Nicole Byer on Breaking Boundaries and Believing That Every Comedian Bombs: ‘There’s No Shame in Adjusting a Joke’

·7 min read

Nicole Byer never set out to be a host.

For years, she was best known for being one of the hilarious comics on MTV’s “Girl Code” and later the star of “Loosely Exactly Nicole.” Fast forward to 2020, and she became the first Black woman nominated for outstanding host for a reality or competition program at the Primetime Emmys for Netflix’s “Nailed It!” Then, she was nominated again the following year.

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“Sometimes people are like, ‘It’s humbling.’ I was like, it’s not humbling. It made me feel like, ‘Yes! I elevated hosting. I brought something very different to hosting and it was recognized,’ and it felt cool,” she tells Variety of the honor.

The reality categories often highlight the same shows over and over — ie., “The Amazing Race” has been nominated 19 times. But Byer hopes that maybe she could inspire change down the line.

“Hopefully when someone is looking for a host, they don’t go, ‘Oh, let’s just go with what we know.’ Hopefully they’ll be like, oh, what about this brown woman, or this Black woman, or this Asian person,” she says. “Let’s bring something that people haven’t seen. I’m hoping I just opened the door just a little bit wider for others to be able to do what I get to do.”

Nicole Byer Variety Emmy Extra Edition Reality
Nicole Byer Variety Emmy Extra Edition Reality

When confronted with the thought that this year, she could be nominated in other categories, she can’t help but crack up: “Can you imagine?”

Byer has been busy; she co-hosts multiple podcasts, co-hosts “Wipeout” with John Cena and stars in NBC’s “Grand Crew.” She’s hosted “Nailed It” since its 2018 debut — and it wasn’t easy in the beginning.

“The first two seasons, a lot of it was me being like, ‘I have to read lines?’ I think they really played on the fact that I didn’t really know what was happening. I never thought this would be a huge part of my life,” she recalls. “I don’t know if I’ve learned anything other than you’ve got to get some of the information out, but you can also have a lot of fun and you don’t have to just be like a [talking] head. You can also bring your personality or flair to things, but also, I truly have fun wherever I go. I think they keep the fun in, which is really awesome.”

Plus, Byer has her first-ever Netflix comedy special, “Nicole Byer: BBW (Big Beautiful Weirdo),” also in the running for a nomination. But, as she notes, it’s a strange time for comedy; after being home for so long, she wasn’t convinced she could still perform.

“It is a little scary. I went to New York to see some friends, and my friend set up a show for me. The first thing I said was like I flew across the country to see if I’m still funny, which is like kind of true because it’s like, you’re in this little capsule in L.A.,” Byer says. “When you haven’t done comedy in a year, you’re just like, I don’t know anything.”

Luckily, she can turn to kids for the truth. “I’m not a huge fan of children. I like some. I think of it in a way where children are very honest. They’ll truly tell you exactly what’s on their mind, no filter and a lot of them think I’m funny. So whenever an adult says, ‘You’re not funny and I don’t like you,’ I’m like, ‘I think you’re lying.’ The children say otherwise, and they’re very honest,” she laughs. “It’s very fun that I get to show off different things. It’s family friendly on ‘Nailed It’ and then you come to a stand-up show and you get to see that I’m a full three-dimensional person who doesn’t just do one thing.”

The fact that she has family-friendly material in her TV shows has actually been beneficial on her resume.

“I didn’t know if hosting would be helpful in the acting space and it is, because I’ll get called into things that maybe I wouldn’t necessarily be called in for because a casting director’s child loves me,” she says. “I’ve gotten jobs because kids like me and then their adult parents have the power to put me in things. It’s given me a lot more exposure so I’m really grateful for it.”

While she admits doing stand-up makes her “really nervous,” she’s always been comfortable on stage — and is hoping to get back into it more often.

“Standup is my vision, my voice, my ideas. And I go, ‘Hi, I hope you like this. I truly hope this is an enjoyable hour for all of us.’ But I bomb. I’ve bombed so many times and you kind of have to learn how to enjoy the bombs and the bombs teach you and influence your later work,” she says. “It teaches you to be humble and that everything you have to say isn’t fucking important and you do have to listen to the audience sometimes. Maybe you took something a little too far. There’s no shame in adjusting a joke because it was offensive and not as edgy as you thought it was.”

Although Byer has always been comfortable on stage, she wasn’t always sure that stand-up was for her, either. While on “Girl Code,” she was asked to perform at colleges, but didn’t know how to go about it. “My manager at the time, the one good thing he did was he pushed me to learn how to do it. He said, ‘Take your characters, frame it like a joke, read a book, figure it out.’ and I said, ‘OK,’ so I figured it out.”

The comic stars in her first Netflix stand-up special, “Nicole Byer: BBW (Big Beautiful Weirdo).” - Credit: Clifton Prescod
The comic stars in her first Netflix stand-up special, “Nicole Byer: BBW (Big Beautiful Weirdo).” - Credit: Clifton Prescod

Clifton Prescod

She then spent three to four years on the road, doing two shows a night to “try to find out how to be funny to people who don’t know who I am.” She’s been comfortable for years but sometimes, still bombs on stage — and is convinced that every single comedian out there still does sometimes: “If they tell you otherwise, they’re lying to you.”

Ultimately, it seems like Byer has done it all — but she’s looking forward to throwing herself more into acting, too — and hoping to land a movie down the line. Now, she’s starring in NBC’s “Grand Crew,” which was recently renewed for a second season.

Byer is friends with creator Phil Jackson and while shooting the pilot, she couldn’t help but think back to the days when the duo did improv together in New York. “I don’t think if you told us 10 years ago this is what we would be doing that we would be like, ‘Oh yeah of course!’ We were like in a basement with water from Gristedes dripping on us as we’re like, ‘Can we get a suggestion?'”

She adds, “I’m so excited about that and to be able to work with friends is just a dream.”

Through any of the ups and downs — and the tough times of the last few years — Byer lives by something her mom used to tell her: “It takes more energy to frown than it does to smile.”

“If you just smile, have a nice time and let things roll off your back and realize that a lot of life isn’t personal, it has nothing to do with you, you just feel a little lighter and happier,” she says. “Carving time for yourself is important. Self care is important. If you sigh before doing something, maybe rethink about the thing you’re doing. Maybe you’re not meant to do that. Also therapy! She’s been in so much therapy!”

Michael Schneider contributed to this report.

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