Abby Elliott knows her way around a comedy. A veteran of the Groundlings and the Upright Citizens Brigade, she joined “Saturday Night Live” at 21 and has since appeared in laugh-track-ready shows like “How I Met Your Mother” and “Odd Mom Out.” So in the spring of 2021, when FX approached her about a pilot for a new comedy, she was interested.

“I kind of went into it like, Oh, should I do a voice?” Elliott said. “Or I could do a little catchphrase? That could be fun.”

That show was “The Bear,” which returns for its third season on Thursday, on Hulu. Set largely in the fraught kitchen of a Chicago restaurant, it stars Jeremy Allen White as a troubled chef. Elliott appears as his forbearing sister. “The Bear” is a comedy only in the classical sense, in that it emphasizes human foibles and does not end in disaster. (Is a workplace rife with panic, money trouble and suicidal ideation not a disaster? Take it up with Emmys voters, who in January awarded it best comedy.) Otherwise it is dramatic, frenetic, extremely stressful.

“I didn’t really quite understand how high the stakes would be,” she said.

For what it’s worth, Elliott does consider “The Bear” a comedy. “It’s just like real life,” she said. “A lot of people find comedy in the darkness and the stress. It’s so relatable in that way.” But a funny thing happened on the way to the kitchen: “The Bear” made Elliott a dramatic actress. She does not do a voice.

I met Elliott, 37, at an Upper West Side cafe on a summer morning, the sun set to low broil, about a week before the Season 3 premiere. Though she lives in Los Angeles and works in Chicago, she had come to the East Coast for a family wedding and was enjoying a few days in the city afterward.

At breakfast, she was crisply dressed and fresh-faced (she did admit to a thick coat of self-tanner), despite the heat. She has big eyes, a sardonic, closed mouth smile and a talent for instant intimacy, especially when describing how she spent the 2024 Golden Globes pumping breast milk backstage alongside a similarly postpartum Sarah Snook.

If there is an allele for laughs, Elliott has it. Her father is Chris Elliott, a longtime late-night fixture seen more recently in “Schitt’s Creek,” who spent a season on “S.N.L.” His father is Bob Elliott, half of the greatest-generation comedy duo Bob and Ray, who also made an “S.N.L.” appearance. (Abby’s mother, Paula Niedert Elliott, is a former talent coordinator for David Letterman.)

Elliott doesn’t feel that she was pushed into performance. Her father, whom she idolized, showed her that a showbiz life was possible, even desirable. But he never made her watch his appearances on “Late Night With David Letterman,” and he encouraged her to go to college.

“I mean, there were options,” she said. “I just don’t know how to do anything else, and I’ve never really known.”

She dropped out of college after a semester and relocated to Los Angeles, living with relatives and taking improv classes. She was invited to “S.N.L.” a few years later. Name recognition, a gentle form of nepotism, likely got her in the door at 30 Rock, but it was a gift for riotous celebrity impressions (Angelina Jolie, Meryl Streep) that kept her there.

She left after four years on the show and worked steadily throughout the subsequent decade, though typically in the kinds of daffy supporting roles that rarely ping the culture radar. She made peace with that.

“I was in such a safe zone of like, OK, well, this is just what I do,” she said. “It’s like, OK, I’m not going to be able to get these roles or play dramatic parts.”

Christopher Storer, the creator of “The Bear,” thought differently when he was searching for an actress to play a loving, no-nonsense sister. He had never worked with Elliott before, but he remembered her from “S.N.L.” — particularly her impressions.

“There was something just so genuine,” he said. “You could feel the affection for the people that she was impersonating.”

He wanted that affection for Natalie Berzatto, nicknamed Sugar, the older sister of White’s Carmy and clearly the only member of their family who has ever been to therapy. And Storer suspected that Elliott, a trained improv comic, was versed in working very, very quickly, a necessity on a show that values rawness and budgets few takes. She auditioned remotely; Storer was smitten. “She felt very human,” he said.

Natalie has a sole scene in the pilot, a moment in which she speaks with Carmy about their older brother, Mikey, who has died by suicide. Though brief, it communicates the love and trauma between the siblings. She and White didn’t discuss the scene before they shot it — or before they reshot it, months later. But White remembers feeling an immediate kinship.

“Whatever our imaginations had done, we were telling ourselves the same story,” White said in a phone interview. He described the scenes between Carmy and Natalie as a respite from the chaos of the kitchen. Other cast members felt similarly.

Ebon Moss-Bachrach, who plays Cousin Richie, said that Elliott “in some ways is the straight man — practical, surrounded by this wildly erratic extended family.” If he hadn’t known better, he never would have guessed that Elliott did time on “S.N.L.”

“Not because she’s not funny, but just because she’s grounded,” he said. “She’s not a showboat. She really has so much integrity and rigor.”

In the first season, Natalie is siloed from the restaurant, but in Season 2 she comes inside, first as a project manager during a gut renovation and then as the general manager. That was not necessarily what Storer and Joanna Calo, the two showrunners, had planned. But Elliott’s performance convinced them to bring her in.

“I was like, Oh, thank you,” Elliott said of finally entering the kitchen. “I had so much FOMO.”

As Season 2 was being written, Elliott learned that she was pregnant with her second child. (Her husband is the screenwriter Bill Kennedy.) She told Storer and Calo, and they decided to write a pregnancy for Natalie, too.

Still, Elliott’s pregnancy was distinct. She was energetic while Natalie was exhausted. And in a consoling scene in which Ayo Edebiri’s Sydney makes Natalie an omelet, Elliott needed a spit bucket — pregnancy had given her an aversion to eggs. By the time filming started on Season 3, which explores the idea of legacy — genetic and otherwise — she had already given birth. She had to wear a prosthetic belly and mimic heartburn.

Natalie is the most nuanced character Elliott has ever played. Her scenes involve subtext, a professional first. “My career has been all text,” she said. “I’ve done things where I’m explaining exactly how I’m feeling, like so many times.”

Shooting Season 3 while also caring for a baby and a toddler has not made Elliott’s schedule any easier. (Her mother accompanies her to Chicago, as does a nanny.) But it has made her into a more centered, more focused actor. Her time on set is, she said, “adult time.” Then she goes home and kid time begins.

“I’m so lucky to have these beautiful, wonderful children,” she said. “I don’t go home and drink a bottle of wine and obsess about that one weird take, like I did in my 20s.”

If “The Bear” has made Elliott a better actor, it has not made her a better cook, though the food in the show, prepared by Storer’s sister, Courtney Storer, is apparently excellent. (The piccata Natalie makes in the show’s second episode? Elliott wrapped it in a plastic bag and ate it in the van on the way home.)

“I would love to cook,” Elliott said. “But I’m barely showering every day. It’s all air fryer and Target orders.”



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