Vanessa Bayer watched so much QVC growing up that she admits it’s become “like a foreign language I can speak.” Her new series I Love That for You allows her to show off her fluency in the lingo that home-shopping hosts use to sell cashmere throws, genuine leather handbags, or platinum gold jewelry—often pronounced “jul-ry, like, with a u,” according to Bayer. In the comedy, airing Sundays on Showtime (streaming via the Showtime app on Fridays), the former Saturday Night Live star plays Joanna Gold, an aspiring host for the shopping channel SVN who, after getting fired, lies and says her childhood cancer has returned in order to keep her dream gig.
The eight-episode series, which Bayer co-created with fellow SNL alum Jeremy Beiler, is loosely based on her own life as a home-shopping devotee and a pediatric cancer survivor. “The essence of the show is my experience as someone who survived childhood leukemia,” she told TIME. “But I also happened to be someone who always loved attention and would use my illness to get perks and stuff, which was funny to me even while I was doing it.”
At 15, Bayer was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a cancer that affects the blood and bone marrow. She was in remission by her senior year of high school, but while undergoing treatment—first in the hospital, then at home—laughter became the best medicine. Her dad, Todd, was “the comedian of the family” and would often joke about her diagnosis with friends and relatives as a way to bring levity to a scary situation. “I think my dad taught me that humor was the best way—and maybe the only way—to get through it,” she says.
The ability to find comedy in something so grave also helped her stay connected to her childhood friends, most of whom are still part of her life today. “I think a lot of times when someone gets sick, people think that their personalities have changed,” Bayer says. “Me joking with my friends about my cancer and everything else reminded them that I was the same Vanessa, you know?” Except in this case, she could skip gym and show up to school at whatever time she wanted. “The attendance woman [at my high school] was really strict and I would watch all these kids get in trouble for coming in late, and it would be like, ‘Vanessa, go ahead,’” she says, sounding a tad guilty even years later.
Another clue Bayer was still the same Vanessa post-cancer diagnosis? She continued watching QVC around the clock while undergoing chemotherapy. She found hope in her favorite hosts Jane Treacy and Mary Beth Roe’s descriptions of a future full of events that would require the perfect accessories. “They would say things like, ‘You can wear this pendant to your nephew’s graduation,’ and even as a kid, I was like, ‘That would be so fun!’” she says. “Just the idea that [these QVC hosts] could make you feel like, if you wore this piece of jewelry, everyone would go, Who is that? was kind of inspiring.” (Bayer was able to meet Treacy and Roe while developing her new series. “They were so lovely!” she says.)
Bayer hopes that her character in I Love That For You will become a source of inspiration for anyone who feels as if they’re not good enough. “I think Joanna, like a lot of people, lies because she thinks it’s the one thing that makes her special,” she says. “She does a very wild thing to regain that feeling, pretending to have cancer, but I think a lot of people tell stories and put on those kinds of personas to help them get ahead in life.” Joanna could be the millennial version of Tess McGill, Melanie Griffith’s ambitious outer-borough secretary who tells a few fibs to launch her career in Working Girl. The 1988 film was one of the inspirations for I Love That For You. Like Tess, Bayer says, Joanna just “wants to feel special and be taken seriously for who she’s become.” The problem is that Joanna doesn’t seem to know who she is, a result of spending her formative teen years battling cancer.
That’s certainly not a problem for Bayer, who, over the course of her seven-season run on SNL from 2010 to 2017, became known for hilariously precocious characters like Jacob the Bar Mitzvah boy and “newscaster of tomorrow” Laura Parsons. More recently, she’s tackled small but memorable roles in comedies like Trainwreck, Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar, and I Think You Should Leave. With I Love That for You, which features SNL alum Molly Shannon and Black-ish’s Jenifer Lewis, she’s seizing the opportunity to show her serious side. “We wanted [the show] to always be comedy first, you know? We didn’t want to make people feel sad,” she says. “But it felt like some of the emotional stuff was the most honest.”
Making the show has been a surprisingly emotional experience for Bayer. She’s gotten choked up thinking about how much support her parents gave her while she was undergoing chemo more than 20 years ago. “My mom used to bring me pills on this silver tray because I had to take so many,” she says. “When I didn’t have to do that anymore, I remember it was really hard for both of us.”
In many ways, the Showtime series is a love letter to Bayer’s mom and dad, who helped her become the successful adult she is now—and the adult Joanna is learning to be. Bayer swears that her onscreen parents, played by Matt Malloy and Bess Armstrong, are exaggerated versions of her real parents, but that didn’t stop her mom from detecting a resemblance. “She saw Bess Armstrong and was like, ‘I’m so beautiful!’”
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