Catching Up with Nicole Byer
Some of the most beloved, groundbreaking, and influential television comedy series have been tragically cut short before they even had the chance to reach their prime. The Ben Stiller Show, Strangers with Candy, and Freaks and Geeks all suffered the fate of short runs before later achieving cult success. Occasionally, a “gone too soon” show gets a second chance, as was the case with Arrested Development. But even with the power of Netflix behind it, the seven-year hiatus left the series battling with some post-resurrection atrophy. It seems like for a series to have a chance of survival after cancellation, it needs a loyal following and a swift rescue before time takes it toll, which brings us to Loosely Exactly Nicole. The scripted comedy series inspired by the life of its star, comedian and Girl Code talking head Nicole Byers, had one season at MTV before getting dropped, along with most of the network’s other scripted programming. Byers was “pretty devastated,” but with the help of her therapist, eventually moved on. A few months later Facebook made a move to pick up the series for a second season, which premiered last month on the social media giant’s Watch platform. I talked to Byers about the show’s second chance, her comedy history, and why comedians should be talking about getting their money right.
You grew up in New Jersey and then moved to New York. Is New York where you started performing?
I had taken acting classes in New Jersey. I can’t remember the name of the theater place, but this guy named Ralph Colombino had this acting school [The Actor’s Playground School of Theater] that my friend Chris was taking classes at, so I was like, “Oh, let me try.” I had done plays in high school and whatnot. I moved to New York and went to a performing arts college, but it wasn’t until UCB that I started performing on the regular, figuring out how I’m funny, why I’m funny, and how to play with an audience.
You kind of do it all: improv, sketch, standup. What did you start out doing?
I started out taking improv classes and then I was put on Maude night, which is the house sketch team. I continued doing improv and got put on teams there, did videos with UCB Comedy, and began collaborating with people I met there, putting up videos on YouTube and whatnot. I didn’t start doing standup until 2013. It was after Girl Code started airing. I kept getting presented with college shows. I was like, “I don’t do standup.” They said, “You do characters. You can frame your characters into standup.” That’s how I started doing standup.
Between improv, sketch, and standup, is there one you like more than the others?
Baby, that’s apples and oranges. I love sketch because you get to say these silly things that are proven, that you know will get a laugh. Putting a wig on and a costume and doing a wacky character is always fun. Improv is so freeing because there are no bounds, there’s no safety net. You just say something and get an instant response. Then standup is different because you do these jokes over and over again and they work, but then sometimes they don’t work and you have to battle with the audience. Standup is a real battlefield for me. They’re all so different, and I really love doing them all.
You’re right, they are all different. At the same time, you learn skills in each of the forms that translate over to the others. Some people are die-hard about one type of performance, but I imagine being able to juggle all three has led to more opportunities for you.
Yeah — when I’m doing standup sometimes I improvise something in a set and then that becomes a joke. Everything feeds into everything. I think doing all three has prepared me pretty well for everything I get thrown at me professionally.
I was listening to an episode of High and Mighty and you were talking to Jon Gabrus about how much you really like LA and that it suits you well.
I didn’t like LA at first, but now I’m so happy to be here.
What is it about LA that you like so much?
The weather. The weather is so nice. Everyone is so nice to you because they don’t know who you know. I don’t care if it’s fake anymore.
I feel like if you don’t care if it’s fake then you have the advantage in that conversation.
Yes! Plus, I’m just nice to people in general because I’m a good human being.
So you were in New York eight years before you moved to LA. What was the thing that pushed you to move to LA? Things were going pretty good for you in New York, right?
Yes and no. There wasn’t too much shooting in New York. I moved to LA before the television bubble started happening. It was just Girls, 30 Rock, late night. There wasn’t much shooting there, so me and my manager had a conversation where I thought maybe I would book more if I moved to LA. They also asked me to do the CBS diversity program in LA. In my mind I thought I would move back to New York. I thought I would just go to LA for pilot season. But once I was here I thought, “It’s stupid to think I’m going to go back to New York when it seems like I’m going to work a lot here.”
Do you consider LA home now? Are you going to stay put?
Oh yeah, baby. I bought a house!
Congrats. What does a typical week look like for you?
It truly varies. When we were writing my show, Loosely Exactly Nicole, I would wake up, try to have coffee or something, go to the writers’ room, have casting after. When I was shooting I would wake up at 5:30 almost every morning, shoot until 6:00pm, go home, learn my lines, maybe write my episode, and then do the whole thing over again. Now that we’re all wrapped it’s a lot of waking up and being like, “You need to write something. You need to write jokes for your show tonight. You need to write a treatment for a movie.” It’s a lot of writing right now.
Is that something that comes naturally to you or do you have to force yourself to sit down, focus, and write?
It’s not something that comes natural. I have to sit down and go, “Nicole, you need to do shit. You got a mortgage.” But I’m being smart about my money. I think sometimes people aren’t asking for enough money. Money is important. Know your worth.
I grew up around coal miners and steelworkers who bought houses and property in the towns they worked in. They had families there. They spent their money there. They made lives for themselves. I think a lot of people in this industry are either unprepared or afraid to invest in putting down roots somewhere. You seem to be doing that confidently. You mentioned asking for more money. I don’t think enough people are even talking about money. I remember how everyone reacted when Maria Bamford talked about what she makes. We should be sharing this information with each other so we can all make more money.
It’s interesting that people don’t want to ask about money. I’m on an email thread with a bunch of women where we talk about financial planning, like IRAs. What the fuck is an IRA? When you make a little bit of money you have to figure out how to invest it to make more money. I believe in my career, but I also did the math. In high school they don’t even tell you how to balance a checkbook or what property taxes are. There are a lot of things you have to learn on your own. I took it upon myself to look into things and figure out viable options. I always ask male comics how much they make. When I get booked on something, I ask how much everyone is making so I can make the same or ask for more. I’m not ashamed to ask for more money. What’s the point? Networks have it, so let’s do it. There’s like a curtain that getting paid is behind and no one wants to peek behind it and say, “Is this fair? Is this equal?” And whenever a show looks full I always ask for the headcount because you have to give me my money.
Why do you think so many performers don’t feel comfortable talking about money?
I think people get in their heads and don’t want to ask for it because people say, “You should be grateful that you’re doing this. You should be happy that they want you at this show and that they’re paying you in Skittles.” It’s like, “No, you should be happy that I’m talented enough that people want to come see me. You need to pay me because I’m giving you something.” There’s this whole mentality that you have to eat shit before you get shit — that sucks. It shouldn’t be like that. No one should be opening for free. When I have a feature, I ask them how much they are getting paid, and if I’m making a shit ton more I give them some of my money because they’re doing almost the same amount of work. It’s crazy how much a headliner makes, how much a feature makes, and how much a host makes. Sometimes the host makes nothing. That’s not right. We’ve been conditioned that it’s impolite or rude to talk about money. That’s why you have pay discrepancies. That’s why you have dudes making more than women are making. Everyone needs to talk about it more.
Let’s talk about Loosely Exactly Nicole. MTV picked it up, dropped it, and then it got picked up by Facebook. Can you take me through that ride?
When the show got canceled at MTV I was pretty devastated. I put a lot of hard work into it and I thought it was funny. The reaction I got from people was that it was funny. MTV got rid of my show and basically all of the scripted stuff, so I was like, “I can’t be too fucking butthurt, they got rid of all of the scripted.” I was like, “Okay, let me go to therapy. Let me move through this.” I’m all about mental health right now. Mina Lefevre left MTV and went to Facebook. She said “We want to resurrect your show.” I said, “Actually, I went through a lot of therapy and I’ve come to terms with it.” My manager was like, “What are you doing?” I was like, “Oh, you’re right. I want to do a second season.” Facebook was good about being open to what we wanted to do. They were receptive. We would send them stuff and they would say, “We like this. We don’t like this.” It was very collaborative and they were pretty hands-off, which was cool. We went and shot it with more money than we had at MTV, which was awesome. Facebook seems to be really into it and very supportive. Feeling supported when you are doing comedy is the best way to make comedy — at least, that’s how I think.