn,” she says. “To work in a place where there’s a lot of structure so that when you have the opportunity to build your own [project], you can ask yourself: How do I want mine to run?” In watching and learning with a kind of anti-Hollywood patience, she’s been able to pursue personal projects with careful integrity.

Aidy’s fresh off a year of heavy travel. Last April, following a proposal she thought was a joke, she married her long-time boyfriend and fellow comedian Conner O’Malley; they honeymooned in Italy in the spring. In the summer, she was off to L.A. to write Shrill, then in Portland to film in the fall, all while maintaining her duties at SNL in New York.

But only a couple years ago, Shrill was just a feature on her bedside table. A book of essays by Lindy West that tackles the unique and modern consequences of being an outspoken woman online and exhibiting self-love while fat, Aidy saw herself in it immediately. And then, by chance, she saw a news article reporting that actor, director and producer Elizabeth Banks had just optioned it.

“I was like, I wonder what she is going to do with that,” Aidy remembers. So she called her agent out of curiosity, and in a serendipitous turn fit for John Cusack: “They were like, ‘It’s so weird that you called. We just got off the phone with [Elizabeth Banks’ production company]. You’re their first pick.’”

Shrill-the-show, which premiered March 15 on Hulu, is a loose adaptation of Shrill-the-book, taking the general professional and emotional ethos outlined by West and applying them to a character that Aidy describes “an amalgamation” of her, West and the seven other writers in the room, who included Samantha Irby and Ali Rushfield. (Aidy serves as a senior writer on the show in addition to playing its lead.)

In episode 4 of Shrill, written by Samantha Irby, Annie attends a “Fat Babe” pool party.
Photo by Allyson Riggs / © Hulu / Courtesy of the Everett Collection.

It centers an aspiring writer named Annie as she traverses familiar twenty-something challenges like shaping a nascent career, fucking guys who kind of suck and learning to look in the mirror with kindness. Many of the key plot points — like Annie’s determination to build a byline for an alt online pub and facing public backlash as a result — echo West’s storied career at sites like Jezebel, The Stranger and the The New York Times, where her notable pieces include “How to Make a Rape Joke,” “Hello, I Am Fat” and “Brave Enough to Be Angry.”

I received a four-episode screener of the show (there are six episodes total) ahead of getting lunch with Aidy and, despite original plans to watch them slowly, stayed up until 3 a.m. consuming them in one greedy fell swoop.

The show is emotionally cozy, aesthetically beautiful and genuinely funny, but it also has depth — its characters exhibit a satisfying lack of consistency that defines almost everyone I know in real life. This requires a kind of double-acting on the part of its cast: Aidy is Annie, for example, but she is also Annie pretending to be someone she isn’t for the sake of others’ comfort — the most convincing role many of us will ever play.

The show isn’t about “taking off her ugly cardigan and putting on a party dress.”

“I appreciate that you noticed that,” Aidy says, “because that was something we put a lot of effort into … I think there’s something [resonant] about the fact that Annie already feels like she’s wrong, for just existing.” They considered calling the show Sorry, Aidy tells me, to telegraph that kind of existential pretense, but she’s glad they ultimately stuck with Shrill. Because even if Annie’s rocky pursuit of self-respect is foundational to her character, it’s less central to the plot, and that was by design: It was crucial that Annie be more than her insecurities, Aidy says, and that this story about a fat woman not be a makeover story.

But that doesn’t mean it follows a straight, feel-good line. One of the most refreshing aspects of the show is its refusal to cast characters as steadfastly evolving, or code them as clearly likable. Like real people, they each have the capacity to fuck up, to feel off, to come to a realization and then forget it. Becoming confident is not about a “switch flipping,” Aidy says. “It’s this push and pull and it takes a lot of emotional labor for the people in your life.”

Acting-wise, tackling this kind of complexity was new territory for Aidy. “It was really nice to feel so challenged — like way out of my comfort zone. There were just so many times where I was like, I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing and I’m just going to wing it here.”

More than anything, Aidy wanted to make a show that spoke to the emotional tenor of modern womanhood. “You don’t have to be plus-sized to watch it and be like, That’s my story. We made an effort to make it pretty universal as far as just being a woman around our age who has come up in this you-can-do-anything world, but also maybe hasn’t found a way to put that into practice.”

The promotional posters for Shrill show Aidy standing in the center of a human-sized scallop shell; she’s the pearl in a purple one-piece bathing suit. Her hand is on her hip, her chin is tilted up and her gaze points directly at the camera. “Be loud,” it reads. It’s the kind of image that feels distinctly, refreshingly, of its time. A modern Birth of Venus.

In recent years, Aidy has become more vocal about size-inclusivity in the entertainment and fashion industries, speaking candidly in interviews about the shoddy ways the two intersect for women who aren’t sample size. I ask whether that’s something she came to naturally, or whether certain forces thrust her into it. “It’s something that I never anticipated doing,” she says. “And even when I got to SNL, I think I always approached it from a point of view of like, I’m going to work so hard and be so good that my body can’t stop me from getting hired in these places.

But today, she feels differently. Her size is part of who she is, she tells me, and part of her experience as a public figure. “Why hide it or push it down?” Understanding that when she gets on screen — or poses for a photoshoot — she naturally represents a certain group of people has changed how she pursues work. It means carefully considering the context of her own casting, even if the writing isn’t explicitly demeaning, or in the case of Shrill, thoughtfully writing her size into it. “I represent something — and I can either shirk that or embrace it.”

When I ask if she’s comfortable using her platform to take a political stance, as is often expected of celebrities today, she says she admires those who do, but has always believed she can reach the most people through what she’s best at, which is comedy. “I don’t feel equipped to go on a talk show [and speak on policy],” she says. “But what I do think I can do is I can write a fat character with dignity who’s in control of her body and has humanity. And when I’m making my own show, I can make an effort to hire diverse people, you know what I mean?”

When Aidy’s crudités arrives, we are delighted to find that it’s comprised of daintily chopped veggies arranged artfully in a bowl of ice, like tiny colorful penguins. “Oh my god, I’m thrilled, absolutely. Please know this is all up for grabs,” she says.

But despite wanting to with my entire body, I’m too afraid to partake, even in her plentiful leftovers an hour later. We get to talking about this kind of fearfulness — particularly when it means reconfiguring your desire from something you feel inherently into something tied up in people’s perception of you.

“I feel like for probably 99 percent of my life I’ve been like, Well I don’t want to make those people mad by going through that way so if I go all the way around…” she says, pointing to the tables around us and painting a metaphor of a crowded restaurant that’s impossible to traverse politely. “And it’s like…for what?”

“Sometimes I don’t pee on planes because I don’t want to ask the person to move,” I add.

“One thousand percent,” she says. “I think the thing that blows my mind is realizing that not everybody’s doing that. That’s crazy. Why am I doing it?”

There is a balance to strike, we agree, between chronic subservience and full-fledged self-interest, but she still feels too loyal to the former — which is something she is actively addressing through her work, as well as through her status as a public figure.

Although she considers herself to have only a “small, low level of fame,” strangers often feel entitled to the details of her personal life. “It bums me out hard,” she says, of feeling the need to put up a wall. “I pride myself on being a genuine, grounded person, so when I sit with someone for lunch or whatever, I’m like, Let’s just talk and be normal,” she says. But that kind of candor can also get her in hot water. “It’s like a snake eating its own tail, where I want to protect myself but I also want to be myself.”

The broad strokes of Aidy’s public life might read, correctly or not, like a series of wins, but each one has presented her with the unique and universal challenge of knowing herself — despite and then because of them. Perhaps this is the distinct incongruity Aidy is hoping to capture in Shrill: that an external transformation pales in comparison to something less visible. That a perceived sense of success means nothing when you move through the world like a sentient apology.

In exploring herself through her work, in giving herself permission to do that slowly, thoughtfully and in a way that highlights rather than sidelines her talents, she’s become uniquely, tenderly self-assured. Her resolve is still unfinished — it has not been polished into a quippy sound bite. She has simply, as the poet Mary Oliver once put it, “let the soft animal of her body love what it loves,” and do what it does.

As we finish the meal and I prepare, emotionally, to leave a few fries behind, I confess to wavering in my own attempts to say something with my writing. “Sometimes people will be like, ‘Who do you think you are?’ And I’ll think, I agree. Who do I think I am?

“I know,” she says, “but that’s such a slippery slope, because, well, who is anybody?”

Photographed by Edith Young. Styled by Harling Ross. Makeup by Cassandra Garcia. Hair by Joseph Maine.

Haley Nahman

Haley Nahman

Haley Nahman is the Features Director at Man Repeller.

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