Comedian is just one of Nicole Byer’s many gigs. She’s an author, actress, reality show host, and co-hosts four podcasts, including Why Won’t You Date Me? With Nicole Byer. When we spoke with her, mostly about her last special ‘cause it’s great, she talked to us about her experience of building an hour of material, her journey as a comedian, and her favorite joke she’s ever written.
HT: When you put a special out into the world, do you pay much attention to the response?
Byer: I mean, everybody has their own opinion about everything. You hope that the opinions are nice and that people liked it. But there are people in the world who don’t like you. And that’s fine. I think it was like RuPaul, who was like, call me whatever you want as long as you’re talking about me. I’m from that school. Talk about me negatively, positively. Hopefully, there are more positives than negatives.
I think Eddie Murphy had the best response to any criticism, “The check cleared, so it was a success.”
Yeah. Really, say whatever you want. My checks, I’m doing all right. I’m doing enough that I don’t have to talk about you. You know what I’m saying? It’s like, “Yeah. My bank account is nice to look at.”
[Laughs] So, when do you know your hour of material is ready for a special?
Well, for me, personally, I worked backwards with stand-up. So I was doing improv and sketch to begin with. And then I got Girl Code, and then colleges were like, “These college kids fucking love you. Come do stand-up at our fucking schools or whatever.” And I was like, “I need new characters.” And my manager at the time was like, “No, you’re not bringing wigs in a suitcase. No. Learn how to do stand-up.” And I was like, “Oh, okay. I guess I’ll learn.” Then I learned and the first show was at Rutgers and I had to do, I think, they only asked me to do a half hour and I had never done a half hour. I’d done sets that were 10 minutes long. And Emily Heller was there, she’s an accomplished stand-up. She’s so funny. And I was like, “You go last. You headline. You are good.”
And she’s like, “They’re here to see you.” And I was bummed. And then they laughed at some stuff that genuinely wasn’t funny. I was like, “Oh, shit. I think I have a little bit of leeway, because I’m on television.” And then I was like, “But that’s going to wear off. I better learn how to do stand-up.”
I learned how to do stand-up on the road. I’ve been doing it long enough. I was like, “In 2020, I’d like to do a special.” So I was touring, touring, touring, touring, almost every fucking weekend of 2019 going into 2020. And then COVID hit. I had a tape that I was showing people. I was proud of the work. And I was like, “I want to shoot this special.” And then going to do stand-up for eight months. And then the world is different. My material is different. I’m different. So then, I did a deal with Netflix and then was like, “Fuck. I know I’ll have it, but I have to figure out what it is.”
And then I went back out on the road and I’ve been doing outdoor shows in L.A. And then it all came together in this way where it was a celebration of my material that I had worked on for so long and perfected along with some new stuff. And then my new stuff was also peppered with old jokes that I hadn’t done anymore, but fit in this new world.
It was really just exhausting and a fun jigsaw puzzle. It felt good. It felt [like] everything came together the way I wanted it to come together from the opening to the show. I did an encore joke that didn’t make it into the special that went really well at the second show. It was just a really magical thing.
That exhaustion, all that hard work, is why it turned out so well, right?
Mm-hmm. Yeah. And I had fun. The second show was funny because [comedian] Sasheer [Zamata] had seen that show in New York at, I think, Union Hall. She saw the first show and then she was like, “Nicole, the second show, you had so much fucking fun. You were doing shit I hadn’t seen before.” And I was like, “Yeah, because I knew the first show was good enough to be the special.” The second show was like, “Let’s have fun. Let’s have fun.” And then that’s what we used for the special. I think we maybe cut one joke from the first show there. But I don’t think we did. I don’t remember. It was a lot of editing, a lot of back and forth, a lot of notes.
You mentioned an encore joke that was cut. What was that one?
Oh, so it’s a pedophile joke.
The premise is why you shouldn’t fuck a kid, because I don’t understand why you want to, but it’s the way I word things that make people really upset. And the joke is two minutes of a rollercoaster and people going, “Oh. Ah.” And then laughing and then getting off court. It’s people getting on and off of a rocking boat.
They’re like, “I feel safe. I don’t feel safe. I feel safe. I don’t feel safe.” [Comedian] Matteo Lane, one of my best friends, and Sasheer were watching in the wings dying and I could hear them. It was just perfect. Again, special because the only people who heard that joke were the people who were in that audience. And the people who were operating the cameras or whatnot. I have a cut of it, but it’s safe with me.
[Laughs] It sounds like a good joke.
It’s my favorite joke I think I’ve ever written. And the best part is, I told Sasheer the premise and a couple of the punchlines while we were in Costa Rica, waiting in the water, the sun was setting and she was like, “I really think you should tell that joke. It’s so funny.” And I said, “You know what? You’re right.” And then I went to Hot Tub, Kristen Schaal and Kurt Braunohler‘s Show at the Virgil. I started the joke and a woman’s audience went, “No.” And I was like, “Oh, they hate it.” And then I tried to keep going and I have never had that reaction to any joke I’ve ever told, people pissed really being like, “I hate it.” And I was like, “Oh, no. God. Sasheer, she told me to tell it.” I threw her right under the bus.
And then she worked with Kristen Schaal on something, Kristen was like, “You told Nicole to tell that horrific joke?” And she was like, “What? She said that?” And then I had to tell her, I was like, “Yeah. I said it when we’re on stage. I’m sorry.” And then Marcella Arguello has a show called Women Crush Wednesdays. I had done the show, got off stage and I was like, “Dang, I forgot to tell my pedophile joke.” She said, “Come back next week and only tell that joke.” And I said, “Okay.”
I went back and I only told that joke and it crushed. I figured out how to tell it. The way I have to tell it is like, “Do you guys want to hear a joke nobody likes?” And everyone’s like, “Yeah, I feel cool.” And I had a Def Jam comedy moment at that show, because a woman in the back was running around screaming. She loved it so much. It’s my favorite joke. It’s so dumb. Maybe it’ll go on to the next one. Probably not. I’ll just have it with me and tell it every now and again.
Do you have some material like that where it’s just like, “Ah, this is just for me or my friends?”
I was trying to write jokes based on memes during other tragedies in the world, and that got pretty dark. Because it was like, “What if the internet was around during other horrific things in the world?” How like some of the COVID memes are really fucking funny, but people died. So it’s like, “What would it be like during slavery or World War II?”
You can have such a fun, playful delivery that only a minute or two later you realize, “Wow, that was dark.”
Then you’re like, “Uh-oh. Whoopsie-daisy.”
You have a very good bit on J.K. Rowling. She’s rightfully ridiculed on the internet, but you found a fresh angle.
Thank you. I wrote that joke after I watched that documentary. I was just like, “Wait a minute. This truly sounds like Harry Potter. This is literally nuts.” And then I was looking at the Harry Potter Wikipedia page and the KKK Wikipedia page. And I was like, “This is wild. There are so many similarities.” And then I did that joke [at] The Improv and then an executive from, I think, Universal, was like, “You’re closer than what people think, because people compare it to Nazi Germany or whatever.” And she’s like, “No. It’s closer to the KKK I think than that.” And I was like, “Okay. So I’m on the right track. It’s been confirmed.” I don’t know if she’s actually an executive. It could have been just an audience member fucking with me. But, I mean, yeah. Grand wizards, wizards. Come on now.
I also thought your play on her name [JKKK Rowling] was terrific.
That was during a show. Sometimes you write a joke and it’s solid, and then you start playing with the audience, and then that just rolled off my tongue. And I was like, “I have to remember to say that, that’s funny.”
Do you always write your material down after moments like that?
I have to write everything down. I have ADHD. So the mind is a prison. I’ll say things and then someone will be like, “Repeat what you just said,” and I’ll be like, “Hmm. That’s gone.” So if I say something funny, I’ll try to write it down. I have a little notepad in the shower where I write shower thoughts down. It’s a waterproof pad and a pencil that a friend got me to help me remember stuff.
Say, in the special, what were some of the jokes or bits that maybe took longer than others just to get them right?
Let’s see. What took a minute? The Black Lives Matter joke worked in audiences where there were Black people. And then I went to Portland.
At the Helium Club?
Yeah. And I was like, “Oh.” I love Helium. And there are Black people in Portland and they did come out to see me, but it was a little, “Oh.” I think that’s when I came up with Pack Up Your White Guilt, that was the second show, maybe, people were gasping. I was like, “What the fuck?” And then the Pack Up Your White Guilt came from that. But, yeah, that was the thing where it worked.
And then I couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t working. And I was like, “Oh, because there’s literal white guilt,” and people who are sitting here looking at me going, “I literally did what she just said. I texted my Black friends to be like, ‘How are you doing? Is the trauma getting to you?’” I was like, “We didn’t need any of that.” And they’re reckoning with it and I’m making fun of them to their face. So, that was a thing I had to figure out.
I’m in Portland right now, and I’ve heard from a few comedians that some audience members here don’t have the best sense of humor about themselves.
Yeah. Especially, when you’re like, “You did this. You know you did this.”
What are some clubs around the country that you love performing at?
The DC Improv is electric. Denver Comedy Works, again, electric. Just so fucking… Every single show I did at those two clubs was like, I can’t even describe to you how good it felt. Also, Helium in Portland is also really great. The time before the last time I was there, I sold out. We had to add two extra shows. I did seven shows that weekend. That was 2019, the end of 2019. I also really like the Wilbur Theater in Boston. Boston goes hard. Boston drinks. Boston’s a great fucking crowd. Also, ironically enough, Oklahoma City. I think it’s a Helium in Oklahoma city. I had the best time there.
I’m from DC, so it’s always nice to hear comedians talk about how great it is performing there.
It’s great. The room is solid. Also, they’re accommodating. I had a sign language interpreter on stage with me during one show who was so fucking hot that I was like, “You are the distraction because of your face, honey. I see that you sign away, but the face, my God.”
[Laughs] Since you started off in sketch and improv, when you’re on stage, do you find yourself going off script quite a bit or do you stick very closely to what you’ve written?
I was touring a ton in 2019, I got a little burnt. So I was like, “We stick to this script. Let me just get through my fucking jokes. Don’t yell at me.” Now, I had a little bit of a break. I’m having more fun. Now, it’s like if you yell something at me, I will talk to you. I will respond. I won’t bug out.
I did a show in Houston where I asked if there was anyone in the audience who would fuck me. And the student was like, “Yes.” And then that derailed the show. And it was just very fun. And I had such a good time. My Houston shows were really great the last time I was there. So I’ve just been having more fun because it’s like, “Why are you doing it? Why are you getting on stage to just perform the same jokes?” No, you need something from them, from the audience and the audience needs something from you. So let’s have fun. Otherwise, stay at home.
I imagine it was a ton of fun roasting the [unruly drunk] white woman on her birthday in Wisconsin, especially since you got to use that story in your special.
Mm-hmm. I mean, that was not fun for her because she did cry. And then I loved it because I really hated Appleton, Wisconsin. I don’t fucking know how to fucking pronounce it. At one point at one of the shows, someone in the audience screamed, “Smile. We can’t see you,” and nobody on that fucking staff did anything. I was livid. I truly walked into the crowd and was like, “What the fuck is wrong with you people?” I ended the show early, because I asked them to stop screaming “nailed it” at me and they would not. In the middle of a joke, it was like, “Nailed it.”
I said, “Fuck all of you, none of you deserve to hear the rest of this joke. I hate it here. Nobody here is nice or good.” And then I literally got off stage. Everyone was like, “Oh, what a poor sport.” And I was like, “Poor sport?” A lot of the people in that crowd were racist and unkind and unruly. I was like, “I am not a substitute teacher. I’m not trying to fucking rally children.” I hate it. I will never go back there.
It’s so strange that some people never learned not to talk to someone when they’re performing or don’t know better.
YouTube killed it because [you] see those videos where it’s “Heckler Owned!” So people are like, “Oh, someone’s going to get owned during this show. And it’s going to end up on YouTube.” Where it’s like, “No. You just shut the fuck up, you’ll hear a really great show.” You’ll go home and you’ll have something nice to talk about.
I did one show, I think, it was the Irvine Improv. I had fun there, too. I told the white woman joke and then this Black woman was like, “It’s my birthday.” And I was like, “Oh, are you trying to prove that Black women could be just as awful as white women?” She’s like, “Yes.” I was like, “Well, you did it. I guess I’ll be nice to you. Happy birthday. How are you?” She’s like, “Good.” I was like, “All right. What do you do for a living since you need this?”
She’s like, “I’m a lawyer.” Oh, my God. It was funny. She just needed it. We were having a nice banter. And then I can’t remember what I said, and it was harsh. And then the whole crowd was like, “You are the bad one, Nicole.” And I was like, “Oh, I’m not going to fucking win them over even though this woman interrupted my show. All right. Here we go.” And then the rest of the show was like, “Are you okay? Do you need more attention?” She’s like, “No, I got it.” I was like, “Okay.”
Being from High Times, I wanted to ask, and I may be wrong, but did you tell Conan O’Brien you quit smoking or were trying?
That wasn’t weed. I think that was a cigarette. I quit smoking cigarettes on January 3rd. I haven’t had one since. So that’s hard.
Thank you. But weed? Weed, I like an edible every now and again, but I don’t smoke as much as I used to. I used to smoke every day in high school. And then in my early 20s, I smoked a ton and ate a lot of edibles. And then sometimes to clear my head I’ll smoke and go for a drive. So I mean, it is a little bit less. She’s still getting a bit stony.
[Laughs] Do edibles ever help with writing material or is that just to relax?
Not at all. You think something’s real funny and then you write it down and you look at it sober and you go, “What the fuck is this? What the fuck is this?”