'SNL' writer Sam Jay stands up for her own comedy Sunday in North Adams
NORTH ADAMS — In a recent "Saturday Night Live" sketch, a software engineer (John Mulaney) is dancing to the "Cha Cha Slide" at a wedding with his girlfriend (Ego Nwodim). It's her cousin's party, so Mulaney's character is nervous about impressing her family. This anxiety has racial undertones; wide shots reveal that the man is the only white person in a room full of black people. As different guests greet him as a friend — one is even a former fraternity brother of his — the man's angst appears to diminish, though not entirely, leaving the audience to consider its true source when the piece ends.
Sam Jay was one of the writers behind this sketch and others on the famous show's 44th season that explore the line between reinforcing and upending racial stereotypes. The Boston native, who is black, often navigates similar territory in her own stand-up, which appears on Netflix's "The Comedy Lineup" and on her debut album, "Donna's Daughter." On Sunday night, she will perform at the Eleanor Furst Roberts Auditorium in Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts' Church Street Center. The school's advanced performing arts management class, Berkshire Cultural Resource Center and MCLA Presents! are bringing the show to North Adams, booking Pittsfield native Eryca Nolan and MCLA student Dominique Stevenson-Pope to open. The Sunday performance isn't unusual for Jay, who frequently performs the night after "SNL."
"When the show is on, we're writing every day until the show happens on Saturday, and then we have Sundays off," Jay told The Eagle during a recent telephone interview. "So, sometimes I just do shows on Sundays, or I get out early in the week and I can pop by a show."
"SNL" writers pitch and revise jokes during workshops that require a team-first approach.
"We're all just trying to help each other try and make the sketches the best once they're picked," Jay said. "It's a bunch of people in the room picking on sketches, saying how to make them funnier, just trying to get them to the funniest that they can be before Saturday."
In addition to "Cha Cha Slide" and "Them Trumps," which imagines what would happen if the U.S. president and his family members were black, Jay helped create "Permission," a rap song about women and consent featuring Chris Redd, Kenan Thompson, Pete Davidson, Lil Wayne and Future. Even though her material may ultimately be seen and heard by millions of people, Jay isn't nervous when she watches the show herself.
"I think the nerve-wracking part is dress. Once it makes it past dress, it's on the show, so whatever happens, happens," she said. "What can you do? The sketch is going to be sketch You can't make them do anything. All you can do is write it. You can't make them act it. You can't make them execute it."
Stand-up is different because Jay is all alone onstage. She started hitting open mics back at Roggie's and Tavern at the End of the World, among other Boston-area venues, about seven years ago.
"I'd rather try it and fail than never try it and not know," she said of her mindset at the beginning of her comedy career.
Jay's act is characterized by a casual fearlessness. In her 15-minute Netflix set, she touches on rape and race, at one point joking about white people being from a different planet for a variety of reasons, including that their skin can't handle the sun.
"I'm a comic that likes to be open about everything, but there are also things I haven't talked about," she said. "I wouldn't necessarily say they're off-limits, I just haven't figured out how to talk about them yet."
One of those topics is her mother's death.
"I just haven't figured out what I want to say about that, so I don't talk about it. That's how I kind of approach things. If I don't have anything to say, then I don't speak on it. If I have something to say, I'm not going to limit myself from speaking on it," she said.
As for what she'll be joking about in North Adams, Jay wasn't sure yet. But you can be certain it's coming from her.
"I don't play a character. It's just me," Jay said. "I think it's like a bigger version of myself because I'm on a stage, but I don't feel like anyone who sees me offstage and sees me onstage feels like they saw two different people."
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at email@example.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
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