Of course, in hindsight, breakout SNL characters make sense. But usually they’re a struggle or a shot in the dark. Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy, Vanessa Bayer’s lovable little Jewish boy she performed on the show nine times (ten, if you include the sketch he was a bit player in two years before he ever appeared on Weekend Update), is no exception. Bayer, from her own Bat Mitzvah to her time doing comedy in college as part of the Bloomers (University of Pennsylvania’s all-female musical and sketch-comedy troupe Bayer likes to bring up whenever possible) to her time performing in Chicago, was working toward creating this little weirdo. So, by the time he finally showed up in Studio 8H, he was a fully formed being.
The creation and evolution of Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy is the subject of this week’s Good One, Vulture Comedy’s podcast about jokes and the people who tell them. Listen to the episode and read an excerpt of the discussion below. Tune in to Good One every Monday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.
I’ve read the earliest version of Jacob started in your stand-up when you were still in Chicago. What did you have of him at that point?
I had this other little boy character named Austin who had more of a speech impediment. And then I started doing this Bar Mitzvah Boy character. I would do the line from the first time I did it, which is “Don’t tell my parents I said that.”
Yeah, I was giving a mini speech where I kept making jokes about the presents. And then at the end of it I was like, [Jacob voice] “But, like, this whole experience has been pretty cool, but don’t tell my parents I said that!” And I liked having the [accented] “that” in there. Later, we always would try and find long A’s or short A’s to make long for other tagline kind of things.
Then your first season on SNL, you’re cast to play the Bar Mitzvah Boy in a completely unrelated sketch.
Marika Sawyer and Simon Rich and John Mulaney – when I started, everyone would call them the dream team. They would all write like half of the show. They wrote this Bar Mitzvah sketch where it was really more about different musical impressions, and every so often I would go out with Fred, who played my dad, and I was this Bar Mitzvah Boy. I just had a few lines, but there were certain little lines that I put in there that were from my stand-up. And what I said to Simon was, “Andy Samberg was in the cast. Why didn’t you just use him as the Bar Mitzvah Boy?” And he was like, “There was something about you. You looked younger. And there was something that we thought would be funnier to have you as the Bar Mitzvah Boy.” Which was so lucky, because it never occurred to me to do that character before that.
It took you a couple of seasons to get him on the air. What did you need to figure out?
It wasn’t written with the same people. John had left the show. Simon had left the show. But Marika was still at the show. And Marika and I would write it with a writer who wasn’t even there the first time I did it, Zach Kanin. Marika and Zach and I would write it together. It took such a long time to figure out how to do it.
It’s hard to have that character drive a scene, because it’s more fun for Jacob to be commenting on stuff and for him to be very presentational. That’s why people have said to me — brag — people are like, “Oh, you should do a Jacob movie or something.” And it’s like, you wouldn’t wanna see Jacob day to day. Him being presentational is what’s funny because he’s like any other 13-year-old boy. He can’t quite figure it out.
Once we did it as an Update, it worked. It’s like my whole last season, I was trying to get this weather woman character in different sketches, and we couldn’t get it on. And then my third-to-last show, Colin [Jost] was like, “What if you try it as an Update?” And it worked. It’s funny that some stuff, you’re like, “What am I gonna do? I can’t figure this out.” And then, it’s just like, just do it as an Update. But, by the way, there’s other things that you try as an Update a million times, and then they’re just better in sketches.
How did you decide to peg it to holidays?
Hanukkah was coming up. That was another thing, is once Andy left, I was like, “It’s my job to represent.” I did sometimes feel that way, where I’d be like, “We’re doing all this Christmas stuff” or “We’re doing all this Easter stuff,” and I’m like, “There’s so much Jewish stuff happening right now too!” It’s not that I’m the most religious person in the world, but somebody’s gotta represent.
Do you remember the feedback you got after you did it the first time?
People said such nice things. Lorne really loved it. And when Lorne loves something, it’s kind of rare. Lorne told me that Steven Spielberg had texted him about it. He was like, “Steven loves it.” He showed me the text, it was so cool. And then every time I would do it, Steven Spielberg would text Lorne. I hope I’m not making this up; it seems made up. It is so cool. Then one time at the after party, they were sitting together, with Paul McCartney. And it’s also his favorite character that I do. Paul McCartney has told me. I mean, can you imagine? Only at SNL could you meet those people. I still remember one of the holiday parties I went to Lorne’s table, and he was sitting between them, and they were like, “We love that character.” And you’re like, “[grunts].”
How was Jacob with the different Weekend Update anchors for you? Obviously it started with Seth Meyers.
We loved that Jacob was so into Seth. You know what I mean? Because he’s a cool guy.
He was so sad when he knew Seth was leaving.
Oh my God. When I did the thing where I cry? Yeah, yeah. And did you notice there was a Seth shout-out in his last Update?
“My Best Friend Seth.” That was a funny thing to us when we wrote the last one — Jacob really thinks that Seth is his best friend. Because little boys are like that when they meet an older guy: “Yeah, that’s my best friend.” It’s like no, he’s an adult. There was a lot of love between them. It was part of the joke too that he always felt like he was impressing Seth.
Then it was just you and Cecily.
Yeah, he was so scared of Cecily. I feel like so many boys that age are so scared of girls that are like women. It’s one thing to meet a girl your age and they sort of make fun of them and are mean to them. But to me, a pretty woman is so scary. I remember people pitching jokes where he’d try and act cool and we were like, “No.” He would be so scared. He’s not going to be cool. He’s not going to be confident around her. He’s so freaked out.
Then it’s Jacob and Che.
That was so funny to do. It sort of felt like Jacob just won’t be as impressed by him because he’s no Seth.
Like, “I’ve been doing this longer than you have.”
Yeah, exactly. Also, Che’s so funny, but he obviously has a different style than Seth. I remember we had to tell him to be nicer to me. Because the natural thing to do when a kid’s acting like a little shit to you would be to not be that nice. But we were like, “No, you have to be really nice to Jacob, because that’s how people treat him. You have to be very sweet to him.” And he did it. The thing is, Seth set this precedent where he was always so amused by me, as opposed to being annoyed. Then we were like, “Well, that has to continue with every anchor.” They can’t be irritated by the fact that I’m constantly interrupting them or ignoring them.
How did it come about that Billy Crystal would play his dad?It was so cool. Billy Crystal wanted to play my dad. I saw him at the 40th and he had brought it up. Then later the producers asked me about it. They were like, “Billy Crystal wants to come on and play your dad, would that be okay?” And I was like, “Yeah, that would be great.”
He was so nice. It was crazy because we were emailing him different ideas because he couldn’t be there all week. But I remember being like, “We’re emailing with Billy Crystal, this is so cool!”
By this point you’ve been doing it for years and it feels like you would know who he is. What was about their relationship that you think was correct to your understanding of their characters?
The idea that Jacob just thinks his dad is the funniest person in the world and that a lot of his jokes he’s telling are because he wants his dad to be impressed. Which is very similar to me personally as well. This is, like, the coolest person in the world. Other than Derek Jeter.