Jacqueline Novak is worried about her entrance.
“I remember reading magazines as a teenager, and the description of the person on their way in to the interview would stick with me,” the writer and comedian says over lunch at Via Carota in Manhattan’s West Village. “I remember Maggie Gyllenhaal once being described as carrying a purse that looked like a grandmother’s sewing bag. I don’t want to slander Maggie Gyllenhaal, but I bet it was, like, a Vera Bradley bag and the author just didn’t know.” Novak takes a final sip of the mid-day margarita I encouraged her to get, as if toasting our shared responsibility in the impression she makes in this story.
“I had this moment this morning,” Novak continues, “Where I was like, Oh, Jesus, how would I want to show up to this thing if I had seven hours to prepare for it? What would I want my hair to be? What call would I want to be just getting off of in this performance of an entrance?”
The production of Novak’s appearance at this interview was fabulous: grey T shirt somewhere between fancy and tatty; auburn bun curling at the temples from an afternoon storm; non-Vera Bradley purse nice enough that the server was compelled to present Novak with little footstool to rest it on; phone whose fading charge indicated it had recently fielded a number of very important communiques. Perhaps she’d had gotten a text from John Early, the director of the Novak’s one-woman show Get on Your Knees, a genius ode to fellatio running at New York’s Cherry Lane Theatre through August 18th. Maybe there was a Slack from Mike Birbiglia, its executive producer, or a WhatsApp from Natasha Lyonne, who helped bring this production of the play to fruition after meeting Novak when she was the opening act on the comedy tour of Lyonne’s boyfriend Fred Armisen. Or Novak could have already received the news that Get on Your Knees would be moving to the nearby Lucille Lortel Theatre from August 28th to September 21st following sold-out shows and gushing reviews in the New York Times and New Yorker.
Novak’s ingress in Get on Your Knees projects its own ambivalence. “OK, that was hell,” Novak says after tentatively making her way from the side door to the microphone at center stage, retreating a few times before taking up the pacing that will continue until the show ends 90 minutes later. “The journey from backstage,” she explains, flipping the mic cord over her shoulder like a backpack strap, “to me it’s very similar to the journey from someone’s face… down their torso… to their pelvis… to give them a blow job. Everyone knows what you’re about to do, but you’re not doing it yet, so this question hovers in the air: Can she do it? Will she do the thing well or not well? That tenuousness! Do you feel it, even now?”
Despite its fairly overt title, when I purchased tickets for Get on Your Knees, I was unaware of its subject matter. I blithely walked past the theater on Commerce Street and recognized Novak’s name from tweets like “when the yoga teacher adjusts you, it is cause they [are] in love with you and when they adjust other people they are doing it to cover up their love of you by adjusting them too.” Then I read the list of illustrious comedians on the poster, pulled out my phone, and bought a seat to what I guess I assumed was a humorous show about prayer. (Given how little front-end research I did and how susceptible I evidently am to advertising, my day could have just as easily ended in enrollment at the University of Phoenix or a bed full of MyPillows.)
Blessedly, Get on Your Knees turned out to be the seminal work on its subject, exploding with trenchant analysis and autobiographical experience with the act. Novak manages to compare the teeth’s role in oral sex to the stone wall that separates Romeo from Juliet — you know, two barriers to pleasure — and recalls her high school field hockey team encouraging her to perform her first BJ, cheering her on with supportive chants of “Blow him! Blow him!” Get on Your Knees is a gleeful rant on the indignities of romance. (“At times, to be a woman is to be the great American novel baked inside a cheesy crust pizza. Whether someone’s hungry or they’re looking to read… either way they’re annoyed.”) It’s a loving examination of the gentler, more pensive qualities of the penis. (“I think it has the soul of a poet. It responds to visual stimuli, sees something it likes and fills with inspiration!”)
Get on Your Knees is also hilarious, reimagining themes of sexuality introduced in Novak’s more meditative first album, Quality Notions, and How to Weep in Public, her book on the depression that drove her back to her parents’ Westchester County home in adulthood. The comedian deploys the kind of uproarious, dexterous provocation seen in Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette or Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag. (Novak says she intends to turn Get on Your Knees into a special, though she’s not sure whether it will find broad distribution on a network, or on a streaming service.) When I left the theater after the show, I had to Google poetry allusions I’d missed (shout-out to The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock!) and ask my childhood best friend about the hand job technique we’d read about in Cosmo during our desperate, eighth grade search for information on what one does with one’s hands while giving oral sex. (Cosmo’s recommendation was “the Eternal Vagina,” which Novak deems “brilliant” when I tell her about it at lunch. “Is it as if the penetration is forever, because there’s more pleasure on the ‘in’ than the ‘out’?” she wonders, gazing at the sky. “Wow.”)
Get On Your Knees’ tonal clashes are inseparable from Novak’s real-life high-to-low, oral sex-to-literary analysis conversational swings. They’re also an intentional squirm out of the claustrophobic grasp of characterization. “If someone said to me,” Novak says, “’Your stand-up’s on a more intellectual level,’” I’d be like, ‘How dare you? I’m a tradesman. I’m a comic.’” And then if they were like, ‘You’re telling dick jokes,’ I’d be like, ‘No, this is my spiritual world view. You aren’t paying enough attention.’”
Though Novak is lovely and gracious in person, kindly encouraging the sharing of dishes and providing a much-needed correction of my pronunciation of the Italian pasta stracci, her brand of adult-onset oppositional-defiant disorder gives Novak’s stage persona a deliciously dickish quality. Like her collaborators Birbiglia, Early, and Lyonne, Novak is deeply aware of her own flaws. As they all do in performance, Novak catalogues the rules she’s ignoring — from blowjob technique regulations passed down from other women to feedback from men about whether she should be blowing at all — and consequently floats above such societal commandments, lofted by her own self-recrimination.
In addition to performing the extension of Get on Your Knees and deciding where its forthcoming taped version will be broadcast, Novak has moved to Los Angeles to develop TV projects and is working through the attention that comes with incipient comedy stardom — her current recurring stress nightmare is that she keeps finding more and more cats in her house. “I want to keep them all,” she says. “I don’t want to discard any of them.”
Still, Novak says of her newfound abundance, “I basically think all things should overflow. When you get fries at a restaurant, the plate should be heaping. It should look like those are just the only fries that made it onto the plate. There should be an onion ring that appears as a mistake. To me, it suggests the right spirit in the kitchen. If something is too perfectly contained, it was too small to begin with.”
I’m nodding, rapt with Novak’s lyrical transformation of the flaws of life into cosmic encouragement of joyous ambition. She finishes the thought with a rumination on her current area of focus. “It’s like with blowjobs,” Novak says. “Your teeth get in the way because there’s an insufficiency of the body’s ability to express a much larger desire. I’m, like, throwing myself on the altar of my attempt.” Novak contemplates the toothy blowjob for a second and smiles, baring her own incisors. “This maybe is just a way of defending all of my imperfections,” she says.