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tv ‘I’m A Black Lesbian Woman’: Sam Jay Looks To Disrupt Late-Night TV Comedy

The stand-up and SNL writer takes on one of the least diverse genres of entertainment with the aim to drink, have a good group hang and provoke discomfort

‘I hope that there is enough honesty, vulnerability, and genuine good intent in it that everyone can find something for themselves’ ... Sam Jay,Photograph: HBO

When Sam Jay got a deal with HBO for her own talkshow, she was clear on what Pause, her six-episode, half-hour series premiering this Friday, would not include: no desk and no straight-to-camera monologue. Those staples of late-night television, one of the most consistent – and consistently white, straight and male – genres in television, were “just a little too contrived for me”, Jay told the Guardian.

“It’s not how conversations happen. It’s not how people meet each other. And it’s not how friends talk to one another – you don’t talk to your friend from a desk, it’s just not real.”

Instead, Jay, a black lesbian comedian who grew up in and around the projects of Boston, wanted something looser, freer, more reflective of the actual late-night conversations she’d have with friends over drinks in her New York apartment. She wanted a kickback, the type of freewheeling group hang desperately scarce during the past year of lockdowns. Gregarious, with barreling energy best showcased by her 2020 Netflix special 3 in the Morning, Jay loves to host people, testing new material through good-natured, blunt provocation. Why not let the cameras lurk?

Jay is part of a wave of incoming late-night hosts aiming to rumble one of the firmest, most concretely white institutions in entertainment, after the premieres of That Damn Michael Che, the sketch variety series hosted by SNL’s head writer, and Showtime’s Ziwe, the cable vehicle for Ziwe Fumudoh’s viral Instagram Live series Baited. But whereas Che can be flippant (and vindictive to critics) and Ziwe inhabits a provocative persona – a Colbert Report-type satire for irony-poisoned Gen Z – Jay approaches Pause with an open-hearted, if uncompromising, curiosity.

The aim for Pause, co-created with Insecure showrunner Prentice Penny, is “to bring a different conversation to the space, and a different voice to the space”, said Jay, herself an off-and-on watcher of John Oliver, Bill Maher, and the Daily Show with Trevor Noah. “The conversations have kinda become a little repetitive, and I also don’t know, sometimes, who the fuck they’re even talking to,” she added. “I hate to say it that way, but that’s kinda how I feel sometimes, like who is this for, exactly? Because it’s not for any of my friends.”

“I don’t know anyone who grew up where I grew up, who’s watching some of this stuff and being like, ‘Yo, wow, Fifa don’t, like, pay taxes and so that’s why you shouldn’t buy soccer balls,’” she joked. “I don’t know, man, I just want to make something that connected to me and it felt like it connected to people I know.”

The premiere episode (the only one made available in advance) rolls from a group-hang back-and-forth about black people judging other black people for selling out to white culture – AKA “cooning,” one of the most offensive black stereotypes, defined in a title card as “exploiting one’s own community for personal gain or acceptance from a dominant culture” (worth noting: white people are the minority in this room) – to an interview with two self-proclaimed “pro-black conservatives” to riffs on cultural appropriation that dings self-righteous Twitter overreactions as much as the offenders themselves.

In an entertainment world that fetishizes youth and obsessively chases internet novelty – see: Jimmy Fallon’s cringeworthy dance challenge with TikToker Addison Rae on the Tonight Show (which drew criticism for not crediting black creators of the viral dances) – Jay, at 39, is a relatively late-bloomer to mainstream attention. She took a circuitous route to comedy, spending most of her 20s in retail service jobs in Atlanta and Boston – Starbucks and Best Buy, after a brief stint in community college – before pursuing standup at 29. She worked her way through Boston’s comedy scene and, after drawing attention at Montreal’s famed Just For Laughs festival, joined SNL’s hallowed writing staff in 2017, penning skits for such hosts as Eddie Murphy and Kenan Thompson’s running segment Black Jeopardy over the course of three years.

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“My age offers me a lot of patience,” Jay said of entering comedy relatively late in the game. “I’ve had a lot of life experiences, so I think it also allows me to go into spaces that people wouldn’t necessarily go into and be more understanding and more compassionate.”

A still from Pause with Sam Jay

 Photograph: HBO

It also makes one less beholden to outside opinion; “You can’t just be up there for them,” she told the New York Times of audiences last year, “because once they control you, they will lead you anywhere.” But she does think about who’s watching, to a degree. “I know it’s something I absolutely can’t control, and so there’s a part of me that’s like, just make the show you believe in, and let the chips fall where they may,” she said. But she hopes the friends she grew up with “turn it on on Friday night, and go, ‘Nah, this is some real shit, I connect to it, it makes sense to me,’ and that they don’t feel ostracized by it in any way.”

Asked if she ever thought, specifically, about reception by white audiences, Jay answered “I don’t think of it in the specificity of white people. I do think about it in the sense of, I want a multitude of people to be able to watch this and connect to it. But I am going to approach things from a center that is real to me, and I’m a black lesbian woman. It is a little of a worldview through my lens, but I hope that there is enough honesty, vulnerability, and genuine good intent in it that everyone can find something for themselves.”

Still, Pause is “not one of those shows where it’s like ‘oh, I’m going to go talk to the KKK and then we’re gonna eat apple pie and you’re gonna see that we’re the same we both like apple pie,’” she said. “That’s not the goal here.” Candace Owens, the black conservative provocateur who inevitably comes up in the premiere, will not be on the guest list. “Because again, intent matters,” Jay said.

Jay’s interview style is less gotcha than open to surprise detours; the segment with the two twentysomething conservatives concludes with a personal revelation and a group hug. Asked about concerns that she didn’t press hard enough on the guests, who supported Donald Trump for president, Jay deferred. “I’m a person who’s legitimately interested in people – why they think the way they think, and what walks of life did they go through to get where they are,” she said. “And it felt shitty to me to invite people on the show and be mean to them. And to trick them or make them look stupid or have an agenda.”

To that end, future episodes will tackle thorny, minefield-laden topics such as money, celebrity culture, childlessness, and a theme she described as “freedom freak – letting people just be who the fuck they are, and why we have this huge need to box people in.”

In the final minutes of the premiere, Jay presents a thesis statement of sorts: “intent matters,” by which she means an earned benefit of the doubt – “when you see a person who’s not like you, give them some grace.”

“I do think we’re forgetting that in all this yelling and infighting and arguing and standing off in our corners,” she said. “People’s intentions matter in who they and why they’re doing things and why they’re saying things and what’s actually behind that.

“It’s more important than the words that’s coming out of their mouths sometimes. I wanted to create a space for a dialogue that I just wasn’t seeing.”

  • Pause with Sam Jay starts on HBO on 21 May with a UK date to be announced