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Some comedy isn’t for everyone. That’s the mantra comedian Nicole Byer has to repeat to herself on a daily basis, and it’s a lesson that took her a long time to learn.
The stand-up comic and writer is about to debut her first scripted series, MTV’s semi-autobiographical comedy Loosely Exactly Nicole. But Byer, the most honest and outspoken star of the network’s Guy Code spinoff, Girl Code, was never “one of those kids that wanted to be an actor” when she grew up. She actually wanted to be an illustrator — “But I can’t draw so, that’s a problem,” she tells The Hollywood Reporter with a laugh — and it was her mother who pushed her to try out for theater in high school.
“My mom was like, ‘You talk so much. You have too much energy. Why don’t you just join the play or something?’ ” says Byer. “It was a comedy, and I got laughs in rehearsal, but onstage, in front of a whole audience, I got a lot of laughs. And truly, it is like a drug. I’ve been chasing that high ever since.”
After launching her career at MTV with Hasan Minhaj’s Failosophy back in 2013, Byer got involved with reality-comedy-advice series Girl Code just a few months later — a show in which comediennes were interviewed about topics ranging from one-night stands to periods to the rules of friendship. But the start of her Girl Code residency wasn’t as smooth as it could have been.
“I didn’t really understand the audition. It was hard for me to understand exactly what the show was trying to be,” says Byer. “But they kept calling me back. The whole time that I was doing the first season, no one told me that it was a full season. They just kept flying me back. So I finally asked, ‘How many episodes am I doing?’ And they were like, ‘All of them.’ I was like, ‘Oh, cool, I guess I won’t tell anyone that I don’t know what I’m doing.’ “
And her confusion didn’t end after the first season.
“The real challenge, for me, was trying to figure out the format of what they wanted,” says Byer. “It was a really weird format for a show. Talking-head shows are just a camera, a sound guy and then a PA writing down what you say and a producer asking you questions. And you’re just supposed to rephrase the question and add a joke to it. Figuring out how to do that was super hard.”
She pauses to laugh and then adds, “I still don’t even do it well. I just ramble, and then they’re like, ‘OK, that was funny. Say that again.’ I try to write jokes in advance, but I’m not a skilled joke writer. I’m pretty bad at it, and I’m only just now getting better at it. So mostly I just went into the studio and just talked. Somehow they made a show out of it!”
Byer may have been unsure of her performance on the show, but viewers couldn’t get enough of her painfully honest, relatable stories and advice for women. As a result of her growing success, MTV kept offering her more and more unscripted opportunities on the network. But what Byer really wanted to do was break into scripted TV.
“Finally, I realized that if I don’t put my foot down, I’m going to continue on this path, and I don’t want to,” says Byer. “So I started saying no to those offers, and I have money from touring and stuff, so I was able to do that. I finally told them I wanted to do scripted stuff, and they actually listened.”
And thus the idea for Loosely Exactly Nicole was born. The upcoming half-hour comedy stars Byer as a version of herself, living in the San Fernando Valley and trying to achieve the Hollywood dream as she navigates friendships, relationships and more mundane topics like bills. But the series actually started off as a family show with kids, something Byer likes to refer to as “f—ed-up Uncle Buck.”
“We shot the pilot, and I’m very proud of it, but no one is ever going to see it,” she says with a laugh. “We decided to make it more a situation about Nicole rather than Nicole in a situation.”
This is the part that Byer was born to play, not only because the show is based on her own life and experiences, but also because she helped develop the show and the role herself, and something she always struggled with in her career was auditioning for the right roles.
“In school, no one teaches you to look for things that are right for you,” says Byer. “I was just looking for auditions, and I went on two really bad ones in the beginning that I quit. But I never thought about quitting comedy. For every shitty part, I can write a part for me. I did a web series that was the most fun thing I’ve ever done. I don’t consider myself a writer, but my friend pushed me to do it. So it went from me going out for a part of a hooker named Bertha, who is very fat and f—s for money, to making my web series that I loved and I’m so proud of.”
Byer hates how, in Hollywood, most roles available to women (especially women of color) aren’t three-dimensional, fully formed characters. That’s something she’s hoping to help fix in the future by writing more.
“If you look at women in general, [in] most parts they’re talking about a man, talking to men, scantily clad or they’re there to be the butt of the joke,” says Byer. “I mean, the only women who seem to work over the age of 50 are Meryl Streep and Judi Dench and Helen Mirren. There are three white women who can still work over the age of 50, and everyone else is a piece of shit by the time they turn that age because the writers rooms are all these white dudes, and if there are 10 white dudes spitballing ideas, who is going to be the person who is like, ‘Hey guys, I don’t agree with that. Let’s have some badass ladies who don’t have to be sexual eye candy’ or whatever?”
She continues, “Like in Suicide Squad, why did Harley Quinn [Margot Robbie] have to wear underwear? That’s not the costume she wears in the comics. Mystique in X-Men is not nude in the comics. These men turn these strong women into eye candy. And on top of women not being represented well, you’re going to throw a minority at these white dudes to make into a human being? Come on.”
Instead of saying the word “diversity,” Byer champions “inclusiveness” when it comes to representation in Hollywood both in front of and behind the camera.
“Inclusiveness has to start at the top in order for it to trickle to down to the roles,” she says. “I do want to start writing more to combat that issue. It’s easier to cast yourself in something you’ve written because you know your voice. I shouldn’t have a show, on paper. A fat black lady who just f—s people left and right on her show, and we never talk about how she’s fat and black? That’s crazy! (Laughs.) But I look at women like Queen Latifah, Monique and Gabourey Sidibe as having paved the way for someone like me to exist. So, Living Single, The Parkers — without these shows, I wouldn’t have my show.”
While Byer reveals that some character names have been changed for Loosely Exactly Nicole, the rest of the show is taken “verbatim” from her life.
“All the situations are all from my past, and I’m not ashamed of anything I’ve done,” says Byer. “I’ve led a pretty fun, interesting life, and I’m happy to share it.”
She pauses to think, then adds, “Although the guy I date on and off throughout the season is literally based on a guy I just ended a relationship with in December. (Laughs.) His name is so similar to his real name. If he watches it, he’ll definitely know that it’s him. And there are things he said that I wrote in the show verbatim because it was just so wild.”
Byer isn’t nervous about sharing her life with the world sans filter because when it comes to her comedy, “nothing is off limits.”
“I don’t think that’s ever going to change,” Byer says with a laugh. “I figure that if I’m going to be ashamed about something, I probably shouldn’t be doing it anyway. It’s cost me so much money to arrive at that conclusion; I’ve done so much therapy.”
But regardless of how true-to-life her series is, Byer knows that her show and her comedy don’t appeal to everyone. And to hear her tell it, that’s OK — but it is a lesson she had to learn the hard way.
“I once went to this school to do a show, and I told a half-baked joke about domestic violence, about how my boyfriend that I had was abusive. I didn’t know this at the time, but this girl’s sister was killed by her boyfriend a day before I got to the school,” says Byer. “So they all went real quiet after that joke. I didn’t think anything of it. But then she wrote something to me on Tumblr about the situation, and I was like, ‘Oh, shit!’ ”
But no matter the situation, don’t ever expect Byer to say she’s sorry.
“I just didn’t want to apologize for it then, and I won’t now,” says Byer. “I won’t apologize for my joke because I thought it was funny. I only say things I think are funny, and I don’t know what is going on with every problem in the world. I refuse to apologize for jokes that offend somebody. You can’t please everybody. I’ve had people take issue with jokes that I’ve said and take issue with the fact that I won’t apologize, but I’m not here to make everybody happy. If there’s a room full of 10 people and seven laugh, I’m not going to apologize to those three who didn’t find it funny. That’s not my problem.”
That doesn’t mean that Byer avoids criticism. In fact, she freely admits that she can’t stop reading the comments about her and her comedy on the internet.
“People tell me not to read it all, but I do. It’s a very bad habit,” Byer says with a laugh. “But I just like to know what people are saying, good or bad. The biggest thing that I learned from my time on Girl Code is that people are very mean. People on the internet are so nasty and they say the meanest things to you, as if you’re not going to read it. But I guess that comes with being on TV and being in the public eye? But truly, Girl Code is a show that is body-positive and woman-positive, and we’re trying to be empowering, but people tweet you the meanest f—ing things. It’s like, ‘Were you not listening to any of it?’ It’s wild.”
In fact, that’s exactly why Byer had to delete her Facebook profile once and for all. “I didn’t want to read people’s thoughts in more than 140 characters,” she says with a laugh.
“And then people from high school would say these awful things,” says Byer. “I’m a feminist and I’m pro-choice and I’m pro-literally-do-whatever-the-f—-you-want-with-your-life-as-long-as-it-doesn’t-affect-me. That’s how I live. And I think we should all live like that. But people from high school say such awful things I had to get off Facebook.”
While some comedians use social media to benefit their careers, Byer tries to shy away from it altogether, aside from tweeting jokes and retweeting “some nasty things” people say to her.
“I try not to get involved with fights because it’s too much to be stressed over literally the internet,” says Byer. “It’s nothing tangible. You’re fighting nothing. And you can’t change someone’s mind over the internet; you can barely change people’s minds in person. So I just stay far away from it.”
Loosely Exactly Nicole premieres Monday, Sept. 5, at 10:30 p.m. on MTV.
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