Vanessa Bayer Knows All About the Perks of Childhood Cancer

Vanessa Bayer loves cookie cake. No, really: She can’t get enough of the stuff. Which is why it appears in the pilot episode of her new Showtime series, I Love That for You. “They had so many cookie cakes on set that day I got to take one home,” she tells me over Zoom.

That’s basically what happens in the show’s first scene as well. The series opens with a flashback to 1997, tracking a teenage Joanna Gold as she wanders down the halls of a Cleveland children’s hospital. Joanna—who’s got an I.V. in her arm and a pink scarf covering her bald head—happens to find a nurse celebrating her birthday. “I can’t remember the last time I got to eat a piece of cookie cake,” Joanna tells the nurse with an affected sigh. “There’s so few pleasures I get to enjoy in this world. You know—leukemia.” Moments later, Joanna’s eating the entire cookie cake alone in her hospital bed.

It’s the perfect cold open for the dark comedy, which begins streaming on Showtime Friday. Cocreated by Bayer and Jeremy Beiler, I Love That for You follows Bayer as adult Joanna, who’s using her childhood diagnosis to get ahead while working her dream job: hosting a show on a QVC-esque home-shopping network called SVN. “Jeremy and I, and our showrunner Jessi [Klein], we really want it to be a show where you laugh out loud,” Bayer says. “But we also wanted it to feel grounded, and we wanted it to feel like you really believe what these people are going through.” This tricky dichotomy gives the show a funny but awkward energy—an “I don’t know if I should be laughing, but I’m definitely laughing” vibe. At this point in her life, Bayer’s kind of used to that.

Like Joanna, Bayer battled leukemia throughout her teens in a suburb of Cleveland. “I mean, for me, when I got sick, obviously there were really difficult parts. But I did always really like attention, which is why I think I have the job I have now,” she tells me. “Those are aspects of these difficult experiences that we don’t often focus on. I think we all thought it would be really fun to kind of focus on that.”

Bayer was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia when she was 15, around spring break of her freshman year of high school. She underwent what she calls the disease’s standard treatment—10 months of intense chemotherapy followed by “maintenance chemo for a couple years,” when, she tells me, her “hair grew back and things were a lot more normal.” 

“They would give kids a couple months of treatment and it would look like it went away, and then it would come back,” Bayer says. “So they just treat you for a really long time.” She finished treatment the summer before her senior year of high school.

“I always wanted to write something about my experience as a sick teenager, because I do think I had a unique perspective on it. I really was able to find the ways that it could benefit me,” Bayer says. She’d often show up to school late: “Even though we had a strict attendance lady, she would ask me no questions. I was a teenager who was, like, sleeping in, and she was just like, ‘You go ahead.’ I got away with a lot of stuff because I was sick.”

One might argue that Joanna gets away with a lot more than Vanessa did, but Bayer says that’s by design. “A lot of the things that are pulled from my life are exaggerated to show the humor in them,” she says. Other aspects of Joanna’s experience—her isolation from her peers at a pivotal time in her adolescence due to forces outside of her control—ring very true.

From her days at the University of Pennsylvania to pursuing comedy in Chicago, Bayer admits that she always felt like she “was playing catch-up.” Take dating: “It took me such a long time to realize that once you’ve gone on two dates with someone, that doesn’t mean that’s the only person you date. I thought you were basically boyfriend-girlfriend after a couple dates.” In a particularly awkward scene with Jason Schwartzman, we see Joanna struggle with this exact conundrum.

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