'It just feels like the sauce is cooking right': Sam Jay talks about the diverse energy writing for 'SNL'

  • Comedian and SNL writer Sam Jay talks about vulnerability as she stars in her own Netflix stand-up special.

    Comedian and SNL writer Sam Jay talks about vulnerability as she stars in her own Netflix stand-up special. Courtesy of Netflix

 
 
Posted8/8/2020 7:00 AM

In some ways, "3 in the Morning" -- the Netflix stand-up special from "Saturday Night Live" writer Sam Jay -- is a sort-of capsule from the Before Times. For one, it was taped in front of a sold-out crowd of hundreds at the Masquerade in downtown Atlanta.

"It is kind of like, 'Wow, I made this right before the world blew up,'" Jay, 38, said in a phone interview Monday, hours before her special's release. "I had thoughts of, 'How relevant is any of this stuff now?' because the world is just completely different."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Ultimately, though, Jay said, "It really isn't completely different, it's just completely exposed. I think a lot of the things I was saying was speaking to the pulse of what was going on, and that stuff was kind of under the surface."

Take, for example, Jay's bit about the British Museum being filled with stolen artifacts -- a thread that has come up in recent years, and especially amid conversations about race in the past few months. "It's huge. I was overwhelmed," Jay tells viewers of the U.K. institution. "It was wing after wing after wing of stuff, and it blew my mind because I was like 'Wow, White people stole all this" stuff.

She also pokes fun at Elon Musk's rogue attempts to send humans into space in a bit that Jay thinks might hit differently after Musk's SpaceX company teamed with NASA on a test flight that successfully landed just days ago. Those developments "kind of made the joke relevant again," Jay said.

Jay has been an exciting addition to SNL's writers room, which she joined in 2017 on the heels of renewed criticism around the show's long-standing lack of diversity. In addition to being Black, Jay is a lesbian, and early on in her tenure, she told Vice she wanted to bring her perspective to the show's sketches. "Like urban culture stuff, gay culture stuff . . . women stuff, that they may not necessarily have their pulse on," she told the site. "Just who I am, you know what I mean?"

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Many of the riffs in "3 in the Morning" take on the same layered approach Jay employs in her SNL sketches, including "Cha Cha Slide," a 2019 sketch that featured John Mulaney as a man attending a wedding with his girlfriend. Because the girlfriend (Ego Nwodim) and her family are Black, the joke initially plays like the gag is about the White guy sticking out at a Black wedding. But the sketch, which Jay wrote with co-head writer Bryan Tucker, gradually reveals that Mulaney's character is exceptionally well-versed on Black culture, having attended a historically Black college and pledged a Black fraternity. The bit is merely about the awkwardness of meeting a significant other's family.

"Even in school, I would like to just play the devil's advocate. I just like to challenge how people think," Jay said. "SNL is very different [than stand-up] because you're seeing it manifest itself in a sketch, but there are still some of those basic principles in the sketches I write, which are 'Look at this thing and think about it like this,' or 'Wouldn't it be funny if this was the case rather than what we've always known to be the case?'"

We spoke with Jay about how she approached her Netflix special, the joke that made her feel most vulnerable and the SNL bit that made her feel like she had hit her stride on the sketch comedy show. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Are there any jokes that sort of pushed you out of your comfort zone, either the actual joke itself or what you were doing onstage?

A: The joke I did about my [late] mom was probably the hardest joke to do because I don't talk about my mom onstage a lot. [Note: The joke revolves around Jay's fear, at 11 years old, that she would be abducted by aliens, which manifested in a way that deeply worried her mother.] And it's just very personal. I feel like there are still things that are unresolved with how I feel -- not unresolved, just sensitive. It's a very sensitive thing. I'm a girl who grew up very close to her mother and it's just very tragic for me. So, to talk about anything like that and be that vulnerable and put something about my mother up to be critiqued and criticized by other people . . . was not easy to do.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

I try to be honest in my art. It felt dishonest if I didn't tell it when talking about how I think about my life in relation to having my own kids.

Q: When you're telling your joke about trans women, you acknowledge that it will probably make some people uncomfortable. Is there anything you did in constructing the joke, or setting it up, to assuage that discomfort? (The joke is assuredly edgy -- and it wouldn't be fair to describe out of context.)

A: I was really trying to do it from a place of "This is a thing that is happening in society." And we all need to be willing to talk about it in a real way and be honest about our fears, but also be honest about our prejudices. And be honest about the fact that, whatever our fears or prejudices are, it is not okay to discriminate against anyone or to treat anyone as if they don't deserve the same rights that you have.

Q: How much control did you have over the special? Was it more than you've had in previous stand-up shows (a 15-minute set in the first season of Netflix's "The Comedy Lineup," and a half-hour on Comedy Central)?

A: Everything you're seeing was a choice that I made, from the coloring to the lighting to the directing. It's all a choice that I made, and so it's the first time outside of [the 2018 stand-up album "Donna's Daughter"] and the first time, visually, that I'm putting anything out that is completely me.

Q: You grew up in Boston, but you said on the Las Culturistas podcast last year that you opted not to do the special there. Instead, you chose Atlanta, where you were born, and where you lived for several years in your early 20s. Is it like a second home for you?

A: To some degree, I feel like Atlanta is where I found myself. It's where I figured out who I was, where I came out, where I met my girlfriend. It's where I met my first group of gay friends. It definitely has a second home feel.

Q: "Cha Cha Slide" is one of the sketches SNL fans associate most with you, and it was such a refreshing moment for SNL. And full disclosure: After seeing it, I told several people it was "the blackest sketch I'd ever seen on SNL." Is it one that you heard/hear about a lot?

A: It was one of the few times I read stuff [after the show]. That sketch, I just feel like I got all this Black magic in it. You know, me and Tucker wrote it together, and . . . it was one of those SNLs where I was like "I hope Black people watch today because I feel so good about this one." And to see the tweets from the people picking up on the nuance and the fun of it, it felt real good.

Q: Was that the first sketch where you felt like you'd hit your stride on the show?

A: "Them Trumps" was the first sketch that felt like, "Yeah, this me." It's like an "Empire" parody, but it's Trump and [he's] Black. One of his businesses is a ham company. It's just all the type of goofy [stuff] that I like.

Q: I feel like people know a fair amount about how SNL auditions cast members, but we don't know as much about how they hire writers. What was the process like for you?

A: There's a million different roads to it. I went through the cast process. I was auditioning for that. And then they just were like, we don't know if that's right but we still want you around, and would like to offer you a writing job. It was one of those things where I had to get over my little ego. But then I realized I probably wouldn't have been really good at being a cast member. I don't do sketch, and I'm not an improv-y type person. None of that is my personality.

Now that I'm in the writing position and I've been there. I feel like it's the best way that I could have learned; I could grow and also serve the show. I feel like I serve the show so much more as a writer than I would have as a cast member, 100 percent -- it just was the right fit.

Q: SNL is probably at its most diverse ever right now. What's it like to be on the show now, especially following public conversations about the show needing to hire more people of color? Does it feel like a moment?

A: Yeah, it does a little bit. You've got [writer-turned-cast member] Bowen [Yang] there. There's me, there's Ego [Nwodim], there's Chris [Redd]. Gary Richardson, who is another Black writer on the show. Sudi Green, who is Iranian. You have all this energy, but then you have the old energy that was already there -- like James Anderson, who has been at the show forever, and is a gay writer. You have [co-head writer Michael] Che, you have Kenan [Thompson]. It just feels like the sauce is cooking right, for whatever reason.

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