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'There Isn't Just One Type Of Black,' Says Comedian Nicole Byer

Sep 17, 2019
Originally published on September 18, 2019 12:07 pm

Nailed It! is a competition show in which home bakers try to re-create elaborate cakes — and often fail spectacularly.

"Our show is truly like: As long as you don't kill people with your food, you might win!" says co-host Nicole Byer.

So when Byer learned the Netflix program was nominated for an Emmy, she was shocked.

"The call I got from Netflix, one of the execs on the show, she was like ... 'We were — nominated?' " Byer says. "Everybody was surprised."

Byer isn't even a baker. She's a comedian who isn't afraid to talk about all the things we're nervous about — how we look, how we have sex, how desperate we might be to have sex. Among other things, she hosts a podcast called Why Won't You Date Me?

"It's a real question!" she says, sighing. "I'm so single."

As part of She's Funny, the All Things Considered series about the rule-breaking and risk-taking women of comedy, I sat down with Byer before a live audience at the Downtown Independent theater in Los Angeles.


Interview Highlights

On a comedy sketch in which she's asked to act out stereotypical blackness for an audition, and the incident that inspired it

YouTube

You can see it. It's a commercial where I play a fairy. It's a Nestle commercial, but it was for Israeli Nestle. So I guess in Israel, they don't know black. So the cast director was a white lady ... and she was like, "OK, Nicole, how do I say this — I need you to be as black as possible, and if you go too black, I'll bring you back." And in my head I was like, "What does that mean?" Like, if I shout, "Crips! Bloods!" I don't know. What to you is too black? Also, if I'm a gang member, how are you bringing me back, you know? So it was very confusing. ...

She was the one who flat-out said it, so I'm not mad at her. ... Other people will coat it with "urban" or "street" or "edgy" or things like that. And I know what I sound like. So it would require me to code switch for me to do those things. And that's not who I am. So you are asking me to literally put on your version of "black," which is to me a blackface, because that's not me. And it's hurtful when you realize: Oh, Hollywood understands one type of black. And there isn't just one type of black — just like there isn't one type of white. Like, Emma Stone, Emma Roberts — all these girls get to exist and they don't have to be one thing. They can be anything they want. And we have to be just one thing. ...

When I was little, people would say to me and my sister, or to my mother: "Wow, they're so well-spoken." And I didn't realize until I was an adult that that's a microaggression. ... Just because I'm a little black girl doesn't mean that I'm going to sound the type of way you think I'm going to sound. My name is Nicole, and not something black-sounding, because my mother knew that on a resume, a black-sounding or a black-looking name will not get you in the door. And that was in [1986]. That is not different now in 2019.

Audie Cornish and Nicole Byer (right) speak at the Downtown Independent theater in Los Angeles.
Matthew Nadu for NPR

On how comedy and acting got her through her mother's death (during high school) and her father's death (at age 21)

One of the first jokes I wrote: 'cause I didn't start doing stand-up till 2013; I was doing a lot of improv and sketch [comedy]. So I had started doing improv ... the beginning of June 2008, and my dad died in June 2008. And I'd asked him, when I started taking classes, I was like, "Daddy, OK, so for my grad show will you finally come to New York and watch me perform?" And then he said, "Hard no. I'll die before I watch you do improv." [laughing]

People don't like that joke. I still think it's pretty funny. Who wants to watch someone do object work?

But yeah, doing comedy truly helped me through that, because I was really sad. Me and my dad never got along, and my mother really wanted us to get along, obviously. ... She had encouraged me to do the school play, 'cause she was like, "You talk so much. Why don't you talk other people's words on a stage? And don't come home for a couple hours."

So I started doing the play, and that was amazing for me. And then I was in the musical when my mom died, and that was a nice thing ... it took my mind off of things. I didn't have to be me for the two hours of play rehearsal; I got to be whoever I was playing in the play. So then when my dad died, I was doing improv. I didn't have to be me — I could go on stage and be like, "I'm an elephant!" Or whatever. (I'm making fun of improv, but I truly have a show tonight at 9:30 where I'm going to do improv.) So yeah, it was a blessing that I had found these things before they passed away so I could escape.

On therapy

Oh, I go to so much therapy. So much therapy ... so much therapy. I, my [therapist] Mary, I love her, I see her every Thursday, and I unload. I hadn't seen her in like a month, and then last Thursday I don't think she said two words, and then I was like, "OK Mary, see you later!" So this week she'll have more things to say to me, but I was just like, "I need to tell you so much!"

But I love therapy. I'm a huge supporter of people getting into therapy — especially black people. We hold a lot of trauma. And I think especially black women, we're told: Be a strong black woman, your business is your business. And it's like: Sure, your business is your business, but a therapist can help you manage your business. And people are like: That's for rich people. No. There's sliding-scale therapy where they look at your paycheck and go, "Oh, you make 8 Skittles? Therapy's half a Skittle." You know, it's good to talk to people who are not your friends or are not your family.

On learning how to do her own makeup and hair for TV

I learned how to do my own makeup because I was tired of looking like s*** on television. Like, I'll go back and look at things earlier in my career and be like: Yep, that was a makeup artist who was mixing sand and tan, and not getting ebony. Like, I'm a dark woman. When I was starting out you could not use drugstore brands on me. You couldn't; they didn't make it in my color. So when you pop out Covergirl, I was like: Not this girl.

So I learned. I would watch tutorials, and I learned how to do my own makeup, and I would come to set with a base. I would bring my own makeup. I started wearing wigs because people did not know how to do my hair. ... Also, I didn't have any money, so this wig would get ratty, but I was like, I'd rather be in my own ratty wig than having someone just patting my hair down. Like, have you ever seen a white woman do a black woman's natural hair? ... Isn't it wild? Where they're just like, "OK, and you're good!" And you're like: "You didn't put anything in my hair! Also, you patted it into a square."

On joy and resilience

When my mom died, I was a hellion. I think that's a good word. I made a lot of bad choices, and I was really angry with the world, and I lived with a very reckless abandon. Like, one of my dear friends is like, "When I first met you, I thought you were going to die before you hit 30." And I was like, "Fair." Because when I hit 30, I was like, "Well, hot dang." So I think those years really shaped me into now, because now I'm like, "Oh I have to, like, think before I do things," and now I'm "in therapy," and I "do a little yoga." I just started taking care of myself.

I don't know if it's resilience. I don't know. I think I just — I have a lot of things I want to share with the world, and I really like what I do. It really brings me joy to do comedy. ... It was a long journey to that.

Lauren Hodges, Joanna Pawlowska, Bilal Qureshi and Emily Kopp produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

"Nailed It!" is a competition show that celebrates baking failures. So when host Nicole Byer learned it was nominated for an Emmy, she was shocked.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NICOLE BYER: We were nominated? (Laughter). Everybody was surprised.

CORNISH: And not just because Byer isn't a baker. She's a comedian who bares her insecurities. She riffs on her looks. She sings on her podcast about her sex life - or lack of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "WHY WON'T YOU DATE ME?")

BYER: (Singing) Why won't you date me? Why won't you date me? Please tell me why.

I think it's funny to, like, try to sing and then really desperately plead (laughter), why won't you date me? It's a real question. I'm so single.

CORNISH: Nicole Byer and I talked before a live audience at the Downtown Independent theater in LA, in partnership with KPCC. We discussed, among other things, how she broke into comedy. There's a telling sketch from a few years ago when she was with the troupe the Upright Citizens Brigade.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO, "BE BLACKER: A SKETCH FROM UCB COMEDY")

LAUREN ADAMS: (As director) I need you to be blacker. Do you understand what I mean when I say blacker?

BYER: (As actor) No, I'm sorry. I don't.

ADAMS: (As director) Do you know how to be (snapping fingers) sassy? Still rolling. Go ahead.

JOHN TROWBRIDGE: (As assistant) LaShawana (ph), did you get those clams I asked for?

BYER: (As actor) Oh, child. I got them clams. I got everything on that list you gave me.

ADAMS: (As director) Blacker.

BYER: (As actor) Clams make the party - ha, ha.

ADAMS: (As director) Spike Lee.

BYER: (As actor) Oh, the clams - oh, yes.

ADAMS: (As director) Oprah.

BYER: (As actor) You're getting a clam. You're getting a clam.

(APPLAUSE)

ADAMS: (As director) Yes, Nicole.

CORNISH: So I think that...

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: ...What was surprising about when I first saw that was that it was still funny...

BYER: (Laughter).

CORNISH: ...Like, that it still existed - that it was still funny and that actors were still going through that.

BYER: Yeah. I know what I sound like, so it would require me to code switch for me to do those things. And that's not who I am. It's hurtful when you realize, oh, Hollywood understands one type of black. Like, there isn't one type of white. Like, Emma Stone, Emma Roberts - all these girls get to exist. They can be anything they want. And we have to be just one thing. It really makes me upset (laughter).

CORNISH: No, no. No, this is interesting. And it's interesting you're using the term code switching. I mean, I think - obviously, as someone in public radio, I go through the same thing. I get the same questions of, like, is that your real voice? It's like, well, I'm talking, aren't I? You know, like...

BYER: Yeah. When I was little, people would say to me and my sister - or to my mother - wow, they're so well-spoken. And I didn't realize until I was an adult that that's a microaggression.

CORNISH: Same thing. Yeah.

BYER: Just because I'm a little black girl doesn't mean that I'm going to sound the type of way you think I'm going to sound. My name is Nicole because my mother knew that on a resume, a black-sounding or a black-looking name will not get you in the door. That is not different now in 2019.

CORNISH: On that note, there is one aspect of your story that I see always kind of on the edge of the frame, and that's, like, the story of your family and growing up. I want to play a sample of a moment like that on your podcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "WHY WON'T YOU DATE ME?")

BYER: My dad would cut the grass in bike shorts. So when I was an adult, I realized why women...

MONIQUE HEART: Why they would (laughter)...

BYER: ...Would stop by the house and be like, hi, Trevor. And I was just like, our neighborhood's friendly. And it's like, nope.

HEART: Where was your mom? (Laughter).

BYER: Oh, she was inside. She was not threatened at all.

HEART: (Laughter).

BYER: Yeah. After they both passed, me and my sister found an economy-sized box of condoms in his, like, armoire. And we were like, oh, so I guess that's why she was not worried.

CORNISH: OK. So first of all, I want to say that I'm very sorry that you went through that, you know? And that's difficult. And can you tell us what happened to your parents?

BYER: Yeah. So my mom died of a pulmonary embolism, so it was a blood clot in her leg that traveled her heart. It was very sudden.

CORNISH: And how old are you?

BYER: Sixteen. And then my dad died when I was 21. I was living in New York at the time. My dad and I didn't really get along because he truly didn't understand any of the decisions I ever made. So I, like, surprised him, and then we made pizzas. And we had a really great time. He, like, went grocery shopping, got me, like, all the toppings I liked. And we just really, like, had a wonderful evening. Like - and then my sister woke me up at, like, 7 a.m. and was like, I think Daddy's having a seizure. He died of, like, a massive heart attack the next day.

CORNISH: Who helped you through those passings?

BYER: Comedy. I had started doing improv, I think, the beginning of June 2008, and my dad died in June 2008. And I'd ask him when I started taking classes - I was like, Daddy, OK - so for my grad show, will you finally come to New York and watch me perform? And then he said, hard no - I'll die before I watch you do improv (laughter). People don't like that joke.

CORNISH: Yeah.

BYER: (Laughter) I still think it's pretty funny (laughter).

But yeah, doing comedy truly helped me through that because it took my mind off of things. I didn't have to be me for the two hours of play rehearsal. It was a blessing that I had found these things before they passed away so I could escape.

CORNISH: It's a lot of pressure, though.

BYER: What do you mean?

CORNISH: To, like, hold it all to yourself.

BYER: Oh, I go to so much therapy.

CORNISH: OK.

(LAUGHTER)

BYER: So much therapy.

CORNISH: That's the part I wanted to get out here (laughter).

BYER: So much therapy. I'm a huge supporter of people getting into therapy, especially black women. We're told, you know, be a strong black woman. Your business is your business. And it's like, it's good to, like, talk to people who are not your friends or are not your family.

CORNISH: You mentioned the idea of it being helpful for black women in particular. And I want to dig into that for just a tiny bit because I think you haven't been afraid to talk about some of your frustrations, whether it be with production assistants or makeup people.

BYER: Like, if you ever see - have you ever seen a white woman do a black woman's natural hair?

CORNISH: Oh, it has happened to me.

BYER: Isn't it...

CORNISH: Yes.

BYER: ...Wild where they're just like, OK...

CORNISH: Yeah.

BYER: ...And you're good.

CORNISH: Right.

BYER: And you're like, you didn't put anything in my hair.

CORNISH: (Laughter) I know. I know.

BYER: Also, you patted it into a square.

CORNISH: Yeah.

BYER: Like...

CORNISH: (Laughter).

BYER: Also, like, wardrobe things - sometimes people don't want to shop for a fat person, so I'll just bring things 'cause I've done things where they've had to cut the shirt that I'm wearing so the back is open. Yeah, it's awful. Being a woman - a fat woman - a fat black woman - you are literally garbage to people, and they treat you any sort of way they want.

CORNISH: And how do you cope with it?

BYER: I (laughter) - oh, Mary.

(LAUGHTER)

BYER: I - I'm past being, like, oh, I'm so lucky to be here. I'm like, well, I'm funny; that's why I'm here. So I just do my job.

CORNISH: You know, I think fundamentally, your brand at this point is joy.

BYER: Yeah. I mean (laughter) - yeah, I mean, like, when my mom died, I was a hellion. I think that's a good word. I made a lot of bad choices, and I was, like, really angry with the world. And I lived with a very reckless abandon. Like, one of my dear friends was like, when I first met you, I thought you were going to die before you hit 30.

So I think those years really shaped me into now because now I'm, like, in therapy and, like, I do a little yoga. I just started taking care of myself. I have a lot of things I want to share with the world, and I really like what I do. It really brings me joy to do comedy. Uh-oh.

CORNISH: It brings all of us joy, and we're glad you're taking care of yourself.

BYER: Thank you. Yeah.

CORNISH: Yeah.

BYER: Yeah. It was a long journey to that.

(APPLAUSE)

CORNISH: Nicole Byer, comedian and host of "Nailed It!" Thank you so much.

BYER: Thank you.

CORNISH: And we spoke to Nicole Byer live in Los Angeles as part of our series on the rule-breaking women of comedy.

(SOUNDBITE OF DELICATE STEVE'S "TOMORROW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.