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Nailed It!’s Secret Sauce is Its Guest Judges

But not just any guest will do. Two devotees weigh in.
  • Sylvia Weinstock, Nicole Byer and Jacques Torres in Nailed It! (Netflix)
    Sylvia Weinstock, Nicole Byer and Jacques Torres in Nailed It! (Netflix)

    When it comes to pure pleasure, you really can’t beat Netflix’s confections-and-comedy series Nailed It! Inspired by the internet meme of the same name — in which amateurs try and fail to execute an impressive project, like a difficult cake — the reality competition series tasks non-professional bakers with recreating some of the most ornate, intricate desserts you can imagine. Of course, the challenge isn’t to actually do it right, it’s to do the least poorly. Everyone who walks in the room understands this, and the good vibes and genuine laughs make sure contestants and viewers alike leave the show feeling positive.

    What transforms a Nailed It! episode into a truly great Nailed It! episode, though, is often the person walking into the room with the highest expectations: the guest judge. Over its three seasons (plus one holiday-themed spinoff season), Nailed It! has featured some of the biggest names in comedy, baking, and more. The best of the best elevate the show and make us howl. The worst, well, just seem out of their depth. As fans consume the third season, just released on Netflix, two Nailed It! devotees — Joe Reid and Kevin O’Keeffe — gathered to discuss what makes for the perfect guest judge on this weird and wonderful show.

    What qualities do you look for in a good Nailed It! guest judge?

    Joe Reid: Kevin, like any good and pure person in this world, you love Nailed It!, but what's fun is we can like it for a bunch of different reasons. I'm not sure I've found a show in recent memory that has satisfied me on this many levels at once: host (Nicole Byer is a genius delight), contestants (so few reality/game shows avoid showboaty attention hogs like this one does), overall tone (everybody's on the same page!) and general hilarity. But we're here to talk about what I know is one of our greatest areas of common ground: the guest judges. Which, unlike almost every other aspect of Nailed It!, can be a mixed bag. There have been great ones, some okay ones, and some outright bad ones. To me, it's all about getting the guest judges on the right wavelength, because I think above all Nailed It! is a triumph of tone, where the contestants' work is taken seriously enough that we want to see how it turns out, but not seriously enough that anybody is shocked or crestfallen when it goes bad. Which is why Nicole (and increasingly Jacques) get to bust on the creations with impunity, because even the contestants know they were never going to make anything good.

    And while the guest judges can't ever truly ruin this vibe, they can be a drag on it if they don't lock in on what's happening. A great guest judge gets into the spirit of celebrating these wonderful failures, contributes their expertise (if they have any) or humor (they hopefully have some!) without overtaking Nicole or Jacques. What am I leaving out?

    Kevin O'Keeffe: Someone once described Nailed It! to me as a genius comic stuck inside the most ramshackle show, and she’s just trying to make the most of it. What makes Jacques such a great partner for Nicole is that he’s as eager to have fun as she is. He has an entirely different style — much more deadpan — but his jokes about the bakers’ creations can be just as lacerating. I know we share a fondness for one particular moment during the Holiday season, in which a baker revealed a half-done cookie that looked as monstrous as it apparently tasted. Nicole promptly lost her shit laughing, but Jacques sat in silent — albeit still friendly! — judgment. When Nicole asked him what he thought, he simply said, “Nothing.”

    So if we’ve got one larger-than-life comic and one straight man with a withering sarcastic quip here and there, the third heat (to paraphrase 30 Rock) needs to bring something entirely new to the table. The best that I can remember have been just as game, but on an entirely different setting. They’re often, but not always, comedians who have a sense of tone and interplay. And most of all, they know how to interact with both Nicole and Jacques. When the three manage to build a group dynamic, there's nothing more magical on this show.

    Who are our picks for best guest judges of previous seasons?

    JR: It's so good that you bring up how guest judges need to bring that third heat, because two of my very favorite judges of all time did that the most. Nailed It! got it right in its very first episode by casting renowned baker and cake-decorator Sylvia Weinstock for the third chair. The woman is almost 90 years old, she's baked cakes for Oprah and Martha Stewart, and if I  could teleport us to her location right now, she'd probably be walking down Broadway on the Upper West Side, wearing her signature big glasses. She and Nicole are like a Billy on the Street episode come to life, with Nicole egging Sylvia on and then being delighted in her octogenarian aloofness. But Sylvia knows her shit! She'll just impart it later, after she's gone to raid the Nailed It! kitchen for small appliances.

    KO: LOVE Sylvia. Will forever love Sylvia. It’s fitting that she’s the one guest judge to return for a second episode. She is, in many ways, the patron saint of Nailed It!. Without her in that premiere episode, I could see a lot of people tuning out quickly, or getting distracted by one of the other two zillion options on Netflix.

    Two others I love: Justin Willman, the former host of Cupcake Wars, was an absolute delight in his Nailed It! Holiday episode. A part-time magician, Justin brought out all kinds of tricks, to Nicole and Jacques’ utter delight. But he never let himself upstage them, or the contestants; in fact, he was part of starting the slow clap for that episode’s winner, fulfilling a dream she had to feel like the protagonists in ‘80s movies. And going back to that infamous cookie disaster I mentioned earlier, Ron Funches was the perfect third judge for that episode. He was largely bewildered by Nailed It!, but that didn’t stop him from cracking jokes with abandon. His perplexed amazement at the underbaked cookie is one of my all-time favorite memories from this show.

    JR: The slight air of panic in Ron Funches's voice when he asks "How is it dry and wet?!" will be in my personal repertoire forever. Honestly, this conversation is just further reminding me that the Nailed It!: Holidays season is my favorite of all four batches of episodes, which makes me even more annoyed that you have to go seek out the Holidays season separately. This new Netflix trend of new branded seasons that get listed separately from their original shows is a problem borne of greed (more individual titles to lure customers in with) and I demand a fix for it. Anyway, more to my point: my other tip-top favorite guest was Jason Mantzoukas in the New Year's episode. His exuberance started out as performative (repeatedly starting a New Year's countdown was funny, but you could tell he was working his own material rather than responding in the moment — not unlike shouty, overcompensating Joel McHale on Drag Race this season, but that's a WHOLE OTHER conversation). As the episode went on, though, you could see Mantzoukas key in to the particular lunatic fun of the show; his incredulous reactions were still very much his vibe, but he was fully in the pocket of everything happening around him. By the time he and Nicole start jamming to "fundent bawlz" (honestly, I can't even explain it, just watch the episode, you'll thank me) and the camera operator is crying from laughter, I'm pretty much doing the same.

    How were the judges this season?

    KO: We’ve raved at length about Holiday and its guest judges, and part of that is because I’m a little down on the general quality of the guest judging in this newest, official third season of Nailed It! (released last Friday). The biggest “name,” in terms of celebrity, is probably Felicia Day, who seems happy to be there, but doesn’t really add any humor of her own to the season premiere. Celebrity chef Natalie Sideserf and comedian Betsy Sodaro are similarly low-key, like they didn’t completely understand their role in their episodes.

    My biggest gripe, though, is with Rosanna Pansino, creator and host of the YouTube baking series Nerdy Nummies. She guest judges the “Prehistoric Bakes” episode, and hits a real trifecta of bad judge behavior. She tries to steal focus (even showing off her baking-inspired high heels by putting them on the judging table), has bad chemistry with Nicole (who honestly looks sick of her by episode’s end), and acts revolted at the bad baking at one point. It’s Nailed It!, Rosanna! What did you expect?

    JR: Okay, I admit I may be massively projecting but YES, Nicole absolutely looks like she hates Rosanna in that episode, and I fully understand. Moreso than any other guest judge we've seen, Miss Nerdy Nummies appeared to be out to push her own brand rather than just take part in (or even enjoy!) the show. Even those first-season guest judges, who had no way to anticipate what kind of show they were walking into, got with the program more quickly. It made the whole episode very un-fun to watch. She was a worse judge than Jay Chandrasekhar in Season 1, who left in the middle of the episode to go pick up his kids.

    On the flip side of that coin … allow me to swoon about Hubert Keller for a second. As a fan of Top Chef, I was predisposed to liking him, as he's always a calm, expert presence on that show. Here, he's the face of French cuisine in an episode that asks the contestants to make eclairs and Napoleons. After quite a few episodes where you could tell that Nicole and the guest judge are pals from the comedy world, it is great fun to watch someone who is friends with Jacques. And it's doubly fun that Hubert seems to enjoy Nicole's antics with the same warm fascination and appreciation that Jacques does. He's easily my favorite guest judge in a season that, you're right, Kevin, otherwise drops the ball on that front.

    KO: Keller also demonstrates that while comedians do perform above average as guest judges on this show, it's not necessary that he guests be comediians.  Anyone with the right mix of heart, humor, and gusto can do it. I’m hopeful we have many, many more seasons of Nailed it! to look forward to. Similarly, I’m hopeful that those cast to be guest judges will watch episodes like Sylvia’s, Ron’s, Hubert’s, Justin’s, and Jason’s. There’s a recipe for success here, and they can only benefit from following it.

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    Kevin O'Keeffe is a writer, host, and RuPaul's Drag Race herstorian living in Los Angeles.

    TOPICS: Nailed It!, Netflix, Jason Mantzoukas, Nicole Byer, Ron Funches