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Nicole Byer had little interest in opening her first hourlong special the way so many other comics do, talking backstage or walking the streets of New York. It all felt too pedestrian, and Byer is anything but pedestrian. So, Big Beautiful Weirdo, which became available on Netflix on Dec. 7, begins instead with Byer swinging around a stripper pole, dressed in a hamburger bikini that she tracked down on the internet. “I’m genuinely a lot,” she jokes over Zoom, where she’s logged in under the name Whoopi Goldberg.
Byer, 35, is at her home in Los Angeles — where she has a pole of her own in the backyard — preparing for what’s poised to be a pivotal next phase in her already busy career. A week after the special dropped, Byer’s first network sitcom, Grand Crew, debuted on NBC. She can also be seen co-hosting TBS’ Wipeout (back Jan. 11) and Netflix’s Nailed It!, which earned her two Emmy nominations, and heard on a collection of podcasts, including Why Won’t You Date Me? With Nicole Byer.
Over the course of an hour, the New Jersey native opened up about her relationship with fans, her desire for balance and her fight to be seen as she really is.
Let’s start easy: What’s the draw of the pole?
I love strippers. I think sex work is real work. The first time I went to a strip club, I was in awe. Then my friend started taking classes at this place called Luscious Maven in North Hollywood and she’s like, “You can do it too.” Me? No. Not this fat body. But no one blinked an eye. Nobody was like, “I can’t believe this big bitch is going to try it.” I felt accepted immediately, and I think it looks hot. I’m not great at it, but I like doing it, and I think opening my special [on the pole] just normalizes being OK at your hobby.
There you were, with your burger bikini on the pole. I’m curious, were the folks at Netflix instantly on board or was that a conversation?
I told them, “I want to do something big.” There was a little pushback, like, “Nicole, what?!“
How often throughout your career has there been, as you put it, “a little pushback”?
A lot. Because I’m a lot. I literally have a cut-out of myself behind me. On set, I’ll do things and then a director will be like, “Hey, can you bring it down?” or, “Stick to the script,” or, “Maybe we try it a different way?” But nine times out of 10, they’ll use the thing that I came up with that’s a little wilder.
Was that quality always in you, even as a child?
Oh, yeah. (Laughs.) Junior year of high school, my mom was like, “You really love attention, and I think me and your father are ill-equipped to give you the amount of attention you need, so maybe you go and do a play?” And that’s what I did. In rehearsals, I got that first laugh and was like, “Oh, OK, she’s funny, all right.” And then onstage, it was like a cacophony of laughter, and I was like, “Oh my fucking God, this is what I have to do forever.” And I’ve just been chasing that ever since.
Earlier in your career, a lot of unscripted opportunities were coming your way, and you were dead set on scripted work. What was that resistance about?
This will sound so cocky, but being myself is rather easy. I like who I am. Sometimes I have bad days, but for the most part, I look in the mirror and I’m like, “Oh, what a treat!” (Laughs.) So, it’s easy to be myself and talk to people, and I liked the idea of being challenged and taking a script [and becoming a character] was a cool challenge. That’s why I was hesitant to do more unscripted. But the unscripted that I have done has been really joyful, and I don’t want to shit on it. Like, [Nailed It!‘s] Jacques Torres is a dream to work with, and then John Cena [her co-host on Wipeout], what a funny motherfucker.
People ask me that a lot, and I don’t know. Sometimes people are like, “God, you really laugh at your own jokes onstage,” and I’m like, “Yeah, I wouldn’t be onstage saying it if I didn’t think I was funny.” So, I think I’m funny. I’m my own biggest fan. And I have ADHD, so if I’m like, “Oh man, I really hate this about me,” I’m like, “Oh wait, I have a whole bunch of other stuff to do.” I also go to therapy, and my therapist is like, “It’s OK to be upset with yourself sometimes, as long as you understand that feelings aren’t facts and shit passes.” So, I keep that in my head … and then just smile until you’re happy.
How do you think the industry has seen you, and does it align with how you see yourself?
When I first started auditioning, a lot of it was just, like, “Be Blacker.” Because I don’t have a stereotypically Black voice, which is an insane thing to say, but that’s what I’ve been told and that’s what I’ve internalized. But I’m a Black woman speaking, and this is what I sound like, so why do I have to code switch for a white casting director? And it would happen, like, “Oh, she’s a secretary, but you want her to swivel her neck and be all stereotypically sassy,” and I’m like, “But that doesn’t have to be her.” The nice thing is that casting directors know who I am now, so they don’t put whatever societal bullshit onto me anymore.
In the past, you’ve copped to reading reviews and comments. How do you avoid it getting to you?
Oh yes, and people are mean, but I guess nobody’s told me anything that I didn’t already know. Like, if I post a pole-dancing video, people will be like, “Whoa, strong pole.” And I’m like, “Yeah, it is pretty strong. But don’t you think it’s more impressive that somebody three times your size can climb up it and maybe you can’t? Like, isn’t that more impressive than just the pole not breaking?” Or people are like, “You’re fat, not funny.” And I’m like, “Yeah, I am, but also comedy is subjective. So, like, God bless. I hope you find the person that you like.”
Is this an internal monologue or are you actually commenting back?
Sometimes I’ll comment. (Laughs.) My favorite one was this person who DMed me, like, “You’re not funny. I fucking hate you, you piece of shit. I hope you die,” or something. And I just wrote back, “I hope that made you feel better. I hope you have a better day.” And he responded, “Wow, I’m so sorry. I was having a really awful day. I shouldn’t have said that to you. Keep making people laugh. Not me, of course.” And I laughed so hard because he doubled down, like, “Oh yeah, that was mean, but you’re still not funny to me.” Like, that’s comedy. That’s funny. But, yeah, I’m not for everybody. Everybody can’t be for everybody. But my checks still clear, so I’m good. (Laughs.)
When you assess the landscape, is there another career that you look at and say, “Wow, I’d love that”?
I grew up watching Whoopi Goldberg, and I love Whoopi Goldberg. I also love Mo’Nique, she’s genuinely so fucking funny, and then Wanda Sykes has one of my favorite jokes of all time about a detachable pussy. I really just love Black women who say what they mean and are not apologetic about it.
Loosely Exactly Nicole, which changed networks during its two-season run, was supposed to be your big break. What did you learn from the experience?
So fucking much. I learned how a writers room worked and how to be on set. I was in most of the scenes, so I also learned how to make things work in the moment if it wasn’t working, and my showrunners listened to me in a way that I think is surprising. I genuinely think it was a funny show, even if six people watched.
I remember you being asked about having two white showrunners during the promotion of the show, and you seemed thrown by the question. Is that a fair characterization?
Well, it was interesting because it was an ornery Black man, who was like, “I have a question. You’re sitting there with two white showrunners. Why?” And I was like, “Oh my God, she’s not prepared for this.” I would have been today. [I’d have said,] if networks and studios had trusted upper-level Black people or people of color, I would have a Black showrunner. But what happens is that you get a diversity hire, which doesn’t come out of your budget, and then they move up and they get expensive and when you hire upper-level people, you don’t want to waste your money on someone you don’t know.
How is the experience different on NBC’s Grand Crew with a Black creator at the helm?
When you have someone like Phil [Augusta Jackson] at the top, you get others, too. Not to say white people can’t do shit, but we just don’t get opportunities sometimes, and this show gave a lot of people of color opportunities to do stuff. It felt good to go to work and see people who look like me. And to go to work and go, “Oh, I don’t have to worry about my wig because my hair person knows how to tack down and style a wig.” Or Silvia [Leczel], who did my makeup, knew my face. So, I never once had to worry about my face and my hair looking bad, and that’s a luxury some actors have. I remember I did a job once where the makeup artist had a bunch of Wet n Wild and I brought my own colors and she was like, “Oh, thank God you brought them.” I said, “Thank God? You don’t have a full kit? You didn’t come to work fully prepared? That’s like me coming to work not having read this script. How dare you.” Then the hair person didn’t know how to put the wig on my head for the screen test, and I was like, “I’m being gaslit. I look terrible.” The day we shot [the real thing], I had my own hair girl come. I was just like, “I’ll pay her myself, and I’m going to do my own makeup, too.” When I got to set, everyone was all, “Nicole, you look beautiful.” And I was like, “Yeah, because I had people who knew what they were doing working with me.”
You have a lot on your plate. What warrants a “no” these days, and how has that changed?
Either scheduling [makes an opportunity impossible], or I don’t think it’s going to bring me joy. I think it’s Lucy Liu who was like, “Work until you have ‘fuck-you money.’ ” Well, I don’t have fuck-you money, but I do have enough where I’m like, “I’ll be OK if I don’t take this one job.” I got to a point during the pandemic where I was like, “You worked so hard for so long, and you’ve made a bit of money, when are you going to spend it? When are you going to enjoy it?” Five years ago, if you told me to eat a raw potato in the middle of the street and it might end up on Quibi, I’d do it.
Do you foresee your habits changing at all on the other side of the pandemic?
I’m going to go on tour next year, and I’ve been thinking, “What if I did every other weekend?” I don’t have to work at a breakneck speed anymore. Because I used to work for seven, eight, 10 days in a row and then sleep for a whole day, and then go back out and do it again. I’m only getting older. I used to take five, six flights a week, to the point that the [airline] crew would be like, “You’re back!” And I’d think, “Am I a flight attendant? What am I doing?”
You joke in your special about your fame level today. How often do people recognize you, and where or what, most often, is it from?
I say I’m moderately successful. Like, I can walk down the street, no problem. Now when I go to drag shows — and I love drag shows — people know who I am. Sometimes a queen will call me out. That’s usually from [my podcast] Why Won’t You Date Me? Then when I’m out of town, it’s always Nailed It! People love screaming “Nailed it” at me.
And how do you respond?
Well, I didn’t love it at first. I was like, “Oh my God, I’m going to hear it right before I die. Someone’s going to be like, ‘Oh, nailed it.’ ” Then I told John Cena how much I hated it because someone on the course was like, “Nailed it,” and I was like, “Wrong show!” I said to John, “Don’t you hate it when people are like, ‘I can’t see you,’ or rap your opening to you?” And he was like, “Nicole, that’s what they know about you. They just want to connect, and isn’t that beautiful?” And I was like, “My God. Yes, John Cena.” So now I don’t mind it. I’ll even yell it back and be like, “Do you want a picture?” It’s not going to kill me. It’s like, “You like me? Thank you.” And if it happens right before I die, wouldn’t that be nice?
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Dec. 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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