(The Root) — Aisha Tyler is always on the grind. The comedian and TV star is in a constant state of motion: She can be seen Monday to Friday as a co-host of CBS’ The Talk, a show similar in vibe to The View; she’s the voice of sassy secret agent Lana Kane in the animated series Archer on FX; she’s the creator and host of the popular weekly podcast Girl on Guy, where she interviews (mostly) men about the things they love; and she’s a stand-up comedian who regularly goes on the road.
Next stop: South by Southwest, or SXSW, in Austin, Texas, in March. She’s even found time to write her second book (due out in July), called Self-Inflicted Wounds: Heartwarming Tales of Epic Humiliation, named after the segment on her podcast where she ask guests to reveal their most personal epic fail. The book, though, is a collection of her own past failures, beginning at age 5.
One could never imagine that the popular and outspoken Tyler, 42, was once a bookish, nerdy kid who didn’t have the cool clothes or the cool friends, and who was obsessed with video games and science fiction. The Dartmouth alumna now sees those early difficult days as a formative time in her life. And today all the things that made her seem uncool then have suddenly made her the reigning queen of the black nerds, or “blerds,” as they’re called these days.
She still loves and plays video games. (Anyone who questions her gamer bona fides can go read her manifesto that went viral last year after some trolls tried to call her out for hosting a video-game event at E3, the annual gadgets-and-games expo that Tyler says she attends every year.) Comic book writers and other nerd types, black or otherwise, have all been regular guests on her podcast.
Just back from Paris, where she was filming an episode of a new food-and-travel show produced by Anthony Bourdain for the upcoming Esquire Network, Tyler took a moment from her crazy schedule to talk to The Root about the rise of blerds, being bullied in school and why pursuing failure is a good thing.
The Root: Why do you think blerds have recently become the cool thing?
Aisha Tyler: We’ve been around forever, haven’t we? I don’t know that we’ve become cooler, but I think [that with] the rise of nerd culture and the celebration of other[ness] and the outsider, as a result it’s like a high tide lifting all boats.
It’s only recently become cool to be a nerd in popular culture. I don’t think it’s ever been OK to be a nerd in black culture. There is this specific monolithic identity that’s presented as what is authentically black and what isn’t. I think because traditionally, black people have been in a [defensive] posture, there’s been this desire to really enforce that monolithic idea that we all feel the same way politically and listen to the same music and eat the same food.
I’ve heard, in the past, black people say things like “black people don’t swim,” “black people don’t eat bagels,” “black people don’t listen to rock music.” That’s not other cultures putting those stereotypes on us; that’s us doing that to ourselves — specifically saying, “That’s black, that’s not black.” So I think what’s great about the rise of nerd culture generally is that it really celebrates individuality.
TR: I understand what you’re saying, but it does seem as though recently blerds have been able to come out in a much bigger way.
AT: I think the celebration of nerd culture has empowered nerds of every [culture]. We also have popular blerds. He doesn’t really seem like an outsider now, but Kanye West and his album College Dropout [were] really very, very different from hip-hop at the time. Now we have people like Frank Ocean. I think the last barrier in hip-hop is queer culture, and I think it’s just about individualism and [how] the idea of that individualism expresses itself in every culture, not just white culture.
TR: You’ve talked about being an outsider and being bullied in school. What used to happen to you?
AT: One of the things I remember the most — this is not a joke, this happened; it was like an after-school special — kids literally joined hands and danced around me in a circle. This is pre-Facebook. I’m sure there’s a Facebook equivalent to dancing around somebody in a circle [and] taunting them, but that actually happened to me, literally, in the real world.
TR: If you could go back in time and talk to your younger, nerdier self, what would you say?
AT: “It gets better” is absolutely what I would tell her. And I also would tell her to stick to her guns. I don’t look back and wish that I was a different kid, because I feel like odd kids end up trusting their own instincts. They don’t ever have to check their decisions against the mob because the mob doesn’t care what they do.
TR: So your new book is all about self-inflicted wounds. Care to share one of your stories?
AT: No, you’ll have to buy the book. But I will tell you philosophically, the book is about the pursuit of failure. Hopefully it’s just a funny book, but it’s also about the pursuit of failure as a means to success. I’ve heard so many people say, “I didn’t try that because I was afraid I was going to fail.”
I think to really do something interesting, you have to do something knowing not just that you might fail but in all likelihood you will fail. And fear of failure should not ever inhibit somebody from pursuing something that they want. And in fact, it’s better to stipulate that “this is going to go terribly and I may get injured, but I’m going to do it anyway,” because that’s the only way you grow.
Genetta M. Adams is a contributing editor of The Root. Follow her on Twitter.