Over the past few years, Sam Jay has seemingly been on a mission to let the world know Donald Trump is America’s first N-word president.
It’s an idea that the stand-up originally put forth during her 15-minute set on Netflix’s The Comedy Lineup in 2018, it comes across on every “Them Trumps” sketch she has written for Saturday Night Live—in which the First Family is conflated with Empire‘s Lyon family—and the concept reaches its full fruition in a polished chunk on the comic’s just-released Netflix special, 3 in the Morning.
As much as viewers learn about who Trump may very well be during this special, though, what should be far more interesting is what they learn about who Jay herself is: a quick, thoughtful comedian with lots of swagger and even more to say.
3 in the Morning is a sumptuous feast of a stand-up special, in which Jay waxes on everything from her doomed early dabbling in heterosexuality, why she prefers Jaden Smith to Greta Thunberg, and how white people often seem to be training for some mysterious future calamity no one else knows about—all in a style that veers seamlessly from tough to playful. She filmed the special back in early February, mere weeks before COVID-19 shut down the world, and she has spent the months since homebound in New York, playing old board games with her girlfriend.
“I for sure would’ve had some stuff to say about what’s been going on now,” Jay says over the phone, about what would’ve happened had her special been scheduled for later in the year. “I feel like it would’ve been impossible not to.”
If Jay’s face or voice aren’t yet familiar to some viewers, they likely know her work on Saturday Night Live, where she has turned out consistently excellent work like the Neo-Confederate Meeting sketch, John Mulaney’s massively shared Cha Cha Slide piece, and the rap video about consent, “Permission,” starring frequent collaborator Chris Redd, who also appears at the end of 3 in the Morning, embracing the comic as soon as she gets off stage.
She also worked with Eddie Murphy on the Black Jeopardy sketch when he hosted the show last winter, an experience that capped off a lifetime of Murphy appreciation.
“It was very insane,” Jay says about her week working with Murphy. “I don’t even know how to describe the feeling in any other way but just, like: It happened to me, and I still don’t really think I even fully processed what happened.”
Coming from the world of stand-up when she was hired at SNL in 2017, however, Jay wasn’t always as in the pocket as she was by the week Murphy arrived.
“I kinda got completely blindsided a bit at SNL. I was lost for a good little while. Just trying to, like, figure out how to do it,” Jay says. “There was a lot of just doing it wrong and then assessing what I was doing wrong and then making adjustments—some things working and some of them not—and just kind of honing it that way.”
It wasn’t until the end of Jay’s first season that she began to feel comfortable. She wrote a sketch for Amy Schumer and Leslie Jones that worked at the pitch table and which she was able to translate into a full idea everyone could get behind. She’d written on other sketches throughout the season, but that was the first moment she knew she had what it took to thrive at Saturday Night Live.
In 3 in the Morning, Jay has a joke that invokes the oft-told adage, “representation matters.” As the first Black queer woman writing for SNL, though, Jay hopes others aren’t counting on her to bring everything to the show that they want to see.
“Maybe I try not to think about it too much and just bring what I know I can bring—and that is being authentic,” Jay says. “And in that, there will be a Black voice and a queer voice, and a voice of a woman, because I am all those things, and I can’t contain those things and those things are always going to be expressed through my artistic endeavors. But I don’t want anyone depending on me to do something because I may not do what you want done.”
Recently, there has been a major focus in media on who gets to tell whose stories. It’s a conversation that’s been going on since well before the Game of Thrones bros decided to spearhead an alternate history project about the Black experience during a post-Civil War society where slavery is still legal, and it’s a conversation that has intensified in the current racial reckoning.
The only story Jay is interested in telling with her comedy, however, is her own.
“At the end of the day, we’re all just up there searching for our voice and trying to tell our story, and I have one story of a Black lesbian woman,” Jay says. “But it’s just one. There’s so many out there. And so my story may not be everybody’s experience. I just hope that it reaches the people who can be moved by it [and that they] are moved by it, the people that can be helped are helped, and the people that can be changed are changed.”
As for those other Black lesbian women who may not have the platform of a popular stand-up and SNL writer, perhaps more opportunities are on the way, after all the talk of change recently.
Perhaps not, though.
“I feel like I see progress and you see some things and you’re like, ‘Oh, they’re getting it. It’s clicking,” Jay says. “And then you see, like, everybody kneeling in kente cloth, and you’re like, ‘I’m not sure.'”