comedy review

The Audacity of Sam Jay

Sam Jay in 3 in the Morning. Photo: Marcus Price/Netflix

A comic’s ideology is often drawn on a particular axis: Are they punching down, or are they punching up? Do the targets of their material have less power than they do, or more? It’s an axis often used to measure something like morality. It is Good to punch up, to use comedy to take jabs at those in power, to slice away all the things we take for granted as being untouchable. It is Bad to punch down. It’s mean to dunk on the people and institutions that are less powerful, those already the butt of the social joke. Meanness aside, though, the punch-up-punch-down axis is also a measurement of degree of difficulty. It’s not hard to laugh at someone or something that much of the world has already put down; it’s much harder to take exalted figures and manage to actually turn them into meaningful joke fodder. So it was with some initial shock, some awe, and eventually impressed laughter that I watched Sam Jay, in her new Netflix special 3 in the Morning, do an entire joke about her annoyance with Greta Thunberg.

The angle of Jay’s annoyance stems from Thunberg’s focus on adults as the source of all climate disasters: How can the current adults be the problem, Jay asks, when “this shit been bad”? “When I was a kid, they told me California was gonna be gone by now. Be glad that shit’s still here!” The joke only mostly works. Jay’s point that people have been messing up the environment for generations doesn’t have that sternal-punch sense of being a new truth that counteracts Thunberg’s message. It’s also less a puncturing of Thunberg’s star image than it is a demonstration of taste; ultimately, Jay just doesn’t like her. But the precision of the joke isn’t even fully the point. It’s the gutsiness of it. As Jay would put it, it’s the balls of it. Joking that Greta Thunberg is annoying? My texting finger itches for the wide-eyes emoji.

At an earlier moment in the special, Jay talks about the audacity of white people. They’re ambitious, she says, and audacious in their presumptions of power, imperviousness, and entitlement. Elon Musk dreams about buying Mars, but when Jay was young, the furthest her dreams of wealth extended was “I’m gonna buy them gold ceilings Master P had in Cribs.” It’s one of the many fantastic sequences throughout the hour. One of my favorite images in it is the picture she draws of the British Museum as a site of stolen goods. That observation, while true, doesn’t feel brand new, but Jay then immediately takes ownership of it by twisting the image further. Everybody steals, she says. But when Black people steal, they “spread shit out. ’Cause [they’re] afraid.” “Not the white man,” she says. “‘Put it all in one building. Erect a fortress for it. And yes, charge ’em $20 to see it. Their own shit. And if one of ’em touches it, shoot ’em.’” It’s not racist, Jay says. It’s audacious.

She’s absolutely on the money there. That stretch of material hits in a way the Thunberg joke doesn’t quite manage. But both sequences are united by the same underlying approach. With wild success, Jay performs her own kind of audacity, one less interested in buying Mars and more interested in gleefully traipsing into all kinds of tricky territory. There’s Thunberg, there’s Me Too, there’s a joke about Aziz Ansari, and a long section on Trump as “the first n- - - - president.”

Most interestingly, and most richly for Jay, there are several jokes on gender, biology, trans people, queerness, and bodies. It’s an area where other comedians have floundered — most famously Dave Chappelle, who insists on biological essentialism in a way that, for him, reinforces strangeness, wrongness, and discomfort. (Primarily his own.) Jay has as much fascination with biology as Chappelle. She jokes about peeing and how women aren’t taught how to pee well. She jabs at her own dislike of male bodies and about the undeniable appeal of physical power. That Aziz joke, which deftly zags where you expect it to zig, is not about Me Too and consent. It’s about sheer physicality.

Even early in the hour, she starts from material about her own masculine-presenting identity and the way both her girlfriend and cisgender dudes interpret it. When a guy at an airport offers to help Jay’s girlfriend with her luggage, the angle isn’t solely about male overreach. It’s about simplistic readings of outward appearances and about gendered assumptions. It’s “Get [my luggage] too! You gettin’ bags, get all the bitches’ bags!” She smirks. Her physical appearance is not a trap to catch people with, but if they do happen to get caught, so be it. It is a comedy of confidence, a comedy about locating power in the places where it is often overlooked. For a few early minutes in her material on trans people, I feared she might fail to find that same kind of richness, especially as she lingered on reminders of physical difference. But material that could so easily have fallen into yet another exhausting, boring dehumanization of trans people flips the script again. Trans power becomes celebratory, glorious, a no-brainer, and once that joke is in the rearview mirror, everything about it seems obvious from the start. Like Elon Musk going to space, Jay’s audacity is what pulls it off.

Do not mistake my praise for Jay’s boldness as a disregard for her craft. None of 3 in the Morning would exist if she weren’t so happy to walk onto a stage and poke at all the things that are uncomfortable to poke. But none of the special would work if it hadn’t been so painstakingly built this way, either. Her storytelling and timing chops are most obviously on display in the running/returning story about traveling with her girlfriend; it’s exactly the kind of joke that’s dialed in so tightly that it manages to come off as loose. And yes, there are bits of the hour that don’t hang together quite as well, a few transitions that could’ve been tied down more firmly. They’re tiny, though, in the larger scheme of things. In all, 3 in the Morning is so funny and smart and well done, full of bluster, pride, and insight. I would’ve happily hung around to listen to Jay sneer and smirk and wink and scoff her way through another hour.

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The Audacity of Sam Jay