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Aidy Bryant doesn’t think ‘fat’ is a bad word. Her show ‘Shrill’ proves it.

”Saturday Night Live” mainstay and “Shrill” star Aidy Bryant. The final season of “Shrill” will be released on Hulu on May 7. (Celeste Sloman for The Washington Post/makeup by Cassandra Garcia; hair by Anthony Campbell)
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NEW YORK — There was talk, at one point, of calling Aidy Bryant's show "fat bitch."

“As you can imagine,” the “Saturday Night Live” star said recently during a lunchtime interview in Chelsea, “the studio and network were like, ‘Uh, no.’ ”

In the end, Hulu and the producers settled on “Shrill,” a title that has served Bryant well in her first starring role. On May 7, the actress and comedian will mark the start of the show’s third and final season and an eight-episode goodbye to Annie Easton, the aspiring journalist who has, over time, found her outdoor voice, morphing from sheepish, insecure and single to confronter of hapless boyfriends, bad bosses and Internet trolls.

“Shrill” has been a revelation both for Bryant’s performance, which has shown a dramatic range to match her sketch-tested comedy chops, and for its mission. That begins with the f-word: fat. It’s a term not usually passed around in polite society. When Alexandra Rushfield, one of the show’s producers, went to pitch “Shrill” to potential networks three years ago, “I would say ‘fat,’ and I could see people cringe.”

But being fat is part of what the series is about. “Shrill” is based on Lindy West’s memoir, sparked by her viral 2011 column, “Hello, I Am Fat,” in Seattle’s alternative newspaper, the Stranger. West’s story resonated with Bryant. In an industry that usually mocks or sidelines anyone who doesn’t fit the on-screen norm, she would employ Annie to deliver a radical message: that our ideas of beauty and self-confidence have been hollowed out by decades of Shallow Hals and that our hero can be a hilarious, blue-eyed, full-figured — “fat,” as Bryant would put it bluntly — woman in a bathing suit.

“It is a descriptor and, like, I am fat,” says Bryant, 33. “To me, it’s like taking the power out of it. It doesn’t have to be so loaded. It’s just true, and sitting with that, it makes it easier for me. It just feels a little less frightening.”

It’s a Tuesday afternoon on an off-week from SNL for Bryant. She’s pleased to be out at lunch — this is her first in-person interview in more than a year — but also wondering when anything will feel normal. When “Shrill” wrapped late last year, Bryant and her husband, comedian Conner O’Malley, drove all the way back to New York from Portland, Ore., where the show is set and filmed, and stayed in Airbnbs to avoid contact with others.

“My parents are now vaccinated, and my grandmother is vaccinated,” says Bryant, who grew up in Phoenix. “But I haven’t seen them in a year.”

For Bryant, “Shrill” has been immersive, as she has also served as one of three, hands-on producers alongside Rushfield and West. That’s meant watching each cut, overseeing the music and recruiting some of the actors. Luka Jones, who plays the aforementioned boyfriend, was part of Bryant’s 2016 short (co-written with Chris Kelly), “Darby Forever.” Julia Sweeney, whom Bryant grew up admiring on old SNL clips, plays her passive-aggressive mother, Vera. The show is also packed with scene-stealers, including John Cameron Mitchell, who plays the narcissistic editor of the alternative weekly, and Lolly Adefope, her best friend and roommate.

The show’s center, though, is clearly Bryant. On SNL, she’s shown her versatility, whether playing Sen. Ted Cruz, Lil’ Baby Aidy in music video spoofs, or seventh-grade travel expert Carrie Krum (“The best thing about Columbus . . . is my cousin’s neighbors are boys!”). “Shrill” finds her operating in a different kind of creative space, where her spontaneous and natural sense of humor, often translated through sarcastic eye rolls and self-deprecating asides, is more sustained.

As the show has progressed, Annie has grown into its title, becoming stronger, more confident and assertive. A turning point came at the end of Season 2, when she dumped her boyfriend, Ryan, after he spread word of a tryst they had in the newspaper’s server room. It was a tough moment, as Ryan, the sometimes adorable, more often aggravating man-child, had been trying to be a good boyfriend. But Annie needed more.

“I want an adult,” she tells him in the emotional parting scene. “I want a real partner.”

“So you’re going to date other guys?” he asks.

“Yeah, that’s exactly what I’m going to do,” she says, turning away to go back to her friends.

Rushfield, who worked as a writer on “Parks and Recreation” before “Shrill,” said that the breakup moment didn’t come naturally for Bryant. She suspects she’s almost too nice to immediately snap into dumping mode.

“We would do the scene, and I would talk to the director, and the director would just be like, ‘Meaner, meaner,’ ” says Rushfield. “And it was hard for her to get there, but she definitely did. And it might have been better because it was hard to get there.”

Bryant does not mind the word “fat.” In fact, she prefers it to the many euphemisms (“sturdy,” “big-boned,” “chubby”) used to supposedly soften the impact of the word. In “Shrill,” there are moments when “fat” is used in an attack. A smarmy trainer, annoyed that Annie has rejected her patronizing, wrist-grabbing pitch (“There is a small person inside of you waiting to get out”), snaps at her outside a cafe: “I was just trying to help you, you fat b----.”

A self-loathing Internet troller gets more profane after she tracks him down at his house. But the taunts seem to almost roll off Annie, as if they’ve done more to reveal the flaws in the strangers delivering them.

The tougher moments are more subtle. During the Season 3 opener, Annie goes for a routine physical, and her regular doctor is away. The sub, who has never met her, casually mentions that she should consider gastric bypass surgery.

Bryant based the scene on a real experience when she had to see a doctor as part of the standard insurance process before filming 2016’s “The Big Sick.” During an examination, the doctor raved about gastric bypass, telling her that “people do it all the time.”

“Their assumption is that I have that as a goal, and just by looking at me, they assume that’s the reason I’m there at the doctor’s office,” she says. “And there’s an assumption that if you’re fat, you’ve given up on yourself. And it’s like, I exercise all the time. I don’t eat doughnuts for breakfast, lunch and dinner.”

In those little moments, “Shrill” shares something with “Insecure” and how Issa Rae’s HBO show deals with race. The office politics, dating drama and friendships could theoretically exist on any show. But “Insecure’s” Blackness is what allows it to capture the micro jabs of racism that pervade so much of daily life. In “Shrill,” long stretches have nothing to do with weight until a moment — the checkup, a T-shirt giveaway, mother Vera’s awkward attempt to keep a waiter from delivering a breadbasket — provides a reminder.

One of “Shrill’s” trademarks is also how the show does not use “fat.” There is a clear effort made to not link the chaos that surrounds Annie’s life to her weight. It’s about being young and searching for her place in the world. It’s not about finding an easy punchline. There are no “fat Monicas” or Klumps-esque dinner table scenes.

“Where you find the laughs is a choice, and I think she knows how she can get laughs without being in some way hurtful,” says SNL creator Lorne Michaels, who is an executive producer on “Shrill.”

There is also an answer for one of Bryant’s pet peeves: the fat lady sex scene.

“I can think of about a million examples, and I won’t name names, where sex between a plus-sized woman and a man is represented by her jumping on him and then he falls over,” she says. “That’s a classic. And there’s something so demeaning and devastating about that to me. It feels like trying to joke it away rather than sincerely finding an actual funny moment. In a normal sex scene between two normal-sized people, you could still find comedy in that. And I think our show does.”

To carry that out, Bryant, who had never done sex scenes before, worked with costume designer Amanda Needham to develop specific wardrobe items so she could feel more comfortable in front of the camera. Still, the scenes required Bryant to show herself in a way that’s not typical for plus-sized women on TV.

“The tendency is to hide it or not address it in a way that’s beautiful and stylish and cool,” says Needham. “But there’s a lot of things that we do on the show where we say, ‘She’s a beautiful woman, let’s present that.’ It takes confidence just to say, ‘This is who I am, and what issue you have is your own issue and not mine.’ ”

Those scenes serve a purpose, beyond making a point. The server room sex with Ryan sparks an absurd, open staff meeting that could play on “The Office.” In Season 3, Annie hooks up with a prepster who is preoccupied with going bald. He’s popped enough Propecia to cause some, er, physical problems. Like a good sport, Annie agrees to try again with him before discovering he’s failed to wipe barbecue sauce off his hand before slipping it under her skirt.

Will “Shrill” leave a lasting impact on how fat people are treated in comedy? Michaels was reminded of several popular, old SNL bits, including John Belushi gnawing on a chicken breast while playing Elizabeth Taylor and Chris Farley’s shirtless Chippendales dance. The late Farley’s sad description of his style was often “fatty falls down.”

“How things change is really who’s doing the talking,” Michaels says. “If it’s someone they trust as much as they trust Aidy, I think they’re much more willing to take what she says seriously. And that’s a good use of a comedy platform.”

For Bryant, there is a sadness about the end of “Shrill.” She had hoped to properly close the book on Annie with a fourth season. But she’s glad Hulu gave her team enough notice to know they were wrapping up the series. With the demands of “Shrill,” she had to take time away from SNL during the pandemic season. She longs for things to feel like they used to before everyone wore masks around Studio 8H. Which is why she’s leaning toward returning for a 10th season in the fall, even if it means juggling the outside projects she’s been writing and developing, including a TV project at Universal that she says she can’t talk about in detail yet. (Her official decision on SNL, she says, will come later this summer.)

“There are days where I work sometimes 20 hours and then I have to turn around and do it the next day. I’m too old for that,” she says. “And I want to have a family. There’s other pieces of my life that I want to tend to. And ‘Shrill’ has been this all-consuming side project that there’s a piece of me that I’m like, ‘Oh, I’d love to have my side project be myself.’ ”

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