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'I Love That for You' stars use 'great tragedy' to find comedic joy

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After four-plus decades churning through the show business grind, Jenifer Lewis just wants to have a good time. So when the opportunity arose for the 65-year-old veteran of stage and screen to star alongside "Saturday Night Live" alumni Vanessa Bayer and Molly Shannon in the Showtime comedy series "I Love That for You," she didn't need much convincing.

During a recent video chat with her two co-stars, Lewis can't help but fangirl over Shannon — even delivering her own rendition of the "superstar!" exclamation Shannon immortalized on "SNL." Although Lewis was less familiar with Bayer, "I Love That for You's" co-creator, executive producer and central star, she now lauds the ever-optimistic 40-year-old as an "angel made of cotton candy and Christmas morning."

In fact, Bayer helped cultivate such a cheery vibe on set that Lewis found herself wondering if the unrelenting positivity was too good to be true. So one day during filming, Lewis decided to tackle the topic head on, asking Bayer: "You're not going to, like, turn? This is real, right?"

With understated amusement, Bayer recalls her retort: "Next season, just wait — I'll be a big (expletive)."

"Which is impossible for her to become," Lewis says, cackling with laughter. "At that moment, I knew everything was going to be just fine."

"I Love That for You," which streams new episodes every Friday, stars Bayer as a novice home shopping channel host who saves her job by lying that her childhood cancer has returned. Shannon portrays the network's longest-serving saleswoman — a recent divorcée navigating an identity crisis — while Lewis plays their foul-mouthed, no-nonsense boss.

Co-created by Bayer and former "SNL" writer Jeremy Beiler, the series sells itself as a moral dilemma by way of workplace sitcom. And there's an autobiographical element, as well: The premise is loosely inspired by Bayer's own bout with leukemia as a teenager, which required nearly a year of aggressive treatment.

When it comes to that kind of public introspection, Bayer has company among her cast. Lewis opened up in her 2017 book, "The Mother of Black Hollywood," discussing her past sex addiction and decades-long battle with bipolar disorder. In "Hello, Molly!," Shannon's recently released memoir, the 57-year-old reflects on the deaths of her mother, sister and cousin in a 1969 car accident with her intoxicated father at the wheel.

As Lewis points out, "All three of us come from great tragedy."

"I was thinking about that," Shannon says. "We're all kind of telling our stories."

"We have all been through a lot," Bayer adds. "For me, even off-screen, just to see how these women navigate their lives and how they treat everyone, it's such a lesson."

The actresses' convening paths were charted in the summer of 2017, shortly after the Emmy-nominated Bayer finished her seven seasons at "SNL," when she and Beiler met for brunch and stumbled upon their mutual fascination with home shopping channels. As the duo decided to team up on a TV pitch, developed the idea and considered how to flesh out the protagonist, they ended up incorporating Bayer's long-held desire to write about her real-life cancer diagnosis — specifically, the ways she used her illness as an excuse to show up late for classes, turn down a date for homecoming and guilt-trip her way to other privileges.

"I felt like it would always be fun to do something exploring the fact that when I was sick, I really capitalized on the perks of it," Bayer says. "Something that helped me get through it was the humor and the fun of just trying to get what I could from it."

Bayer acknowledges there's plenty of her in Joanna Gold, the "I Love That for You" character she plays with an eager-to-please grin and endearingly anxious energy — even if her on-screen counterpart embellishes those tics and traits. "It is some of the awkwardness and, especially from when I was a little bit younger, this (idea of) playing catch-up in becoming an adult," explains Bayer, who booked recurring gigs on "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" and "Will & Grace" after leaving "SNL" but is tackling her first lead role on-screen.

As Jackie Stilton, the home shopping star who takes Joanna under her wing, Shannon shares her character's mentorlike impulses but not so much her hyper-feminine style sense, which comes complete with leather pants, an immaculate manicure and the ever-present jingle of excessive jewelry.

"The script is so well-written, it just jumps off the page," says Shannon, whose recent credits include the heralded series "The Other Two" and "The White Lotus." "It really reminded me of character-driven comedies that I love, like 'Broadcast News' and 'Tootsie.' It had love and comedy and it was fantastic, and I just said, 'I have to be in this.' "

Although Cybill Shepherd originally was cast as network head Patricia Kunken, various factors — including a year-long, coronavirus-induced delay to shooting the pilot — led her to depart the project. The postponement proved fortuitous. Lewis wasn't available pre-pandemic because of her commitment to "Black-ish," but the long-running ABC sitcom's recent conclusion freed her to step in as Patricia and put her own promiscuous spin on "I Love That for You's" ice queen.

While the three actresses hail from different generations, they promptly found common ground in their Midwestern roots: Bayer and Shannon grew up in suburban Cleveland, and Lewis was raised in Missouri.

"We came from those places to where we are now, so that brings the grounding," Lewis says. "But 'wisdom' is the word I would really weigh on because of the training we've had. Having lived the spectrum, you bring as an artist everything that you are. Those two seconds before action, your whole self is present. And it's very exciting to watch Vanessa and Molly on set, with them bringing that amazing experience to the table."

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