When a former cast member of arguably the most loved and prolific TV show of the past 45 years came to campus, people were excited. They asked her questions like, “what was it like to get the call?” and, “what is your favorite on-set memory?” Vanessa Bayer answered these questions with gracious humor. She told the audience that it was frustrating not being able to tell her friends why she was moving to New York, and revered Ryan Gosling’s surprising intensity in the sketch “Santa Baby.” Although it was a blast hearing Bayer talk fondly about those memories, I had heard those questions asked repeatedly in YouTube interviews. But the most interesting points of discussion at Bayer’s talk didn’t quite fit the mold of Conan or Jimmy Fallon interviews.
My favorite moment from the talk was when an audience member asked Bayer about what advice she would have for a college audience. She recalled a time when her peers in college would ask her questions along the lines of, “what bank are you at?”, prompting her to ask herself: “Should I be working at the bank?!” The anxiety of lacking the perfect internship, job or summer program is a common fear at Cornell. Smiling, Bayer leveled with us: “No, you don’t have to work at the bank.”
An audience member also asked Bayer about dealing with failure, specifically about bombing during stand-up comedy. Bombing a stand-up set seems like one of the most nerve-wracking things a person can experience, but everyone has felt some variety of failure akin to bombing on stage (think: terrible presentations or first dates).
“It’s like falling off a horse, or whatever you ride,” Bayer told us. She explained that when we fail, we emerge slightly wiser: “I just bombed, and I’m okay. If I got through that, I can get through anything.”
The high-stress environment of media is infamous, but being a student is also a little like showbiz.
When prompted to tell the audience about her experience working at SNL, Bayer described the uncertainty built into the show. “Going into a show, you don’t know what’s staying or what gets cut,” she said, referring to the potentially devastating moment when a writer’s sketch, the proud result of a long night of hard work, isn’t selected to be in the week’s televised show. That feeling likely resonated with the student audience — rejection from clubs or getting low grades on projects you worked hard on is reminiscent of the same kind of disappointment.
Bayer continued to demystify comedy by explaining one of comedy’s noble purposes — helping people get through hard times. As a fifteen-year-old leukemia patient, Bayer’s prized joke was, “You guys think you’re so cool ‘cause your hair is real.”
“You don’t get it, it was funny, trust me,” Bayer said to the audience, who seemed a little uneasy at the cancer joke.
Jewish humor has the same power, Bayer discussed. Bayer mentioned ye olde “Jewish guilt,” the guilt that results from our own existence, despite the murder of millions of our people. Obviously, this subject is extremely dark, but joking about it renders it less scary and more accessible to both Jewish people and to non-Jewish people. Maybe this is why humor worked for Bayer and her friends when she was battling cancer — jokes connect people no matter the circumstances.
To be honest, I rolled my eyes when someone from the audience asked which celebrity was the least fun to work with. Besides the inappropriate nature of the question, it couldn’t have captured Bayer’s remarkable perspective on life. Triumph over leukemia, persistence and success in the comedy world, authorship of a children’s book, unapologetic femininity and pride in her Jewish heritage make Vanessa Bayer a truly unique actress of this century; she is worthy of good interview questions.
Emma Plowe is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.