Even the title of HBO’s new comedy variety series, Pause with Sam Jay, is a joke. Created by Saturday Night Live writer and comedian Sam Jay, the show’s name a subversive flip on the slang term “pause,” which carries a homophobic connotation. In this context, it serves as a nod to the 39-year-old comedian’s identity as a queer person, a joke that may pass over some heads. The title of the first episode is less subtle: “Coons.” It’s a thoughtful and unconventional start to a comedy series, from a thoughtful and unconventional comedian.
Co-created by Prentice Penny, director of the HBO series Insecure, Pause with Sam Jay premiered on HBO last Friday. With a score provided by hip-hop producer Knxwledge, the show features a Brooklyn house party in each episode, where Jay chops it up with friends and fellow comedians over drinks, before cutting away to additional interviews and sketches.
Pause with Sam Jay is part of the surge in Black-led comedy on television right now, with shows like Showtime’s Ziwe, HBO Max’s That Damn Michael Che, and HBO’s A Black Lady Sketch Show. Jay’s show seeks out humor in discomfort, without mining “dunk moments” that one might expect with from a queer Black comedian interviewing two Black conservatives.
“There's enough of that,” Jay told VICE, referring to combative yelling-match interviews. “I don't know that that moves the needle in any way.”
From the outset, Jay takes a big swing, discussing with her friends the topic of “cooning,” defined in the show as “exploiting one’s own community for personal gain or acceptance from a dominant culture.” There is no laugh track or studio audience, instead Jay and her fellow comics have a loose and organic-feeling discussion that sets up the episode’s focus on the concept of selling out.
Later, Jay sits down in what appears to be a mansion to interview Olivia Rondeau and King Randall, two young “pro-Black conservatives.” Jay does not mock her guests, and instead, thoughtfully questions them. She asks what it’s like to align with a party historically steeped in racism, and allows them space to explain what conservatism means to them. It’s a premise that some will dismiss on its face. But by having a conversation without condescending, Jay thinks she can be more effective.
“They were kids,” Jay said. “They're idealistic, and they have big ideas about the world and what it can be. I'm an adult, I'm not gonna step on that. I can maybe guide it, like water. But to just be like, 'Oh, you don't know the fuck you're talking about,' is not me.”
Today, simply mentioning the term “both sides” can elicit a gut reaction. But Jay is set on hearing different perspectives, not as a troll tactic, but an exercise in empathy. Intent, to her, is critically important. The show ends with an earnest monologue, which she reiterated to VICE.
“I do believe that intent matters. And I do believe that we need to be giving people more grace in this world than we have been lately, on both sides. And I do believe there's more gray than there is black and white. These are things that—fundamentally—I believe. You'll see that throughout the show, because it's a part of my ideology.”
“Pause” is streaming on HBO and HBO Max on Fridays at 9 p.m. Eastern.