Two years ago, Saturday Night Live writer Sam Jay released her debut album Donna’s Daughter, a combination of classic stand-up and pre-recorded conversation. The format was unorthodox but effective, creating a sense of intimacy that one doesn’t get from your standard comedy record. The Boston-raised comedian opened up about her divorce and her mom’s death while also consistently eliciting belly-laughs. Many comedians may touch on the darker side of life, but the interspersed clips brought an aspect of vulnerability performers tend to shy away from. This was the way to make a debut album.
On her first-ever Netflix comedy special 3 in the Morning, Jay continues to hone her reputation as a hilarious truth-teller, but this time regarding the world around her rather than herself. She begins in familiar territory, talking about what it’s like to be a Black lesbian and reworking old bits, taking them to new heights. Jay then uses her relationship as a jumping-off point to discuss white feminism, flying fears, the Me Too movement and the powers of trans women, to name a few. Jay is clever about the placement of more sensitive subjects, saving them for the latter half of the special when the audience has grown to trust her.
Needless to say, most of these moments from near the end of the set are filled with tension as to what she’s about to say, usually ending up with the crowd in stitches. I honestly still don’t know how I feel about a lot of what she said. Jay believes trans women are women, but her jokes about them being the X-Men of the female populace plays into traditional narratives that reduce trans people to their bodies. Regarding the Me Too movement, she points out that even in the most dire situations women have a choice to speak up for themselves, and to deny otherwise disempowers us. While I see her point, it feels a bit obtuse considering the insidious nature of coercion.
There are shades of gray, but Jay doesn’t mind setting up camp in that liminal space and making others squirm in their seats. “That’s what made me fall in love with [comedy]: guys that made a room uncomfortable and then getting that same room to laugh about things that they wouldn’t necessarily think they could even laugh at,” Jay told Paste back in 2018. Does this boldness pay off? I’m inclined to say yes. One of her overarching points is that others’ confusion sometimes comes across as an attack, but that we can improve our society by recognizing this rather than immediately treating their reaction as aggression. Likewise, Jay is using her time behind the mic to parse through her own understanding of the world around her.
3 in the Morning leaves you walking away with more questions than answers, which is exactly what Jay is trying to do. Subject matter aside, careful directing choices, like a heavy use of close-ups and on-the-beat cuts, make this special feel more lively than most Netflix comedy specials. Jay isn’t afraid to make a special that’s funny yet challenging, proving herself one of the most intriguing voices in comedy today.
Clare Martin is a cemetery enthusiast, hibernophile and contributing writer for Paste’s music and comedy sections. She also exercises her love for reality TV at HelloGiggles every now and then. Go harass her on Twitter @theclaremartin.