good one

Nicole Byer Demands You Laugh at Her Fat Jokes

Nicole Byer. Photo: Vulture and Photo by Getty Images

It’s normal for a comedian to come out and address their appearance. It has been proven to be the quickest way to get the audience on the same page as you. But for Nicole Byer, host of Nailed It! and Why Won’t You Date Me? podcast, as well as co-host of Vulture’s What the Tuck? podcast, she found it wasn’t so easy. She wanted to talk about being fat, but she found audiences would get sad for her. That would just not do for her. If you think she in turn decided to avoid the topic, then you don’t know Byer. No, she opens her new Netflix special, Aggressively Adorable, which is part of the Comedians of the World series, talking about being fat for 15 minutes. Specifically focusing on how audiences react to her. The result is charming and defiant, as Byer always is.

This opener is the subject of the season premiere of Good One, Vulture Comedy’s podcast about jokes and the people who tell them. Listen to the episode and read a short excerpt of the discussion below. Tune in to Good One every Monday on Apple PodcastsSpotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

How did you choose the material for the opening of your Netflix special?
When you see me, you’ll go, Oh, she’s fat. And I was like, Why don’t we talk about it? Like men talk about their dicks sometimes, and women talk about their puss-pusses. I spent a year trying to figure out how to tell fat jokes without people going, “No, you’re not fat!” It’s like, “Yes, I am.” I do a solid 13 minutes of fat material because I’d never seen anyone do that amount of time on it. I was like, “Maybe I’ll do the whole special like that,” and my agent was like, “Please don’t.”

From listening to old interviews, it seems like one morning you woke up thinking, I want to wear tank tops. How did that realization come about, and what did it mean for your stand-up?
It was 2015 or 2016. Me and my friend Marcy were going to Palm Springs. I’d bought a bikini two years before that, and I was like, “I have three bikinis, and that’s all I’m gonna bring. I’m gonna wear my bikinis and I’m gonna use the hashtag #veryfatverybrave because everyone thinks it’s so brave to wear a bikini when you’re fat.” We had a great laugh about it, drove to Palm Springs; I wore a bikini and posted it on Instagram. Then I was like, Hey, that wasn’t awful. No one started to uncontrollably vomit when they saw me. I’m just gonna show my body. I don’t care anymore.

After that, I was like, I want to talk about that experience. I would get onstage and fat people would be like, “Stop it, girl; you’re beautiful.” I would talk to other comics after about my frustrations. I think I was talking to Dave Ross, like, “Male comics just get onstage, like, ‘Hur hur hur, I haven’t seen my dick in forever.’ If a lady is like, ‘I haven’t seen my pussy,’ everyone is like, ‘Oh no!’” And he’s like, “That’s your joke.”

How did the joke evolve to the place it goes?
To where I’m fisting my little rolls [as a sort of incompetent masturbation]? The fisting joke was probably the first fat joke that started working. The “fat beautiful” one, a lot of fat women get that. They’re like, “I’m fat,” and people are like, “No, you’re beautiful.” But I was like, What is my take on it? It evolved to “Being fat and being beautiful are not mutually exclusive.” There are a ton of ugly, thin people in the world. I mean, Kellyanne Conway, she is not an attractive woman. Also, I think she’s really awful. After taping the special, I thought of a really great button, which is, “All she eats are lies” — but the joke is dead, so.

From there, you go to a part where a homeless man calls you a fat slut. It feels like you’re telling people the unusual thing here is not, “I’m fat —”
It’s that I’m also slutty.

Is it that you want to shift the conversation? Fat is just the life that you live, not what is funny about it.
Yes. I was never made fun of in school, so I was racking my brain trying to think, When was the last time you were called fat as an insult? I was like, Oh my God, that fucking homeless guy! I do like that sometimes the audience gets ahead of me, but most of the time they do not. Most of the time, they’re like, “Aw, man, that sucks, a fat slut!” And then I’m like, “I don’t care about the fat part, how did you know I was a slut?” Also, neither part is bad to me. It’s fun to just spin it on its head.

What do you think this intro does to the audience?
It gives a clear picture of who I am. I’m not conventionally beautiful, but what is beauty? Beauty is whatever you want it to be. A couple of reviews said that I’m not a smart comedian, but I do think it is smart to say to an audience, “I am beautiful even though you might not think of me as beautiful.” Beauty is a made-up, bullshit thing that we’ve been served all our lives. So a fat woman who isn’t having a good day might watch my special and think, “I am beautiful and I don’t have to change my body unless I want to change my body.”

You have said you want to talk about how the audience, as nonfat people, take in your body. Why?
When you see a fat person, you’re taught to be like, That person is bad at life. Oh, I just want to help them, as opposed to, This person is making money and thriving. She doesn’t need your help; she’s doing just fine. I’m not trying to tell people, “Guys, we have to change the way we think about fat people!” I just think it’s interesting for you to sit for five minutes and go, Oh my God, when she said she was fat I really wanted to tell her she wasn’t, and she truly is. [Laughs.]

Conversely, what do you want bigger people to get from your comedy? I feel you have complicated feelings about being inspirational.
Yeah, at first I very much rejected the notion. I was like, I’m not inspirational. I’m just here saying things! But I remember that not everyone can get up onstage — not everyone has that yearning, cold emptiness in their heart that only gets filled by strangers laughing at them. I have an email address that I give out on podcasts, if you really need to tell me something and it’s longer than a DM. I’ve gotten a lot of messages where people are like, “I was depressed about my weight but you made me feel better about it,” or like, “You’re just really silly, and I appreciate that because I feel like bigger women are told to be quieter.” Which is very funny because, like, you’re still gonna see them. No matter how quiet you are, you’re probably gonna knock something over as you move around. So getting those messages, it just lets me know that I should keep doing what I’m doing because it’s making people happy, and that is the goal.

How Nicole Byer Learned to Tell a Fat Joke