If you ask Aidy Bryant why she got into comedy and onto “Saturday Night Live,” she’ll tell you it’s because she’s good at it and she enjoys it. But sometimes a cruel supposition creeps into her mind.
As she explained recently, “There is the little voice in my head where it’s like, I’m there because I’m fat.”
This is not how Bryant has ever been made to feel at “SNL,” where she has starred for seven seasons, specializing in effervescently clueless characters and earning two Emmy Award nominations.
But it is a mind-set she’s been driven to, she said recently, by a constant barrage of negative reinforcement, “which includes your family and things you see on TV that tell you you’re innately a problem and wrong for existing that way — that’s a lot to overcome.”
The conflict between how Bryant sees herself and what an often unforgiving world has told her is one that she could not stave off forever. “I just got fed up,” she said.
“It’s so exhausting to be like, I’m going to hate myself, all the time, forever,” she added. “Every time I get dressed. Every time I go to dinner. Every time I do anything.”
Her long-simmering rebellion takes narrative form in “Shrill,” a Hulu series that was released March 15. Adapted from Lindy West’s memoir of the same title, it stars Bryant as a fledgling writer at an alt-weekly newspaper who learns to find her voice amid a maelstrom of online and real-life criticism.
Although “Shrill” is, at heart, a comedy, it is radically different from anything Bryant has done in her career and has a bittersweet candor that would not fit easily into a “Saturday Night Live” sketch. At the same time, the story it tells is a simple one about a woman much like her, who is tired of being treated as if her size were a problem that needs to be solved.
“Shrill” has deep personal resonance for Bryant; she said the series helped provide her with “an interior makeover on how you approach life but also how you receive people calling you a fat pig. To not let it penetrate and ruin you.”
When Bryant joined “SNL” in 2012, she feared that she wasn’t up to its standards and that she’d be fired. But now she feels confident that she’s found her groove playing a panoply of oblivious and outrageous teachers, students, executives and homemakers.
Notwithstanding her occasional stabs of self-doubt, Bryant has been defined throughout her career by her spirit, not her size. “There’s a decency that has always been there,” said Lorne Michaels, the creator of “SNL.” “She’s a very caring person. She radiates a goodness, and I think everybody feels that way about her.”
But from an early age Bryant took notice of what she saw — and didn’t see — in the films and TV shows she watched.
“Almost no one ever looked or sounded like me,” she said. “If there was a fat character, they were often, like, with a tuba underneath them. There wasn’t a lot of dignity there.”
She grew up in Phoenix, obsessed with the women — Molly Shannon, Ana Gasteyer, Cheri Oteri — who commanded the “SNL” stage in that era. By the time she was 15, Bryant was already performing improv comedy and attending theater camp.
In her personal life, Bryant said, she got little positive feedback from friends. And she said her mother had struggled with her own weight.
“I had this sense that I had to be on Jenny Craig or Weight Watchers or Blood Type Diet, get a personal trainer or a dietitian,” she said. “I was like, this is what life is, just frantically dieting and hating yourself, 24-7.”
Reflecting on this phase of her life, Bryant said this was likely when she decided to submerge herself in comedy.
Describing the thought process she couldn’t quite admit to herself at the time, Bryant said: “I’m going to be so good that no one will notice my size. I’m going to be so comfortable and confident on stage that you almost forget I’m — whatever. Perceived as something.”
She became a standout performer in Chicago’s improv and theater scene, building her résumé at the Second City, iO and the Annoyance Theater before she was recruited by “SNL,” a goal that seemed unattainable until she saw her friend Vanessa Bayer achieve it two years earlier.
But there was a part of her that never felt spoken to until she read “Shrill” in 2016 and connected with West’s stories of navigating life and the modern-day media environment while being constantly degraded for her size.
The book includes West’s emblematic essay “Hello, I Am Fat,” which grew out of a 2011 blog entry for The Stranger, rebuking her editor, Dan Savage, for writing pieces that she felt were fat-shaming.
“This is my body,” West wrote. “It is MINE. I am not ashamed of it in any way. In fact, I love everything about it. Men find it attractive. Clothes look awesome on it. My brain rides around in it all day and comes up with funny jokes.”
Bryant said she could also relate to West’s painful experiences of being cyber-bullied. Every time she played White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on “SNL,” Bryant said, “I would just be inundated with tweets.”
She added, “Fifty percent of them were liberal people being like, ‘You are too gorgeous to play that fat, ugly pig,’ and the rest were conservative people saying, ‘You are a fat, ugly pig who should not be playing that strong, independent woman.’ ” Bryant has since quit Twitter.
At the end of 2016, West began developing “Shrill” with actor and producer Elizabeth Banks, intending to turn it into a TV series that, while not quite autobiographical, would mirror aspects of her life: West wanted its protagonist to work at a newspaper and have a contentious relationship with her boss; she wanted her to have a fulfilling sex life and to have an abortion, as she did.
Most crucially, West said: “This is not a show about someone struggling to lose weight. At no point in the course of this series will the protagonist step on a scale and look down and sigh. She’s not miserable all the time. It’s about her shrugging off those expectations.”
To the extent that Bryant had been pursuing projects outside “SNL,” she spent this same period auditioning for what she called “big-girl movies” — roles that would have cast her as some version of the fat, funny best friend — and growing discouraged with the process.
Bryant was reinvigorated when the opportunity arose to be part of “Shrill,” and she sought out Michaels for his advice. The “SNL” czar, who is also an executive producer of “Shrill,” said that Bryant had an inherent sensitivity that had served her well on “SNL” and would come through in any other role she chose.
The six-episode season of “Shrill” was produced rapidly. Last April, Bryant married Conner O’Malley, a fellow comedy writer and actor; she finished the “SNL” season and went to Italy on her honeymoon. The day she returned she packed a bag for Los Angeles, where she and her colleagues spent June and July writing and casting the show, then traveled to Portland, Ore., to film it in August and September.
Bryant said she was proud to see herself tap into a different skill set on “Shrill” and excel at a much quieter style of storytelling from the broad sketch comedy of “Saturday Night Live.”
“We made a real effort to keep things grounded, and that’s something I’ve always felt I’m good at, just finding out what’s genuine about a scene,” she said. “That’s something I hope translated in a way that there isn’t always space for at ‘SNL.’ ”