Nicole Byer Stays Booked and Busy

In a parallel universe, Nicole Byer is the funniest bus-driving mechanic you’ve ever met. At least, this is what she tells me when I ask what a nine-year-old version of herself thought she’d be doing today. “I really liked cars growing up,” she says. “That’s not a ‘girly’ thing, but if someone had made me aware that I could take vocational courses, that’s what I’d be doing right now. I’d be the funniest fucking mechanic you ever met.”

I’m always a bit bewitched by commanding women, and Byer is no exception. From the onset, she is self-possessed and direct, her dark eyes open and perceptive. When she speaks, there’s a soft glimmer of a smile around her mouth, and from habit, I notice right away the blushing hue of her lipstick, immaculately outlined in a rich plum. Her voice is clear and direct, the lyric inflection in her cadence difficult to place had I not already known that she currently hails from Los Angeles. by way of New York and her home state, New Jersey. “Get me drunk, and you can hear the accent,” she jokes. The glimmer turns into a beam. She is irresistibly charming.

Her manner reminds me of a pearl-handled knife: carefully crafted and deadly sharp.

How do you interview someone who’s already so publicly frank and explicit about her life? How do you interest the most interesting person in the room? With Byer’s gentle demeanor and conversational precision, something about the ease of her manner reminds me of a pearl-handled knife: carefully crafted and deadly sharp.

Byer has made a niche for herself in her line of work as an entertainer and writer. She resists labels and easy definitions at every opportunity. Her effervescent stage persona, paired with her raunchy humor and dark comedic sensibility, have distinguished her as a comedian of particularly expansive emotional range. On the screen—whether on a TV or phone—she is completely in charge, her intentional vulnerability only bolstering her clear command of the audiences she so easily enthralls.

Byer approaches her comedic craft with the eye of an analyst and the skill of a musician.

If there’s one thing she is not going to do, though, it’s conform to an audience. When I ask her if she ever tailors her jokes to suit a crowd depending on its demographic, she firmly shakes her head. “No,” she states. “What I do, sometimes, is address it.” She affects a wobbling, croaking voice. “I’ll say, ‘Are there any Black people here?’ Then hopefully, there are some. When there are, I’ll be like, ‘Then I’m just going to talk to you guys.’ When they pop off with a laugh, then it lets the white people know that it’s okay to laugh, which is a little …” Her voice trails off, and we dissolve into giggling. “Exhausting!” we both say at the same time.

For Byer, there are no real flop moments on the stage.

Byer approaches her comedic craft with the eye of an analyst and the skill of a musician. She describes what she does if, for instance, a joke during a stand-up set doesn’t quite land with a particular audience. Instead of getting flustered, she’ll simply key in to her natural curiosity, turning the microscope back onto the audience. “Oh, you guys didn’t like that joke?” she’ll ask. Pivoting, she’ll calmly begin her investigation. “I’ll talk around why maybe they didn’t like it, ’til something hits,” she says. “And then I’m like, ‘Oh, well, now that’s a part of the joke.’” For Byer, there are no real flop moments on the stage: it’s half social experimentation, half jazz, and almost entirely self-entertainment.

Over the past 16 years, the 34-year-old actress has been the definition of “booked and busy,” steadily sharpening her craft as a comedian, writer, and podcaster. Byer’s acting and comedic credits are extensive, from web series to improv to television broadcasts. In the 2000s, she worked and trained at the Upright Citizens Brigade. Having come into larger recognition in 2013 with her appearances on the hit MTV show Girl Code, she has only continued to expand her presence in the industry. Today, she hosts Nailed It!—now in its fifth season on Netflix—a hilarious reality baking competition in which regular people (with minimal baking experience) attempt to re-create highly elaborate confections. In 2020, her work on Nailed It! garnered her an Emmy nomination, and she became the first Black woman ever to be nominated in the Outstanding Host for a Reality or Competition Program category. Her second scripted television show, a forthcoming NBC comedy series called Grand Crew, will be shot this summer.

Byer shares the stage often. She currently hosts five podcasts, four of them with fellow actors and comedians: Best Friends with Sasheer Zamata; Newcomers,a movie podcast with Lauren Lapkus; 90 Day Bae, with Brooklyn Nine-Nineactress Marcy Jarreau; and Drag Her! A RuPaul’s Drag Race Podcast with Mano Agapion. Byer’s original podcast, Why Won’t You Date Me?, has been running since 2017 and is an acclaimed fan favorite, beloved for Byer’s comedic frankness regarding her sexuality and dating life, as well as her skillfully insightful interviews of a wide array of celebrity guests like Tiffany Haddish, Conan O’Brien, and Roxane Gay. She is a voice actor as well, having voiced roles in an equally extensive array of animated productions—Bob’s Burgers, Family Guy, and an upcoming reboot of Rugrats, voicing Susie’s mom, just to name a few. When I ask her what she likes most about voice acting, her eyes widen. “You get to literally be a cartoon! Earlier in my career, before I learned how to act on film, I was broad and too big, and people were like, ‘Bring it down, bring it down, bring it down.’ But when you’re doing voice acting, they’re just like, ‘Go as big as you want.’”

It takes more energy to frown than it does to smile.

Her doorbell rings as we talk, and she apologizes. “It’s my COVID test for another production.” To my delight, she carries me with her via her phone, and I see flashes of her brightly decorated home: deep magentas, animal print, colorful mosaic tiling. As she walks back to her living room after her test, I compliment her interior design. She mentions her roommate, fellow comedian and former SNL cast member John Milhiser. “The nice man who lives with me says that I’m a jungle. … Oh, no, he calls me the zoo woman. My room has leopard print, or some sort of animal print,” she says. “I have a flamingo lamp.”

It’s her shameless pursuit of joy that fascinates me most. She tells me how her mother used to say to her, “It takes more energy to frown than it does to smile.” Frowning, to her, would feel like a second job. “Also I have ADD,” she adds. “So it’s just like, I’m mad one second. Then ooh, a party!”

Comedy has a very fine line between humor and tragedy

Life has not been easy for Byer, a fact she has molded into a spine for much of her comedy. When she was 16, her mother passed away, and when she was 21, so did her father. “Comedy has a very fine line between humor and tragedy,” she asserts. “And I feel like sometimes people are tempted to not talk about dark things, because they’re afraid it can’t be funny. But humor is what got me and my sister through my mom dying, my dad dying. I’ve made so many jokes to my sister that I shan’t repeat, where we’re sitting with each other at the table being like, ‘What the fuck are we going to do with my dad’s house? What are we going to do with his ashes?’ Then I’ll say something that’s one of the darkest things that anybody’s ever heard, but it’s funny. We’re both sad, but in that moment, I brought her joy through the sadness. It’s a very fine line though.”

I only really try to speak from a place from which I understand

Those fine lines are precisely where Byer excels in her work. Like a true expert, she is both culturally critical and funny all at once. And she is transgressive, but never unkind. She explains, “When I’m thinking about jokes, I’m like, ‘Is this funny to me? What does this mean for me?’ I only really try to speak from a place from which I understand, because if you don’t, you hurt someone’s feelings. But then it goes a little too far sometimes—where I’ll tell race jokes, or about how an old man said something nasty to me or whatever in South Carolina, and then the audience will be like …”—here, Byer shudders, makes an “eww” noise then continues. “And I’m like, ‘Yeah, but this happened to me. There’s humor in it. You know what I just said was funny. You can laugh, even though it was an awful thing that happened to me, because I made it funny.’”

Still, I wonder about her interiority. Though she presents herself to the world as a goofball, she is also outspoken and quick, and not entirely legible to anyone who encounters her with preconceived notions of respectability politics. She remarks, “Whenever I go, ‘I’m a fat woman,’ people in the crowd will go, ‘Aww!’ And it’s like … you’re actually insulting me when you’re going, ‘Aww!’ Because you think I’m onstage right now going, ‘I’m so sad.’ That’s not what I said. I just said I was fat, and fat is something I have. It’s not the defining thing about me. Then they’ll be like, ‘You’re beautiful, girl.’ And I’m like, ‘I didn’t say I wasn’t.’”

You just have to know that you are worth something.

With well over 300,000 followers on Twitter, Byer encounters intentional nastiness from strangers online often enough. I ask her how she protects herself so regularly against the ugliness of strangers. Her answer surprises me entirely. “When someone says something nasty, they want a response, I think. So I’ll just retweet them with some hearts to let them know that they’re seen, that they’re heard. And then, I will go about my day. Do they pay my mortgage? Do they clean my bathroom? Do they tie my shoe? No. But I can help them. I can amplify this awful thing they said, and then they get into a fight with somebody else who wants to fight. That’s my gift to them. Even if I wasn’t an actress, I would roll my ass to fucking ShopRite and buy groceries the same way, and never pay them any mind. You just have to know that you are worth something. Also, I’ve had a lot of therapy.”

Though I don’t want to end the call, I know I have to. I ask her what she most wants for her audience as they watch her newest projects: the new seasons of Nailed It! and Wipeout, and Grand Crew when it airs. Her answer is generous. “I hope people just really enjoy it. I hope that those two shows provide you with laughter.” She says, “Life is hard enough without being serious and uptight, trying to be perfect, because you’ll never reach it. Nobody’s perfect. So why not be just cheeky and giggle? Why not just look at life as like a real dream and try to make your wildest dreams come true?”

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