The babe with the power
Nicole Byer on being real, telling jokes and flipping the script
Nicole Byer will co-headline this year’s Blue Whale Comedy Festival on August 31.
The first thing to know about Nicole Byer is that you don’t know Nicole Byer as well as you think you know Nicole Byer. The self-proclaimed “busybody” has built her comedy brand on letting us into her business—listen to her podcast Why Won’t You Date Me? or watch her standup special Aggressively Adorable (included among the U.S. collection of Netflix’s Comedians of the World) and you’ll learn what appears to be a lot about Nicole’s personal life.
Byer’s frankness about her own dating experiences and sexual escapades are front-and-center in many of her projects. (See: the episode of Why Won’t You Date Me? aptly titled “Featuring the Man Whose Floor I Peed On.”) She’s quick to present herself as “thirsty,” read from her Tinder bio, and express real frustration at the garbage fire that is modern dating.
But for Byer, the act of sharing these aspects of her personal life is just a matter of fact. “I don’t know if I’m super vulnerable,” she ponders when I ask how she manages to put herself on the line for her audiences in her comedy. “You pick and choose things for yourself and things for the audience.”
If you only know Nicole from her kid-friendly comedy baking show she cohosts with chocolatier Jacques Torres, Nailed It!, you better buckle up for her set at the Blue Whale Comedy Festival. Nicole co-headlines the festival with Michelle Wolf. She and I chatted about political jokes, vulnerable comedy and holding the power ahead of her Tulsa set at Cain’s Ballroom.
* * *
Alexandra Robinson: For those who might be new to your comedy, what can the people of Tulsa expect from Nicole Byer stand up?
Nicole Byer: Well, I talk a lot about me—I’m fat, I’m black, I’m a lady, so it’s a lot of those topics. I’m single, so I talk about that. If you only know me from Nailed It!, it’s raunchier than that. It’s a nice fun surprise!
Robinson: Have you ever been to Tulsa before?
Byer: I don’t think I’ve ever been to Tulsa but I’ve been to Oklahoma. I asked if I was in the Midwest and everyone yelled at me.
Robinson: [Laughs] You came up in the New York UCB scene and are now LA-based. How’s your experience been touring the middle of the country?
Byer: For the most part I have good experiences! I would say before the election— because, we do live in a bubble [in LA], everyone was saying ‘Trump won’t win!’ and other people were like, ‘Well, I’m in the Midwest and I think he will.’ It really gives you a different perspective. I also learned touring that if you do political humor its very divisive, and it makes people angry! So I stopped doing that. But I do like touring—you learn how to tell jokes when you tour, because your jokes have to become universal for people on the coasts to get it, in the middle, the south, the north, you know.
Robinson: How does your improv background inform your stand up?
Byer: The way I write jokes is maybe a little different than other people. I come up with either a premise or a punchline and then if I come up with a punchline I improvise a premise, and try to play with it to figure out what the joke is. If I have a premise, I try to improvise the punchline until it works, and that’s the joke. I guess improv has been really great for crowd work—if people yell at me, I usually have something to say back to them.
Robinson: What’s the wildest thing that’s ever happened at a show?
Byer: A man hugged me on stage. That was upsetting!
Robinson: How did that even happen?
Byer: I said I was single, and he said, ‘I’ll hug you,’ and I said, ‘I don’t want that,’ and he got up on stage and security didn’t do anything about it! Security is always very slow. People just yell things. They’ll yell “Why Won’t You Date Me” at me, they’ll yell “Nailed It!” at me—they like to yell my resume, which is very peculiar because I was there!
Robinson: Your brand of comedy is so physical and so honest and so personal to your experience—and watching your comedy, you just get the sense that you’re laying so much of yourself out there for us, but you’re never self-deprecating. How do you walk the line of being vulnerable but also … not, in a way?
Byer: I don’t know if I’m super vulnerable—I’m a busybody, I like telling my business. I also don’t think any experience is just for one person. I think a lot of people go through a lot of things. You know how someone will post on Instagram, like, ‘I’m depressed,’ and then everyone is like ‘Oh my god! I thought I was alone!’ A lot of people suffer from a lot of the same things. We’re all going through it, so you pick and choose things for yourself and things for the audience.
Robinson: I saw an interesting clip of you—you appeared as a ‘Curvy Panelist’ on the Steve Harvey Show a few years ago alongside a plus-sized model and a personal trainer. He was asking you all about a gameshow in the Netherlands where contestants guess whether a woman was pregnant or fat. There was such a stark difference between how seriously the other panelists took that moment and how hilarious you thought it was.
Byer: It is funny! It’s so funny. Because I think everyone signed a waiver [for the gameshow]—everyone knew what it entailed. No one was being offended by it. I refuse to take myself seriously in aspects like that. But, you know, being fat is hard—when you go to the doctor, they say everything is because you need to lose weight, but like, truly, look through it and see if it’s something else! But I don’t know, if you want to poke fun at a fat person—everyone gets made fun of. I choose not to let people hold power.
Robinson: What’s the weirdest part about being a comedian in the age of Trump and this weird time we’re in?
Byer: It’s hard to poke fun at the administration when they’re doing such horrific things. It’s also not fun to keep talking about it. It’s redundant, so I like to be political in other ways. I have a couple stories about how I’ve experience microaggressions, and how sometimes white people will touch my hair and stuff—where you hear the story and you’re like, ‘Aw man, that sucks,’ and you don’t think about it as political but it is. I’m talking about the state of affairs of our country. So I try to talk about the world in a way that’s more palatable than being like, “Isn’t Trump bad?”
Robinson: I read a Bustle interview from about a year ago, you were talking about PC culture and audiences feeling uncomfortable about laughing at experiences that aren’t ‘theirs’ to laugh at. You said, ‘People like PC culture to be the culprit, but I don’t think we’re being PC, I think we’re trying to understand other peoples’ experiences.’ That’s an interesting space you live in with your comedy— how do you invite your audience to interact with that?
Byer: I was trying to tell fat jokes for a long time and I had a really hard time with it because people would feel bad. ‘Cause they were like ‘Ohhhh I don’t know that experience. I feel so bad, that must be terrible for her!’ So I went about it trying to write the jokes from peoples’ perspectives, like how the world sees fat people—I’m just telling my experience through the lens of you. Whenever I think of a joke that doesn’t go well, but other comics say it’s funny and I think it’s a funny premise, I go: ‘Why doesn’t the audience think it’s funny? Oh, because it isn’t their experience.’ So then I try to make it their experience.
Robinson: Who are your biggest comedy inspirations?
Byer: Mo’Nique, Adele Givens, Whoopi Goldberg, Tina Fey, Jane Krawkowski, Robin Williams. Martin Short is so funny. If you’ve never seen Clifford, you have to see that movie. I’m not kidding, it’s so fucking funny. Martin Short plays a little boy who just wants to go to Dino World. It’s maybe the funniest movie I’ve ever seen.
Robinson: Adding it to my list! You’re so humble when you talk about your career but you’re clearly on your grind: You’ve got a Netflix special. You host approximately one million podcasts. You’ve had a sitcom loosely based on your life. You’re constantly touring, and you host Nailed It! among so many other projects. How do you stay on your grind and not get burnt out?
Byer: I had an acting teacher say, ‘If you can live without acting, do that.’ I like working! I don’t mind failing because you just figure out how to succeed in a different way. And if one door closes, another door opens. That’s how doors work.
* * *
@ Blue Whale Comedy Festival
Cain’s Ballroom, 423 N. Main St.
Sat. Aug. 31, 8:30 p.m., $35