Jacqueline Novak’s Netflix special is a manifesto on sex and power

Jacqueline Novak’s Netflix special is a manifesto on sex and power

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NEW YORK — Jacqueline Novak is wary of the opening paragraphs of profile stories. There’s always that whiff of manufactured serendipity. The old, Oh, come on in — just took these steaks off the grill. “Like, ‘I arrive at their apartment and they’re in the middle of painting,’” Novak says faux-airily. But today, a cold and humid Sunday afternoon in December, while she adjusts to the idea of being a profile subject, the L.A.-based comedian has invited me along for a convincingly normal and human set of downtown-Manhattan errands while we talk: a latte stop, a short walk around the block to get a glimpse of sunlight for the day and a browse through an upscale clothing boutique without buying anything.

By the time we settle in at a table in the lobby of the Ludlow Hotel, Novak, 41, has reconciled with the fact that an impression will be gotten, whether it’s the one she was hoping for or not. She has reached the point, she says, of “being like: ‘F— it, dawg. Be observed.’”

End of carousel

It is not long before she remarks offhandedly that this particular Lower East Side lobby — cozy and lamplit with a fireplace and sultry tufted couches — is a perfect place to pretend to be a ghost.

It is obvious even in just a few moments how much Novak thinks about the chasm between intent and interpretation, and about “the embarrassment of the flesh,” as she puts it. Both of which she explores in her Netflix comedy special, “Get on Your Knees,” which will debut Tuesday. Its sensational 2019 stage run at New York’s Cherry Lane Theatre and, later, the Lucille Lortel was extended multiple times; it was named a New York Times Critic’s Pick. Oh, and: It’s a 90-minute show about blow jobs.

Or that’s the simple, arguably reductive way to think about it. The stand-up set is also an examination of our collective assumptions about what’s happening in the mind and spirit when the body assumes the titular pose, and a rebuttal to the traditional idea that a woman degrades in value with each sexual experience (or, as Novak calls it, “the scratch-and-sniff model of personhood”). It’s a blisteringly intellectual, deeply funny sermon examining the absurdity of our longest-held notions about the power dynamics of sex — one that had a longer journey from stage to screen than anyone involved expected.

To witness the show itself — which first gained momentum at the 2018 Edinburgh Festival Fringe under the early title “How Embarrassing for Her” — is to sit directly before a fire hose of frank postulation about sex that’s as scholarly as it is X-rated, nimbly invoking the works of the Greek mythologists, of Philip Roth, of Sharon Olds and Tony Robbins and Nietzsche. She narrates an early episode of teenage experimentation in an unfinished basement as Nabokov would. The advice commonly given to young women to “take it slow” in a dating situation where there’s hope for a real relationship? Novak condemns it with a flourish: “No. No! The hubris astonishes. Death is coming.”

Novak chose her onstage uniform of a gray T-shirt and skinny jeans because it’s “the most neutral, kind of nothing outfit,” making virtually zero statements that might add to or detract or distract from the show. It’s an effective tactic, its modesty underlining the fact that it’s not Novak’s free-spirited sexuality that shocks so much as her self-possession.

“I wasn’t worried about saving myself for marriage,” she declares. “If I was going to present something to my eventual true love, I’d want it to be a collection of sexual skills and an attitude of confidence.”

Novak’s other works approach the world with the same quizzical stance toward traditional mores. Her 2016 depression memoir/self-help guide, “How to Weep in Public,” aims not to cure or motivate or in any way heal the depressed person reading it, but to keep them company with a set of compassionate, funny anecdotes from her own experiences at her lowest lows. Novak also co-hosts the podcast “Poog” alongside fellow comedian Kate Berlant; it’s an exploration of the modern wellness industry that tests its vast range of serums and services, not for the nobler purpose of separating the scammy from the effective but for the pure love of trying products. In an early episode, Novak delivered what acts as something of a thesis statement for the project: “People talk about snake-oil salesmen. I’m looking for a snake-oil salesman. Where are they? I’m looking to buy.”

It’s the “Poog” live tour that has brought Novak to New York on this dreary pre-Christmas weekend. At our table in the moody Ludlow lobby, Novak tells me that she always envisioned “Get on Your Knees” as a streaming special.

“It wasn’t like, ‘I want to have a New York stage show.’ It was like, ‘I want to make this comedy special,’ and in order to do that, there’s a lot of paths. I was open to anything,” Novak says. “If there was a bar that would have let me do it and I could get the people in, I would have done that. I was like, ‘I’ll do anything to get this show to a point where I believe in it enough that I would go banging doors down, saying, “Watch this. Put it on your streaming service.”’”

Instead, “Get on Your Knees” was brought to the stage and screen by a trio of well-known, well-loved funny people who also happen to be Novak’s friends. Natasha Lyonne produced the stage show and directed the Netflix special. Comedian and “Search Party” star John Early, who met Novak through his frequent collaborator Berlant, directed the show for the stage. Comedy multi-hyphenate Mike Birbiglia, who performed in the same Georgetown University improv troupe as Novak, Nick Kroll and John Mulaney, served as executive producer for the stage show.

Of course, all three swear they were just there for moral support. Lyonne came on board after seeing an early iteration of the show in Los Angeles, and she says very little about the show required coaching or tweaking even then. “I was just blown away, immediately, by her poetry and comedy, and how literary she was but also how obscenely hilarious she was,” Lyonne remembers. “I was obsessed.”

Early, too, says he mostly worked with Novak on bolstering what she’d already created. “My contribution was just kind of helping her plant her feet, talk to us directly and not be embarrassed by just … the ritual of theater,” Early says with a laugh. He also preserved the show’s pure stand-up comedy feel, he tells me, protecting it from the corny, self-serious theatrical conventions that a capital-T theater director might have inflicted on it.

Still, “I want to be very clear: This is really all a work of Jacqueline’s genius,” Early says. “I was just kind of cheerleading throughout.”

Birbiglia financed the show’s New York run with his wife after its original funding fell through. “I was an extra set of eyes and ears since I had done a bunch of solo shows before,” Birbiglia wrote in an email. “But the thing about Jacqueline is that her comedy voice is so singular, and when someone’s voice is like that, you’re really just trying to encourage them to be them.

“She operates on a deeply funny and specific frequency,” Birbiglia adds. “And so when she put on ‘Get on Your Knees’ downtown, it became the ‘it’ show of New York City because it was like her and thousands and thousands of people on this frequency at the same time.”

Indeed, “Get on Your Knees” seems to have struck a cathartic chord with audiences. The show’s most autobiographical sections expose a phenomenon familiar to many young women: that there’s hardly any daylight at all between the shame of having insufficient sexual knowledge and the shame of clearly having some. In one wild moment, Novak reenacts her own first attempt at oral sex while bemoaning the fact that she had no second mouth with which to acknowledge her inexperience in real time. Soon afterward, she’s recalling how the moment she felt she’d finally put together an adequate set of skills coincided with learning she’d gained a reputation.

“For me, the most vulnerable part of the show is [describing] that humiliation,” Novak says. “You’re fighting so hard to gain a kind of sexual confidence or vocabulary, and then the moment you have it, it’s like, ‘Oh, God.’ You’re running so hard in one direction, so afraid of one extreme, and then you have to be like: ‘No, I’m the innocent one! You don’t understand!’

“To be misunderstood in this way, it’s like, ‘This is such hard-won swagger!’” she adds with a laugh.

In early 2020, after the conclusion of the New York run, Novak embarked on a “Get on Your Knees” tour — to “get it in my bones,” she says — with a plan to tape the show and sell it as a special. After just one tour date in Canada, though, the rest of 2020 was effectively canceled. “I wasn’t as crushed as it would seem like I would be. Because after however long doing comedy” — it has been some two decades since Novak started out on the Washington-area comedy circuit, honing her skills at spots such as the DC Improv and the now-defunct Wiseacres in Tysons Corner — “I was just proud. Grateful to be, like, one of the big boys who had dates to cancel.”

She restarted the whole process in the summer of 2021: a run at the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York, followed — this time successfully — by a multi-city, multiyear tour. The special was finally filmed at Manhattan’s Town Hall in June 2023, on a bare stage with camera and lighting work inspired by the analog look of Richard Pryor’s and George Carlin’s old specials from the 1970s.

Now, nearly five years after its New York debut, “Get on Your Knees” is finally taking on the form Novak and her team always envisioned for it. Watching the final edit of the special, Lyonne felt more moved than usual imagining its future audience. “Just imagining kids in their junior year in high school, or in college, taking on the dating scene. Even full-on grown-ups having this experience, of like, ‘Holy s—, I’m not alone in this world.’”

Novak, meanwhile, is adjusting to the reality that her bold declarations — that the penis, for example, in its fragility and sensitivity and general moodiness, is the human body’s most feminine body part — will soon be fully subject to interpretation beyond her control.

Her hope is that viewers will understand “Get on Your Knees” as a useful exercise in kicking the tires of conventional ideas. “I make that argument about the penis not because I think we all got it wrong,” Novak says. “It’s just to demonstrate that it’s all a choice, how we’re looking at it.

“Saying, ‘This is dignity and this is shame,’ or, ‘This is embarrassing and this is respectable’ — we’re locked in on certain judgments of how things are,” she adds, “and I find that sort of rude to the human spirit.”

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