Niecy Nash Puts Her Blended Family In The Reality Spotlight

Mar 23, 2012
Originally published on March 23, 2012 3:17 pm

If you know the actress and comedian Niecy Nash, you're probably either excited about her new reality show, Leave It To Niecy, or you're cringing just thinking about it. Nash does not do things halfway. Her new show starts Sunday, and it's intended to be something like a real-life Modern Family.

Back when she was on Comedy Central's Reno 911!, Nash played up every ridiculous stereotype about black lady cops. Then she perched a flower in her hair and hosted the reality show Clean House, about overhauling shockingly messy houses. Last year, when she got married in a two-hour special called Niecy Nash's Wedding Bash, almost five million people tuned in to cable channel TLC. That was enough for the network to offer Nash a reality show about her newly blended family — new husband and stepson, plus Nash's mother and three teenagers.

"I've known for quite a while that I was a funny girl," Nash confided during an interview in a Hollywood hotel. She's slinky and huge-eyed in a zebra-striped top and lipstick-colored stilettos. She grew up in southern California in a family where being a funny girl wasn't particularly rewarding.

"You know, I got pinched in church, I got the notes sent home from school from the teacher," she remembers. And Nash says she was uncertain about how to channel her big personality until her brother was shot and killed accidentally in the hallway of his high school. Nash was in her early twenties. She felt helpless as she watched her mother sink into a deep depression.

"She said, 'I'm getting into bed and I'm never getting up,'" she remembers. "So I would go to the foot of my mother's bed and tell her jokes, stories and do characters. And my mother went from laying down in the bed to sitting up in the bed."

Comedy, Nash realized, could be meaningful. "It didn't completely heal my mother, but I saw it serve as a spackle or a salve."

With Leave It to Niecy, Nash wants to show what goes into building a new family. "We're not quite a blended family," she confesses on the show, as her kids raise their eyebrows at their stepdad's uncool jokes. "We're in the blender. I just need to turn it on."

Before she allowed cameras into her house, Nash says everybody sat around the table and decided collectively to put the family on TV. Did they have any limits? "I would draw the line if my children were challenged by something," Nash says. "I wouldn't want to embarrass them in front of the world."

But that's happened before. Middle daughter Donielle, who has inherited her mother's impeccable comic timing, allows that being Nash's daughter can be embarrassing. "My mom's the one who wore the fake butt on TV," she says dryly.

Donielle's referring to the 2007 movie Reno 911!: Miami, in which Nash's costume included a massive prosthetic bottom on display in a tiny thong. Nash wore it to the movie's premiere, as a gag.

"I wore the booty to the red carpet. I wasn't even thinking!" she says, her voice, shaded with amusement and a hint of regret.

Nash says she did not expect pictures of the booty to pop up all over the internet, nor did she expect to be criticized by people who felt she was perpetuating African American stereotypes. She says it did not even occur to her back then that anyone would care about the joke besides her fellow cast members.

"So I realize now that we need to have conversations if there's something that I do that can affect [my family]," she say wryly. "That's hindsight."

Before Leave It to Niecy started to film, Nash preemptively sent her kids to counseling, to spare them — and herself — any more fame-related pitfalls.

"I'm a work in progress," she laughs. "You know, my kids didn't come with instructions ... and neither did this business, so when I put the two of them together, I gotta take it a little at a time."

In Leave It to Niecy, Nash's kids tease her constantly. They joke that they're not volatile enough to be interesting to a big television audience. But Nash believes there's plenty of drama in exploring how people learn how to love each other.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The actress and comedian Niecy Nash does not do things halfway, which means her new reality show - starting Sunday - may be really over the top. But it's a family show. Nash says she wants it to be a real-life modern family. It's a show about Nash's own family. NPR's Neda Ulaby talked to Nash in Los Angeles about blurring the lines between her private life and public persona.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Niecy Nash pushed every stereotype about black lady cops to the max when she was on the comedy show "Reno 911!".

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "RENO 9/11!")

ULABY: It was a spoof of police procedurals with ridiculously incompetent officers flummoxed by problems like a stray chicken on the loose.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "RENO 9/11!")

ULABY: Then Niecy Nash perched a flower in her hair and hosted a reality show about shockingly messy houses.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CLEAN HOUSE")

ULABY: When Nash got married on TV last year, the show was an unexpected hit for cable channel TLC.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "NIECEY NASH'S WEDDING BASH")

ULABY: Almost 5 million people tuned in - enough for TLC to offer Nash her own reality show about her new blended family.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LEAVE IT TO NIECY")

ULABY: In a typical scene, the three teenagers act out when Nash and her husband try to convince everyone to go on a family bike ride.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LEAVE IT TO NIECY")

ULABY: Niecy Nash met me in a hotel in the middle of Hollywood, slinky in a zebra-striped top and high heels the color of bright red lipstick. She grew up in Southern California, a performer from day one.

: Ive known for quite a while that I was a funny girl, but it wasn't rewarded, you know? So I got pinched in church. I got the notes sent home from school from the teacher.

ULABY: And she was uncertain about how to channel her big personality and impeccable comic timing until her brother was shot and killed accidentally in the hallway of his high school.

: My mother was so depressed, and she said, I'm getting into bed, and I'm never getting up.

ULABY: Nash was in her early 20s. She felt helpless. All she could think to do was try to make her mom laugh.

: So I would go to the foot of my mother's bed every day, tell her jokes, stories, do characters. And my mother went from laying down in the bed to sitting up in the bed. I got my peanuts and my water, go on and get up there and do your rendition of things.

ULABY: That's when Nash realized comedy could be meaningful.

: It didn't completely heal my mother, but I saw it serve as a spackle or a salve, at piecemealing her back together.

ULABY: With her new show, "Leave It To Niecy," Nash wants to show the hard work of piecemealing a new family together.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LEAVE IT TO NIECY")

ULABY: Before she let cameras in her house, Nash says everyone sat around the table, including her ex-husband, and decided collectively to put the family on TV.

: I would draw the line if my children were challenged by something. I wouldn't want to embarrass them, you know, in front of the world.

ULABY: But Nash admits that's happened before. Here's her daughter Donyelle in the wedding special.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "NIECEY NASH'S WEDDING BASH")

ULABY: OK. Let me explain the fake butt. In the "Reno 911!" movie five years ago, Nash's costume included a massive prosthetic bottom displayed in a tiny bright blue thong. Then she wore it in public, to the premiere, as a gag.

: I wore the booty to the red carpet. I wasn't even thinking.

ULABY: Pictures of the booty popped up all over. Nash got criticized by people who felt she was perpetuating African-American stereotypes. She says it did not even occur to her that anyone would care besides her fellow cast members, who were in on the joke.

: So I didn't have the wherewithal to discuss with my family then. My hindsight is 20/20, so I realize now that we do need to have conversations if there's something that I'm going to do that could affect them. Who are these little kids at your school watching "Reno 911!"? They don't even need to be watching that anyway. That's hindsight. You know what I mean? We saw your momma's booty. What? Who said that? Oh, shoot, maybe I should have told you I was doing it.

ULABY: Before the new show started, Nash sent her kids to counseling preemptively to spare them and herself any more fame-related pitfalls.

: I'm a work in progress. You know, my kids didn't come with instructions, so I got to - and neither did this business. So when I put the two of them together, I got to take it a little bit at a time.

ULABY: Nash believes there's drama and plenty of it in exploring how people learn how to love each other. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.