New ‘SNL’ writer Sam Jay thrives on a challenge
Sam Jay is understandably groggy when she picks up the phone. It is exactly two weeks since she found out she would be hired as a writer for the current season of “Saturday Night Live.” In that time, she has moved to New York from Los Angeles, taped an upcoming stand-up album for Comedy Central, and jumped into the whirlwind that is “SNL.”
On top of everything else, she’s going through a divorce, and she didn’t get any of the furniture in the split. It sounds stressful.
“I didn’t have anything to move,” she explains. “It was actually very not stressful.”
Jay was already slated to tape her album in New York City when she got the job. So even the bad things seem to fit into the overall plan.
Then there are the good things, which have been happening in rapid succession for Jay, 35. The comic, who grew up in Dorchester, rose quickly in the Boston scene and left for Los Angeles two years ago. She was featured in the “New Faces” showcase at Montreal’s Just for Laughs Festival in July, where the “SNL” scouts found her. Her half-hour “Comedy Central Stand-Up Presents . . .” special debuts Saturday morning at 12:30.
Jay is thrilled to have the Comedy Central special, but what really excites her is the idea of communicating with an audience.
“The thing that makes you excited is the challenge. If I can get people to connect to these ideas that I have come up with in my head, how do I translate them for people so that they get them, how do I get a whole room on board?” she says. “The excitement is, oh I have this joke and I gotta get this joke out of me and I’ve got to get it out now, and how am I going to get it out?”
Since she hasn’t had much experience writing sketch comedy, writing for “SNL” has given Jay the same kind of sense of discovery she had as a younger comic.
“I feel like I just kind of got a handle on it last night,” she says, speaking by phone the day before the first episode of “SNL.” “You kind of see how the whole show works from top to bottom and you’re put in it, you’re completely submerged in it. Just the whole experience kind of made it click. And I could be wrong. I could go write something next week and be like, yeah, I have no [expletive] idea. But right now I think I understand.”
The show has a reputation for a competitive work environment. Some performers who established successful careers, like Chris Rock and Jay Mohr, had trouble catching on there. But so far, Jay hasn’t felt that. “Everybody wants you to be successful and everybody wants you there and everybody wants you to do well,” she says. “So even if people are very busy and they’re not necessarily coddling you, you still feel very supported in the environment.”
Jay was hired for the strength of her stand-up, and she’s looking to learn how to translate that into sketch comedy. She can be brash, and she’s not shy about wading into socially and politically divisive topics. “Hate seeing homeless white men,” she says in one routine. “’Cause it’s like, yo, you programmed this game, how the [expletive] are you losing?” In one bit on her “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” debut in March, she talked about her frustration with the idea that America was “so ready” for a female president. “It was like, ‘Were we?’ ’Cause less than a year ago we weren’t ready for female Ghostbusters.”
The country may feel more divided after last year’s contentious election season, but Jay has always talked about race and her experience as a lesbian. “Those things are still risky and they’ll always be risky,” she says, “but being honest and telling your innermost truth is just risky, and you don’t always know how people are going to receive or vibe with it.”
She measures her improvement as a comedian by how comfortable she is on uncomfortable topics. “That’s progress for me,” she says, “The more I speak and stand in that voice, the better I’m going to become as a stand-up, and then the more I get to connect to people and say my truth and the things that I think can effect change and influence culture. I’m just getting closer and closer to that.”
Make no mistake, that is her goal. “Oh, 100 percent,” she says. “That’s why I’m doing it.”
Jay believes she is already influencing culture just by standing in front of people and presenting them with a point of view as a black woman and lesbian that they may not have considered.
“They listen to me talk for an hour,” she says. “And they related to some of this stuff. Some of it made sense to them. They’re forever changed. They can’t not have had that experience. . . . So now when they go, ‘I don’t like this’ or ‘I don’t like that,’ they may still think that, but a little part of them got touched where they know that’s not 100 percent real anymore. It’s not 100 percent true because you were hanging out with a black lesbian for an hour. And you laughed. And you had a good time. It’s just leveling up. That’s influencing culture.”
What impact might she have on “SNL”?
“I’m just down for the experience and excited to learn and grow in something and to be able to learn from the best people in the business to do it. My expectation is to leave with more knowledge than I came in with.”
Comedy Central Stand-Up Presents . . .
Featuring Sam Jay. Comedy Central, Saturday morning at 12:30.