Talking to Jacqueline Novak About Her Debut Standup Album ‘Quality Notions’
Jacqueline Novak’s recently-released first album, Quality Notions, is a testament to one New York-based comedian’s ability to run the comedic gamut. She ranges from accusations that the men in the audience are distracted by her feminine figure to an in-depth analysis of proper pizza consumption, from her experiences with poetry to reflections on her imaginary life of as a prostitute, and from sex “the hound’s way” to contemplation on the words of the great Bohemian-Austrian poet/novelist Rainer Maria Rilke. However, this wide range of topics is made perfectly hysterical by her comically confident character, which is guaranteed to have you laughing at every turn.
I recently had the opportunity to talk with Novak about her on-stage ego, the hurdles faced by women in comedy, and her approach to producing such fresh material.
Your personality comes through so strongly on the album. Is that something you’ve developed, or does that kind of character just come through naturally?
When I first started, I had funny ideas, but I wanted to be cool; I wanted to be a “cool girl.” I wanted people to say, “Wow, she’s fucking cool and funny.” On this album, I tried to avoid hiding my opinions and my ideas behind casualness out of a fear that people wouldn’t think I’m cool if I’m too intense. I found it very embarrassing to come off as deeply in love with my own ideas and pretentious and all that stuff. And then I thought, ‘Maybe it would be more fun to fully embrace it and act like I’m a fucking professor: own it and go completely the opposite and just be so confident that then you’re almost allowed even more.’ By going over-the-top in my presentation I can get away with saying more intense things versus trying to sneak it in. I can say more while letting you know I know I’m a bit much.
To a certain extent, though, you displayed a variety of different caricatures with every joke.
Yeah, I figured out this thing where I don’t have to oversimplify it or even oversimplify who I am. There’s this idea where you have to play this sort of character, this voice has to be just a driving force in one direction, unwavering. I always get frustrated with that kind of stuff. I’m more comfortable now, I can allow every contradiction to be over-the-top and present. I’m probably not as full of contradictions as I like to believe. Right now I’m having fun, because there’s this part of me that’s a huge ham; I love Broadway, I love musicals, I want to strut around the stage, I want to take up space. I strut around a lot these days. I used to not move.
I used to not even acknowledge myself as a girl so everyone would think, ‘Oh she’s so cool, and wow, she’s, she’s clearly a girl; look at her long, wavy hair. She doesn’t even seem to be aware of it!’ Now, I’m actually having so much fun, constantly bringing it up, accusing male audience members of being distracted by my body. It is so utterly hilarious to me because I feel like Ms. Piggy.
Right, but that big persona you adopt allows you to sort of say whatever you want on stage.
Exactly. I think sometimes women feel that they won’t be liked unless they soften their intelligence, their intent. I remember this guy in my improv group told me, “When I first met you, I didn’t really like you. I thought you were just really girly and intense.” And then we were best friends, and I’m like, “You realize I’m still really girly and intense, but now you know me as a person and aren’t repulsed by it.” So I was trying to kind of play it down, but it was just too limiting. I’m aware of my own horrifying love of my own notions, so I feel like the only way to do it without being a douchebag is to be a humongous douchebag. In those moments where I’m so utterly fucking delighted with my notion to just act like “This is gospel, this is it,” and go over-the-top. It’s my own little work-around that allows me to feel confident saying more because ultimately people want you to say more. You don’t go to a show so that someone can be humble.
You’re letting your ego fill up the stage in the best way possible.
I tweeted at Steve Martin once to ask him what did he meant in Born Standing Up when he said that “Standup is the ego’s last stand.” Does he mean that standup in general is the last bid of a failing ego, in which case it would lead to enlightenment? Or is standup the pathetic desperation to still somehow gain personal glory from communicating ideas that are actually about everyone and universal and owned by no one? He hasn’t responded.
Do you ever feel like being a female comic sort of edges you into certain jokes? I know a lot of the major female comics of today, from Amy Schumer to Sarah Silverman, have a lot of crass humor. Do you feel like that compels you to follow suit?
When I first started, I always thought that, when you start out as a woman, there is this unspoken challenge by others not to do sex material. There’s a sense that a woman doing sex material is somehow cheap or getting laughs that are easier than whatever else. So in my mind I thought, ‘I’m going to do that.’ I didn’t like make it a hard line, but it did occur to me to accept the challenge. Then I would write these jokes about sex stuff that I would think were funny or interesting. Because it is interesting! It’s a big part of the human experience. And I just kept writing jokes about this stuff.
On one level I think the entire question of women doing sex material — and I’ve been saying “doing” because I don’t want to say “relying on” or any of those and I don’t want to make any of those judgments — I almost feel like it’s an illusion or a myth. It might just be that women are more insightful about sex; that men might be more humorless about sex, in a way, because of the way that they are so blindly driven by it.
I hate when people say women rely on shock value. It’s only shock value if you are shocked by it as a listener. Just because you’re shocked by my genius insights about blowjobs isn’t my problem.
True, but I feel like the case is more that women make different kinds of sex jokes that strike the audience in a different way.
There’s a gross misconception that there’s this inherent thing about women not being funny, and it doesn’t line up. Some women say, “As long as we continue to have this discussion, we are legitimizing it,” but fuck it: let’s talk about it! If you’re going to say that what’s funny is truth, that feeling of recognizing something as the truth and the satisfying, surprising, and true feeling you get, it makes no sense to me to say women aren’t funny; there’s an inconsistency there. So I would try to think about it, ‘Okay, if people think women aren’t funny, the problem must be that something’s happening that men watching a woman aren’t experiencing what she’s saying as truth.’ I feel like maybe an issue is that women on some level don’t think the male audience wants to hear that. Sometimes they’re trying to appeal to something, maybe they’re trying to be funny in the way that men are funny. But maybe that’s because when they’re trying to be truthful about their own experiences, men maybe go, “That doesn’t relate to me.”
It’s like women feel more pressure to do male-relatable material than men would ever feel to do female-relatable material.
Yes. One of my theories is that women are actually more capable of laughing at others’ experiences that don’t mirror their own. If you have a room full of people, women are completely comfortable laughing at whatever, Louis C.K. talking about masturbating by means of his friend sitting on his ass or whatever and creating pressure on his dick. You know what I mean? Something that’s particularly male. To make a bold and general statement, I think women have a better sense of humor. Men on the whole are less comfortable laughing at something that doesn’t directly mirror their experience, and that could in theory be because they haven’t been forced to as much. It’s almost as if the women should be allowed to retract their laughs in order to point out to the men, “You only think you’re better because you see that ‘everyone’ loves you, but that’s because we’re open to loving you.” It’s like, “So I’m being punished because I laughed at your joke about your balls? Your gender is perceived as funny to all because I was able to slide my own consciousness into having balls?” I’m being punished and the dude’s like, “I’m funny.” No, I’m able to SEE that you’re funny, and you’re unwilling to extend the same.
With that in mind, this album seems to sort of turn that back around on men. You do a lot of jokes that mock the standard joke orientation, but you do it in a way that manages not to step on anyone’s toes and make it indigestible.
My friend Kate Berlant, she’s brilliant, very funny, very different, and she studied critical theory, that was her thing. So she’s very on top of things being “problematic” in terms of gender stereotypes. Anyway, she told me, after attending my album recording, that it was “a feminist outcry.” I was like, “Oh my God, it was?”, sort of tickled pink by the idea of it. And then someone else was saying something, this woman, she was sort of self-conscious, sort of laughing about it, like, “The issue of the male gaze kept coming up,” and I’m like, “Oh my God, I love it.”
At one point in your set, you mention that you used to write poetry. I know a lot of people have compared comedy to poetry in the past; how do the two compare for you?
I fully love poetry and I actually might just have to accept that I’m going to be the most pretentious person in an interview that’s ever existed. But I actually felt like for me — this is so obnoxious — with poetry, it was too easy to slip into that “mystical, poetic state.” It had that quality where it was so easy for me to slip into this state of worshiping like, the lemon on the table. It almost felt like you were getting away with something. In college, I always felt like I was fooling people too much. I could impress people when I just bullshitted it.
But it’s almost like comedy is so fucking confusing and endlessly interesting and challenging. On a certain level, when poetry fails, it’s just whatever, but when comedy fails, it’s so painful. It is everything that is wrong. The stakes are so high in comedy; comedy is an art form where deep public shame, the humiliation of the ego, or whatever, it’s constantly right there. There’s something I value in the fact that some of the best comics ever are still deeply dissatisfied with their own work. So it has a quality to me where I can’t help, but I’m always relating it to some sort of spiritual enlightenment quest.
To that end, do you feel like comedy is sort of intangible? A lot people relate comedy to simple formulas.
I don’t know. Okay, when I was working at an ad agency for a year and a half or so, at first they wouldn’t give me too many assignments because I was new. I would write jokes in this long Word document and I would listen to Dave Attell’s Skanks for the Memories album because somebody had it on the shared iTunes in the office. I would listen to it over and over again every day. I felt like “I’m going to study this: this is going to be a master class.” The kinds of things Attell was talking about didn’t feel like the stuff I was going to talk about. Sometimes if it’s too close to your own sensibility, you can get confused. If it’s a little different from your own sensibility, you can actually see the craft.
So I was able to transcribe parts of it, stare at it, study it. I have like 10 different documents called Skanks for the Memories. Each time I transcribed it I would highlight what was happening in it with a different font or outline. Sometimes the first punchline would be in italics, but then I realized every one of his punchlines would become a premise for a second new punchline. And I thought, “Okay, I need a third level. I need an outline. I can’t just go italic, bold, it’s not enough. I need multi-layers.” I would study it like Eugene Levy in [Waiting For] Guffman, who says, “I wasn’t the class clown, but I studied him.” I love that [quote] so much because to me it totally embodies the dorkiness of comedy. And I do think this is true. I remember Eugene Mirman told me that when he was in college and first doing comedy, when he was trying to figure it out and understand it, he remembers writing things in notebooks like “If p then q, and q has to be revealed to be r but also q with an added element c.” And that always charms me so deeply, because I do think that for people who love comedy, it’s not always natural, and that’s all right. There’s something really humble about it. It’s almost like doing scales, really trying to understand it at its most basic level.
But actually combining those scales is sort of the hardest part of all.
Right, and it just goes on. I feel like the reason comedy never becomes boring is that, once you figure out how it works or one aspect of it works for you, you so quickly become bored of that and need something more. And that’s why it has that spiritual quality to it of enlightenment. Where it’s like, “No, that last album was a false idol to you, stop worshipping at the altar of your false idol last album.” … Oh my God. I’m an asshole.
So that’s to say that you’ll not be getting tired of comedy any time soon?
I’ve been doing it for about ten years. I’ve always written a lot. There are certain ideas that will come up over and over again that are just these things I always think about and I either manage to express them or I don’t. If I move on and remember them later, it’s not that I think they’re garbage ideas just because I had them however many years ago. Sometimes you have more clarity now than you did five years ago. Sometimes you forget your own clarity. Over the last couple years I’ve started pulling stuff out of my first notebooks that, at the time, I didn’t have the confidence to perform or sell. In the beginning, I’d be afraid: “What if this doesn’t sound like a joke for 30 seconds or five seconds?” or “What if people think, ‘Is she just talking? Is she a girl who just doesn’t know you need jokes? Is she a girl just gabbing?.’” But I think I’m going in the right direction.
Jacqueline Novak’s Quality Notions is available now. Here’s a video she made for the album:
Photo credit: Mindy Tucker