Jacqueline Novak spent six long years developing her “90 minute meditation on the blow job.” Now that “Get on Your Knees” is streaming on Netflix—and garnering rave reviews—the comedian sits down with The Last Laugh podcast to talk about what it’s like to give up control as viewers around the world are welcomed into her most intimate thoughts and ideas.
In this episode, Novak breaks down how she decided to take her career into her own hands and create something that felt worthy of her talents after years of five-minute sets on pizza and french fries. She opens up about the double-edged sword of being a female comic who talks about sex on stage and shares what she wants to do next now that her star-making project is finally finished.
It’s just a few days after the premiere of her long-gestating special and Novak is working through the anxiety of not being physically present as each viewer watches it. “Not that I actually am controlling what’s happening in people’s minds while I’m in front of them, but it feels more like I am,” she tells me. “And now, it’s like I just took a nap and, oh God, someone was taking it in without me. So it’s a psychological, spiritual challenge of letting go of the thing. You always hear these artists like, ‘It’s theirs now.’ And that’s very appealing.”
Novak constantly stops herself to warn that she’s about to use a cliché, searching for a more original way to express any given thought before acquiescing to the overused but accurate description of what she is experiencing. Like when I ask her about her decision to dedicate so much time to a show that is, on the surface at least, about oral sex.
“I’ll just say the fucking cliché, and then we’ll go from there and unpack it afterwards,” Novak says, before describing how she shifted her career: “Don’t wait for them to give you the job you want. Get up in the morning and write your screenplay as though you’re being paid to do it.” Put more succinctly, she decided one day to say “fuck it” and throw her entire being into this meditation on “the blow job.”
For most of her early years in stand-up comedy, Novak joked almost exclusively about food.
“I like to eat,” Novak said at the top of her appearance on The Late Late Show with James Corden in 2015. “It’s my favorite of the survival-based activities. Sure, I’ll breathe, but I don’t enjoy it.” Three years later, she delivered an entire set about french fries on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, telling the studio audience, “I humbly suggest that you sort of settle into the topic, because it will be filling the rest of my time here.”
It wasn’t that she was deliberately avoiding sexual material, but if she was going to talk about sex on stage, she wanted to talk about sex on stage. And that didn’t always make sense in the context of a five-minute late-night set. “It was like, alright, I’m just going to talk about fries or whatever,” she says.
“Early on, I resented the idea that I would have to not talk about sex to avoid this accusation of leaning on that,” she says, alluding to the pressures that female comedians face from all sides. “I didn’t want to do the thing of like, ‘I’m going to show you by only talking about puzzles!’ It annoyed me spiritually. So I was always like, ‘no, I’m gonna do it.’ And you better be listening closely enough to realize that there’s something interesting and human here.”
From her earliest performances at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe to the version of Get on Your Knees that is streaming on Netflix, Novak made the very conscious choice to wear an onstage outfit that the New York Times critic Alexis Soloski referred to as a “passion-killer ensemble.” When I suggest the writer may have been searching for another word that may or may not be allowed in the paper of record, Novak immediately replies, “What, boner?”
“That is the perfect example of me directly playing into the tropes of stand-up comedy,” she says of the aggressively nondescript jeans, T-shirt and ponytail she sports in the show. “Wearing this sort of nothing outfit, I want to forget my body as much as I can to deliver my ideas, right? I’m like this relatively neutral doll moving around the stage. In this real way, I am removing my femininity.”
In her words, she’s telling potential critics, “Fuck you, you can’t accuse me of using my being a woman to get any points on stage,” adding, “I think there might be this perspective of like, ‘She’s wearing a dress to give you something if the jokes aren’t quite there,’ which, of course, to me, is completely not true. But it’s the kind of thing that a certain kind of comedy fan might project, so I’m trying to remove that.”
Instead, she says she’s “wearing the same thing that all these fucking dudes wear who you hold up as doing ‘real comedy.’”
Novak didn’t create Get on Your Knees because she thought it would be the thing that brought her the type of artistic attention she was craving. It’s not like the streamers were clamoring for a special that poetically intellectualizes various sex acts from a woman’s perspective.
“It wasn’t like, OK, let me see what the industry wants and then try to fulfill that or something,” she says. “I wouldn’t even know how to do that. I was never at risk of succeeding but it feeling hollow.” Novak jokes that if she knew how to “sell out” she would have done so long ago to avoid being “broke.”
So despite her inherent anxiety about how the show will be received, Novak feels “massive relief” that it’s out of her hands and exists as this real, tangible thing she can point to as the crowning achievement of a career that is just starting to really take off. When I ask if it’s daunting to start over with nothing but a blank page, Novak smiles and replies, “No, it’s really exciting. It feels healthy. It feels like, OK, things are in motion.”