SALON TALKS

Sam Jay says just let comedy be "dangerous" – like one particular slur that's "mean" but not racist

The "Pause with Sam Jay" comedian appeared on "Salon Talks" to weigh in on the art of conversation

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published June 27, 2022 7:00PM (EDT)

Sam Jay performs on stage at Esthers Follies during the 2019 SXSW Conference and Festivals at the Paramount Theatre on March 11, 2019 in Austin, Texas. (Gary Miller/FilmMagic/Getty Images)
Sam Jay performs on stage at Esthers Follies during the 2019 SXSW Conference and Festivals at the Paramount Theatre on March 11, 2019 in Austin, Texas. (Gary Miller/FilmMagic/Getty Images)

Dave Chappelle splits the world in half. Not literally, but kind of. I say this because every time he strolls on stage and grabs a microphone, a large number of fans well up with excitement – in addition to a large number of haters – that are equally excited at the opportunity to police each and every one of his ideas and statements and punchlines. His fans love his showmanship just as much as the naysayers dream of canceling Dave and stripping away his right to entertain. 

Younger comedians are taking note. I imagine they are wondering how to survive or even create a body of work in the current climate. Especially since many of them have been inspired by and came of age under old school comedians, the kind who made a living saying any and everything regardless of who liked it or not. They can't afford to be canceled, just as they can't afford to put out watered down, hyper-politically correct work. Sam Jay is all about taking chances and would rather be true to her art than bend or fold to the rules of wokeness. 

Sam Jay is an Emmy Award-nominated writer who worked on "Saturday Night Live." Jay also created, wrote and starred in the Peacock series "Bust Down" and HBO Max's "Pause with Sam Jay," which was co-created with Prentice Penny of "Insecure." I spoke to Jay on "Salon Talks" about the future of the industry and why comedians need to fight against being silenced. Watch our conversation here or read a Q&A below to hear more about her favorite sneakers, love for doing stand up and what to expect on Season 2 of "Pause." 

The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Every time I watch "Pause" I wonder how do you get invited to one of your parties?

Really, I'd have to know you honestly. I just be inviting my friends and stuff, or a writer in the room might know somebody and be like, "I think this person will be good." It's kind of just like a connection to the show somehow. If you have a connection to the show somehow, then you get invited. It's really not that deep. We literally just look at the episode and then we're just kind of like, "Who would be dope that we know?"

Do you feel like your first big start was on "SNL"?

As far as jobs, it was the biggest job I've ever had. I never had a job in the industry. I booked gigs. At that point, I had done a lot of stand-up on TV and I had already done a Comedy Central half hour and I had already done the Netflix 15, so I had some stuff under my belt before I got to SNL, but I had never had a writing job or anything like worked on a show or anything like that.

Your Netflix special was the first time I saw you. Was "Pause" already in motion around that time?

It was a result of the success of the special for sure. Really all I had after I did the 15, Netflix came and was like, "Yo, we want to do an hour with you." At that point, I was at "SNL" so I was working on an hour, like going out every night after work, doing sets in the city and then on weekends. When we had weeks off, I would go on the road. And then in the summer, I spent a whole summer touring before I taped it and right before COVID. It was crazy. I taped it like right before.

Then after the special came out, that's how I got in a conversation with HBO.

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Do you feel like hosting and interviewing is different than stand-up?

It is definitely different, but it's still me. I feel like the environment that we've created with "Pause" gives me a lot of freedom to just be myself. It feels different because people are talking back. In stand-up, you're the only one talking. So it's really a conversation with people, but kind of with yourself, and in interviews it's a discourse. Of course it's different, but it all feels super natural.

In Season 2, you talk about your place in the gay community. It's funny, but it's also honest. What kind of feedback do you get from those types of conversations?

I don't know if I expect any feedback at all. I actually probably would prefer if people didn't talk to me about it, to be quite honest. I don't really make it in this way of like, "Now what you got to say?" It's more just like here's something I've been thinking about and here's something I've been processing. 

"When you put out something that's honest and true to you and is a little bit challenging and is talking about things that are difficult, it's going to trigger people."

Now I have this opportunity to take it out into the world and talk to people who got actually affected or who have experienced it. And then it's up to the public and my hope is you all take it. And if it is a value to you, you continue the conversation. You know what I'm saying? That's really the hope of it. It's not to stir any pots or upset anybody, honestly, despite what some people might believe. It's really just like here's my perspective on this and I feel like this is something worth talking about.

It's hilarious, but, at the same time, I feel like you are talking to real people. You're talking past a Twitter checklist. You're talking to real people, and it's bringing even more people into the conversation. It helps people feel like we can say how we feel without being looked at as villains. Has someone ever tried to add you to a villain list for not checking the boxes?

Of course, all the time. I think that's the nature of the beast. As much as you going to make some people feel you, there's going to be people who don't like you. And on every side of it, on the Black side, on the being a woman's side of it, on the being gay side of it, I definitely have gotten backlash in every direction. But I think that's what happens when you put out something that's honest and true to you and is a little bit challenging and is talking about things that are difficult, it's going to trigger people and some people are going to get upset.

I enjoy the way you cross the line, but I also feel we're in this weird space where society or certain segments of society are trying to tell comedians what jokes they can tell and what jokes they can't tell. Do you think it should be a rule?

I feel like art and comedy as art is super subjective and it's important to let art be art and let it be dangerous and let it be controversial and let it be challenging because if we don't allow that we start to restrict that. Then you're restricting the conversations that we're having as a society and I just don't think that helps us in any way.

With that, I do think you need to be thoughtful, but I think that's all up to you to determine. What's thoughtful to me may not be thoughtful to someone else or like what I'm thinking. You just don't know what someone's going to pull away from something. You know what I mean? I look at that first episode and as many people who hit me up and they're like, "Wow, you brought this conversation to the forefront and this is such a thing that me and my friends talk about, and I'm so glad to hear this happening in the world," I get this a good amount of people who are like, "You're a f**king idiot and you're wrong and you need to learn gay history because Black people start this s**t."

To me, it's like you missed the point. That wasn't the point that I was making but that was the point that you took from it. You can't control that. The same way that I get white people telling me that I'm racist because I said "cracker" and I'm a terrible racist human being who's not helping the world in any way. It's like that's their truth. They really feel that way. I can't be like, "Oh, what they feel is stupid." I try to consider everything and then I analyze it for myself and then I got to do what's right for me. 

"It's important to let art be art and let it be dangerous and let it be controversial."

I think about it, though, because I'm not out here to hurt no one's feelings. If someone's really like, "You're racist and this is hurtful," I'm like, okay, let me think about this. Is me saying "cracker" racist and hurtful and why am I saying it? And what's the point of this? Is it just to f**k with people or is there something behind it? I've come to my own conclusion about it, which is it's not racist at all because the word wasn't built in any racial oppression for white people. It's really just a word to make you mad and it works. 

I think I would be more apt if someone was just like, "This word hurts my feelings," I'd be like, "OK, that's fair." It is mean, but I don't know that it's racist. I think sometimes you just got to consider both sides of it, what you're hearing, but then you also got to consider why you're doing something.

Oppression is hot right now. It is very, very hot to be oppressed. It comes with grant money. It come with opportunities. It come with all types of attention. What do you think of the oppression hustle?

We talked about it a little bit in Season 1 with the GoFundMe episode. And Alex English being a gay man and just wanting money because he's gay. 

I'm a comic so I'm critical, of course, and I do see that and I'm like, "What are you doing?" You know what I mean? But I think it's the world that we also kind of built for these kids where we set it up for them to kind of run that way. I think it's because we didn't give people their just due when people were asking. You know what I'm saying? When people were kind of screaming for it. So now we're getting the swing of the pendulum to the other extremity of it.

I think your comedy is groundbreaking in moving a lot of these conversations forward. Is that your intention, or is it just what you and your homies talk about when you all sitting around?

I think that was the intention and the conception of the show. I think when we talked about being able to be in a late-night space and what we wanted to get from that. And by we, I mean me and Prentice Penny – and I also mean me in the writers' room. We just wanted to have some conversations that we didn't see happening and that could move something forward.

I think with everything I do, especially in the space that is "Pause," that's the goal is like if I'm going to approach this topic, what am I adding? How am I moving this conversation forward? And if it's not doing that, then we probably don't need to do it. If it's just making a point to make a point or I'm just saying something that everybody already said, or I'm coming at the same angle that we seen it come at over and over again, then why are we doing it? We're not going to bring anything fresh to it or bring any fresh perspective to it or show it in a way it hasn't been seen. So maybe someone could grab it that couldn't grab it previously or process it that couldn't process it previously. Then what is the point of even breaching the topic?

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Do you keep your shoe boxes or do you throw them away?

My girl makes me throw them away. I used to be upset about it, but I'm not like a reseller and it's easier to maintain.

What's your favorite pair?

I don't know that I have a favorite pair. I like 1s. I like 1s the most just because they're just easy to do. They just clean. They go with everything. You just throw them on and be out. They're probably the ones I wear the most.

I'm going to go with black Jordan 3s as the best sneaker of all time with Nike Air on the back. 

I mean everyone likes those 3s, bro. It's the cement?

It's black cement 3s. Are there any dream guests or topics you want to cover next?

I don't know. It's so weird because it's like every season, let me just say this season, was such a different approach than last season like how we were going to get into things and what we were going to talk about. And however we decide, that really dictates the whole rest of the show. I'm never like I need to talk to such and so. It's kind of always let's decide what we talk about first and then who's the best person to bring into this conversation.

When are we going to be able to see Sam Jay in front of an audience, making us laugh and think deeply about these issues? 
I'm actually going back out on the road this summer starting in July for a while, because I'm trying to build a new hour to put out a new special. So I'll be back around, back on the road, back in the scene, doing the thing.

Do we know where that special's going to be or network? It's a secret?

Kind of.

Watch out more "Salon Talks" with D. Watkins: 


By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a professor at the University of Baltimore and founder of the BMORE Writers Project. Watkins is the author of the New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America” and "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new book, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," is out now.

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