Wherefore Art Thou, Penis?

 Jacqueline Novak on her lyrical, epic deconstruction of the blow job in Get on Your Knees. 

Photo: Dina Litovsky
Photo: Dina Litovsky
Photo: Dina Litovsky

The lady has lost her head.

We don’t know when it happened, but she was found that way by two Egyptologists in a Paris shop in 1957 and has remained the same since, with liquid hips and an ankle-length skirt of sandy limestone. Her name is Tagerem, and she worked in the temple of Sakhebu on the southwestern delta of the Nile in a revered position known as “God’s wife” to the sun god Re. She’s about 2,300 years old — give or take a few years — and 16 and a half inches, roughly the size of a small newborn. She’s the ideal woman of the Ptolemaic period, described as “demure” yet “alluring.” Perhaps because her upper torso has been lopped off.

“I can’t tell what she’s thinking,” Jacqueline Novak tuts dryly in front of the broken figure. “It’s nice that these statues do tend to have a lower belly of some sort. It’s not a complete washboard, which I do find comforting.”

We step out of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Temple of Dendur and take a seat above the reflecting pools, just beneath the picturesque slant of the floor-to-ceiling windows. Novak sits cross-legged and empties the contents of her purse — a toothbrush, 31 dollars, a pair of black-and-white Adidas soccer socks — to unfurl the gray T-shirt she bought during a Bloomingdale’s quest to find the perfect one for her show. She likes it — it’s heathered and doesn’t have that stripy effect under the stage lights — but it’s still not the Platonic ideal. Every night for her acclaimed one-woman show, Get on Your Knees, which is ostensibly about blow jobs but is really about how we think about our bodies, she wears a variation on the same monochromatic palette: gray shirt, washed-out black jeans, and gray-and-white sneakers. It is an attempt to “neutralize the form,” she says, meaning the female body. Her body. “Which is kind of an irritating thing to feel like one has to do.”

Novak would prefer to be the opposite of poor Tagerem: just a floating head and nothing else. Or maybe a ghost. Whatever. The point is, she’s constantly in her head, assessing not only the object but all the social meaning thrown upon it. The female form feels particularly burdensome. “Every day, you leave the house with goals and dreams and things to do,” she says in Get On Your Knees. “You’re forced to lug [your body] along like a sack of sex potatoes, constantly having to say … ‘No taters for sale tonight, boys.’”

Get on Your Knees became a sensation during its sold-out run at the Cherry Lane Theatre this summer, through a combination of critical praise and star power: Attendees have included Lorde, Amy Poehler, Emma Stone, and Sally Field. Now it has been extended for one final run at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, through October 6. (As for its life beyond, Novak would like to go on tour and film it as a special.) The show, which sits somewhere between a theatrical monologue and a stand-up comedy set, is Novak hitting her stylistic stride. Her work has always been ironically high-minded in a way you might expect from someone who studied creative writing and linguistics at Georgetown. She had been doing stand-up comedy for years but didn’t begin to find her comedic voice until she immersed herself in the alt-comedy scene in New York with like-minded people who could apply basic gender theory to cum jokes. Then an invitation to participate in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last summer challenged her to put together an hour-long set. Her friend the comedian John Early came on to direct, and Natasha Lyonne and Mike Birbiglia lent their names as producers.

I ask Novak how old she is, to get a sense of how long she’s been at this, and she balks. While I could figure it out on my own, did this information need to be included? Because once someone knows your age, it locks you in their mind, and a whole bunch of judgment is placed upon you — whether you’re far enough along in your career, what you should be doing with your life. And that’s especially true if you’re a woman, and a woman working in comedy, at that. Getting older has always bummed her out, like when she turned 17 and realized the movie Sixteen Candles no longer applied to her. It was this sense of constant loss; you could never go back. “Fuck it,” she says. “I’m 36.”

Novak’s mind is always abuzz, sometimes flitting between various observations like an overstimulated bumblebee surrounded by wildflowers — a result, she says, of her “unmedicated ADD.” And while there are plenty of digressions in Get on Your Knees, they inevitably loop back to a narrative, turning the act of giving a blow job into an epic bildungsroman. It’s The Odyssey meets a French semiotician’s wet dream. Like Odysseus, Novak learns to navigate the treacherous waters of female heterosexuality — how to avoid a toothy blow job and preserve the male ego (the Scylla and Charybdis of oral sex) — and, like a post-structuralist, she delights in dismantling the inherent, cough, patriarchy of language.

She takes particular interest in deconstructing the penis itself. After all, if you were to choose a part of the body to symbolize masculinity, the penis, Novak says, “feels like a desperate attempt to cover for its vulnerability, by going like, ‘No, it’s strong! And if you say it’s not strong, I’ll kill you!’” She devotes a section to dismantling all the words we use to prop up the phallus: rock-hard boner, penetrate, anaconda. In her hands, the penis becomes soft and delicate, like a flower. It’s not a weapon of mass destruction but a drama queen who wilts on the fainting couch soon after climax. It is the most hysterical part of the male body.

“I don’t think of myself as doing a bunch of jokes about penises, really, even though obviously I am,” she says earlier that morning, over a breakfast of eggs and trout crêpes under the stern eye of a waiter at Café Sabarsky. “Someone in an interview was like, ‘Oh, what’s your blow-job technique?’ I was like, ‘I’d rather not answer that. Did you see the show?’ Because I don’t really have any opinions on blow jobs. It’s an idea I’m exploring more than anything else.”

“Sometimes I think my heterosexuality is a sham,” she goes on. “I just slowly socialized myself to the idea of the male body. I mean, I intuitively had crushes on boys in an abstract-gender way, versus bodily. And that’s actually a big reason that I’m asking myself, What is the penis? Because I’ve never been like, Am I really into penises as an object? I had to adjust to, like, not being horrified by a penis.”

Still, ever since her childhood growing up in Westchester County, her ideas around sex have been startlingly precocious. When she was four years old, a little boy classmate asked her if she had a penis. “I said, ‘No, I have a vagina,’” she remembers. “And then he goes, ‘Does your mom have a vagina?’ I said, ‘Yes, but hers has feathers.’ So I was young enough to have sort of a general feather perception. You know, like not pubic hair.” Her teachers were amused, so when her mother came by, they recounted the story. “When my mom walked out of the office, she flapped her wings,” Novak laughs.

A similar thing happened when a group of girls in elementary school asked her if she knew what a period was. She gave a clear textbook answer: that it occurs when the body sheds its uterine lining. “They were like, ‘No! It’s when you bleed out of your vagina!’”

“The curse of real knowledge,” she says, shaking her head. “I was the fool.”

Wherefore Art Thou, Penis?