Metro Weekly

Sam Jay’s Netflix special ‘3 in the Morning’ crowns years of hard work and hilarious comedy

Whether it's her new Netflix special or writing for SNL, Sam Jay is building a comedy career that is as bold as it is masterful

Sam Jay, 3 in the morning, snl, comedian, comedy

Sam Jay — Photo courtesy of Netflix

In her first Netflix original comedy special, 3 in the Morning, Sam Jay comes out swinging. Aiming punchlines at ripe targets from Elon Musk and Donald Trump to the last man she slept with before coming out as a lesbian (“I just hope I’m not the reason you’re like this”), she slays without breaking a sweat. Filmed in Atlanta, where the comic was born, the hour-long special captures the Boston-raised Jay’s distinct humor and worldview in a tight burst of raw energy and rapid-fire edits that match her swaggering delivery.

Before filming the special, Jay, also an Emmy-nominated writer on Saturday Night Live, and 3 in the Morning director Kristian Mercado Figueroa brainstormed its flow over blunts. “We talked for an hour and a half just about ideas,” she says. “This is what I wanted and how I wanted it to feel, and what he was thinking.” She played Mercado her 2018 live stand-up album, Donna’s Daughter, and showed him some of her appearances on shows like Netflix’s The Comedy Lineup, and her half-hour Comedy Central Stand-Up Presents special. “We just vibed,” she recalls.

“I also really liked the way he lit people of color, and I just thought he knew what to do with melanin,” she says of the filmmaker, who also directed Hannibal Buress’ latest special, Miami Nights. “That was exciting to me because I was like, ‘I want to look good up there. I don’t want to be washed out and shit.’ You know what I’m saying? So then we just kept building the vision and it came out. I couldn’t be happier. I’m so glad that I went with him.”

The product of a happy collaboration, 3 in the Morning reflects a solo performer ready to flex her confidence on the global stage. Jay surely earned some of that nerve by struggling through her 20s, moving between Boston and Atlanta, ultimately surviving a period during which she felt truly lost. “All the endeavors that I had been pursuing were falling apart, and I just really didn’t know what I wanted to do,” she says. “I felt completely unfulfilled and was just moving through life, but not feeling like I was impacting life or even controlling my own.”

By then, Jay had tried her hand at comedy, without finding her direction. Yet, at her lowest, “the stand-up bug just started to come again,” she says. “I was being funny in group settings and I was happiest when I was doing that. And I was just like, ‘Man, you kind of ran away from this thing in a way and it may be the thing, because you’re scared of it, that you need to be walking head-on towards.'”

So she hit her stand-up head-on, honed her unfiltered comic voice, and toured and hustled her way onto some major lineups. “I did Just For Laughs, which is a big comedy festival that happens in Montreal every year. I was there for New Faces, which is one of the highest honors of the festival. I had a really good set and there were some SNL producers in the audience, and they just reached out to my management, ‘Will she audition in L.A.?’ Because that’s where I lived at the time.”

Jay’s L.A. audition went well enough for Saturday Night Live to fly her to New York to audition in front of the show’s legendary executive producer Lorne Michaels. “That went well, and then they just offered me a writing job.” Nearly four seasons and two Emmy nominations later, Jay, the show’s sole Black lesbian staff writer, has found her direction, writing installments of recurring parody Black Jeopardy and other viral sketches, like Cha-Cha Slide, which featured John Mulaney as a White guy at a Black wedding who’s casually hip to the culture.

“That’s one of my favorite sketches,” she says. “It was, for me, one of the first sketches where I got all my Black love into it. And I was like, ‘Yay, look at it, look at it happening. This is cool!'”

Sam Jay — Photo: Marcus Price/Netflix

METRO WEEKLY: You said you talked with 3 in the Morning director Kristian Mercado about how you wanted the special to feel. What was that?

SAM JAY: I wanted it to feel intimate and I wanted it to feel important, without saying it was important. I wanted you to know it was a moment, because it was a moment for me, but I didn’t want it to be like, “Ladies and gentlemen! Coming to the stage…!” You know what I mean? Because that’s not how my actual life is in stand-up right now. I’m still meeting audiences, I’m still building a fan base, I don’t go to any show and they just lose their fucking minds for me. So I didn’t want to portray that in the special, when it’s not real. But I also was like, this is special. So how do we do both of those things? And I feel like we executed it, or at least we did to a degree that makes me happy.

MW: I didn’t really think about that whole “crowd goes wild,” Robin Williams entering the Met kind of thing. Do you foresee that for yourself?

JAY: I don’t know if I’ll ever be that style of a person. I don’t know. I don’t think so.

MW: Now let’s take it back. How did you get started in comedy?

JAY: I tried comedy when I was 20, 21, and my cousin, she was married to this dude named Chris, he was a local comedian and I had always wanted to try comedy. I remember when I was like 12, he had put on this show for kids — funny kids — and he asked my two cousins to do it and he didn’t ask me. I was so hurt. I never said anything but inside I was like, “I want to see if I can maybe do that.”

MW: Because you thought you were funny?

JAY: I thought I could maybe do it. I’ve always been interested, I’ve always been a super comedy fan, watched since I was very young, probably too young to be watching some of the things I was watching, but I was just always super into comedy. Loved the Wayans family, would watch anything they made, love Eddie Murphy, would watch anything he made, then eventually that grew into watching Comic View, sneaking to watch Def Jam, trying to retell Def Jam jokes at school, falling in love with Niecy Nash and just always following funny people. That went all the way through high school, and when I started watching The State and Strangers with Candy, and all these different sketch shows. I just always had an affinity for that kind of stuff. Finally, around 20, I was like, “I want to try this thing.” And I tried it. It wasn’t good.

MW: Stand-up or sketch?

JAY: Stand-up. I never tried sketch. I was always in a stand-up space mentally. But I just didn’t connect to it. It just didn’t feel like how I thought it was supposed to feel. And then I got sick, I was in and out of the hospital for a while, and then when I finally was healthy, I moved to Atlanta to go to school around 22, 23. I went down to Atlanta, but did not really go to school — I just used that as an excuse to get the hell out of Boston. Partied a bunch, drank a bunch, and then started messing around with music and stuff, and just forgot about it. [I] just was just doing other things and moving through life and these other directions. And then when I hit about 27, 28, I was just really lost a bit.

I got sick again in Atlanta, it had come full-circle in a trash-ass way. It was terrible. I had ended up sleeping on my friend’s floor, and this dude comes in and he’s her roommate and he’s like, “Sam?” He knew me because he used to sleep on my floor. So it was just like, “I got to go. This is all the way bad.” And I’ve tapped this out, my Atlanta run is over.

So I took my ass back home, and when I got home, everyone’s still doing the same shit. Boston’s a small town. My family, still everybody’s working at a hospital or working on a public bus and all that kind of shit. And I’m just watching everyone be in a rut and I’m like, “This can’t be life.” And the stand-up thing is still nagging at me. And I’m like, “You just need to go ahead and put your head down and try this shit.” So I called up Chris, my cousin’s husband. And I was like, “Hey, man I want to get back on the [open] mike.” And he was like, “Oh, you’re serious?” I’m like, “I’m serious.” And he was like, “All right, well, there’s a mike on Sunday.” And I went, I got booed, but there was this kid there and he told me about all the other mikes in the city and I just kept going.

MW: That night were they booing your jokes?

JAY: They just didn’t want comedy. It was at this VFW type situation that they had a party, and then they were doing comedy after the party, but the people who were at the party hadn’t cleared out and they wanted to watch basketball and [organizers] were like, “No, we’re going to start this comedy show.” And seriously, as soon as I said a word, this dude from the back was like, “Boo, shut the fuck up!” So I didn’t even get to do it for real. But it was also like, I felt like that was God being like, “Bitch, this is what it’s going to be. Either you going to keep pushing with this shit or you’re going to let this stuff knock you off your square. We going to check you right here, right now.” And so, I felt like it was a test. I just kept getting up and, really, three minutes turned into five minutes, turned into 10, turned into 15.

Sam Jay — Photo courtesy of Netflix

MW: I mean, would you have wanted to start out with killing from the very first set?

JAY: I don’t think so. You want to get in the trenches with it and build it, for sure.

MW: Now, shooting this special in Atlanta, why there?

JAY: I just have a connection to the city. I lived there for eight years. I was born there, but I moved when I was a baby, very young, so I don’t remember it. So I’m Boston raised, basically, but I was born there and I have family there. And that’s where I found myself, that’s where I came out, that’s where I met my girlfriend, it’s where I met my first group of queer gay friends. You know what I mean? Really just when I feel like I came to be who I am.

MW: How are gay and lesbian comics received there, and in terms of booking, throughout the south?

JAY: I don’t feel like I’ve had issues. I’ve done shows in Asheville, North Carolina and at the Dead Crow, which is near Wilmington. I’ve done Florida…. So I don’t think I’ve had issues. But sometimes you get to those rooms and yeah, you’ll get a bunch of white people, for lack of a better word, that just ain’t gonna go with the shit. And they might walk out in the middle of a Trump joke, because they don’t want to hear what you got to say. I think they sit down ready to not want to hear what you got to say because of what you look like. They’re already like, “We’re not going to like this.” You know what I’m saying? Sometimes you get that, and it just is what it is.

MW: Since you brought up Trump. In 3 in The Morning you make a case that Trump is “the first nigga in the White House.” I think I caught your meaning. Although I can see how it could be misconstrued. Do you ever worry, with that joke or any joke, about the humor being taken the wrong way?

JAY: Well, I’m curious what part of it do you think could be misconstrued?

MW: You seem to make a dichotomy between what a president would do and what a “nigga” would do. That’s what you set up, and I guess some people could construe what a “nigga” would do as not necessarily somebody who is…

JAY: Black?

MW: Black. I guess the thing is you’re not using that word just to mean Black, and a lot of people could think you are, and it could go down a whole other rabbit hole.

JAY: I just feel like if you listen, then you know that’s not the case. And if you want to be triggered, then you’re going to be triggered. But then you want to be triggered, and I can’t do nothing about the people that want to be triggered.

Sam Jay — Photo: Marcus Price/Netflix

MW: But it feels like a lot of people want to be triggered these days.

JAY: Yeah, they do. But that has nothing to do with me. I think if you listen for what it is, you get the joke in it. I tell it that way specifically, because the white people will hear it, and I definitely want the ones that support Trump to face a reality of what they’re supporting and stop pretending that it’s something else that it isn’t. And so it’s also that level of, let’s take the veil off of this and stop playing these games. You all being nigga’d. That’s what’s going on. He’s nigging in there and just doing whatever the hell he wants to do and let’s not pretend it’s something else.

MW: It’s a strong opinion.

JAY: You’re making me nervous. I felt good about the joke, now you making me nervous.

MW: Oh, no. No. I want strong opinions in my comedy. Another strong opinion, and something that I support in general, you make a statement that trans women are real women. And I’m wondering if you’ve had any trans women or men in your audience who have reacted or responded to any of your trans humor.

JAY: I’ve definitely had trans women and men in the audience. And they’ve never specifically come up to me and been like this or that about the joke as much they’d just be like, “That’s funny. And I appreciate the angle you’re coming at.” But it also lives in that same space as the Trump joke, right? Where you can listen for one thing and then you can run with that, and you can take it and go left, and say that I’m being anti-trans if you want to, if you want to be triggered. Or you can listen to the joke, and hear all the different levels and things that I’m playing on and trying to speak about, and see that I’m genuinely trying to push the dialogue and open the conversation up.

But I can’t write thinking about the triggered people, because then I’ll be writing in a box, you know what I’m saying? Because I am queer, I’m gay. I definitely don’t want to be saying anything that’s anti-my community. So I do think about things like that. Even when I wanted to do the trans joke it was like, I had to think about, “What are you saying? What are you trying to say? Why do you want to say this? Why do you think it needs to be said?” And I do those types of checks in my head before I move forward with any joke: Me Too, trans, Trump. It’s like, “Why are you saying this? Why do you want to say it? Why do you feel like you need to say it? Okay. All your chakras are aligned and in a good place, go forward.”

MW: Sticking with people not necessarily being triggered, how has your wife responded to seeing herself and your life presented in your stand-up? Or is that something that you prepare somebody for when you start dating?

JAY: I mean, so this is a real funny question because my girl is a little vain. So I wasn’t talking about her at first and she was like, “You don’t ever talk about me.” And I was like, I don’t know, I just didn’t have anything to say. And then when I started having stuff to say, it was like, “Don’t be talking about me!” But in the realness of it, I run everything by her. She’s such a big supporter. I don’t know if I would even be here without my girl in my corner. She literally goes on the road with me and I hate going on the road, especially I hate going alone, and going with her always just enriches the experience. Even all those jokes I got out of Europe, I have to attribute that to my girl. If I would’ve went on that European tour alone, I wouldn’t have much of nothing to say about the trip.

So in that regard, I run everything by her. Like, “Babe, I’m thinking about doing this or talking about this thing, and are you cool with that?” Or, “Are you uncomfortable?” if I do just get on stage and happen to riff something, and it just comes out — when I get off, I’m like, “Was that too much? Do you not want me to say this part?” Or, “Are you cool with all of it?” Because I do respect her, and I don’t want to be out there disrespecting her. Even though people are going to watch it and be like, “Oh shit, she be talking crazy about her girl.” I want home to be good. I want us to be like, we good and we know what we on.

MW: I’ve never dated a comic, so it’s never come up, but I feel like if it takes a lot of nerve to be a comic, it must take a lot of nerve to be with one. Is that the case?

JAY: Yeah, my girl, she’s no pushover. If she don’t want something, it’s not going to happen. I always tell people, “I’m really the bullied one.” If only people knew. A lot of this stuff I have to run by her because I’m just afraid of her. And I’m like, I don’t want to deal with no static later on.

MW: So I want to talk about SNL, because I am a lifelong fan of that show. Was it a show that meant something to you as a kid?

JAY: Well, yeah. I definitely watched it. I was younger and I feel like the show is one of those shows where it comes in phases. So I remember being like nine, 10, and my parents would watch it. And so by default, I knew about it and knew the players and stuff. And then I used to watch Eddie Murphy’s Best of SNL tape that my mom had all the time. So I was aware of the world and what the world was.

Then, when I was in my early teens, it was all Molly Shannon, and I loved all that. And I would go to every SNL movie. Night at the Roxbury. Superstar. I would go see all that stuff and I knew all the characters. And then you had the Maya Rudolph years, with Gemini’s Twin. So it’s just like different points in the show, that I just had these different things that I fell in love with. So I was aware of it, but I never thought of myself in that space. As I was doing stand-up and, as you see how my special is, I’m like, “I don’t live in NBC world.” I’m over here doing some whole other shit. So I never even saw myself in that space.

MW: Well, do you have a favorite Black Jeopardy sketch?

JAY: I like the Tom Hanks one.

MW: Honestly, I think they’re all good. I liked the Chadwick Boseman one.

JAY: I wrote on the Chadwick one. So it’s by default that’s my favorite, but that’s not fair, I feel. If I take myself out of it, the Tom Hanks one.

MW: What is the process of getting something from the kernel of an idea or a joke to script, then to something that’s getting rehearsed and on air?

JAY: I mean, the process is brutal and really not up to me. All I do is, I write it, then it goes to the table. And maybe it’ll go, and maybe it won’t. And even through that process, even if you can get past that and you’re like, “All right, we’re going to make the sketch,” you still have to make it from dress [rehearsal] to air, so you can get chopped somewhere between there. And then sometimes, if the air’s running over or it’s crazy, and there’s no time, because it’s live, you might be bottom of the show, you might get chopped. So you never really feel safe, or feel things are going to go till it goes and you see it, and you’re like, “It happened, cool.”

Sam Jay — Photo courtesy of Netflix

MW: Are writers at the table for those first reads?

JAY: Yeah, everybody is.

MW: I just have to ask, did you have anything to do with Cha Cha Slide? Because that’s like —

JAY: I sure did, boo.

MW: I wouldn’t say somebody could be triggered by that because it’s so good-natured, but I could see how, again, people could miss the meaning despite the fact that there’s so much love in that sketch.

JAY: That’s just my comedic voice, I guess. It’s just like, you could catch it or you could take it another route if you want to take it another route.

MW: I wonder this every summer, when the show is on hiatus, is there stuff happening right now in the world that you might be dying to write about? Jokes that you would want to make because there’s all kinds of shit going on. How are you getting your comedy out?

JAY: Well, I’ve just been doing a lot of writing. I have some projects that I’ve been working on, so I’ve just been trying to throw my energy into the things I can do. You know what I mean? I can write these shorts and I can play around in this world through writing and having Zoom sessions with my homies and jamming on stuff in that kind of way. And then there’s been a few little popup shows that are outside of New York that I’ve been able to bop to, here and there, just to take the edge off. And at least, if I really got fucking pressed and I’m like, “I need to talk about this,” there’s somewhere to kind of do it now, but it is tough, because it’s not every night, it’s not how it used to be.

That’s what makes New York magical for comics. It’s like, you can get up every night, do three, four shows every night and really build something. Honestly, if the world wasn’t shut down, I’d probably be 20 minutes into another hour by this point.

MW: How did you build the hour for 3 In The Morning? Was that over the course of a bunch of road dates, or did you just hole yourself up writing?

JAY: It was a little bit of both. When I first got the news that I was going to do it, it was just getting up a lot in New York. It was just really pounding the material out in New York and getting it to a place where I was feeling good about it, because I feel like New York’s the best place to do stand-up. I think the audiences are just savvy, they know comedy, they love comedy. New York you can really fuck with them, that’s how a lot of these bits got made, because I was doing this shit in New York and they’re a place that’ll let you fuck around and say some crazy shit and push them and really figure out the nuance of it.

Then I was like, “Okay, once I get it there, now let me take it on the road and figure out how to make this palatable to more than grimy New Yorkers.” And just grow it out like that. That’s why it was so important for me to go to Europe, because I just wanted to also have gotten that more global and international test to know, “All right, I’m not just talking out my ass.” And that gave me the confidence to say the stuff I said, because I took it all around.

MW: What is next now that 3 In The Morning is out of the bag?

JAY: I mean, I got some projects in development, some things that I’m working on that I’m excited about that I can’t talk about, but hopefully they all work out. I’m going to keep writing, doing stand-up and just let that take me wherever it takes me. And I’m also just chilling and going to let it just wash over me and think about what I want to do next, to be honest, and just assess where I am after all of this and then see where my voice is bringing me.

MW: Are you going to do SNL this season?

JAY: I am, because there is no touring and I need a job.

MW: When reading up on you, other names come up like SNL cast members Danitra Vance and Ellen Cleghorne, Maya Rudolph, Leslie Jones. What is it like to be part of that legacy of Black women at SNL when, frankly, not that many Black women have walked through that door and created a sustained impact?

JAY: I mean, it’s huge. And I think also it’s a big deal because, like you said, it’s not a lot of Black women that walk through that door. And I think the more that do, the more that will, and the more that will even attempt to. I feel like they can. I definitely know I was one, I didn’t even think that was a door that could open for me until it opened. And so I definitely feel like just being in those spaces and also creating in your true voice and your authenticity, and not letting that be decided by the space, but you bringing something to the space, only helps up the visibility for people that look like us.

MW: Speaking of, how are you keeping your fade together?

JAY: You know what? I was really messed up for a while, because I was taking [lockdown] seriously, so I was not getting a haircut. I was like, nope, nope, nope. So I was really Sherman Klump-ing out here. Shit was looking super crazy. But then I had to do something for TV, and I was like, “I cannot.” So my barber’s been coming over, and he’ll be like full hazmat. But I’m doing the DJ Khaled thing.

MW: I was going to say, because your special starts out with you getting your hair cut, that a barber’s a good person to have out on the road with you when the time comes.

JAY: Yeah. I feel like that’s when I’ll know I’ve made it, when I’m like Diddy and the barber’s just with me everywhere. That’s when I’ve arrived.

Sam Jay: 3 in the Morning is currently available for streaming on Netflix. Visit www.netflix.com.

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André Hereford covers arts and entertainment for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at ahereford@metroweekly.com. Follow him on Twitter at @here4andre.

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