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Sam Jay No Longer Fears Death

Sam Jay. Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Netflix

There’s something about that debut special. There’s just something so exciting about seeing a comedian share their perspective for the first time. When it’s good, it’s like falling in love. Sam Jay’s 3 in the Morning, which premiered on Netflix on August 4, is one of the more thrilling first hours in awhile. As Vulture critic Kathryn VanArendonk wrote in her review, “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.”

On Vulture’s Good One podcast, Jay talks about getting back into stand-up comedy at 29, how performing onstage changed the way she thinks about death, and co-writing a “Velvet Jones” sketch for Eddie Murphy’s 2019 SNL episode. You can read some excerpts from the transcript or listen to the full episode below. Tune in to Good One every Tuesday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Overcast, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Good One

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On (Re)Starting Stand-up at 29

When I first started, and when I picked up the mic again, I was just kind of in the world fucking up and running around. I didn’t really have any direction. I had no idea what I wanted to do. I was just doing a lot of menial bullshit jobs and just feeling like, I’m just passing through but I’m not existing; I’m not present and I’m not contributing. I just felt like the path that my life was going in, I was selling myself short, to be honest — and that I was settling.

It was like, There’s something bigger for you than this. You feel it every day when you walk into this mail room in this basement. That started to weigh on me. I still didn’t know what to do. But I was always into comedy. That’s why I tried it in the first place. I always watched it; I always knew who the new comics were. [I] just was always on top of that kind of stuff, because I was just really into it. I loved making people laugh in my way.

I’m not a roaster. I have a lot of funny friends, and they like to roast and shit like that. I’m way more observational and witty. It takes me a while to build a joke, to really get something to where I’m like, Yeah, this is confidently funny to me. But I do enjoy making people laugh and pushing buttons a little bit. I have fun doing both of those things. I used to see a lot of shit and just be like, I’m seeing all this craziness in the world. I want to make a difference. How do I make that difference as me? I always felt like when I was being funny, but also talking about something that might be, you know, more heavy, people listened. It was just like, This is a space where I’m able to command attention, for lack of a better word. It seemed like a space where I could be effective. And that’s all I ever really wanted to feel, was just, I’m here, and I’m not just passing through. I’m affecting this experience in some way, and being a part of this experience for real. Everything was pushing me towards comedy.

Before I really started getting onstage, I was workshopping shit. Before I was ready to get out with this shit, I would go to bars by myself and just sit with people and start conversations, and I would force the conversation in the direction that I wanted it to go, to basically try jokes. I would do this as practice, and that helped me get the confidence to get up onstage. So I was kind of using that as a playground/practice ground. Then, eventually, I built that up into You need to go get onstage and stop being a pussy and trying jokes on unsuspecting people. And like, I’m killing at bars. But I’m like, This is the pussy-ass way to go about this. So when I decided that I’m going to do these mics and I’m going onstage, I just told myself it has to feel like how it felt in the bars, and if it doesn’t feel like that, then I’m doing something wrong because that’s when I’m at my best. I was like, That’s when you’re in the zone. So tailor the experience onstage, and try to make it feel like that. Get as close to that as you can get, and you’ll be doing something right.

On Working Through Her Fear of Death Onstage

I used to talk [onstage] about how I was afraid to die. And I started not being afraid to die, and really thinking about it and being like, You’re not. Even that discovery came onstage, as just like, I’ve got to be honest, because I’m feeling something different than when I started telling this joke. I’ve changed, in reality, and what I thought it was, it really isn’t. When I thought about it more, I was like, Oh, you’ve always had this weird fear of being a survivor of something. And that’s just true.

My mom was ill. I grew up with a sick parent, and my mom passed away when I was 16. So death was around me for sure. I was aware of my mom’s mortality by the time I was 13. I was very aware that I probably wasn’t gonna have a mother late in my life, and that I was probably going to lose my mother young. As that became more of a reality, my mom had to keep it real and talk to me about that possibility, and what that meant for me, and how was I feeling knowing all this was going on. So I think that was the start of that idea living in my head and haunting me a little bit.

My mom had lupus. Then I got diagnosed with lupus at 20, and I was fucked up in a hospital for a while with the same kind. So then I’m thinking about my own mortality. So that’s been hanging, and it’s been years of back and forth with it to come to a place of peace.

On Being a Realist

I think it just comes from, that’s how I grew up. That’s the type of parent I had. That’s how I was taught to deal with tragedy. That’s how I was taught to deal with things. My brother went to jail when I was young. It was like, This is some sad shit, but it doesn’t get to determine your life. We’ve got to move forward. I think a lot of kids who come from impoverished situations or poor neighborhoods are taught to deal with that, because you don’t really have room for the other shit. If you live in the other space, you’ll be held up in life. So you kind of have to be like, What’s in front of me? And what can I do with what’s in front of me, to get me somewhere else? That’s all you have. So in a lot of ways, that’s just how my brain works.

On Working With Eddie Murphy at SNL

I think the craziest part was when he first got there and we were pitching, and he was just being so cool. He was just talking about how his office used to be set up. Just getting to sit in a room with Eddie Murphy and just talk, and talk about a job that to some degree we’ve shared and the experience that we both had, and hear his perspective and him asking about how it is now, and finding similarities and differences. That was just so wild, so crazy.

I did a Velvet Jones pitch, and the next day, they were like, “Eddie’s people kind of like that. Maybe we could write something up and do it in this space.” And I was like, That’s cool, because they originated this shit. He brought his original writers and stuff. I’m like, These are people that came up with this shit, and I’m just a fan, honestly. So to be able to even touch that character and have Eddie do it, and have the people that he came up with this be like, “That was on target and funny,” it was an honor, really.

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Sam Jay No Longer Fears Death