Sam Jay wanted to throw a party. That’s just about all that the comedian and Saturday Night Live writer knew she wanted to do when it came to developing her new HBO late-night series, Pause With Sam Jay, which launches Friday night.
She was more confident about what she didn’t want to do, however. Those decisions honed the identity of the series, in which Jay and her friends throw back cocktails and have lively, provocative conversations about their experience with race, homophobia, cancel culture, COVID-19, and more, all interspersed with topical Daily Show or Full Frontal With Samantha Bee-style interviews and sketches.
“I knew I didn't want to do a desk show, and I knew I didn't want to do a to-camera monologue,” she tells The Daily Beast, speaking over a video chat the week leading up to the show’s premiere. “I was pretty dead set on those things, and then it was kind of just trying to find other mechanisms that fit that would allow me to still successfully get a point across.”
After a year of silence and isolation, it’s a disorienting pleasure to be dropped in the middle of Jay’s raucous debates with her friends, a buzzing cacophony of unfiltered opinions screamed over each other drunkenly. Friday night’s premiere immediately rips off the band-aid of any discomfort an audience member might feel by plunging them directly into a passionate discussion about the modern semantics of the word “coon” in the Black community.
And after an eternity of the same late-night format and straight-white-guy opinionating, it’s a fascinating experiment in what happens when the genre’s traditions are turned on their head, all emceed by a Black lesbian comedian, who is getting the platform after the success for her hit—albeit controversial—Netflix stand-up special Sam Jay: 3 in the Morning, released last summer.
“I wanted to grow in the show and I wanted room to be wrong and I want you to have room to discover,” she says. “And I just feel like once you sit behind a desk, you kind of exalt yourself and now you have to be an authority and you have to be correct. I was trying to avoid all of that, and I thought a party could be a cool way to be able to just be honest, and not necessarily be right.”
Pause With Sam Jay joins a recent slate of diverse late-night series from Black hosts and creators that are frank about inclusivity, call out performative allyship, and get candid about the personal experiences of the hosts themselves. Online sensation Ziwe Fumudoh recently premiered her new show, Ziwe, on Showtime, while Michael Che’s That Damn Michael Che just launched on HBO Max and A Black Lady Sketch Show, from co-creator and star Robin Thede, is in its critically lauded second season on HBO.
While panel shows featuring academics, TV personalities, and professional provocateurs debating current events have taken their trolling to a tired extreme, there’s an intimacy and a grounded quality to the debates Jay and her friends are having, explosive in nature as they are. To some, that might offer relatability, a shared experience for marginalized members of Black and queer communities not normally given space on TV. To others, it should offer a revelatory insight.
“I wanted it to feel more like what it feels like when I’m talking about this stuff and debating these things with people,” Jay says. “Or just drunkenly yelling at my friends and thinking, ‘I actually know what’s right!’ And them yelling back at me and being like, ‘No, I absolutely know what’s right!’ And then somewhere in that we kind of land in this middle place of like no, neither one of us really know what’s right. We just have ideas.”
That also allows for a freer conversation. Jay talks about the backlash she received to jokes in her Netflix special that were criticized for being transphobic. That was never her intention, she says; she had thought her perspective as a queer woman would be funny and insightful. Because of the controversy, she says that LGBT publications won’t feature or interview her, asking in the premiere of Pause if that means she’s a “gay fucking coon.”
But it’s not just Jay. The diverse group of friends assembled for the conversation all articulate extreme thoughts that, in a more buttoned-up format of roundtable debate on TV, could risk getting them labeled as problematic or “canceled.” The format of Pause almost acts as a shield against that.
“I feel like right now everyone is in their corners yelling at one another,” Jay says. “Nothing is happening in the middle. There's no middle anymore. It's just two extreme ends, and I'm a believer that the world is more gray than it is black and white. And I want to find space for the gray.”
It’s often lost that a difference of opinion is actually a vital part of humanity and conducive to empathy. To understand each other better, sometimes disagreement is maybe even the point.
“I have respect for my friends and so I just wanted to present something that was kind of just like, hear people out and you could still maybe walk away go like, ‘Oh fuck, I don't necessarily agree with that or I don't think like that,’” Jay says. “But maybe you'll still take away the fact that they are a whole human being and they're just interacting with all this shit. They're not out here to maliciously make you opposed to them. They're not evil with this agenda.”
The show is a charged arrival into a TV space that, while clearly evolving thanks to the likes of Bee, Che, Fumudoh, and Thede, still treats it as revolutionary to ditch a desk and a suit—not to mention a straight white male leading identity—and engage with the issues of today in ways deeper than a series of hammy punchlines.
Jay doesn’t see how she could have made a show in any other way. Though she’s prepared for the content—and especially the extreme language and usage of racial terms—to cause a stir. And when that happens, maybe it means this whole experiment actually worked.
“Hopefully [viewers] will take from it that these are honest conversations and not something packaged to be easily consumed, but something honest and real,” she says. “It might be awkward at times and it might get uncomfortable, because that's how shit happens in the world.”
Besides, she says, “HBO is a place to be naughty, if you're going to go be naughty. It felt like, you know, I'm not on network. I'm on HBO. Take all the shots! Why not?”