Comedian Sam Jay chooses her words carefully.
Many are profane or too provocative to repeat here, but nothing she says onstage is unplanned. Jay scrupulously engineers her stand-up, revising and arranging the words until they land with maximum impact.
It’s an approach that has worked astonishingly well. Just a decade ago, Jay was fixing cappuccinos for customers at a Starbucks in Atlanta and wondering what to do with her life. She committed to comedy, surprising some in her family, and on May 21, her new weekly show, “Pause With Sam Jay,” will debut on HBO.
That’s a remarkable career arc for anyone, let alone a queer woman of color who honed her craft in Boston, a city not famous for its acceptance or support of queer women of color. But Jay’s not anyone. Friends, fellow comedians, and everybody who’s seen her Netflix special, “Sam Jay: 3 In The Morning,” will tell you Jay is a little extra.
She’s funny, but also incisive, startlingly candid, and in an era when audiences’ antennae are up, unsparing, not afraid to say things that might chafe a few folks. About Greta Thunberg, the adolescent environmental activist, Jay jokes: “I don’t hate the girl ‘cause she’s autistic. I’m not a [expletive] savage. I hate her ‘cause she’s annoying.”
“Comedy’s something I started doing for me,” Jay, 39, says on a Zoom call from her apartment in New York, where she was a writer on “Saturday Night Live” for three seasons before leaving in December. “I was searching for something in myself, and I won’t give that over to the people. I can’t. I just gotta keep telling jokes the way I want to.”
Resistance to rules and conventions is not new for Jay, whose given name is Samaria Johnson. Especially at school — first at St. Gregory’s Grammar School in Dorchester and later at New Mission High School in Hyde Park — she had a habit of asking why, and that could cause problems.
“I was one of those kids, if you asked me to take my hat off in class, I’d be, like, ‘It’s not stopping me from learning,’” she says. “I didn’t like the feeling of people trying to control me for the sake of controlling me.”
At home in Dorchester, life was often difficult and sometimes dire: Jay’s father died when she was a baby, and her mother, Donna, was in and out of the hospital before succumbing to lupus when Jay was 16. (Jay’s been diagnosed with the autoimmune disease as well.) Her mom worked hard to keep Jay and her two brothers on the straight and narrow, but she also liked to laugh, and was an avid fan of stand-up, including George Carlin and Robin Williams, whose records she played often for Jay.
“I don’t know if you ever really overcome it as much as you learn to live with it,” Jay says of her mother’s death. “There was a time when it was devastating and a time when it was, like, ‘Oh well.’ Now I miss her a lot because my life is changing and . . . it’d just be nice if she were here, you know what I mean?”
One change that Jay talks a lot about in her stand-up is her sexual orientation. Into her 20s, she was dating guys — she uses more straightforward language to describe what she was doing with them — but the entire time she was enduring, not enjoying, the experience.
“The [expletive] we’ll do to fit in!” Jay muses in her Netflix special. “I just wanted to be friends with my friends.”
It wasn’t until she was living in Atlanta, where Jay moved a few years after high school with a vague plan to go to college, that she discovered she was gay. Jay says it was a relief, and a lot of fun, to meet “lezzie friends” who weren’t hiding their true selves.
But she wasn’t doing much except partying. She was 29 and toiling at Starbucks. One day, her girlfriend, Yanise Monét, sat her down and asked what she wanted to do.
“I said I wanted to be a comedian,” recalls Jay. “And Yaya was, like, ‘What?!’”
Jay had a reputation for being hilarious at parties — “Samaria comes into a room, the room gets warm,” says high school friend Marcus Johnson — but stand-up was something else. She’d been to a few open mics and it hadn’t clicked. She decided to move back home. It was familiar, she figured, and she knew people who were plugged into the Boston comedy scene.
But it can be difficult for Black comedians to find work in the city. Historically, says longtime Boston comic Jonathan Gates, opportunities have been limited because white club owners are reluctant to book comedians of color.
“In order to work, I had to get on a Greyhound and go to New York and then sleep in the bus station,” says Gates. “The clubs in Boston just wouldn’t let Black comedians go on.”
Gates eventually started The Black Comedy Explosion, a bill featuring a rotating cast of comedians. For the past several years, he’s been hosting the show at Slade’s Bar & Grill on Tremont Street, where he invited Jay to perform. She only did five minutes the first time, but Gates recalls being immediately impressed. Her riffs — on tricky topics like sex and race — reminded him of the late Patrice O’Neal, the boisterous Boston comic for whom very little was off-limits.
“If Sam says something that makes you go, ‘Wow’ or ‘What the [expletive],’ then she’s won.” Gates says. “You ain’t gotta like it, but the truth is the truth.”
Asked on Zoom if she experienced racism in Boston, Jay is silent, staring into the camera as if the question is rhetorical.
“Black people in Boston know how racist it is,” she says finally. “I never had a Black principal or a Black doctor in my life. But I don’t know if it’s more racist than anywhere else. For sure it would’ve been easier in a city that wasn’t a good old boy network for white boys.”
Jay doesn’t bash Boston in her stand-up, but she sometimes pokes fun at the city. Talking about homelessness in Los Angeles, for example, Jay says, “I’ve never seen so many able-bodied white dudes just sleeping on the street. . . . I’m from a city where the white dudes either do meth or they work plumbing, but they do something.”
To begin, Jay did endless open mics around Boston, working wherever she could — at bars, VFW halls, private parties — and she used the time between sets to sharpen her material. Often, before trying a joke onstage, she’d drop it in conversation with a friend or stranger and then fine-tune it depending on their response.
“As a kid, I watched Eddie Murphy and he was telling stories, but I also understood there was a technique,” Jay says. “If I put that part here, or change this, how do people react? I’ve always been into language and how words affect people.”
Jay’s cousin, Diane Clark, admits she was surprised and perhaps a little skeptical when she heard that the “very smart, witty kid” she used to baby-sit was doing stand-up comedy. Not sure what to expect, she went to see Jay perform one night at a bar in the Fenway.
“I always saw Samaria as someone who might get into politics, or maybe a lawyer because she liked to argue,” says Clark. “But I went that night and I was doubled over in laughter. I was not expecting that. And I don’t just give it up — if you’re onstage, you better entertain me. After the show, I told her, ‘You can be a star.’”
By the time “Saturday Night Live” called, Jay was, if not quite a star, at least on her way. She’d done a half-hour “Comedy Central Stand-Up Presents . . .” special and been featured on “Martin Lawrence Presents: 1st Amendment Stand Up.” But she’d never written sketch comedy and she didn’t like New York City, so she was undecided about taking the job. She’s glad she did.
“Changed my life,” Jay says. “It’s been an intense learning experience. I’ve definitely had days where I cried because of the pressure, but I’ve learned to separate myself. It’s actually another man’s show and he’s going to make the show he wants to make. It’s not about you or your sketch.”
Still, it’s very exciting when something of hers makes it on the air, and there’s been no bigger thrill than writing a “Black Jeopardy” sketch, with guest host Eddie Murphy reprising his classic Velvet Jones character. Jay says the experience of writing for Murphy, who’s one of her heroes, brought her to tears.
Her new HBO show, a weekly half-hour series, is yet another comic frontier for Jay. Executive produced by Prentice Penny, best known as the showrunner of HBO’s “Insecure,” “Pause With Sam Jay” bears no resemblance to other programs hosted by comedians, like John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” or “Late Night with Seth Meyers.” For now, HBO’s committed to six episodes.
“I didn’t want to do a desk show. It doesn’t seem like who I am, you know, going on TV every week and being, like, ‘America, you don’t know [expletive],’” she says.
Instead, while having drinks with friends at home one night, Jay says she had an idea: What if her show had “a party vibe”? Jay and a few pals would hang out in a New York apartment talking and laughing. She imagined minimal cameras and microphones, soft lighting, and free-flowing conversation that she could steer in any direction. She picked up the phone and called Penny, who wasn’t sure he understood the concept.
“I called him back in the morning when I wasn’t drunk and he said, ‘That sounds fire,’” Jay says.
Johnson, one of Jay’s best friends from Boston, will be among those watching. He’s elated by her success, but not at all surprised.
“Samaria’s struggled the whole way, and that’s what’s so dope about her,” Johnson says. “Samaria has the grit to go out and push. When you hear really successful people talk about their journeys, they have that grit. Samaria’s legit got it.”
PAUSE WITH SAM JAY
On HBO. Premieres May 21 at 9 p.m.