Class of ’04 | When Vanessa Bayer C’04 was little, she would wear tutus to school, sing and dance in the aisles of movie theaters, and put on shows for her family with pieces of yarn in her hair.
Things haven’t changed too much since then. The only difference is now the whole country can watch her.
From a suburban house outside Cleveland to legendary Studio 8H at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, Bayer has risen to fame as the newest star of Saturday Night Live.
“She always dressed up like it was Halloween and would do these weird shows for us,” recalls her older brother, Jonah Bayer. “I remember her running around in a bathing suit and singing and doing this whole routine. It’s funny she’s doing the same thing now on a different level.”
Of course, it took a lot more than starring in her own child productions to join the cast of one of the most venerable shows on television. Bayer got her first true taste of comedic acting with Bloomers, Penn’s all-female musical-and-sketch-comedy group, then honed her skills as a comedian in Chicago after graduating. Last summer, she did a showcase at Chicago’s iO Theater in front of SNL creator/producer Lorne Michaels and impressed him enough to be invited to New York for another audition. She was hired less than a week later, joining the cast of the late-night sketch-comedy show as a featured player for the 36th season.
“My first day of work, I remember meeting people and I was so star-struck,” Bayer says. “But I had to act like it was a normal thing to meet these people. I couldn’t ask for autographs of the people I was going to work with.”
On Saturday nights, you can catch Bayer playing everything from an awkward Bar Mitzvah boy to the current Secretary of State. One impersonation in particular, however, has transformed the Penn graduate from a little-known rookie actor into a Hulu sensation. For that, she can thank ditzy teenage pop star Miley Cyrus, the subject of Bayer’s popular depictions. Bayer’s “Miley Cyrus Show”—which begins with the catchy jingle “I got guests … and a show … and I’m ready to go … so I guess that’s pretty cool … it’s pretty cool”—debuted in October and has been a staple of SNL ever since.
In March, Cyrus herself came on “The Miley Cyrus Show” and did an impression of another famous teenage singer, Justin Bieber. Earlier that week, Cyrus confessed to Bayer that she enjoyed the skit, which was a huge relief to the SNL actor, who’s been studying the pop singer for years. “I took a character workshop a couple of summers ago where we worked on impressions, and that’s when I first started working on it,” says Bayer, who did her Cyrus impersonation as part of her SNL audition. “I felt like she was such a great personality. She’s a fun person to do.”
“The Miley thing has been crazy,” adds brother Jonah, a music journalist in New York. “People are seeing it now and the reaction is wild, but they don’t know how long she’s been practicing it. It looks a lot easier to do than it is.”
Many of Bayer’s other characters, most notably the Bar Mitzvah boy, were first developed when she was in Bloomers, which she compared to SNL for being “a little community.” And as with the NBC show, she felt lucky just getting into the highly regarded Penn troupe. During her freshman year, Bayer auditioned for two a cappela groups, one of which was Off the Beat, because she was told that they really needed new people.
“I think I sang ‘Give My Regards to Broadway,’” Bayer recalls. “I’m sure they laughed at me but I remember thinking that they needed people so they’d probably take me. Turns out, they did not need people.” So on to comedy it was. “As soon as I started doing [Bloomers], I thought, ‘This is the best thing.’ I knew it was what I wanted to do for my career.”
Bayer, a communications major, credits the University for helping her with her career path, even if it was an unconventional one. And she finds it pretty remarkable that one of her classmates, stand-up comedian Whitney Cummings C’04, is another rising star in the business. “Part of that has to do with Penn being really supportive of what you do,” Bayer says. “I remember when I met with my career counselor at the end of my senior year, I told her that I wanted to do comedy. And she said, ‘You should just start performing at different clubs.’ She wasn’t like, ‘No, this isn’t a good choice for you.’ She was like, ‘Great, you should do that.’”
Bayer still returns to campus as much as she can to catch Bloomers in action. When she came to the group’s most recent show in February, there was a significant buzz around the new SNL star, but Bayer deflected any recognition.
“She was very humble, very friendly, like she was just hanging out with good friends,” says the current Bloomers chair, Rachel Romeo C’11. “She’s a really big inspiration. We’ve got several girls interested in going into comedy writing or acting, and this gives us not only a network but encouragement that we can jump into that world too.”
Bayer’s friendliness extends beyond University City. While being other people may take practice, being herself is easy. It mostly just takes a smile. “She’s always talking to people—whether it’s a waiter at a restaurant or someone looking for directions,” says Jonah. “She was put into a crazy situation and she couldn’t have handled it better. All the social genes went to her. If strangers came up to me and asked for my picture, I would run away. She’ll stay and talk to them for about five minutes.”
Bayer’s family has handled everything well, all of them tuning in every Saturday night at 11:30 to get a glimpse of their very own featured player. Bayer’s father, Todd, when he’s not giving Vanessa sketch ideas, now watches every Entertainment Tonight episode to see if his daughter is mentioned. And Jonah, who used to stay up late with his little sister to watch SNL (Chris Farley was their favorite), got to go backstage for the show’s season premiere. He even appears with her in the opening credits.
“This is kind of what Vanessa always wanted, but it was something that seemed so unbelievable that we didn’t want to get our hopes up too much,” says Jonah. “It seemed like such a crazy thing. It’s hard to even sit down and think about that it actually happened.”
The newfound fame is sometimes hard for Vanessa to comprehend, too. It is, after all, a long way from those movie-theater aisles in Cleveland.
“Every time you’re on that [SNL] set,” she says, “you think about who’s been there and what goes on there. It’s very surreal.”
—Dave Zeitlin C’03