Published Sep 28, 2018For some of us, contemplating a life where you work as a writer, musician, actor or any kind of job in the public realm of "celebrity" seems fantastically unlikely.
But for comedian Sam Jay, whose late mother Donna loved standups like George Carlin and Robin Williams, and TV shows like Taxi, Cheers and Saturday Night Live, there was nothing alien about such vocations.
"That's a testament to my mother," Jay says about her own aspirations for success, over the phone from New York. The Boston native has been living there since getting a job writing for Saturday Night Live in September 2017.
"I believed when I was very young that I could do whatever I wanted to do, because my mother told me I could do whatever I wanted to do. So I never really saw being on TV as something that was impossible to reach.
"Also, when I was young, my cousin was dating Bobby Brown and so he was the first celebrity I met where everyone around me was like, 'Oh my god!' And I was like, 'He's just a dude.' And he was fine, and to this day he's a dad and a good father. He fathered two of my cousins. Everybody goes through struggles, but he's a good man and he's got a good heart."
It's not altogether unsurprising that Sam Jay might cut through a preconceived narrative about a person to get at some truth. The rising comedian has made a name for herself by telling frank stories about her life as a young, black, queer woman who has struggled, but perseveres.
Her strength of character is evident in her uncompromising live show and all over her 2018 standup album, Donna's Daughter, and her 15-minute set on Netflix's July 2018 edition of The Comedy Line-up.
Jay says that she abandoned her communications studies at college because she wasn't feeling it, and ended up in Atlanta, where she eventually got into managing musicians. Sensing she was adrift, about eight years ago Jay's girlfriend asked her what she wanted to do with her life and Jay, somewhat stoically and surprisingly, revealed she wanted to pursue comedy.
She grinded hard, sometimes doing three or four sets a night, gaining confidence in her stage presence. Sometimes, to test out new material, Jay would strike up conversations with strangers in bars just to gauge their reactions. All of the work eventually led her to a writing gig at Saturday Night Live, even though she'd never written a sketch before.
As music has always been a central part of her life, she didn't abandon it completely. Donna's Daughter was produced by Coach Tea and contains sporadic beats and "skit-like" interludes that make it sound as much like a hip-hop mixtape as it does a standup record.
"I wanted it to sound like a debut album and to be something you'd want to listen to from beginning to the end," Jay explains. "I wanted to introduce people to who I was in a more rounded way. Biggie had skits on Ready to Die and there's even Kendrick's Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City where the skits were like bridges to other parts of the album. I thought it'd be cool to record actual conversations and use pieces of them, because my comedy is derived from my actual life. So, it was using these conversations to take you on these little journeys and give you more of me and then bring you back into the bit so you see where it derives from.
"If we're talking influences, JAY-Z was instrumental in my teen years and growing up, he was a big artist that I was really into," she adds, contemplating hip-hop. "And Kanye too. Those are guys I really give a shit about what they have to say. Other than that, I just listen to whatever's out; I like Drake a lot."
Despite her love for such artists, Jay says she hasn't really seen them play live because, well, she doesn't like concerts. She says she finds the whole spectacle at an arena, stadium, or anything that isn't a small club with a smaller group of people, rather impersonal.
"Unless I'm sitting front row, I don't like it," she says. "Y'know, I held out and I didn't see JAY-Z, and then this last season of SNL, he was the first musical guest. And I got to see JAY-Z in a little-ass studio and watch him rehearse and it was just me, camera and production people, and it was like, 'Oh, this is how I always wanted to see JAY-Z. This is cool.'"
Jay began working on Saturday Night Live while the show was still facing criticism for the lack of diversity of its cast and staff. In a 2017 filmed feature with Vice News/HBO, which came out as she was just a few months into the job and was entitled "Making Saturday Night Live Funny For Everyone (Not Just Black People)," she expressed her honest frustration with not getting her ideas on air.
"This is the thing that kind of bothers me," Jay says of the interview. "Me saying I'm not getting things on, that wasn't because the show has a diversity issue. It was painted that way, but that was not the point I was making at all. The point was, I don't know the process at all — I'm new, so it's frustrating. I'd never written a fucking sketch until I walked into that fucking building.
"So, it took me a good half-a-year to learn how to do it. Do I feel more comfortable now? Of course, because I figured out how to write my voice in sketch to some degree — there's more I need to learn. But that was the tough process. I wasn't getting stuff on, but I knew I shouldn't be. By the end of the season, yeah, I started to get stuff on. Did I write good sketches that I felt didn't get on? For sure, but so does everyone else on the show. That's just the nature of the show."
Learn more about Sam Jay here. Donna's Daughter is out now on Comedy Central Records. The season premiere of Saturday Night Live airs September 29 with host Adam Driver and musical guest Kanye West.
Listen to this interview with Sam Jay on Kreative Kontrol via Apple Podcasts or below.