On an overcast Thursday evening in April, Sam Jay settles into a booth at New York’s storied Comedy Cellar. She’s wearing a sweatshirt featuring a photo of Kobe Bryant clutching the 2001 NBA Finals trophy, and her short hair is hidden under a fitted Lakers cap. It’s dim and the bar hasn’t opened yet, but Jay asks a worker for a reposado on the rocks anyway, and he obliges. In December 2017, shortly after moving to New York to write for Saturday Night Live, Jay “passed” here — meaning she successfully auditioned for the owners and started getting regular gigs at the venue where comics like Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock have performed. “Only passed comics could sit at the table,” Jay says, as she twists to motion to a table behind her. “If you were a comic who was just hanging out and you weren’t passed, it’s like unspoken code — you don’t sit at the table.”
The whole cool-kids-table thing doesn’t really seem like Jay’s style. In her act, she pokes fun at herself — frequently employing her perspective as a black, masculine-of-center lesbian who dated men until she was an adult — as often as she does others. And her Netflix special, 3 in the Morning, released last August, showed a willingness to provoke without being cruel.
In her HBO late-night show, Pause With Sam Jay, which debuts May 21st and streaming on HBO MAX, the 39-year-old comic is more hopeful than cynical, working to have Americans meet in the middle of debates about politics, money, cultural appropriation, and more. Each episode toggles among various formats: There’s a small, intimate party — a kickback — where drinks flow while Jay and a rotating group of friends talk candidly on topics like how fame affects black people, or fears of becoming a parent in an uncertain society; focused one-on-one conversations with folks outside of Jay’s circle; man-on-the-street interviews; and even brief sketches. “I’ve just always been a believer that the world is mostly gray,” Jay says of the idea behind the show. “It’s not black and white. Most people are making decisions based on their life experiences, and there’s a lot of things that factor into why people choose and live as they do. I’m more interested in exploring that than I am having a talking point.”
Jay’s own lens onto these issues is unique. Born Samaria Johnson, she was raised in and around Boston, living with various family members between the projects and the suburbs. Her older brother Michael was in jail for a time. Her mother, Donna, died of lupus when Jay was 16. At the Cellar, Jay wears a gold, Lego-angel pendant on a rope of diamonds — her mom used to buy her the toys for Christmas.
After her mother passed away, Jay moved to Atlanta for a year, living with her other older brother, Douglas. She returned to the city once she graduated from high school, attending — and promptly dropping out of — a community college. “I was young and just coming out and trying to date girls and run around the city,” Jay says. “For that version of myself, [Atlanta] was perfect. It was a black, gay mecca. I don’t think I would’ve found myself had I not lived there.” After eight years of retail and service jobs for jobs’ sake (at a hotel Starbucks, Sprint, Best Buy), Jay moved back to Boston and started working her way up through the city’s comedy scene. She gave L.A. a spin, too, before catching the eye of SNL scouts at Montreal’s prestigious Just for Laughs festival. “I just started making decisions and changing my life because I wanted it to fucking change,” Jay says of her pivot to comedy. “You have the same power within you. You just have to decide to do it.”
Now, Jay is a part of the new, black vanguard of comedy hosts with shows that premiered this spring, alongside internet sensation Ziwe Fumudoh and Jay’s onetime SNL colleague Michael Che. But where Che can be nonchalantly brash and Ziwe interrogatively confrontational, Jay is approaching Pause with curiosity and warmth. “I wanted to have the room in the show to grow myself, to possibly change,” says Jay. “I didn’t want to be telling anybody what to think. I really just wanted to present conversations, and then you can take those into your life and do what you will with them.”
Take the first episode, in which Jay meets with two young black conservatives, one of whom has embraced the oft-meme’d homophobe Dr. Umar Johnson, another who’s called allowing trans children to transition “abuse.” Jay probes at their beliefs broadly, and the pair nearly come off as reasonable. Asked if she should’ve pushed harder against their conservatism, particularly because she doesn’t agree with it, Jay responds firmly: “No. At no point was it ever about being hard on them. I did want to challenge them. ‘Hey, I hear you, but what about this? Or what about that?’ Because as adults, our responsibility to the youth is to push them.”
Jay has a lot of experience confronting people who don’t share her values, and dedicates a portion of her comedy to shifting worldviews. Some of her attempts have been controversial. In her Netflix special, she tries to assuage fears that trans women are a threat to cisgender women by joking that they’d have extra strength in fights and sports, thus offering accolades cis women could enjoy. Many called the bit transphobic.
“Honestly, I care,” Jay says of the criticism. “It bothered me the most because I knew that’s not where my heart was.” She adds a caveat: “I also think that I achieved what I wanted to achieve.” After the special aired, Jay says, she received DMs from people who told her the joke encouraged them to see trans women more positively. “I’m talking to motherfuckers around the way, that I grew up with, that are mad fucking close-minded, bro,” she says. “I’m not talking to a wokey-woke, I’ve-read-everything, I-understand-this person. I’m talking to motherfuckers in my own family. That’s who I was talking to in this joke.”
If there is a crux to Jay’s mission, it’s that we have to give one another a chance to be earnestly heard, seen, and made better. Two days before our meeting, a guilty verdict was handed down against Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer who murdered George Floyd last May. The topic brings out the passion behind Jay’s work: “If we don’t start getting to people and grabbing individuals and looking them in the fucking eyes and being like, ‘I’m a human. You’re a human. And clearly you’re hurting and bugging my nigga, what’s up?’. . . .” She mimics grabbing someone by the shirt collar and shaking some sense into them.
As we discuss the importance of politics in instituting change, Jay weighs what she can offer through comedy. “I like my job as a comic because I’m not a politician,” she says. “My job is to get in motherfuckers’ heads and play around, bro, and start to turn some screws and adjust some things. How do you do that if you don’t meet people where they’re at a little bit?”