‘Star Wars’ mania came to The Second City.
Aidy Bryant is having one helluva year, and she returned to The Second City to tell us all about it–not to mention her recent tetanus shot and the biggest regret of her comedy career.
The SNL repertory player, an alumna of The Second City and Columbia College Chicago’s Comedy Studies program, The Second City Touring Company, and The Second City e.t.c., is spreading her boss wings with Shrill. The six-episode Hulu original series is based on a book by Lindy West, and Bryant isn’t just the show’s star–she is also the co-creator, co-executive producer, and occasional co-social media-er.
Bryant spoke to The Second City’s co-artistic director Matt Hovde (also Bryant’s first director at The Second City, “so shout-out to Matt!”), in front of an audience of Second City Training Center students. In the hour-long conversation, she opened up about how her years of hard work have all led to the ultra-personal Shrill, a show where “we wanted to take this person–who was always a sidekick–and turn them into the hero of the story.”
Shilling for Shrill
Bryant fell in love with West’s 2016 memoir Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman when she read it, “just as a person who occasionally reads a book.” Upon learning that “cool, badass pioneer” Elizabeth Banks had optioned the project, Bryant immediately began making calls to inquire about the project’s status. As fate would have it, her agent informed her that she was the first choice to play the lead, but Bryant was interested in a lot more–thanks in no small part to her collaborative background working at The Second City and SNL, where she was accustomed to creating her own material.
As a first-time series producer, Bryant dipped her toes into all kinds of new experiences, finding herself in the position of signing off on scripts, music, costumes, edits, and even marketing. “The most thrilling part of it was being able to hire people,” she said. One of those people was Ian Owens, also a Second City Touring Company alum (and a graduate of The Second City Hollywood’s Conservatory Program), who came out to join the conversation.
“There’s just, like, an easiness about his performance,” Bryant said about Owens, who plays her character’s supportive friend. (He is equally supportive IRL, calling his boss Bryant “a total dreamboat.) “When we saw Ian, it was just easy. So natural.”
Since she also was a writer on the show, Bryant spoke to the way in which her training allowed her to attack the story. “Improv is how I learned to write narrative,” she said, explaining that her process was to essentially improvise a two-person scene in her head. The group writing was also very similar to the kind of collaboration she was used to creating a revue at The Second City, though the multiple levels of approval a television series was new to her, admitting, “That’s a lot of damn fingers and notes in your soup.”
In an industry where the number of platforms for content has exploded–though many creators struggle for years to get their projects made–the stars aligned for Shrill. After receiving multiple offers, Bryant and her cohorts found the ideal partner in Hulu, who were “above and beyond supportive, creatively” and essentially gave them carte blanche. They instructed the team to “‘make what you want to make,’ which is like hell-fucking-yeah,” said the extremely grateful Bryant.
To accommodate Bryant’s SNL schedule, the show was fast-tracked after they wrote the pilot script–a rare experience in the developmental hell that Hollywood can often be. “In some ways, that was really scary, she admitted. “They were like, ‘Okay, we’re gonna just send you straight to series…We got picked up in May; we wrote in June and July; we shot in August and September, and it came out now in March,” also adding, “I’m so tired.”
Comedy with a Whole Heart
From abortion to body inclusivity, Shrill tackles some of the most real issues facing people today, and “the fact that it’s resonating with people is so overwhelming.” Bryant is “very proud that I think we made a show about a whole person,” and that audiences are seeing themselves in–and having empathy for–her character, “Annie,” someone who has, at times in her life, been “the punchline.”
Answering an audience question about her tailored, chic wardrobe on the show, Bryant explained her clothing was all custom made, a choice she said was due to the “limited availability of inclusive sizes…We wanted to have clothes that we just weren’t finding,” and she hopes the tailored, chic pieces send a message to designers. “We’re showing the public, and hopefully the fashion industry, what could be,” she said, “if they would just step up.”
Advice for New Improvisers
Bryant also shared her words of wisdom for those just getting started in comedy, assuring the students that just by being at The Second City and in Chicago, they’re already “in the right place.” Here are her top three takeaways she passed on:
- Diversify: “The best thing I ever did was diversify,” Bryant said, explaining that she studied and performed at several of Chicago’s improv institutions. However, her one regret is not being as equally experimental with her formats, saying, “If I could go back in time, I’d try stand-up…I just wish that I’d tried it all.”
- Know Yourself on Stage: Get in front of as many different audiences as possible. Former cruise ship entertainer Bryant described the worst show of her career was at The Second City for an entire audience of Texas police officers. “To say that they hated it is the understatement of the year…at one point, a man literally stood up and said, ‘This is bad.’” That moment challenged her, and it left her stronger–so during her agonizing SNL audition, she was able to take solace in the fact that a quiet audience was better than that group of cops.
- Celebrate Your Uniqueness: “I have always felt what made me different made me better,” Bryant explained. Her goal now is for the industry to keep on embracing differences, saying, “We have to keep putting people who haven’t been at the center of the story at the center of the story.”
Judging by how audiences are responding to Shrill, it’s safe to say that Bryant has made herself a shepherd of the kinds of stories that have yet to be told. The entertainment industry is lucky to have someone as passionate, dedicated, and hands-on as she is. Hell, she even does her own stunts, although after the first episode’s epic fence jump, “I had to get a tetanus shot…’cause I got punctured.” Now that’s showing commitment to her craft.
Photo by: Timothy M. Schmidt