off broadway

Jacqueline Novak, the Great Conversationalist

Jacqueline Novak. Photo: Monique Carboni

Jacqueline Novak has spent the past few years meditating on the blow job and the language that surrounds it. She doesn’t think a penis has ever deserved to be referred to as a “cock,” and she thinks it’s rare that a boner ever lives up to the descriptor “rock-hard.” The result of these years of consideration is Get on Your Knees, a stand-up show — or depending on whom you ask, a one-woman play.

Novak has starred in a half-hour Comedy Central special; released the comedy album Quality Notions; and authored How to Weep in Public, a book about depression; and while these are all entertaining and certainly insightful in their own right, Knees is clearly her masterwork. In the years that she’s been working on it, she’s turned to trusted friends for notes, like John Early and Mike Birbiglia, who directed and executive produced the new show, respectively. What begins as a hilarious questioning of masculinity and a woman’s role in relation to it becomes a chronicling of Novak’s understanding of the sexual act since teenhood. Part hero’s journey toward the unthinkable act of giving head, part dissection of the narratives we create for ourselves, Get on Your Knees delivers on the promise of a plethora of dick jokes, and Novak manages to do a hell of a lot more in the process.

The subtle brilliance in Get on Your Knees is Novak’s ability to deftly mix the high- and lowbrow without diminishing the details that distinguish each half of the pair. When Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” booms over the theater’s speakers, it feels natural, just as Novak’s off-the-cuff references to T.S. Eliot or Mary Karr do. She doesn’t suggest that there is anything overly pretentious about the latter, nor does she condescend to the former — it’s a seamless meld, one that makes you question why we’re so eager to separate the two in the first place.

Less than a week into the nearly five-week run of Get on Your Knees at New York’s Cherry Lane Theatre, Vulture sat down to talk with Novak and the show’s director, John Early, about how it came together.

I know in your book there’s some little bits about blow jobs and on your album, too. When did you realize that you were going to do a whole show on blow jobs?
Jacqueline Novak: I think it was because I wanted to be working on a longer-form thing. I wanted to be working toward the hour, ideally the hour-long special or the touring hour. I was going to Edinburgh and I was thinking about if I was going to thread a narrative through my material. I was doing all this penis material, all this stuff about the cock versus the penis. I had this sort of blow-job narrative that had been this essay [from college]. It was like this never-ending essay that I had been writing the whole time.

I always felt like there was something about the blow job coming-of-age stuff, and I continued to think about it later on in my life. I was considering what I would do if I were to do a narrative thread. I knew it would be this coming-of-age [story about] sexual concerns. It’s weird to me that you’re alone in that journey. You have friends — if you have friends — but you’re kind of figuring it out on your own. It’s a weird time. It was this intersection where I was like, All right, what if it’s this penis material that I’m doing that is very much my current thinking about the penis, and how does that intersect with this narrative about my early fears and anxieties? They’re kind of two different attitudes. The thinking was, Well, hopefully the confidence of where I am now in my take on it would offset and make the audience feel comfortable going into this vulnerable 12-year-old feeling pressured that she’s going to have to give a blow job. It’s kind of crushing in a way, but since you see this confident material up top, it’s a bit like, It was okay, she’s fine.

So you came separately to the material about language, and the stuff about your life, and you realized that they could serve each other.
Jacqueline: Yeah, totally. I was working on the penis material in short sets and then going to Edinburgh, which I kind of really was just going to for stage time to work on an hour because there’s kind of an expectation there. They almost were like, “These American comics, they come here and, quote, ‘just do stand-up.’” There was this pressure where I was like, I want to do the assignment; I’m not going to let them say that about me. I’m going to give them the narrative of my damn life. It was this good-student mind-set.

It’s the same thing you come back to in the set — of never wanting to seem less wise than anyone else.
Jacqueline: Yeah, it’s exhausting, and it’s also like, Oh, so I’m actually really easily manipulated. All you have to do is tell me, “The common fool thinks this,” and I’m like, “Not me!” It’s a really specific recurring dynamic. I was working on it with [Mike] Birbiglia a bit — me and my boyfriend, Chris Laker, we were both opening for Mike, so we were working with him on some narrative stuff. It just came together in that way. He’d seen pieces of the show develop and ended up producing it, basically.

How did John end up as the director of the show? 
John Early: Well, honestly, very organically. Jacqueline asked me when she was trying the show out at Union Hall almost a year ago to basically open for her. We co-hosted a show at Cake Shop for a couple of years every Tuesday to crowds of tens. We always had such a fun time just talking onstage. As you can tell from the show, Jacqueline is one of the great conversationalists. The show is essentially the privilege of being in conversation with Jacqueline Novak.

Jacqueline: Ridiculous.

John: You watch her go through thoughts and get distracted, go on tangents, then bring us back. I feel like we just discovered a very pure conversational dynamic where it was purely about delighting each other. We were already friends, but that was a really fun thing to discover as collaborators. Then [when she was working at the show at Union Hall] she was like, “Maybe we can talk instead,” instead of a crass ten-minute opening. I was also like, “I don’t want to do material,” so we talked onstage together. Jacqueline came up with a very funny conceit of what if I then took notes, kind of very performatively — like stepped offstage, took notes during the show, and then gave her the notes at the end of the show.

Jacqueline: Onstage. Almost like a fun hook, like “John Early notes Jacqueline.”

John: Then she went to Edinburgh and did [the show], and then when she moved to L.A., we decided to do the same [notes] thing because it was so much fun. Because she did this long run of shows, it turned into me genuinely taking notes. I would give her notes onstage, and mostly onstage, I would actually just say like, “Here are the funny lines I loved.”

Jacqueline: John’s very concerned about the audience going home with the right bits in their mind. He’s like, “I’m going to underscore this now ‘cause how dare they forget.”

Do you feel like doing the show so much is coming naturally to you? Do you find the prospect daunting at all?
Jacqueline: Edinburgh was like 26 shows in a row with no days off, I think. I enjoyed that process so much and I actually felt sad when it was ending. I haven’t been that daunted by the prospect of the run, but I have no idea what it’ll feel like [toward the end]. Weirdly, my ADD thing is that when I’m in something, I’m in it. I’m almost not thinking of the run and its length.

You’re being present. [Laughs.]
Jacqueline: For once!

John: I have a feeling, from what I’ve witnessed so far, that [you might be daunted by it] if your jokes were more stark or something, if there were less going on, if you had developed a signature delivery that was deadpan, if you were locked into some overly simple joke structure. But the only way you know how to do your comedy is through this conversational, tangential way where you’re genuinely finding the thought in the moment. It’s very hard for me to believe, based on what I’ve seen so far, that that’s going to dry up.

Jacqueline: Well, with every crowd it’s like, Oh, God, they don’t know what’s coming. In my mind it’s like, They’re doubting me; they’re afraid; they’re concerned.

John: Well, you’re in control. That’s what’s actually easier about stand-up: The repetition of stand-up, night after night after night, is what makes it fun. You don’t have to act surprised. In plays, you have to pretend that all this stuff is happening to you. With stand-up, you’re the one driving. You don’t have to feign surprise. So of course, night after night, in plays you’re like, The events can’t possibly be surprising anymore. You have to drum up surprise at the circumstances of the play every fuckin’ night.

Jacqueline: Or your best impression of it in a pinch!

At this point, are you changing any of the jokes a lot or adding new material? Or is it just playing with your delivery?
Jacqueline: I tend to write things a number of ways, so it’ll be a joke that has a number of variations, and I’ll try different ones and go, Okay, I officially like this version better than this version; let’s try to keep saying that. Something might happen in the moment that leads me down a path where I use words that send me to a different version of it. There’s a little bit of that still. What you’d think of as the set list is the same.

In an interview with Interview magazine in 2016, you said that you titled your album Quality Notions because it was easier to say that than to say that they were jokes. Do you feel like the way you approach your comedy has changed now?
Jacqueline: I think if I was talking to a comedian and they didn’t know me and they asked me if they were jokes, I’d say, “You’re damn fuckin’ right it is!” If I was talking to a theater person who was like, “Oh, is it just stand-up?” I’d be like, “Fuck you, you’re going to sob.” I think these days it really just depends on who I’m talking to because I want it to be all of those things at the same time.

Do you feel inclined, in your own definition, toward calling yourself a comedian, a writer, or a performer? In a 2016 interview with Splitsider you said that you were glad your book was being received as a book rather than “a comedian’s foray into writing” because you self-identified as a writer prior to doing stand-up. With the show, there are parts that could be an essay, or exist only on the page, but they’re enlivened by your delivery.
Jacqueline: I think of myself as one of my identities — one of them being a writer identity, and another is a comedian identity, like I go into comedy clubs. I think on longer, bigger, more ambitious projects, it’s going to inevitably pull on a variety of those things. It’d be weird to put together something big that I have to work on for a long time like [the show] and I very actively didn’t use everything I have to give it, I think.

In the New York Times piece about the show, you talk about how Mike Birbiglia says that vulnerability comes more naturally to you than “the ham,” and I’m wondering if that’s something you’re more consciously trying to bring now.
Jacqueline: Well, that’s a note from ten years ago. He was saying that where I started — like I went into comedy and the first day I go up and I’m baring my soul, kind of. I was very self-conscious about trying to get laughs through physicality or performance. I could get up and go, “I love someone who doesn’t love me and here’s a joke about that” or whatever, just vulnerable shit. I would write a joke about it, but I wouldn’t make myself vulnerable in the sense of putting oneself on the line by committing to a performance that was risky. I’d never go for a laugh with a big gesture or a face.

It was very hard for me to do that, ‘cause to me, that was a more embarrassing version of trying to be funny and failing. I worked my way toward it. It was like, At least if someone walks in the room, there’s no laugh, but you’re not upside down with your tongue out. Then I was like, No, no, fuck it. I’m going to be upside down with my tongue out. It was an interesting point of him saying that there are other comedians who are very comfortable going for the laugh in a very performative way, but the material in itself is not very personally revealing. It was pointing out that there was another way to be vulnerable that I could try, and phrasing it that way to me made me realize, Oh, shit, he’s right. I am hiding. It made it a spiritual challenge, tricked me into it.

Jacqueline Novak, the Great Conversationalist