Aidy Bryant’s new short film “Darby Forever” is a carefully observed character study of endearing dorkitude, Retail Division. An overstuffed fabric store is the setting, where Bryant (as Darby) finds herself raging against the boredom of her sleepy job by fantasizing about a life more dazzling than her own, all of it inspired by the people who come in to shop.
With its Walter Mitty-esque set-up, the 20-minute film (available only on Vimeo as a 99 cent rental or $2.99 to own) allows Bryant the room to develop comedy at a quieter, more subtle pace than your average sketch on “Saturday Night Live,” where she has been a cast member since 2012.
Not once does she look down on her character, or hold her up as an object of ridicule. There’s a warmth to Bryant’s comedy. A real humanity and absurdity, too. Priceless bits of dialogue include: “I want us to be like witches goin’ into combat.” That boast comes from “Orange Is the New Black’s” Natasha Lyonne as the leader of a trio of tough-girl rockers who buy a bolt of black fabric. Darby’s ensuing, hyper-eager fantasy (which she uses to pass the time as she microwaves a Hot Pocket, mesmerized by the slow spinning of the tray) has her fronting her own band and saying things like, “My whole life is black boots and throwing eggs at fat girls!”
Another customer inquires, in all seriousness: “I want an upscale pipe cleaner!”
Oh, to become immersed in the world of crafting! Director Osmany Rodriguez (who works as a director on “SNL”) allows the camera to linger on all the sparkly and eye-catching — but seemingly useless — bits and bobs that are crammed into the store.
You get a good sense of the place as Darby sits on a small stool in back amid rolls of garish shiny metallic fabrics in fuchsia and silver. She hears some women enter the store but doesn’t move, as if just the idea of dealing with these customers is more than she can bear. In the film, she toggles between intense tedium and imagined superstar theatrics. (There is also a very sweet, very understated romantic comedy element.)
But before she starts her day, Darby sits on that pathetic little stool, closes her eyes and attempts to stay calm. And then, finally: “We’re open!” she yells from her perch, and bites into a meatball sub.
The cast also includes Retta (“Community”) as her boss, and a couple of old pals from Second City, Brad Morris and Mary Sohn. Bryant herself is an alum of Columbia College Chicago as well as Chicago’s sketch-and-improv scene, where she met longtime boyfriend Conner O’Malley, who is a writer for “Late Night with Seth Meyers.”
Recently, Bryant spoke by phone about the film (which she wrote) and bonding with “SNL” hosts.
How did you land on this world of the fabric store?
Aidy Bryant: I used to go to this fabric store in Chicago, way up on the North Side. I originally went there because backstage at Second City e.t.c. (where Bryant was a cast member), the place where we would sit to do our makeup, the table was really rough to the touch. So I went to buy a really big piece of fabric to cover it and use as a tablecloth — it’s still there (backstage), actually.
Working at the store was a woman there who would cut my fabric, and every time she would ask me what I was going to use it for. And every single time she would get excited when I’d mention Second City! And I just liked that curious spirit, and that’s really where it started. So it’s kind of a story of someone who is working in a fabric store and her mind flies with the people that she meets.
I actually went back to the store before we shot the film and it was gone! Now it’s a Bally’s [Total Fitness]. It broke my heart when I saw that!
Did you go back to see that woman? For extra inspiration?
I didn’t know if she would be there, but I definitely wanted to look at just the space to see if things triggered me in any way. I think there’s a big difference between an independent mom-and-pop shop store like that was, versus a Michael’s or a Jo-Ann Fabric. So to find a place like that, that has that kind of Chicago dust on it that’s accumulated over time — it’s a place that has time all over it — that was a quality that I really liked.
So even though we shot the film in LA, I really wanted to find a space that looked a little untouched. From another time. And thankfully we really did find a location like that.
That was an actual working fabric store you shot in?
Yeah! We shut it down for two days. And none of that is set dressing. Everything that is there is exactly as they had it — including shelves of loose, weird fabrics and little boxes of patches and pins. It really was a feast for the eyes of crazy little creative things.
Have you ever worked a retail job yourself?
My mom has a clothing store, so I used to work in retail and it is really weird how you form these brief connections with people. You help them find something and you get a little invested in what they need — and then they’re gone! And all of a sudden your day is over and it’s like, was any of that real or was I was just a weird robot who rang them up? So I think there was some of that in the film.
I have a very important question: How did you decide on a side pony for Darby’s chosen hairstyle?
Oh my gosh, what an important question, thank you! I pretty much did my own hair on set, so I just wanted it to be easy, like she didn’t give a [thought], but still have some sort of quality of off-ness. A little wonkiness to it. A little bit “this isn’t your average ponytail!”
You play Louis C.K.’s daughter in his new web series “Horace and Pete” (available through his website). How did that come about?
Well, Louis has hosted three times at “SNL,” so we have a friendship now. In the summer he called me and basically was like, “I wrote this part for you,” which was hugely flattering. And it started rolling from there. He talked with Lorne (Michaels, “SNL” executive producer) and got it approved with my schedule, so it kind just came together.
When someone comes on to host, is there even time to bond or get to know them?
Oh, yeah! I mean, we’re working really long hours and a lot of times you’re just rehearsing things or you’re waiting around or you’re shooting [pre-recorded portions], and a lot of making a show like “SNL” is just putting in the hours and being there for long periods of time. So yeah, you really get to know the host when they’re there. It’s different for every person, and it depends how much or little you’re in the show, that kind of thing. But especially after three years in a row, I really felt like I knew Louis and so it made it really easy to work with him.