When the creative team behind “Shrill” mapped out the show’s third season, premiering on Hulu this week, they were unaware it would also be the series’ final season. “But actually I kind of love the way it ends,” said star and co-creator Aidy Bryant. “I feel really satisfied by how things end up.”
After dumping her disappointing boyfriend, Season 3 picks up with Bryant’s 20-something journalist at a Portland alt-weekly uncertainly playing the field, while her best friend and free-spirited roommate (Lolly Adefope) is finally settling down in a serious relationship. “That’s sort of what the season is about, each of them trying on these new dynamics.”
A Columbia College Chicago graduate and a veteran of the local sketch and improv scene, Bryant performed with the Annoyance, iO Theater and Second City before making the leap to “Saturday Night Live” in 2012, where she remains a cast member.
When asked about a worst moment in her career, she replied: “I had a tough time choosing my No. 1 because I’ve had a lot of awful shows in my life. But there was one that happened to me at Second City that was pretty formative and probably my lowest low. It was the only time I cried after a show.”
My worst moment ...
“This was probably 2010 and it was my first revue at Second City. I had been doing a ton of shows around town and I had done the cruise ships for Second City, so I was definitely seasoned, but I was also 23, so I was pretty young. And I was still finding my own voice as a writer and a performer.
“There was this piece that I did on stage every night called ‘Bird.’ It was something I did with (fellow cast member) Tim Baltz. Basically, he played this bird that I caught. I sing this quiet, sweet little song about how I caught this bird and now he’s my boyfriend and he has no choice but he is my boyfriend and we love each other very much. It’s kind of similar to a sketch I did later on ‘SNL’ with Harry Styles called ‘Joan,’ where it’s this woman who has a dog and she sings a little song about how her dog is her boyfriend.
“Anyway, it always went over really well with many different audiences.
“But there was one night where we did something called a buyout, which is where groups can buy out the entire theater at Second City and have the whole thing to themselves. Normally when that happens, it’s some sort of corporate group that’s in town; they’ll have a big seminar during the day and then that night they all go to Second City.
“Normally the theater seats 200-some people. And this night we had a buyout, but it was a much smaller group, maybe 30 or 40 people, which is really odd because here’s this 200-person theater with only 40 people in it. It just feels bizarre. You’re not getting the same kind of energy back that you’re used to getting.
“And the other thing is, instead of it being a crowd of all different types of folks, sometimes a buyout ends up being a really concentrated type of person. And on this particular night — I wish I knew the exact name of their organization — it was all police chiefs from the state of Texas. They had come to town for some kind of police conference, so it was 30-40 police chiefs and some of their wives. And they’d been drinking quite a bit.
“So I start to perform this little song about the bird — I’d probably done it hundreds of times by this point — and it was pretty obvious that this wasn’t going great. A lot of what made it funny were the awkward pauses and using stilted timing to create comedy, and when the audience is impatient, how do you do that?”
“Midway through this little song, one of the men just stood up and said, ‘This is horrible!’ and it felt like time slowed down.
“I was like: I am going to be out here forever and I’m never going to get out of this (laughs). This is where Iive I now; for the rest of my life I’m going to be in this horrible moment. It was pure stress. But it was so internal, I wonder if anyone noticed.
“I just kind of plowed ahead and kept going, but I was also like, should I keep going? Should I just get offstage? It didn’t feel violent, but it definitely felt tense (laughs), you know?
“I definitely cried immediately when I got offstage. And I remember Mary Sohn, who was another cast member, being like, ‘Just keep going, we can get through it.’ The show must go on. And I think we did the rest of the sketches as fast as we humanly could because we just wanted to get it over with.
“But by the end of the night I was able to laugh about it and be like: I survived that. I survived someone standing up in the middle of my piece, looking me straight in the eye and saying, ‘This is horrible!’ So it’s like, what can’t I handle?
“I remember when I went to audition for ‘SNL’ I kept thinking about that moment and being like, nothing can be as bad as that — they’re probably not going to actively yell at me during my pieces, so I think I can get through it.
“But in the moment, that night at Second City, it felt so personal. They were all drinking and talking throughout the entire show, so I knew that was the vibe, but when that song really tanked, I was totally rattled.
“Up to that point I had done a little bit of writing, but my real experience was improv. So this was probably my first piece of writing that was chosen to be in the show, so that was validating and felt like this big win! And then comes this punch in the face. It takes the wind out of your sails, because that piece was one of the first things that I ever wrote that felt like, this is really me. This is what I really like to write. So that’s why it particularly stung, to have it not loved by a police chief from Texas.”
Is it challenging to perform in front of audiences that might be drunk?
“No, to me that’s a hallmark of performing in Chicago in general. And also I had been performing on those cruise ships, where a lot of people had been drinking since 9 a.m. and by the time you’re performing at 8 p.m., they’re sitting there with a sunburn, focused on eating their chicken tenders. So yeah, I felt comfortable performing for drunks (laughs).
“This group, they were constantly talking and pointing at us throughout the entire show. The tricky thing about the buyouts — and maybe they’ve gotten a little stricter about how audiences behave — but at the time it was like, ‘Well, they bought it out, this is their time, so let them have their night of it.’
“I remember the relief in doing a normal show for a normal audience the next night and just feeling like: OK, I’m not fundamentally bad at this. This piece works and it’s something I’m really proud of.”
The takeaway …
“I’m so grateful for having someone say, ‘This is horrible!’ to my face because it made later high-pressured situations for me on television feel a lot less frightening because there wasn’t an active adversarial force in the audience. The bar is so low that you’re like, this feels like a vacation. And at least the audience at ‘SNL’ is excited to be there.
“I think about that moment at least once a year. Especially when I’m scared to do things. I think about how I survived it and how I came out completely fine on the other side of it. No matter what, I know whatever I’m going into will never be as bad as that and I use the memory all the time.”