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.
ADAMS: (As director) Yes, Nicole.
CORNISH: So I think that...
CORNISH: ...What was surprising about when I first saw that was that it was still funny...
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.
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.
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.
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...
BYER: ...Wild where they're just like, OK...
BYER: ...And you're good.
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.
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.
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.
BYER: Yeah. It was a long journey to that.
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")