Jak Knight Always Cleared the Bar

Jak Knight. Photo: Jason Kempin/Getty Images

A few minutes into the 29-minute stand-up video he recorded at Los Angeles’s Dynasty Typewriter in 2019, stand-up Jak Knight interrupts the momentum of his set to share an observation. “Everyone’s just boring,” he says. “Everyone’s not funny. Everyone’s a fucking hack. It’s boring to me. It’s not entertaining.” He delivers this tangent as if it’s a segue between jokes, but the connection isn’t clear. He just wants to stress that he holds himself to a higher standard.

On July 14, Knight, the comedian, actor, and writer who co-created and starred in Peacock’s Bust Down, died in Los Angeles. He was 28. Although his career was cut tragically short, he left behind an impressive body of work, led by this 29-minute set, which speaks to his commitment to continuously raising the bar.

While it’s missing some of his best bits, this set highlights the myriad comedic tools Knight used to keep his material feeling fresh. It showcases his ability to enliven tired subject matter with new perspectives. It demonstrates his predilection for long, thoughtful joke setups. It displays his religious devotion to talking shit. And it’s all presented with the youthful, magnetic zeal Knight weaponized to make it impossible to get mad at him when his experimental angles, intermittent soliloquies, or flagrant jokes inevitably crossed into objectionable territory. He’d say something dicey and then he’d flash a toothy grin, double over laughing, or stick out his tongue playfully as if to convey, We’re all on the same team here. It’s going to be okay.

Consider the early part of this set when Knight, talking about experimenting with his sexuality, pokes fun at men who dismiss the idea of needing to try different experiences to confirm their orientation. “Some of you are right,” he says. “But some of you are wrong! Some of you are sitting here, and you wonder why you fucking drive your car, and do the dishes, and mow your lawn, and you look at the ceiling fan in your house, and you stare at it and you wonder why you feel incomplete. Nigga, you’re not depressed. You’re gay.” Knowing he’s heading into choppy waters, Knight flashes one of his trademark grins to unite the room.

“So, what you’re going to do is marry some dumb bitch, and have some dumb-bitch kids, and you’ll keep them at arm’s length. You’re never going to understand the value of family, and you’re going to blame them, and you’ll put them through a treacherous wormhole where they’ll never be able to understand themselves. Then you’re going to go on a trip to Belize, and you’re going to separate yourself from that family and meet this dude with a shiny forehead and a soft chest. He’s going to understand you. He’s going to invite you back to his villa and make you this rice dish, and he’s going to whisper sweet nothings in your ear. And then when you finally feel comfortable, he’s going to take the top of your head and push it to his dick. And you’re going to suck his dick. And guess what? You’re going to be bad at it!”

Content with the level of depth and empathy woven into this poignant three-act play, Knight starts to let loose like he’s roasting one of his friends in his living room. “That’s what pisses me off the most. You procrastinated your sexuality. Now you’re out here at motherfucking 40 years old sucking dick like you’re 13, nigga. Get your ass back in the closet! We don’t need that. Out here with a mortgage giving teethy head like you ain’t write your will!” The degree of difficulty in this joke is astronomical, combining the sensibility of a Russian tragedy with the expediency of a “deez nuts” joke. It could fail at so many different points during its delivery — and in lesser hands, it would — but Knight sticks the landing with ease and it kills.

Judging by the many tributes posted online by other comedians, this was a feature of Knight’s comedy straight out of the gate. He was a prodigy who was always committed to advancing the art form. It’s visible even in his first-ever televised set on The Meltdown With Jonah and Kumail, recorded in 2015, when Knight was just 21. Discussing people’s misguided skepticism of Bill Cosby’s accusers, Knight said, “I remember when there were like 27 allegations against him, a bunch of misogynistic dudes were like, ‘He probably didn’t rape all 27 of them. He probably only got like six. You know how bitches be lying, trying to get money.’ Okay, with that logic, maybe he didn’t rape 27 women. But with that logic, it means he still raped six women, bro! Six for 27 ain’t good numbers. But those are still Kobe numbers.”

Watching Knight’s comedy again in the wake of his death, I’ve thought a lot about a quote Brian Regan gave in a 2021 interview on Vulture’s Good One podcast: “I always say that the difficulty in doing stand-up comedy is not knocking down the pins; it’s setting up the pins.” Knight understood this, except he wasn’t content to merely set up the pins. He set them up in an impossible seven-ten split configuration and then proceeded to knock them down time and time again.

Jak Knight Always Cleared the Bar