The Queer Review meets comedian Sam Jay as her late night series debuts on HBO

Saturday Night Live writer and stand-up comedian Sam Jay’s late night talk series, PAUSE WITH SAM JAY, debuts on HBO this Friday May 21st. “In an era of discord, Sam sets out to listen, learn, and ask questions to those with different perspectives”, the official description of the show states.

Early on in the first episode of PAUSE, in a house party setting, Jay brings up the topic of the trans jokes that she told in her August 2020 Netflix comedy special Sam Jay: 3 in the Morning, and the negative reaction that that segment of her set—which included transphobic tropes focusing on trans women’s bodies and their participation in sport teams that align with their own gender identity—received from some viewers. In PAUSE, referring to the special, Jay says: “I do a trans joke in a way that I thought was awesome shit that was gonna fucking advance a conversation, truly in my heart. At the end of the day I look at the shit that’s being said” she continues, “but it’s not even just faceless trolls, like I got banned from magazines. I don’t fucking get gay press. It’s not faceless, it’s real shit.” The subject is then closed. Given PAUSE’s mission statement, perhaps Jay could have opened up a direct discussion on the show with some folks who were offended by the trans jokes in her special.

Journalist Shar Jossell wrote in her February 2021 article for Them about comedians telling trans jokes (which did not directly reference Sam Jay): “I’m in no way suggesting that trans folks can’t be the subject of comedic fodder, nor am I attempting to police what some may deem as their “art,” but in the name of harm reduction, this is a rallying cry for smarter comedy, one that takes its own cultural weight into account…Comedy should always punch up, never down, and while I am aware that that’s subjective, a key question any comedian should ask themself is, “Are trans people laughing with me, or are they at the expense of this joke?” While the answer might be difficult to gauge, it’s certainly worth taking the extra steps to think it through.”

“These jokes often come with a hefty price for the trans community, and there are harsher implications at play. According to the Human Rights Campaign, 2020 was the deadliest year on record for trans folks, particularly Black women. And while we can’t blame comedy for this deadly epidemic, these kinds of jokes certainly contribute to the idea that transphobia is still acceptable in our society — and are therefore one of many cultural factors to blame.”

When The Queer Review was offered a chance to speak to Sam Jay about her new series we also took the opportunity to address the trans jokes that she told in the Netflix special and how she now reflects upon that material.

James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: When I initially heard ‘late night show’, my first thought was she’s going be sitting behind the desk doing monologues and obviously it’s very different to that; there’s the house party vibe, then we get the sketches and the interviews and I just wondered how you came up with the concept for that format? 

Sam Jay: “Just a lot of talking and thinking about how we wanted it to feel and thinking about how we wanted it to come off and knowing what we didn’t want. We knew that we didn’t want a desk, we knew we didn’t want straight to camera monologues, so it was just trying to figure out ways around that and also trying to create a show that really fit who I was and fit my voice. So just a lot of conversations with Prentice [co-creator Prentice Penny] and then a lot of conversations in the writers’ room, and that’s where we landed.”

In article eight of the new Black constitution, in that sketch that happens towards the end of the first episode, you say, “If you’re gay, Black, and a woman then you get to do whatever the fuck you want”, and it’s something you mentioned briefly at the beginning of the episode as well, about living at the intersection of those three identities. Could you talk a bit about the expectation that you feel is on you to represent all those things in your comedy, and just as a person?

“I think to some degree I do it naturally because I am gay, Black, and a woman, and I just talk about my experiences. So I think it services that without maybe necessarily making that statement. When I’m talking about any level of frustration with the system or any level of oppression or any level of bigotry, I’m speaking from all those spaces to some degree.”

Obviously, you probably know that something that I want to talk to you about—which you mention at the beginning of PAUSE—is the controversy around the trans jokes in your Netflix special. You say in PAUSE, “I do a trans joke in a way that I thought was awesome shit, that I thought was gonna advance the conversation, in my heart”. First of all, why was it something that you wanted to address in PAUSE? 

“I just thought it would be dishonest to talk about this subject of identity and allegiance to identities and not discuss something that people were aware went on with me.”

Could you give us an insight into creating that material and how you thought it might advance the conversation?

“The material came up because the situation actually happened. A friend actually called me and said that, and that was the start of where the conversation went from and it made me address my own fears and my own ignorance of like, oh shit, yeah, I may think this kind of way. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what you think, you don’t have the right to deny people access and rights because you’re uncomfortable with something. I wanted to present it in what might have seemed like a raw or uncaring way, which was not my intention, but I did want to be brutally honest because I think that that’s the only way to speak to the people who are on the other side of the aisle and bring them this way.”

“So in the same vein that I may have offended some people, I also got a lot of DMs from women who were like, ‘I never thought about it as a trans woman being on our team. I always thought about it as something oppositional to me and when you put it the way you put it, it opened my eyes to like, oh, no, this is just another form of womanhood’, which was what I was trying to get to, but I didn’t think you could take that journey if I’m not being vulnerable and honest about my own ignorance and things.”

Watching it, there’s nuance in there, like you say your friend called you, so it’s his voice in there and also the guy on the ground that got punched that says something offensive. Obviously you are delivering the joke so people are going to see you and think she’s the one saying this, but I just wondered what your own thoughts on that were, that people don’t always filter it through to make that kind of distinction?

“They just don’t. You can’t really do anything about that, you know what I mean? You can’t not create the thing that you believe in because someone might miss the point.”

We’ll move on and talk about the new show in a bit, but I just wanted to unpack this because when you mentioned in PAUSE that you don’t get gay press necessarily, I was like, okay, well you’ve got me…so I’ll ask you about it. The context setting of this is that trans women of color are the most vulnerable part of the LGBTQ population, and we all know about the homicides, there have been at least 131 homicides of trans folks since January 2017. That’s the kind of context where the jokes that were playing into transphobic tropes of, you know, like large hands and trans women playing on sports teams were told. Can you see why some people were upset by it? 

“Of course.”

And what might you say to people who were offended by it?

“I don’t know if I have anything specifically to say to people who are offended by it. I do understand how you could be offended, but I do think that these ignorances and nuances and thoughts are going on in people’s heads, and it’s very crazy to me to pretend that that’s not happening. And even as a cis woman, some of these thoughts have gone on in my head. So for me it was important to just be an honest person, and that is something that is the most important to me. I know there was vulnerability in that, I knew there was a possibility for a backlash in that, but I do feel like in the flip, it did do what I wanted it to do in the sense of it did bring some people along to a thought that I don’t think they would have come along with if I never exposed any of my vulnerability in it.”

Obviously Trump was in power when you did the material and there were a lot of attacks on trans people from his administration at that time, trans people in the military for instance, whereas today we’ve got this rash of transphobic bills nationwide, and one of the recurring ones is against trans kids playing sports, so would you still tell the jokes in the same way now do you think in this environment?

“I wouldn’t tell any joke in the same way now. I mean, you’re always growing, you’re always changing, you’re always learning, so there’s no joke in that special that I would tell the same way I told it.”

Given how it did come across to some people do you have any regrets about it?

“No, I don’t really live my life with regrets. So the answer to that is, no. Did I intend to hurt people? No, and if someone was hurt by it, am I sorry that they were hurt by it? For sure. I’m a person and I have a heart, but I don’t regret anything, no.” 

So let’s talk a bit a bit more about PAUSE. As you were setting out creating the show did you have a particular audience in mind or was it intended to be as broad as possible?

“No, I just wanted to make a show that was talking about things that I didn’t see people talking about and thought would be interesting to talk about.”

You mentioned your girlfriend quite a bit in the Netflix special and then we see her in PAUSE. How does she feel about being included and involved in it?

“She would never let me cast someone else to play my girlfriend, so I think she’s pretty fine with it!”

In terms of assembling the people in the house party segments of PAUSE, are they people whom you would ordinarily hang out with? 

“Yeah, they’re my friends, they’re all people I know, they’re all people who’ve been in my house to hang out with me and drink with me. I wanted it to feel that way, like it was just some people who actually hang out with each other kicking back.”

I really liked the interview you did with the Black conservatives because it’s not what I thought it was going to be. Initially I’d thought it might be a Sacha Baron Cohen style thing where you would expose them as being idiots, but actually it was very different to that. You were very calm as you were interviewing them, and you were also essentially trying to find common ground with them, is that generally your approach in life as well when you encounter people whom you have quite starkly different views from?

“Yeah, I think that’s just how I approach the world and so I wanted to bring that to the show. Again, honesty is a big thing for me and not being dishonest to who I am, because that’s the thing that people are doing now. Of course there are going to be people who don’t necessarily get that as well and who are going to go, oh, I took it easy on these people, or I should have done this, or I should have said that, but that’s not true to me as a person. For me, this wasn’t a space to do that.”

Was it a complete surprise when the woman who you were interviewing came out?

“Yeah, it was totally out of nowhere.”

Do you have the entire series already recorded?

“No, we’re still shooting up until next week.”

So are you looking to bring in hot topics, or how are you coming up with the discussion topics? Do some of them just flow naturally in the conversation or are they planned out?

“Some of them flow naturally, but each episode has a theme. Each episode has a thing that we’re talking about. It’s not really a show that’s chasing hot topics as much as it’s a show that I hope is just speaking to humanity and where we are and how we’re feeling and looking at these bigger, broader topics and pulling the humanity out of them. More than it’s like, oh what did Trump say?! Or, what did so and so wear?!That type of stuff.”

At one point in the first episode you say, “Don’t take a bitch off the pancake box”, essentially talking about big companies’ response to the Black Lives Matter movement, those kind of little PR gestures that are aimed at covering up endemic racism.

“In that episode we dig into it a lot, but yeah, I think as a Black person who’s been living here forever and has been exposed to all types of racism, it’s a little bit of a slap in the face to do something that arbitrary when you could actually be doing something that can impact people’s lives directly.”

As you interview Black conservatives in the first episode, and I know you’re a Kanye fan, I wondered what you made of his support of Trump. Maybe you can relate to it because of what you were saying in PAUSE about when you were in high school debates you’d align yourself with Republicans for the purpose of the debate exercises just because it wasn’t assumed or expected that you would do that?

“I didn’t necessarily lose my mind over it. I was like, Kanye’s doing some Kanye shit. I wouldn’t support Trump, it doesn’t align with anything that I believe in, but I’m at a place where I don’t knock any Black person for looking for options and not just going with what’s being shoveled to us.”

So last question for you and it’s what’s your favorite LGBTQ+ piece of culture or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+; someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you?

“Man, so many things. Movie: Paris is Burning. Music: Tiffany Gouché . Atlanta as a city, that’s probably my biggest. For a Black gay person I don’t know a place where you can have that much fun and live that way. Especially, like I’ve said in my special, I’m from Boston, and Boston is a very white city and so the gay scene is a very white scene and also a very male-dominated scene. Atlanta was the first place that I went where it’d be a couple of gay people listening to trap music, and not house versions of trap music! Atlanta had the largest influence on me as a queer person.” 

PAUSE WITH SAM JAY debuts Friday May 21st 9pm ET/PT on HBO and will be available to stream on HBO Max.

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