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Not Your Next Woke Sitcom

Nicole Byer is a young black woman with her own scripted show on MTV. She would rather not talk about how extraordinary that is.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s 4:30 p.m. on a summer Friday. The sun is shining. Most people are trying to finish up their workday and make it to happy hour. But somehow, despite my circadian rhythm’s suggestion that it’s not really time to watch women take their clothes off, I’m sitting in Jumbo’s Clown Room supporting a tattooed woman as she smacks her butt to the beat of “Rock You Like a Hurricane.”

I’m waiting for comedian Nicole Byer. I’d suggested pedicures or a nice ladies lunch or maybe wine by the beach for our meeting, but Byer requested we grab an early drink at her favorite place in Los Angeles: Jumbo’s, the Los Feliz hipster strip club. If you’re at all familiar with Byer’s brand of comedy — maybe through her sex and dating commentary for MTV’s Girl Code, or her weekly UCB shows, or the current stand-up tour she’s doing with her best friend, SNL’s Sasheer Zamata, or from her correspondent gig at the VMAs — then you’re probably not surprised to hear she selected a seat by the pole. If you’re not familiar, here’s a crash course in one pinned tweet:

Right. As a comedian, Byer is most easily compared to a raunchier Retta with a hint of Ilana Glazer’s madcap energy. She’s mouthy, vulgar, a little bit goofy, relatable but ridiculously charming, and not afraid to infuse her broad comedy with a confident sexuality. For the past three years, her brand has become a centerpiece of MTV’s unscripted programming; Byer is one of the most well-known and well-liked Girl Code commentators and hosts a second show, the hidden-camera series Ladylike.

With a scripted show, Loosely Exactly Nicole, premiering this week, Byer is seemingly on the brink of mainstream success — and the expectations that come with it. Here she is, a black woman with her own show, featured prominently in MTV’s fall promos; she’s made it in Hollywood, at a moment when that is still a very big deal for any person of color. But creative control often comes with the assumption that an artist’s experience, especially as a woman of color, or of a certain size, will speak for every woman of color or size. (And that the audience will be angry if it does not.) Nicole has so far managed to avoid this conflict; she is insistent that her show is not the Next Great Woke Sitcom, but a specific coming-of-age story told by a nonwhite person — a glimpse of a pop culture utopia to come. The tricky part, it turns out, is waiting for everyone else to catch up.

I arrive at Jumbo’s Clown Room before Byer, but Holly, a black dancer with natural hair and a rockabilly vibe, keeps me company. “I’ve worked here for like three years and have never seen more than one black person in here at a time,” she says. “And you neeeeever see another black woman.”

Enter, on cue, Byer, a late twentysomething woman who is probably as used to hearing that as I am. She is dressed like an adult-teen — polka dot tunic, black leggings and a jean jacket — and bounces in the doorway for a moment before making her way over. “We’re gonna need to take some money out!” she booms, unfazed by our underrepresented status in the bar, or by the woman currently dry-humping the floor to a Fleetwood Mac song.

“I’ve always been sort of dirty. Even when I was little,” she shouts over the dulcet tones of “The Chain.” She recounts a childhood story about trying to convince a classmate to use the F-word, and how fun it was to scream “FUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK” with total abandon. “That’s when I discovered I loved dirty words, and that’s [a form] of humor,” she explains, after ordering a vodka soda. It was in childhood she also realized she herself, not just expletives, could make people laugh. “My grandmother used to be like ‘you tickle me!’ and I’d do things that would get her to say that, because it was such a funny phrase.”

The dancer finishes her set, and Byer pauses to teach me how to make it rain. (Fold the stack; place it between your forefinger and thumb; release with a snapping motion. She’s the Michael Jordan of dollar tosses.) “This is how I know I’m successful, if I can walk into a strip club and tip each girl $1,000,” she tells me. “I was a waitress for a while and sometimes, when I made people laugh, they’d leave me like a $50 tip. … What people with money don’t understand is like, sometimes $50 means you make your rent. ‘You’re just like, my rent is done. I can make money to live and play.’” She pauses. ”Well, more play.” Pause again. “Let’s be real, I needed money for booze,” she says, waiting for a laugh, which I give.

When Byer first moved to New York after high school, she lived in Morningside Heights, waitressed for those $50 tips, and wrote jokes in her spare time. (“I went back through some of them. They were actually pretty good!”) Eventually she started taking classes at UCB in 2008, moved to L.A. in 2012, and booked Girl Code, a talking-head comedy show where comedians give their frank, raw opinion on all things female — sex, workouts, bras, best friends, etc.

Her early 20s — rotating roommates, the shitty job at Lane Bryant (or as she called it, “Lame Giant”) — provide the basis for Loosely Exactly Nicole. “When I was developing the show, [MTV] told me they wanted a Louie. And I was like, ‘You don’t want Louie from me. … I’m cheerful, I don’t get down on anything, that’s my life. What you want is my voice.’” To MTV’s credit, they listened, and instead of spending years in development hell, Nicole was given free rein almost immediately. “With Girl Code it was very clear that her voice stood out, who she was stood out,” says Jessica Zalkind, MTV senior vice president of talent and series development. “She’s relatable, and she’s who we need on this network.” Not that it’s been all sunshine and rainbows; a month or so after Jumbo’s, when I shadow Byer at the Video Music Awards, it’s clear that the gulf between the network’s and Byer’s sensibilities has not been totally resolved. Byer was jammed backstage, shoehorned in a bad format, and noticeably out of her element. “I hate doing the white carpet!” she told me halfway through the pre-show. “It’s boring! I just want to get on stage and do my comedic thing.”

Byers is much more comfortable in the context of Loosely Exactly Nicole, a high-energy sitcom about a younger “Nicole” trying to make it in L.A. The show has a Broad City feel — charming, purposefully messy, of the moment — combined with Byer’s signature Gumby-faced comedy; it includes a bunch of her real-life antics, like the time she entered a green card marriage to pay off $20,000 of credit card debt. Sometimes her tendency towards the bombastic feels slightly grating — like a friend who tells too many jokes at a dinner party in order to prove she’s the funny one. (See also: that backstage performance at the VMAs.) But Byer’s talent rests on the fact that she can balance that overblown humor with a surprising vulnerability. She’s not afraid to put herself into the bits. She’s easy to like onscreen. She doesn’t have it all figured all out, but you want to watch her try.

So: about Jumbo’s. The strip club setting is not a total stunt; there is a thematic reason that we’re here, and it is: Nicole Byer is very interested in sex. Her stand-up has a lot of it; Loosely Exactly Nicole shows as much as MTV will allow. Which makes sense: Byer is an adult human woman who dates, hooks up, gets freaky, and feels herself and others, and therefore the character she’s written does, too.

A larger, darker woman getting ass on air is still something that makes people respond, to put it mildly, in the worst way possible. (Remember how people reacted to Gabourey Sidibe getting some on Empire?) Byer, who has a habit of retweeting rude comments people make about her, has seen an equal share of Twitter vitriol — about her body, her voice, her level of talent. But Byer is not interested in the conversation.

“[The sex] wasn’t a conscious decision. I just don’t harp on my weight the way most of America harps on my weight,” she says. “Through a lot of therapy, I have arrived at the conclusion that if I don’t like it, I have the power to change it. So until I want to make a change, I love it. I enjoy it.”

I ask if she expects any reactions to her character dating only white men. “I don’t date black men in my real life,” she answers, and then pauses to explain, knowing that a 2016 audience might still be working through all the different ways there are to be black. “It’s not like, ‘I don’t find black men attractive,’ I find black men very attractive. But when I was growing up, the black dudes I would talk to would ask, ‘Why do you sound the way you do? Do you think you’re better than me?’ You sound like a white girl, are you a white girl inside?’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t need to prove my blackness to anyone.’”

Byer’s most viral skit is one called, “Be Blacker,” a brief but incisive three-minute video of Byer auditioning for a casting director who keeps asking her to be blacker while delivering her lines. “This role calls for a really urban, ethnic black person. Can you be that for me?” asks the fictional casting director. And Byer’s response to that fake casting director, and anyone else, is a resounding no. But that doesn’t mean that reporters — yes, including this one — will stop asking her to comment on said blackness. We’re at a transitional moment in television; shows like Scandal, Black-ish, Atlanta, and the upcoming Insecure have reestablished the importance of black creators, and the conversation is slowly pushing us away from tokenism and toward full representation. But shows like Loosely, Exactly, Nicole are still the exception to the rule, and so the questions keep coming. Byer was particularly taken aback by an exchange at this year’s Television Critics Association’s summer press tour, when a black reporter asked her how she could make a story about a black girl’s life with white writers and a white executive producer. “This show isn’t black-specific. I’m a black female, but these are just stories. … Honestly, it’s more unusual that I’m fat and we don’t talk about it,” she jokes.

Byer describes an episode titled “Braids” that’s about her trying to get her hair braided before a party. The plot takes place at a black salon; Byer has black woman hair, so, yes, it addresses black culture. But the story — about being too broke to get your hair done before you go to your crush’s party — is universal. “Someone asked the Black-ish creator [Kenya Barris] a similar question, and he said the best thing, ‘I get so tired of talking about diversity.’ I agree,” Byers tells me somewhere around our second drink. “It’s not about a show being ‘diverse,’ it’s about it being inclusive.”

Byer brings up the early ’90s, when there was an abundance of black shows without networks frantically making a big point about having black shows. “There was Family Matters; Sister, Sister; Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper; Moesha. Monique had a show — a plus-sized black woman! — but it just faded away. I remember in my youth seeing myself on television so much. I never thought ‘I can’t be on TV.’ I guess 15-year-old girls don’t have that now.”

We are still very much at a strip club, and at this point we are interrupted by Cheri, a white, braless, blonde dancer who looks like she was ripped out of an American Apparel ad and thrown on the stage. “Hi! You look so familiar! Are you from that show, Loosely … something … Nicole?”

“Yes! How did you know? It isn’t even on yet.”

Turns out Cheri had auditioned for the show for the role of a porn star. She didn’t get it. Nicole apologized.

“Oh, it’s okay! I just wanted to say hi. You’re so funny. I almost didn’t recognize you with those braids.”

“I know,” Byer answers. “It’s my summer look.”

“It’s totally, like, a Kim K. vibe — ”

Byer and I exchange a wary look. Which of us is going to have to calmly explain that Kim Kardashian didn’t invent cornrows?

“ — but Kim K. totally appropriated that from black women. So … you look like Kim K. appropriating a black person. … See how I brought that back?”

Cheri smiles, moves on to the next table. I sit there for a minute, reflecting on the series of events that led to little blonde Cheri giving us a speech about cultural appropriation in the middle of a strip club. I wonder if it counts as progress, and if so, how much.

Nicole just laughs, takes a drink, and keeps talking about her show.