Long-time Saturday Night Live cast member Vanessa Bayer entertained a packed Bailey Hall audience on Saturday night — not as Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy or Miley Cyrus — but as herself, mostly.
Sprinkling in jokes and a Madonna impression, the actress spoke candidly with Prof. Samantha Sheppard, performing and media arts, about her life, comedy career and Jewish background — from feeling starstruck during her beginnings at SNL to using comedy to brave pediatric cancer.
The Cornell Hillel Major Speaker Series and Cornell University Program Board co-sponsored the event, which began with a dive into Bayer’s childhood and college years at the University of Pennsylvania, where she performed in a sketch comedy group called Bloomers that led her to discover she wanted to pursue comedy.
“I’m from Cleveland, I didn’t know anybody,” Bayer said, overcoming a lack of connections to go on to intern at Sesame Street, Nickelodeon and Late Night with Conan O’Brien. “College was so impactful in my career, because it was about making connections with people at my school.”
Bayer told the audience that she moved to Chicago after college, where she worked during the day at a production company and later at an ad agency. At night, she took comedy classes as well as performed improv and stand-up at The Second City, iO Theater and the Annoyance Theater.
“I really think that so much of my comedic voice came from those jobs that I
did during the day,” SNL’s longest-serving female cast member said. “It’s helpful to work in the real world for at least a few years, because then your comedy is more relatable and you have more stuff to draw from.”
Eventually, Bayer shed her former day jobs and hopped into a full-time comedy career. Second City hired her for a four-month stint on a cruise ship, where she performed one sketch show and two improv shows a week.
“We barely worked,” she joked to a laughing audience. “It was such a scam.”
About a year and a half after her return from sea, Bayer landed a spot on the cast of SNL — an adjustment that she said required her to try to “act normal” around cast members she long considered TV stars.
Recalling the thrill of getting “the call,” Bayer spoke of the impressions and characters she played during her audition, including versions of future SNL recurring characters: a perky poetry teacher that she based on her seventh grade English teacher and a child actor named Austin, who never debuted on the show but somewhat resembled the awkward Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy.
“It’s the most fun to see [Jacob] be presentational,” she said of the character in the famous “Weekend Update” sketch. “The whole thing behind the bar mitzvah boy is that 13-year-old boys are not old enough to be so formal.”
Bayer told the audience that her Jewish upbringing has most impacted her culturally.
“It’s a way of relating to people who are Jewish and not,” she said. “The cultural part of it has really influenced my life and my comedy so much. I’m very grateful for that.”
Outside of sketch comedy, Bayer has also stepped into the film industry, starring in movies like Trainwreck and Netflix’s Ibiza. She also authored a children’s book in 2019 titled “How Do You Care for a Very Sick Bear?” which was inspired by her experience battling leukemia as a teenager.
The event closed with a question-and-answer session, during which one student asked Bayer what she feels is the “biggest misconception” that college students have about the future.
She said that students shouldn’t feel that they have to know what they want to do with their lives right away.
“Give yourself the freedom to just let yourself figure it out,” Bayer said. “The thing you enjoy doing is probably the thing you should do.”