SNL’s Vanessa Bayer Talks Battling Leukemia And Her Epic End-Of-Chemo Party
Vanessa Bayer is eternally cheerful ― even when she’s talking about her battle with blood cancer.
The “Saturday Night Live” star, who left the show in 2017 after seven seasons of Rachel Green impressions and Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy sketches, recently spoke with HuffPost about having leukemia as a teenager and her new partnership with Gift of Life Marrow Registry ― a bone marrow registry dedicated to fighting blood cancer.
Somehow Bayer ― known for her megawatt smile ― manages to make talking about her battle with blood cancer like just another thing that happens to anyone — like something as simple as getting stitches or a cast for a broken bone.
Aside from opening up about defeating cancer, the 37-year-old comedian also spoke about her epic end-of-chemo party that got busted by the police, Pete Davidson ruling the headlines this summer and, of course, performing that infamous “Porn Stars” sketch with Donald Trump on “Saturday Night Live.”
How did you get involved with the Gift of Life Marrow Registry?
They came to me. As a survivor of blood cancer ― it was just something really close to my heart. And when I heard about their amazing work that they’ve done I definitely wanted to get involved.
Tell me about your childhood and battling cancer.
When I was 15 I was diagnosed with ALL ― acute lymphoblastic leukemia ― and so I was treated for about two-and-a-half years. It was obviously a difficult thing to go through. I do think surviving something like that definitely affected my sense of humor and made me want to go into comedy because my family, my friends and I all laughed about it a lot.
I was very lucky because once I was treated for leukemia it never recurred, but I know that had it recurred there was a likelihood I would have had to get a bone marrow transplant. The Gift of Life registry was created out of someone needing a bone marrow transplant and that’s why it’s so close to my heart.
How did you find out that you had blood cancer?
It generally shows somewhere and my eyes swelled up. I was getting sick and not getting better ― this was all in ninth grade. I was having all of these issues and then I was diagnosed. I think they took a sample ― biopsied my bone marrow or something ― and saw that I had it. Again, I was 15 and it’s a long treatment but it’s curable right now. I was very lucky.
What was it like to hear that you had cancer? Who was in the room with you?
I feel like my parents were in the room with me ― it was such a long time ago. It was definitely a scary thing, but I had a lot of support from my family and I was always very optimistic in general. I always felt like I was on a path to recovery.
What would you say to someone who’s scared to sign up for the registry?
I understand, but it’s actually not a scary thing at all. Basically, the way that the process works is that you get swabbed and if you find out that you’re a match you do something that’s similar to giving plasma or platelets, basically blood is drawn.
They take the stem cells out of it and then they give you back the blood. It’s nothing scary, it’s nothing crazy. I think that’s one of the biggest misconceptions ― that giving stem cells or giving bone marrow is this scary thing and it’s not.
Sometimes people don’t know what to say when someone has cancer. What would you want them to know?
I think the most important thing with someone with cancer or any kind of illness is just to say something. And just remember that it’s the same person and they’re still your friend or your colleague. I think it’s just important to show up for that person.
What did you think of someone like Tig Notaro integrating cancer into her comedy?
It’s amazing. I mean, she is so funny. I think she was on “Conan” when she did that bit where she was like “cancer has made me be so much more present,” and then she was like, looking on her cell phone. I mean, she’s a genius. I think it’s great [she talks about cancer in her work]. It’s kind of like what we were saying before ― if someone has cancer or has something, they’re still the same person. And I think when someone can joke about it, it puts everyone else at ease a little bit.
How did having leukemia shape your comedy?
In college I was in this all-female sketch group called Bloomers. But I just think in general in my comedy there were just so many funny and interesting and awkward moments when I was sick. I think that kind of getting through that made me be able to see funny things in all situations.
What were some of the awkward moments about getting sick?
Well, I mean anyone who spends a lot of the time in the hospital knows and, by the way, I’m not like ― my comedy isn’t full of poop jokes or anything, it’s just that you’re so monitored on how much, your poop is checked so much. You know, it’s important. Whenever you’re in a hospital setting, they’re always kind of like, “Did you go?”
How many times were you asked that [did you go]?
I just feel like I was asked it all the time. When you’re in a hospital setting, [Bayer turns to her PR team laughing and says “Is this a great thing for me to be talking about?”] pooping is important. And my best friend Gwen is a nurse and she’s like “Yeah, you gotta [ask].”
How long were you in the hospital?
I was in and out. When I was first there, I was there for a couple weeks, but then I’d have to go in for certain procedures or if something came up I’d have to go back. I had the most intensive treatment for 10 months and then I had what they call maintenance chemo for two more years after that. I think the summer before my senior year of high school is when I finally stopped chemo. And I had an end-of-chemo party.
What was that like?
It was so fun. My parents got me a really big cake. I think I had a big sheet cake and I think it said, “Happy End-of-Chemo Vanessa” or something and so many of my friends came and it was so fun. And then my brother was in a band and his band played in our backyard and then the police came ’cause they thought that it was like a “rager” ― my parents and I were just talking about this over Thanksgiving.
The police thought we were drinking and we were like, “No, we’re literally celebrating the end of me having chemo.” My parents said they were going through the trash and trying to find bottles and stuff and [we were like] this couldn’t be a more positive party. We’re literally just celebrating the end of me having chemo.
What did the police end up doing?
I think they finally left, but said ’cause of the noise my brother’s band had to stop playing.
How did you balance having cancer with applying for colleges?
Well, I guess ― if you really think about it ― I had a great thing to write a college essay about. Subscribe to the Entertainment email.Don’t miss a beat. Your culture and entertainment cheat-sheet.
I did think about that. But just the amount of work that goes into applying for school, too.
I guess I was just hyper-focused on school because I wanted to make sure that having this illness wouldn’t affect my future. Especially once the more intense part of my chemo [treatments] were over, I really was so focused on school. It was really a priority for me.
What did you go to school for? What did you think you were going to do?
I thought I would maybe be a biology major [at the University of Pennsylvania, where Bayer went] because I thought that I could do medical research and stuff like that. But then everyone was so smart [laughs].
I was in some really intense science classes and I always thought that I wanted to be a medical researcher who was on TV or something, so then I was like, “Oh I think I want to be on TV.” So I actually ended up being a communications major, and I was a French major as well because I studied abroad.
How did you go from college to being on “SNL” about six years later?
I made the transition from biology pretty quickly my freshman year. I did this sketch group, Bloomers, in college and I performed a lot. I also interned one summer at “Conan” and I kind of realized that I wanted to pursue comedy when I was in college. I moved to Chicago after school and I started taking classes at Second City and the iO [theater] and The Annoyance [Theater] and stuff.
And I saw that you interned at Sesame Street ― what was that like?
It was over the summer so they weren’t in production, but it was really magical. We got to go to the set once and it was really amazing.
What memories do you have from your first and your last day at “Saturday Night Live?”
I remember from my first day just meeting a lot of the other cast and just being so starstruck by them. And just being like okay, I’m going to have to act like this is normal until I think that it’s normal. And then my last day was just so special, I just remember we were being carried off stage and stuff and it was just so amazing.
Why did you leave?
I just felt like it was time. I just had this feeling like it’s time for me to go and I knew that the show was in such great hands with Aidy [Bryant] and Kate [McKinnon] and Beck Bennett and Kyle Mooney and everybody.
How do you tell Lorne Michaels that you were leaving?
I think that we had a discussion about it. He’s always been very supportive. So I feel like I can be very honest with him. I felt like we had a very honest conversation about it.
Was it hard to tell the cast that you were leaving? When did you tell them?
I don’t remember it exactly. I feel like everyone was supportive and we’ll miss you, but we understand. It’s a very hectic schedule so it’s like, after seven years, I want to take a nap [laughs].
Speaking of that, your New York Times “Sunday Routine” has a cult following. Why do you think it resonates so much?
You know, someone else just brought this up to me. That’s really nice. I do think that normally those “Sunday Routines” are so busy and I think it just makes you feel bad about yourself. Like, I don’t get up at six a.m. and make breakfast with my kids or whatever and go to, like, spin class. I think it puts people at ease that most of us are just ordering bagels and then spending whatever I said, spending like 10 minutes being mad that it’s not toasted.
And [as you mentioned in your NYT piece] it’s such a New York thing to wonder what your doorman thinks of you. What do you think your doorman thinks of you?
Well, in my building now, not to brag, but I have several different doormen. So I could order breakfast and if I wait two hours and order lunch, they don’t know. But you know if I order multiple dinners, they’re gonna know.
What do you think most people’s impression of you is? How do you think you come across to fans?
I think most people think I’m just like a stone-cold bitch.
No [laughs]. I think everyone knows that I smile a lot so they probably think that I’m pretty nice, but again… [shrugs].
What do people ― when they recognize you on the street ― what do they say to you?
Sometimes people think they’ve gone to high school with me. But people are generally very nice. A lot of guys mention [my “SNL” character] the Bar Mitzvah Boy and say they can relate to that time in their life. But people are generally very nice or they think they know me from high school. ’Cause you know, we wore so many wigs on “SNL,” so they know your face, but they’re just like, “New Jersey?” and I’m like, “Nope.”
Is it weird that people you’ve known for so long, like Pete Davidson, can suddenly be every headline in the news?
Yeah, I guess so, although that happens a lot, you know what I mean? I feel like there’s a lot of people that I’ve known that that’s happened to. And that stuff’s always kind of, you know, it has a moment and then it dies down ― thank goodness for them ― ’cause it’s a lot.
It is ever a lot for you when people ask you personal questions, like are you dating?
Yeah, I mean it is, but I feel like it sort of comes with the territory. And you know, I never feel like I have to answer everything.
But you did talk to Drake about JDate [an online dating service for Jewish singles] one time.
Yes, Drake did my web series [“Sound Advice”], which I did with my brother. And yeah, he was a great sport about it. I mean, I was kind of asking him in character, but apparently he’s not on JDate. Which, missed opportunity, right?
What’s your inspiration for the character you play on “Sound Advice?”
I feel like my brother and I would always say we wanted ― and we did it with this ”[Weekend] Update” writer Pete Schultz ― we always wanted it to be the woman from “Millionaire Matchmaker,” Patti Stanger, and Zach Galifianakis from “Between Two Ferns.” That was the combo we were always trying to meet. And so once someone said that it seemed like a combo of those two, we were like, “We’ve done our job.”
What was it like working with Donald Trump on “SNL?” Do you regret working with him at all?
I mean, it was just interesting. It was so weird because he could only do a certain amount of time because he’s running for president. Cecily and I did the ex-porn stars thing with him and I remember he asked me like, “Should I do it?” and I was like, “Yeah.” I wanted to do this sketch and we couldn’t believe that he was gonna do it and it was just sort of surreal. We were all sort of like, “Why is he here?” But also nobody thought that he was gonna win, you know? It was weird, it was crazy.
Did you ever have any interaction with him in the week leading up to his appearance?
Not a ton. Every week is sort of like a blur, but yeah it’s just so crazy that he did that ― that he was on the show. It’s so weird.