How ‘Nailed It!’ Host Nicole Byer Became the Funniest Person in Reality TV
The “Nailed It!” host talks about her wild road to Netflix, what it’s like for a plus-size black female comedian, and why she won’t apologize for wanting a man with a big dick.
On the first season finale of Netflix’s breakout baking show, Nailed It!, a “Pinterest Fails”-inspired competition series in which hapless bakers struggle to recreate ornate professional desserts, the contestants were instructed to make cakes in the shape of a bust of Donald Trump.
The final creations from the first two contestants, if they didn’t exactly “nail it,” per se, were enough of a facsimile of the president to earn an impressed nod of approval from Nailed It! host Nicole Byer. But then contestant number three, Kimberly, unveiled her cake: a Cheeto-hued mix between The Lord of the Rings’ Gollum and a haunted doll, with dark, red circles around his eyes like that of a, well, crackhead and a nest of spaghetti hair haphazardly arranged on the top.
Byer doubles over laughing, laboring through a series of hoots and whistles before finally mustering the encouragement she was hired to give. “It’s good,” she says, finally. “There we go. We got there.”
It is one of the funniest reality TV moments in recent years, in a genre not particularly known for big swings of comedy. Cooking shows tend to be so self-serious you can smell the sweat sometimes more than you can the meals being prepared, intense environments where high-stakes houses of cards are built on a foundation of perfect execution. Nailed It!, which scored a surprise Emmy nomination this week alongside one of those aforementioned cooking shows, Top Chef, embraces imperfection. It rewards the simple act of trying. It is about silly, goofy, refreshing joy.
The center of gravity for all that joy is, without a doubt, Byer, a host who is changing what we see and want from cooking competitions, sure. But in her own way—and everything Byer does is on her own terms—she’s changing what we expect and will accept from comedy, too. Particularly when it comes to women. Black women. Fat women. Women who, it can’t be said enough, embody joy.
“They were so silly. They made me laugh,” Byer says about the Trump cakes. We’re meeting in New York City, where she used to live, at a bakery downtown surrounded by the kinds of patisseries and outrageous desserts that might inspire an episode of her show. “Oh, all of it makes me laugh so hard. I love these monstrosities that people make.”
Byer was cast on Nailed It! thanks to the grace notes of her breakout work on MTV’s commentary series Girl Code, which kicked off a fruitful stand-up comedy career and her own MTV sitcom, Loosely Exactly Nicole, which moved to Facebook Watch in its second season. Production company Magical Elves (Top Chef, Project Runway) reached out to her about the project, knowing they wanted to do a competition series inspired by “Pinterest Fails” memes but not entirely sure what shape it would take.
They told Byer they thought she’d be able to toe the line they were looking for as a combination host and judge, someone who could criticize and make fun of the contestants without actually upsetting them. “I was like, ‘Seems hard!’” Byer laughs. “But I think that’s in my wheelhouse.”
Each episode of the first season shot for a full 10 hours, with Byer estimating there were at least three versions of a show they could have cut from the material before ultimately deciding on the playful, family-friendly series that Nailed It! would become. “I told a lot of dick jokes that got cut out.”
Slight as the concept may have seemed, the show also offered unintentionally astute commentary on a culture that, through mediums like Pinterest and Instagram, sets unrealistic standards for how we should live our lives or, in this case, bake in order to be worthy of adoration. (Or social media likes.) At the root of Nailed It! is the inadequacy so many of us feel when it’s revealed that we are not superhuman. Instead, the show celebrates that normalcy and champions the effort that goes into self-improvement.
The show cannily embraced the idea of “fails” in a very meta way. There was an episode in which Byer and co-judge Jacques Torres were debating one contestant’s questionable skills when a piece of the set fell behind them. Instead of stopping the show, fixing the set, and editing the snafu out of the episode, the duo laughed at the mishap and moved on. The set decoration laid limp on the floor for the remainder of the episode.
When it was revealed that first-season guest judge Sylvia Weinstock took home a pot she liked, her return in season two included an extended comedy bit with her burgling the supply closet. And then there’s the infamous Trump cakes episode, in which guest judge, Starship Troopers 2 star Jay Chandrasekhar, leaves in the middle of production to go pick up his kids, stranding Byer and Torres as the competition continued.
“Oh boy, I was so annoyed,” Byers says, her eyes narrowing and her tone deepening with frustration. “It ended up being very, very funny. But in the moment I was like, someone fucked up. Someone didn't tell this man it was a 10-hour day.” Now it’s the first question she asks a guest judge when they arrive: Did they tell how long you’ll be here?
As Nailed It!’s recently released third season racks up streaming views on Netflix, Byer reflects on how hosting a cooking-themed reality TV competition series is a job she certainly never thought she’d have. Though she supposes she knew that she’d one day end up hosting something.
“People like me as a host,” she says. “People have said I’m good at it.” It’s a role it turns out she’s rather comfortable in, too. “It’s very easy to be me. It’s easy to turn up me and turn down me. I’m very, very comfortable with who I am. And it took me a long time to get there.”
Over the course of about an hour, we talk about what it took to get there, what it means to the world of entertainment and culture-at-large now that she has this platform, and—she’s probably going to probably roll her eyes at the corniness of this—feeling like she’s finally “nailed it.”
Byer was sleeping at her home in Los Angeles when the first earthquake hit. It’s only been a week since two earthquakes in less than 36 hours rattled the city. The first one woke her up. Her closet door was swinging and her bed was shaking. She shrugged and went back to sleep.
When the second one happened, she was folding laundry. She noticed the vibrations and figured it was another earthquake, so she planted her feet firmer and continued folding. If anything happened to her, at least she’d “have nicely folded leggings,” she laughs. “Like, if a bad one hits, I have not shown survival skills.”
Byer might be selling herself short. She may not own an earthquake kit or be up to date on preparedness measures, but she has proven herself more than equipped to navigate the shifting tectonic plates of another kind: a career in Hollywood as a plus-sized black woman.
When Byer was growing up in New Jersey, she wanted to be an artist, until she took an art class, realized she wasn’t very good at it, and didn’t care enough to try to get better. Then she wanted to be a bus driver or a mechanic, because she liked cars. (She can still change her oil and a set of tires.) Then it became clear that she was going to become an actor.
Her mom, who died while she was in high school, was the catalyst. “She was like, ‘You’re very loud and you talk so much. Why don’t you do a play and channel your energy?’”
She hated school. It turns out that she had ADHD that wasn’t diagnosed until three years ago. Teachers would remove her from class, unable to figure out how to handle her distracted, rambunctious behavior. When she took her SATs, she remembers a big window in the room and a dog outside. “I was like, ‘What is that dog doing? Oh boy, I want to know where that dog is going.’” Before she knew it, the test was over.
After high school, she moved to New York City, working as a waitress and in retail while auditioning. One day after a shift at Lane Bryant, she Googled, “What do actors do when they’re not working?” One thing that came up was improv. She opened another search box for improv theaters in New York, and started taking classes at Upright Citizens Brigade. Frustrated with the limited number of TV productions casting at the time in New York, she moved to Los Angeles. She’ll have been there seven years in October.
Her biggest break came when MTV cast her as a commentator on Girl Code. The series featured a rotating panel of comedians and performers who riffed on issues that women are often thought to be too shy to talk openly about, everything from sex and crushes to tampons and gynecology appointments. Candor, then, quickly became a part of Byer’s comedy brand.
“I talk a lot, and the things I talk about I don’t think are uniquely different just to me,” she says. “Like I talk a lot about how I’m single.”
Her podcast Why Won’t You Date Me?, in which she explores her own singlehood, love, and sex life, is as popular as it is critically praised. “I think a lot of people who aren’t in relationships have the same issues that I have. So I was like, well, why not talk about it? And then being a fat woman, there’s a lot of fat women in this world who I don’t think get enough representation.”
Byer started doing stand-up comedy in 2013 when colleges wanted to book her after seeing her on Girl Code. Before then, she had never tried it, and attempted to convince the colleges to let her do improv or sketch comedy instead. “They were like, ‘HELL NO!’” she says. Her manager at the time told her she needed to hone a set, likening the situation people putting money on a table and her not picking it up.
Earlier this year, she released her first Netflix comedy special as part of the Comedians of the World series. She spends nearly half of the set telling fat jokes.
Her agent warned her against it: Do you really want to do 13 minutes of fat jokes? Don’t you want to show the world you can do more? Byer responded that she knows she can do more. Her fans know she can do more. “But I’ve yet to see anyone talking about being fat for 13 minutes and have full, different jokes about it,” she says. “Like, why not? I did it. So now I don’t have any fat jokes in my act.”
It took her a long time to figure out how to tell fat jokes without, she says, “audiences going, ‘Aww. Oh no. She’s going to go home and kill herself.’ And it’s like, no, I didn’t get on stage to make you feel bad for me. That’s psychotic.”
In 2016, Byer premiered her first comedy series, Loosely Exactly Nicole, which was based on her life struggling to gain traction in the industry, maintain friendships, and pay bills. Both on the show and in interviews promoting it, she told the story of going into auditions and being told by casting directors to “be blacker.”
Once, a casting director told her, “If you go too black, I’ll bring you back,” as if, beyond being a wildly offensive thing to say, such direction would ever amount to anything.
When Loosely Exactly Nicole premiered, Byer became, at that time, the only black woman with her own comedy series, a designation that Byer says felt absolutely insane. As such, fans and audiences started responding to her in ways that went beyond just thinking she was funny. They forged a much more profound connection.
“I think we go through the world feeling alone and singular and you forget that your one story is probably the same as millions of people’s stories,” she says. “Maybe with different specifics. But a lot of people experience the same things. So it was interesting to realize how much power you hold.”
Being on Netflix has afforded Byer a larger platform than ever before for her story. Her stand-up shows now routinely sell out. She’s gotten to work on series like Tuca & Bertie and The Good Place. She’s more confident in herself and her abilities.
There are setbacks. It turns out that kids now love her, a demographic she never aimed for. She’s developed a trick for dealing with them. When one comes up to her, she’ll ask them their name and then their age. Then she’ll ask them if they knew that one day they’re going to have to pay taxes. “That always turns children off,” she says. “I don’t know what it is. They’re like, ‘Oh, I don’t like this lady anymore.’ And I’m like...great!”
There are also the fans who, because her comedy is so candid and her podcast so confessional, feel entitled to completely invade her personal space. She asked Maya Rudolph about it once, why strangers feel like they can just grab her in public. “And she was like, ‘Oh, because they think you belong to them. Because they watch you in their beds, they watch you when they're doing their laundry, they listen to you when they're doing a lot of personal things so that it feels like you’re in their life when you’re not.’ And I was like, oh, like you nailed it.”
Then there are the Reddit threads from men who think her honesty and her brashness is bad for women. The inspiration for this is typically the time she went on Conan and, when asked what she’s looking for in a man, she replied, “A big dick.”
“They were like, ‘What if a man went on and said a big pussy?’” Byers says. “Well, men have been talking about women's bodies for a very long time. And men don’t get objectified the same way women do. Also I was like, how many times have we heard ‘a nice rack?’ It's like, why can't I say a big dick? Also I’m not a predator, so I don't think big-dick men have to worry about me coming after ’em.”
As we talk, it’s undeniable how engaging Byer is. She talks with a lilt of laughter in her voice, as if she’s speaking in a giggle. When she lowers it back down an octave for a raunchy punchline or to deliver a deadpan, it makes it that much more hilarious—in baking terms, I guess you would call that the perfect mixture of sweet and salty. More, she engages in conversations about the industry and representation with a willful self-awareness that could be a powerful catalyst for change.
Mostly, it’s clear that she just works really damn hard.
To end things, I ask her a corny question, but she doesn’t blush: What are you most proud of in your career so far?
“I think the proudest thing for me is having fat women feel visible and feel seen, which is ironic because we’re all so fucking huge that to feel invisible seems so silly,” she says, laughing briefly before returning to her serious point. “I am very happy and very proud that I get to be the voice for them. To see another fat girl on television I think is really powerful. I’m happy to open the doors for a younger generation of fat, black women to be visible, to be seen, to be heard.”