The stand-up comic Sam Jay calls herself a late bloomer.
“Got my period late, got my titties late,” she said in her Long Island City apartment, chuckling as she counted off on her fingers more evidence: She didn’t discover her homosexuality until her mid-20s. And while she had tried stand-up once before, she didn’t really get into comedy until 29.
Comedy is like tennis: It helps to start young, which is why so many of its superstars (Eddie Murphy, Adam Sandler, Dave Chappelle) began their careers when they were teenagers. But Jay, long a fan and student of stand-up, provides a good argument for the benefits of holding off. “I needed the confidence of a life behind me to know what I wanted to say,” she said.
Now 38, she is one of the most exciting provocateurs in comedy right now because she tackles the hottest button issues without dogma. She belongs to no camp. She takes shots at President Trump, but also tells you that America is not better than him. Her takes on #MeToo, the racism of “white man ambition” and transgender identity reflect an eccentric mind working through issues, her startlingly funny jackhammer punch lines emerging from a deadpan glare.
Her comedy is tough to pigeonhole: profane and heady, aiming for belly laughs, but never seeming desperate for them. Jay’s thoughtful bits have a cynical edge, one earned from a few lifetimes of tragedy already. Her late start gave her career an urgency that has led to this moment, when she’s on the verge of a major breakout.
Her debut hour, “3 in the Morning,” which premiered Tuesday on Netflix, is one of the last specials to be shot before the pandemic. Jay filmed it Feb. 22 and pointedly tried to dig into the big issues of the day, but inevitably it suddenly looks less topical, since she doesn’t address the virus, the death of George Floyd or any protests. On her seventh-floor balcony, where we socially distanced, I asked through a mask if this absence bothered her. Jay paused, letting the silence sit long enough for it to be a little uncomfortable — a place she’s perfectly comfortable in.
As the question about topicality hung there, she went to get a drink and by the time she returned, she suggested — on the advice of her girlfriend, Yanise Monet Vincent — we go inside because it was scorching hot. By the time we sat down, Jay conceded some regret: “Damn,” she said, with gravel in her voice. “I hope my special doesn’t come out and people think, as a Black person, I just chose to not speak on this.”
If Jay has a stage persona distinct from her offstage one, I couldn’t detect it after talking to her for three hours. She projects a steely presence that periodically shifts into jarring vulnerability. Discussing the transition from performing every night at clubs to going weeks without leaving the apartment, she said she appreciated the break from the grind, but news of police violence had sometimes sent her spiraling into hopelessness: “There’s definitely days when me and my girl are just sad, when I’ve just cried all day.”
At the core of her new special is an idea that true freedom means standing out from the crowd. She starts with a self-deprecating joke about how despite being gay she used to have sex with men as a way to fit in with her friends. And then she describes how she felt out of step with white lesbians, before moving into a celebration of Jaden Smith. “Finally we got a weird Black kid,” she says, listing his eccentricities, including dressing as a shoeless Batman and singing about the stars. Marveling at his choices, she delivers her punchline with awe: “That’s Martin Luther King’s dream.”
More so than most comics, she has a healthy skepticism of audience response, seeing dangers in pandering to it. “You can’t just be up there for them because once they control you, they will lead you anywhere,” she said.
As an experiment, Jay even hosted several stand-up shows completely in the dark as a way in part to liberate comics from feedback. (“You can stop caring about them because you can’t see them.”)
Growing up in the projects in Boston, Jay said, she was a weird Black kid. She was alert to how listening to Foo Fighters and Alice in Chains in her room could be viewed with suspicion by her hip-hop-loving brothers. “I had a friend who liked ‘Seinfeld’ and we used to make fun of him so bad,” she said, pointing out that in her set you were supposed to prefer “Martin.” “There’s lines in the sand, bro. But I always hung out with kids like that.”
Jay was only 16 when her mother died of lupus (her father had already died). They were close. Her mother regularly took her to plays and museums, and was a comedy fan as well (especially of George Carlin); she also taught Jay to think for herself. But when her mother got sick and became bedridden, Jay said, she responded by growing distant, until one day her mother confronted her. “Are you mad at me?” she asked her. Jay told her no.
“She said you don’t have to lie,” Jay said. “It’s OK to be mad at me. I’m your mother and I’m supposed to do certain things, so don’t feel guilty. I cried and she held me. Within six or seven months, she was dead.”
Jay paused to consider what her life would be like if her mother had not said that. “Who knows what trajectory that would have set me on? She had that foresight to relieve me of that,” she said, getting choked up. “She was an impeccable parent.”
When Jay herself received a lupus diagnosis at age 20, she became obsessed with and terrified by death, a fear that abated only recently in part due to some professional success, but also what she described as thinking through it. “When I’m bothered by something like that, I need to confront it mentally,” she said. “I need to sit in it. And I remember talking to my aunt, who said: The more you try to control something like that the less you will. The real control is acceptance.”
Jay’s special, which has the barreling energy and intimacy of a bar fight, only appears more political than personal. It’s just as much about her attitude toward death and her relationship with her girlfriend. Jay ends with a story from her childhood about extreme maternal love that serves as a kind of tribute.
Jay began performing after working a series of jobs (Starbucks, Whole Foods) she had no passion for. “Stand-up wasn’t risky at all,” she said. “I was working in the mail room and the highest thing I could become was head in charge of mail. You have to love something enough to work hard and stand-up is the only thing I love like that. It was the only option.”
She knew early on what kind of comic she wanted to be. “I don’t say anything just to be funny,” she said, adding that she had to believe it. She also didn’t like segues between jokes or even callbacks, even though both are common and effective. She thought they seemed fake.
Jak Knight, another comic who is a good friend, said of Jay with admiration, “There’s no moving her unless she moves herself.”
The first time I saw Jay onstage, she told a couple of jokes to a sparse, lethargic club crowd, shook her head and without a note of anger, walked off the stage. “I don’t like to feel like the help up there,” she said reflecting on the episode. Audience members are the customers, she conceded, but she does not believe every crowd is the same. “Comics put that on themselves,” she says. “‘If the audience isn’t good, it’s my fault.’ Nah. Sometimes they just suck.”
Jay even hesitated when she was offered a job as a writer on “Saturday Night Live,” since she had no experience or particular ambition in sketch comedy. When asked if people advised her to do it, her girlfriend in the next room shouted, “Yes!,” then laughed. Along with her vital counsel, Jay also said what informed her decision was recalling the time in high school when Oberlin College tried to recruit her but she said no because it seemed “too whitey-tighty.” She regretted it. She joined “S.N.L.” in 2017, and while adjusting has been difficult, frequently getting sketches cut (“I live in the cut zone”), she also wrote several pieces that were broadcast, including a Velvet Jones one for Eddie Murphy.
When we spoke over Zoom a week and half later, the thought occurred to me that maybe the fact that Jay’s special does not mention the most recent current events is actually on brand, another example of her refusal to follow the crowd. When I suggested this, she didn’t seem impressed, shifting subjects.
If she could shoot it now, what would she say about the recent protests? Jay was torn. She said she would probably go at it from a couple of angles, since she’s inspired by the young people in the streets, but also hates that the answer for some people is still in throwing “a Molotov cocktail.” Then she thought some more and shifted course, saying that sometimes she saw white society as an abusive boyfriend and Black people just need to move out.
“I am at a point where I don’t even believe in therapy for Black people because you can’t progress when you’re still living with your abuser,” she said, sounding like she was working out a bit for a set that isn’t likely to happen anytime soon. “There’s no situation where a woman’s getting beat by her husband and they’re like: ‘Go to therapy.’” Then she added, “Just get out of the house.”