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Sam Jay’s new HBO variety series, Pause With Sam Jay, premieres May 21 — that is, if its creator and host can stomach the editing process long enough to finish it.
The 39-year-old stand-up, who broke out writing for Saturday Night Live before launching her first comedy special, Netflix’s 3 in the Morning, in 2020, is not used to watching footage of herself. “I don’t think it’s getting easier. I’m just becoming more tolerant of it. I have to mentally prepare before I sit down and overanalyze myself,” says Jay, who was born in Atlanta, raised in Boston and now lives in Brooklyn with her girlfriend.
Her new show, a mix of interviews and sketch, is meant to feel like a New York house party, which may be a breath of fresh air for viewers who haven’t socialized much over the 13 months of the pandemic.
You’re often referred to as a late bloomer because you didn’t start stand-up in earnest until your late 20s. Is there an expectation in comedy that you start young?
What we’ve been told and seen in comedy is Eddie Murphys and Chris Rocks. They all started at 19 or 20. There’s a myth around comedy that you’ve got to start young because you’ve got to put in 10 years before you break out. But I’ve been a late bloomer my entire life. I got titties late. I figured out that I was gay late. I spent an extra year in high school. I’m kind of just slow.
Your show is premiering the same month as several other variety shows — Ziwe on Showtime and That Damn Michael Che, at HBO Max, which you worked on. Why do you think we’re leaning so hard on the genre right now?
I think it’s dope to have all these options, especially for Black people. Because we’re not a monolith. The times are definitely dictating it a bit. White people are waking up to how awful it’s all been and realizing, like, “Hey, we may need to listen to some other voices for it to start being less awful.”
You organized a series of stand-up shows with other comics that took place entirely in the dark in 2019. Any connection to the fact that you don’t like watching yourself on camera?
I just got bored, honestly. I didn’t want to do another show that was “Sam and her homies.” That’s what everybody does. I thought it would be interesting to take the audience out of it. I’m a lot freer onstage with my thoughts if I’m not staring at an audience and they’re not staring at me. I just felt a lot freer to say shit.
You sold your show to HBO before you really landed on a format. How much did you know about what you wanted to do?
Well, I knew I didn’t want to do a desk thing or a to-camera monologue. Those are the things I was sure about. It took a lot of forms before we landed on a party, but I knew I wanted to talk about money, identity, politics, a whole gamut of things.
Who’s at the party?
Just my friends and two camera operators. It’s people I know from comedy, people I grew up with. I always know where I need the conversation to go to service the episode, but we don’t tell them [the guests] what we’re talking about. I’m truly just inviting them to a party.
Is it a real apartment or a set?
It’s a real apartment in Brooklyn — but not my apartment. I did not want people tearing up my house!
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the May 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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