Vanessa Bayer on Recreating Her Childhood for ‘I Love That

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Vanessa Bayer spent seven seasons on Saturday Night Live playing characters far from her own experience: a naughty Christmas elf, Miley Cyrus, earnest Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy (OK, that was unconsciously based on her brother, she says). But Joanna Gold, her lead character on the workplace comedy/coming-of-age story I Love That for You, is inspired by Bayer’s real life.

The actress survived childhood leukemia — as has Joanna, whose attempt to move from overprotected “Cancer Girl” to host on her beloved Special Value Network, is the show’s central story-line.

“This is a love letter to home shopping networks. I watched a lot as a kid,” says Bayer, an executive producer as well as cocreator. (As a thank-you for picking up the series, she and other producers bought plush blankets from Catherine Zeta-Jones’ home line on QVC as gifts for Showtime executives.) In the premiere, Joanna, after putting her life on hold for years and then gaining a little sales savvy at Costco, goes all out to become an SVN star just like her childhood idol Jackie (Molly Shannon).

“Joanna has a superpower. She gets why people buy stuff because she was one of those people,” Bayer notes. And she has a mentor in Jackie, still a popular figure at SVN (think: QVC queen Jane Treacy).

“Jackie’s loving and warm and takes [Joanna] under her wing,” says Bayer, who admits the relationship sometimes parallels her own with the fellow SNL vet—one of her favorites. “Sometimes I’m just so in awe. She’s Molly Shannon!”

Naturally, Joanna’s journey is not a smooth one. Hosts are judged minute to minute by their sales numbers, so when the novice loses customers after an on-air mistake, icy CEO Patricia (Jenifer Lewis) fires her. In desperation, Joanna falsely blurts out that her cancer has returned.

“Being ‘Cancer Girl,’” says Bayer, “is what she relied on for years—getting special treatment for being sick. Now she has to grapple with the fact that she’s not only lying to everybody, but she’s put herself back in the position of being defined by cancer. We make it really funny as she has to deal with the insane situation she’s put herself in.”

I Love That for You, Series Premiere, Sunday, May 1, 8:30/7:30c, Showtime (Friday, April 29, streaming and on demand)

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