Sam Jay Talks Stand-up, SNL and Taking Risks in Comedy

Comedy Features Sam Jay
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Sam Jay Talks Stand-up, <i>SNL</i> and Taking Risks in Comedy

Since we called Sam Jay one of our favorite comics at Just For Laughs last year, the Boston native has gotten a job writing for Saturday Night Live, released a half-hour on TV with an episode of Comedy Central Stand-up Presents, did a 15-minute micro-special as part of Netflix’s The Comedy Lineup, and put out an album through Comedy Central Records. Those last two were both this month. For any comic, that would be a huge year that would lead to some fascinating stories, but for Jay that takes a backseat to how she approaches her own material. With a zen-like disconnect, Sam Jay tackles the everyday with the same intensity as the darkest, deepest hole of personal crash-and-burns. And her recent one-two punch of that Netflix special and her album Donna’s Daughter is a tauntingly excellent portrait of an artist working in the same medium, but with wildly different structures. (You can listen to it on Spotify here.)

As an openly gay African-American, Sam Jay stands as an important new voice during the waning cultural influence of cis straight white dudes. Her work as a writer on SNL has been a chance to expand a creative pool that is historically that same single-point perspective cluster, and her sudden prevalence everywhere, from the road to streaming services to late night, all helps push a collective cultural shift into new, challenging topics.

For example, her new album is all about gay divorce. So yeah. Not many comics tackling an expanded version of that subject right now, right? And Jay organizing the album as a hip-hop influenced slice of life documentary is ambitious, to say the least.

Paste recently talked to Jay about her thriving stand-up career, her job on SNL, and the increasing diversity of stand-up.

Paste: How long have you been doing stand-up?

Sam Jay: Six years. Seven years. Lemme think. Six years. Seven years.

Paste: Let’s say six point five years?

Jay: Done.

Paste: What’s the experience like opening for Dave Attell? How did his audience react to you? Admittedly, I consider his audience to be more antagonstic than most comedians, but I suppose you have a similar antagonism that you’ve harnessed?

Jay: It’s a group of people that dig comedy. If you’re there for Dave, you dig comedy. It’s not necessary antagonistic, but stand-up is supposed to make people think about things you wouldn’t regularly think about. So in that way, we have the same audience. There’s no agenda here. I talk about the things I like to talk about. My mind tends to hang on the darker sides of a conversation.

Paste: So that’s the perspective you have on life that you bring to what you do on stage?

Jay: Yeah I prefer to talk about things from every possible angle. If I’m talking about political stuff, I’ll head in a direction you might not expect. Like, as you know, my Trump joke is to call him the first nigga president. That upsets people because those are trigger words. But that feels accurate for me to say because he’s the most ignorant person ever placed in the White House, and he’s being ignorant from start to finish on this entire process. In those terms, I know that that’s a risky thing to say, but I think as a comedian the point of the job is to pick the risky thing to say. That’s what I go to comedy for, at least. That’s what made me fall in love with it: 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.

Paste: Who are your heroes for that kind of thing?

Jay: Carlin. Chappell. Silverman. I get comedy from everywhere. Sitcoms too.

Paste: What’s your all time worst show?

Jay: I’ve bombed so many times they all run into each other at a point. I was doing a show in Arizona and I walked eight people.

Paste: Wait, so eight people at a table or eight unaffiliated people?

Jay: Eight unaffiliated people. Just not with the shit that day. Not with my shit that day. That’s the worse, and it was very oppositional because I did not like the audience throughout the show. They weren’t fun. Comedy is a conversation but that means you have to still enjoy having the conversation. And if the people you’re having the conversation with just suck, and it is not fun, then it is oppositional on both sides. If you really like a terrible opening act comic and then you like me too, what does that say about me? It’s like how awful Vegas is. People go there to be the worst version of themselves.

Paste: From the outset of your new album, you seem very interested in the meta narrative of what makes a comedy album… an album. And what I think most folks will be shocked by, as they listen, is that you’ve inserted all these pre-recorded interludes that weave in and out of the set you’re performing. Why did you deliberately avoid a standard stand-up recording?

Jay: You hear a Ready to Die or Kendrick Lamar’s first album and you get this feeling while listening that you’ve spent a day with that person. Not the artist, not the performer, not the personality they present: just this very real version of sharing space with them.

Paste: I think I got that thesis, but I also just really enjoyed the album as a whole. My thought / reservation was as follows: most of my stand-up at this point is experienced through folks hitting it on internet radio like Spotify where everything is all scrambled. What you’ve made here is not an album that you can just pick a point for. It’s something that it feels like you intended to be listened to in one sitting, every time. In fact, it’s almost antagonistic to the idea of someone jumping in at a random point.

Jay: Yup.

Paste: You have the first stand-up album I’ve heard that’s almost completely dedicated to the idea of processing gay divorce. Was there a process here? Was there a thesis you wanted people to take from this?

Jay: This is hard. Lemme think. There’s no thought process beyond what was happening in my life, right? It’s genuine to do so. That’s what was honestly happening in my life. It’s my favorite part because I was in mid-processing. I’d just moved to New York and had just gotten SNL. My ex had just moved out. That was when I got pulled to New York and my album recording had already been scheduled. Everything was—look, it’s obviously not this agenda driven thing where people need to know what’s happen’ with gay marriage! It’s just that I want people to know what’s going on with me. It’s way more selfish.

Paste: For me, one of the most painful parts of your special is how you start by acknowledging that your marriage just ended, and then the rest of the special is based, almost entirely, in these small moments of that relationship. Which builds on the honesty of the moment you were in. You’d spent all this time developing material about these shared experiences and then they end and you can’t divorce those moments from the person you’ve divorced, but they’re also (let’s be real) all of your material. So you never pretend to jettison that person from your stories. Like on “Period Sync,” which comes late in the album, you’re still talking about 30-something women syncing their period and it’s your wife. It would be bullshit to pretend it was someone else. But from the outset of the album we absolutely know that there’s a modicum of pain in even sharing this small, normal, moment.

Jay: It’s about how I process things. I ask why something went the way it went and then I pick it apart. It’s a slice of life situation. But the uniqueness of our lives is what makes us special. Beyond that, if you want to take a message from this about the gay experience, go ahead.

Paste: Do you know what your ex thinks about the album dedicated to your relationship?

Jay: No. And I probably don’t want to find out.

Paste: You got offered, as mentioned, the Saturday Night Live job amidst a transition point in your life. What did it mean for you?

Jay: I escaped a fucked-up relationship. And like anything, you’re merging two lives, and you ask “What is life going to look like now?” I was already doing that kind of thing already, and then this hit, and it became new beginnings and growth. When opportunities are in front you, sometimes you must veer from the plan. I needed this to grow as a person and an artist.

Paste: What is it like to be in SNL writers room right now. Are you up against anything or do you feel good there?

Jay: People like to paint SNL as a room of Mad Men-era white dudes. It’s not. It’s also not a room full of, you know, black lesbians. It’s a room that is overwhelmingly funny and that room also values funny over everything. I value funny first. I laughed at my mom’s funeral. I’m so much stronger as a writer and a stand-up. It makes you better.

Paste: How do you take the “L’s” in the process and keep your head?

Jay: Just remember who you are. Be honest with yourself. What’s the value in this versus what’s soul crushing in this? Understand this. And understanding SNL is different—it’s a beast and you have to understand it, on its terms. It’s made me sharper and better. Especially as a writer. And there’s no political slant right now: each week we just try to write the thing that’s the funniest thing we can come up with.

Paste: You’re on Netflix’s The Comedy Lineup with a fifteen minute set on their first season. I’ll be the first to admit: I didn’t even know your feature was up, and I didn’t even know the season of this show was up, and I live in comedy. There’s so much comedy being released just by Netflix right now that it feels like everyone is being disserviced equally by getting buried in the content. How have you felt the reaction has gone?

Jay: A lot of messages were from people saying that they didn’t know my special came out. So I get that. But also good comedy is going to survive anything. And a corporation’s job is to make content. I don’t think we’re anywhere near there being too many comedy specials.

Paste: I hadn’t realized it until we were talking about this, but do you think that some element of the Too Much Comedy criticism is based in gate-keeping? Like, would anyone be saying this if it was just a bunch of cis white dude specials instead of, you know, new and varied voices getting a larger scale platform?

Jay: Absolutely that’s part of it. There are so many options now for comedy that you can’t be in comedy and be mediocre as fuck. There are so many people in comedy that are scared because they can’t keep a career. Their roadwork is probably cutting down because no one wants to come see someone that just isn’t that funny. That’s what the fuck is supposed to happen. The way you consume this content is so different from how comedy has previously been consumed, that if there’s 42 new specials, or whatever, many of them are from people all over the world. And you know what? People from France probably want to see these French motherfuckers. They should be able to. That’s not a negative.

Paste: You’re raising a different idea here that I’m intrigued by: do you think that the accessibility of new voices in comedy via Netflix and streaming services is having a direct impact on local comedy scenes by making the local Chuckle Hut patrons aware of how the rest of the world is doing bigger, more inclusive stuff?

Jay: Yeah, probably.

Paste: Who do you love in comedy right now?

Jay: Taylor Tomlinson. Jak Knight is extremely funny and his wit and his willingness to be dangerous is great. He doesn’t mind standing alone. I enjoy Michael Che. I’ll always love Bill Burr. Chris Redd is a great storyteller. Roy Wood. You know, this is a lot of black men…

Paste: How mad are you at Marcus for his behavior in the front row? And has he apologized?

Note: During the special, Jay berates a man named Marcus for talking in the front row, even though he had specifically requested to have that seat. It is a great bit.

Jay: That’s my best friend. I’ve known him since high school. We’re still very good friends. I left that bit in for authenticity, not to shame him. He never apologized. He’s a man and they don’t do that well at apologies.

Jay’s album Donna’s Daughter can be streamed on Spotify and also found at iTunes and other digital outlets. Her Comedy Lineup special can be seen on Netflix.

Brock Wilbur is a writer and comedian from Los Angeles who lives with his wife Vivian Kane and their cat, Cat. He is the co-author (with Nathan Rabin) of the forthcoming book Postal for the Boss Fight Books series.