The day before the taping of her Comedy Central Half Hour (which premieres tonight at 12:30), Jacqueline Novak, New York-based standup comedian and author of How to Weep in Public: Feeble Offerings on Depression From Someone Who Knows, explains to me the paradoxical nature of choosing an outfit for a TV appearance. She’s considering renting a vintage pantsuit that she saw in the window of a costume shop in New Orleans, but can’t decide whether or not to go for it. “There’s always the question of what to wear. In the set I’m doing I talk about being a woman, having a woman’s body, and self-presentation. Then I have to wonder how that is going to interact with what I’m wearing. It’s such a weird thing. In one sense you think that by doing comedy you are in some way stepping outside of those kinds of issues, calling them out. You want to embrace the weirdness of things, not a perfect image. But then you’re putting yourself on television and onstage where all of that stuff comes up. All of the traditional vain concerns. I want so badly to completely transcend it and be like, ‘I truly don’t give a fuck.’”
Truly not giving a fuck is a difficult endeavor, but it’s something that Novak is trying to embrace in comedy. In her Half Hour, she slowly glides across the stage, delivering a calculated, slow-paced breakdown of the way that magazines physically label women’s bodies. “They say you’re a pear if you carry your weight in your hips. And they say you’re an apple if your shirt hurts.” The head-on tackling topics like body image, eating, depression, and death is how Novak builds the road to not giving a fuck, one brick at at time. We talked further the new special, the correlation of standup to swimming, and why she used to not watch other people’s sets.
You had your TV debut on The Late Late Show with James Corden. Did you learn anything there that you think will help you during your Comedy Central taping?
That went so quick. There’s no time. You can’t even take a sip of water. It’s done in such a different way. It’s almost like doing a dive. The five minutes feel like walking to the edge of a diving board, doing your dive, swimming to the ladder, and getting out of the pool, where you towel off and wait for your score. I feel like this is more like getting in the water for a while, treading, doing some flips. But ultimately I had a great time on Corden. It was fun and I felt positive about it afterward. A big thing is just making peace with these things, whatever they may be.
Would you say this Half Hour is the biggest thing that has happened to you so far in your comedy career?
Yeah, I would say the Half Hour, for anybody who has been doing comedy for a long time, holds weight. When you start out you watch those sets and see up-and-coming comedians doing decent chunks of time. You wonder what it would be like if you were on that stage. That’s why this feels particularly meaningful. You’re stepping into that vision you held once. I pictured myself doing this and now I’m here.
How old were you when you started watching standup comedy?
I watched casually in middle school and high school, but I started standup in college. That’s when I began becoming obsessed with comedy. Recently I actively chose to not watch too many of other people’s Half Hours. I’m at the stage where I’m taking a new step. That’s a place where you’re at the most vulnerable to compare yourself to others. I started standup in DC when I was in college and when I first went to New York I had this nervousness about starting comedy in a new city. After a few shows I realized I had to actively not be in the room because I would see everything other comedians did well and think, “Hmm, that’s good. And I don’t do that.” I started to doubt myself for a while. I had to protect myself and just lurk in the bar area, occasionally checking to see if it was almost my time. Once I got over it I really started to enjoy watching. It’s a nice distraction where you’re not thinking about your own things. But with this Half Hour…anytime the stakes are higher I isolate a little bit just to make sure I don’t put myself in that mindset again.
You self-released an album in 2014. Are you planning on releasing another one soon?
Definitely. When I recorded Quality Notions I just did one show where I did an hour-and-a-half and then released an hour. There was a half hour on that where I had all of my death and depression material. I definitely want to try to record another album or try to do an hour special wherever they’ll have me. I want to get in my death material. I also have 40 minutes on pizza.
You recently released a book, How to Weep in Public. Even though you speak to some of the same things in your standup, this book has people identifying you as a serious writer.
Before I started standup I self-identified as a writer. I had many literary dreams. It’s nice to put something out that’s just being received as a book versus “a comedian’s foray into writing.”
The book spawned a web series where you have conversations about depression with various people in your life. I watched the episode where you sit down with your dad and it was really moving. Is he a mental health professional?
No, but that’s hysterical. Other people have asked me that because he carries himself in a way that’s…
Yes. He’s a comforting guy and he’s very good at listening. That’s one of the funny things about that video. I’m talking so fast and it keeps cutting to him just nodding. He’s so smart and has such great insights, but he also knows how to let his daughter spew out everything she needs to say.
Photo by Mindy Tucker.