Byer is now preparing for what could be one of the most pivotal moments in her career.
She is nominated for two Emmy’s this year. Byer is the first Black woman to be nominated for an outstanding Host for a Reality or Competition Program for her work on Netflix’s “Nailed It!,” an amateur baking competition where failure to execute the design of a renowned pastry chef is the norm. She is also nominated for an Outstanding Writing for a Variety Special Emmy for her Netflix stand-up special “Big Beautiful Weirdo.”
Byer, 35, used to call herself “the Bob Saget of this generation.” Her image on Netflix’s wholesome “Nailed It!” has won her an enthusiastic young fan base — some of whom scream the catch phrase when they spot her in public. But her comedy routines can be brash forays into her sexual exploits and observations on race, including her unexpected reason for enjoying sex with White men.
She is the Nicole Byer of her generation — a dreamer raised in White suburbia, a daughter of a Barbadian immigrant and a Jim Crow South migrant, and an entertainer who plots her success with the shrewdness of the business executive her mother and grandmother would’ve preferred her to be.
Along the way, Byer says, she’s worked to free herself from the expectations of what a Black woman should look and sound like. Trying to pretzel herself into the mold others expected is unsettling, she said in a 2019 interview with NPR, and akin to a form of Blackface.
“It’s hurtful when you realize — Oh, Hollywood understands one type of Black,” she said. “Like, Emma Stone, Emma Roberts — all these girls get to exist, and they don’t have to be one thing. They can be anything they want. And we have to be just one thing.”
Byer grew up in a predominantly White neighborhood in Middletown Township, N.J. She credits her mom, Lillie Byer, a Mississippi native, with noticing her comedic talents and steering her toward theater. That is where she discovered the power in being able to make people laugh.
Despite encouraging her theatrical interests, Byer says, her mother wanted her to pursue a more traditional path after high school. After her mother’s death when Byer was 16, she decided to move to New York City to study acting. “I would not have been able to go if she had not died,” Byer said.
She survived in Manhattan working odd jobs, eating cheap pizza and smoking marijuana with friends. She aspired to be an actor like Viola Davis or one with enough range to star in “A Raisin in the Sun” or “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” as she was learning her craft.
After her father died of a heart attack when she was 21, Byer said she was looking for a way to process her grief when she stumbled upon improv and began to find her footing. She joined the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre improv school and began performing.
Sometimes the humor onstage wasn’t resonating with her. Byer and her best friend, Sasheer Zamata, didn’t always understand the cultural references of the majority-White improv troupes. The confusion was often mutual.
“We would get on [stage] and reference things like Black church and R&B,” which would leave some audience members bewildered, Zamata said.
After being repeatedly mistaken for each other, Byer and Zamata began performing across New York City with another Black female comedian, Keisha Zollar, as an improv group called Doppelganger.
That was followed by offers to perform stand-up comedy at colleges and universities. Byer was initially reluctant to take those jobs because stand-up was so unfamiliar to her, she said, but her manager convinced her to take a chance — and the money.
Her manager told her that her lack of knowledge about stand-up comedy and hesitation to try it were “ ‘like leaving money on the table,’ ” she said. “My dad would be so angry.”
Byer said she would “crush” her college shows during the week, then “bomb” at her Los Angeles comedy club shows on the weekend.
It was at MTV where she got her chance to produce a scripted show. Byer’s series “Loosely, Exactly Nicole” captured her life as a 20-something, unconventional-looking actress trying to land roles in Hollywood while figuring out adulthood. In one episode, Byer re-created an audition during which a White casting director told her to sound and act “Blacker” for the role, an experience Byer has carried with her since her early days in entertainment.
“We’re not like a monolith. I sound Black because I am Black,” she said. “I think when people say, ‘Be Blacker, be sassier’ … I don’t know, I just want to do me.”
Byer’s show was praised for having a diverse cast in a series that didn’t focus solely on the identities of the characters. It was panned for its inability to go beyond crude jokes and racial tropes for laughs.
MTV canceled the show after one season in 2016. Facebook Watch picked it up for a second season and did not renew it for a third.
“I’m really proud I did a big comedy about a fat Black girl,” she said. “I learned how to be on set. I learned how to be in a writer’s room.”
Criticism about her Blackness no longer bothers her, Byer said.
When comedian Faizon Love trashed her as an “unfunny black woman” in an Instagram post last year, Byer thanked him for sending people to watch her now-Emmy-nominated Netflix stand-up special. “He doesn’t have a Netflix special for me to watch,” she said casually, adding that many people did agree with him.
Instead, Byer says, she’s focused on building an empire. Conan O’Brien’s company, Team Coco, is now the production home for her dating podcast, “Why Won’t You Date Me?” She plays Nicky Coles, a real estate agent, on “Grand Crew” — an NBC comedy series with an all-Black cast depicting everyday life of upper-middle-class people without Black tragedy being at its core. Byer also stars in the recently released movie “Mack & Rita,” alongside Diane Keaton and Loretta Devine.
Byer might not have the business degree her parents would have liked, but she’s mastered the art of being herself.
“My parents would be really proud that I figured it out,” she said. “It would’ve been nice if they were around to help and give wisdom or support. But my mom would be really proud of me. She would say: ‘These jokes may not be for me, but they’re for somebody.’”