comedy review

The Messy, Proud Variety of Pause With Sam Jay

Sam Jay in Pause. Photo: Stephanie Mei-Ling/HBO

For a genre with as flexible a name as “variety,” it’s too bad that so few comedy-variety shows push at the boundaries and actually play with potential beyond “let’s do some comedy and maybe cut in some interviews.” Late-night comedy-variety has codified into a specific, well-defined space. Sketch is something else; musical and talent variety is off on its own other planet. On HBO, though, Pause With Sam Jay is something new. It’s a comedy-talk-variety show that’s an interview platform, a cultural exploration, a dash of comedian vanity project, and also a raucous, freewheeling, real-talking house party.

Jay, a stand-up comedian who loves to poke at all the messiest, most fraught topics she can find, is known most recently for a series of jokes in her most recent stand-up special in which she describes trans athletes as “our X-Men.” In that segment, Jay asks questions that seem to celebrate trans women, but while doing so, falls back on reductive, exclusionary thinking about bodily power and physical identity. In the context of a stand-up special, it is the kind of thing that might misfire wildly — and it did. Early in the second episode of Pause, Jay talks about that series of jokes and the fact that queer publications refused to cover her after the special was released.

But the line of thinking that led to a frustrating joke in her special plays differently when it’s an example as part of a topic for a conversation about “cancel culture” in Pause. Onstage, she delivers the material, and the audience has a limited range of responses. They laugh or do not laugh. They could heckle or walk out, but most viewers encountered that joke as part of a filmed special, which is a guarantee that there’d be no major audience disruption from inside the room. Onstage, especially once material has been polished and edited into a filmed special, the power dynamic of comedy and commentary flows in uneven ways. Jay can’t escape her audience, but the audience cannot speak back to her.

Pause is Jay’s chance to rework that power differential, to reframe her impulse to needle and question into a context where someone can needle and question her back. Each episode is roughly shaped on a theme or idea and presents arguments and perspectives on the topic of the week. There’s a cancel-culture episode (called “Tea-M.Z.”), and one about money, and another about the term “coon,” which the episode defines as “exploiting one’s own community for personal gain or acceptance from a dominant culture.”

There’s no opening monologue, though, or elaborate, well-researched introduction to the idea of the day. Pause drops viewers in the middle of a loud, crowded party full of Jay and dozens of her friends and colleagues. Jay and everyone else are arguing — with each other, with themselves — about the topic they’re supposed to be discussing, but also about everything. “There’s a whole constitution!” Jay yells in the first episode during an argument about white-dominant culture that is impossible to actually hear as a concise, crafted idea in the scene, but is astoundingly clear as a mood, an emotional revolt. There are drinks. The lighting is hazy. There are people everywhere, pushed up against each other, crowding into corners and perched on sofas. In one episode a guest gets trapped in the bathroom, and whatever point Jay was trying to make is interrupted while everyone pushes into the small hallway outside the bathroom door, laughing and cheering while the poor guy trapped inside gets freed.

Throughout the episodes, those party scenes are interrupted by a lo-fi static pause-button overlay and a VHS-rewinding tape squeal, so that Pause can cut into other formats. There are interviews between Jay and all kinds of fascinating people — a young man who was convicted of scamming the Boston Marathon relief fund, a group of Black women who are most comfortable topless and press Jay on her own inhibitions, Black republicans, Black entrepreneurs, former NFL player Ricky Williams, a Black gun enthusiast. Each episode features some kind of comedy sketch, too. In one, Jay plays a Judge Judy–esque TV arbitrator of scamming; in another she becomes a SoulCycle-type instructor, guiding a roomful of women wearing strap-ons into the skill and art of pegging.

Nearly every piece of Pause has value and weight. Jay is a curious, playful interviewer, remarkably good at poking fun at people and weighing her own opinions, while also staying open to new ideas. The comedy sketches are usually strong, too, and manage to carry the same tone of inquisitive goofing-but-actually-dead-serious-but-also-a-joke feeling Jay is so good at negotiating. But it’s the house-party framing that makes Pause what it is, the way it sets a camera in the middle of a friendly, loud, full-throated discussion then expects the viewer to just roll with it, with no explanations or introductions. The room is full of other comedians and writers (among them Beth Stelling, Zack Fox, and the Lucas brothers), but there are plenty of non-performers, too, and they all hang out and scream at one another in collegial, joyful ways. There are no chyrons, no guideposts. Beyond Jay, who often lands at the center of the camera framing, there is no sense of hierarchy, no kowtowing or deference. It’s an open-to-everyone platform for pushing back, a Habermanian coffeehouse but Blacker, gayer, and maybe a little drunker. Still, it is Jay’s show, first and foremost — much of the dialogue is really monologue, with occasional insertions from other voices. The openness is as much sensory as anything else. Even with its deceptively tight edit, Pause still captures the feeling of a place where anyone could say anything.

So many talk shows have attempted to create the feeling of loose, open dialogue that Pause pulls off. There are shows like Bill Maher’s Real Time, with its panel of argumentative guests who snipe and gripe around a polished wood table while its host smirks and chortles, and the daytime iterations like The View or The Talk, where ladies get into well-heeled spats then have to go on PR apology tours. Even Fox News has wandered into the comedy-variety space, most recently with the execrable Gutfeld! But none of them have managed to marry form and intent as successfully as Pause, to situate its sincere desire for open, honest back-and-forth inside a show that actually gives people the space and the atmosphere to say what they want.

It is a form that comes with buried land mines. Jay has a frank interest in devil’s advocacy, in hearing from both sides of a conversation. At the same time, that sincere desire, which is starkly evident in Pause, lives right up against all the nightmare 2021 bogeymen of discourse: bad-faith actors, false objectivity, cowardly both-sides-isms, that all perspectives are worth hearing even if some of them are actively harmful. Pause hasn’t addressed that meta-discussion directly yet, but just by existing, the show thumbs its nose in several directions. Yes, it will give voice to things many people will disagree with. No, it will not apologize. Yes, it actually cares about making space for many kinds of people. No, it doesn’t really care if you think there is not enough space for you.

Pause has one real flaw, borne out of an understandable but unnecessary impulse. The end of each episode includes Jay doing a short conclusory voiceover, a summary of everything the episode has explored. They tend to reach facile, over-generalized conclusions, exactly the kind of empty platitudes the rest of the show is apparently designed to avoid. It’s easy to see the temptation to cap such a baggy, scattershot format with something more pat, but Pause would be even better if it had resisted that urge, if it had just let all of those ideas continue to contradict and bump up against one another.

As a device for reaching conclusions, Pause is imperfect. But even that imperfection fits well with what Pause wants to be: an imperfect, challenging, uneven, and enthusiastic exploration of social shibboleths and cultural third rails. Plus, it’s a party.

The Messy, Proud Variety of Pause With Sam Jay