It was the unexpected feel-good (and then feel weird about it, and then feel good again) hit of the summer: Get On Your Knees — approximately 80 minutes of high-flying mediations on, essentially, the art and etymology of blow jobs, filtered through the fantastically discursive mind of comedian-turned-monologuist Jacqueline Novak.
After a sell-out run at the West Village’s historic Cherry Lane Theater, the show — presented by actress Natasha Lyonne and executive produced by Mike Birbiglia — has now moved to the larger Lucille Lortel Theatre, where it’s running through Sept. 21. Novak spoke to EW about elaborate vagina metaphors, celebrity fans, and why she won’t be giving out freelance sex tips anytime soon.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Do you care very much about the semantics of whether Get On Your Knees is called stand-up or a one-woman show?
JACQUELINE NOVAK: Well, I sort of joke that it depends who I’m talking to. If I’m talking to theater person and they’re like “You’re just doing stand-up in a theater!” I’ll be like “Um no, it’s theater, and here’s why,” or [mock-serious voice] “Consider this an experimental theater piece about a woman doing stand-up, and I am playing myself.”
And if I’m talking to stand-up people and they try to say “Oh, you’re just doing a one-woman show, there’s less pressure to be funny,” then I’m like, ‘Check the jokes count, motherf—ers! Laughs-per-minute, asshole, they’re all there!” [Laughs]
In the show you talk about discovering sexuality, and particularly blow jobs, through a friend’s older sister’s friend. But now when every kid has a smartphone, it seems like that era of finding things out more organically or socially is sort of over.
Totally. Totally! Now there’s so much information, and we’re so inundated, you can read endlessly about the blow job. But what I hope is relevant in my show is that the questions I have still stand, even when there’s endless takes on technique and videos of people giving them — it’s even more necessary to assess what the blow job might mean to you, you know? It used to be a lack of information and now it’s too much information, but you’re still left with the same questions. The internet certainly doesn’t poeticize it for me. [Laughs]
As you talk about coming of age and learning how to live as a girl in the world, you use so many great metaphors: That a vagina looks like a stepped-on rose, or the line that being a woman “is to be the great American novel baked inside a cheesy-crust pizza — whether someone’s hungry or they’re looking to read, either way they’re annoyed.”
Yeah, metaphors are really big for me obviously. I think it’s truly how I tend to understand thing — maybe even a tool I rely on too much. But there are some benefits. And it’s always evolving over the course of my life, like the metaphor’s a cap that fits on the thing I’m trying to describe, and if I come across about a better-fitting cap I might pick it up, try it, toss it around… That’s literally another metaphor, and I’m not sure it’s a good one. [Laughs] But the right one has a really satisfying feeling.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge started Fleabag at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival as a one-woman piece, just like you did with Knees. Do you feel an affinity for her considering that you both broke through with this very personal, boundary-breaking kind of show?
Yeah, for sure. I think Edinburgh has a real anything-goes kind of feeling, but also there’s a rigorousness at the same time. So I think it’s a really creatively stimulating experience, and also the sheer value of getting to put a show on 26 nights in a row is so huge in terms of getting used to turning personal material into a piece that’s just separate enough from you to be able to perform it. But I also just love her, so any excuse to compare myself to her, I’ll take. [Laughs]
How much room do you leave for tweaking or cutting or ad-libbing each night?
I see it as kind of locked in, as in the show that was reviewed is the show you’re going to see, right? But then I’m always trying out tweaks out each night. It kind of feels like I’m making a case for something, an argument, and every night I have the opportunity to make that argument again, so I absolutely leave room. And it does keep the fear of God in you as a performer. [Laughs]
You pretty much wear the same thing every night onstage — a plain grey T-shirt and jeans. Did you deliberately want sort of a blank slate, maybe a Spalding Gray kind of thing?
Yeah, I certainly enjoy having fun with clothes, but it felt like maybe because this show is my introduction to a wider audience, I didn’t feel ready to make an arguably strong sort of statement. To do stand-up is kind of this high-wire tightrope act, right? And to me, if you just go out in a leotard and do the tightrope thing, it really draws attention to what’s being done.
It’s almost like clothes are another language, and my show is so much about words and what I’m saying that I almost have to get as close as I can get to nothing competing with it. And then because the show is also about my discomfort with the body, it feels like the most neutral kind of nondescript clothing makes sense for the show. And it’s sexual material, so if you see an image of me dressed as a kind of librarian, that would seemingly tell you something more about it than if I dressed sensually.
Because you do have this sort of graphically honest show, do people assume when they meet you that they can kind of say anything to you because you must be this super open, sexual person?
When people see it they do want to talk sometimes — like when an usher on the show was like, “Can I ask you a few questions about, you know?” It was insane. I was like, I’m not a sex expert! I mean I know it’s pretentious to say “It’s a show about ideas!” but I think I’m more scandalized than people expect me to be. Like, I would gasp at a picture of a penis.
It seems like men too might have very different takes than women do on the show, but not always be sure how to express that to you.
It’s a wide variety. I would say that in general I’ve found that men for the most part actually receive it all really well, more than one would think. All of my stuff that’s like “the takedown of the c–k” — and I put that in quotations — I’m like, “No, I’m trying to restore authentic dignity to the penis by acknowledging what it really is, and that being okay.” So in a weird way it’s a takedown of the c–k, but it’s a defense of the penis.
You’ve been on Seth Meyers and Jimmy Fallon, all these shows, which is great for your career of course, but you’re also on television talking about…dicks. How have your parents handled that?
They really are proud, like unabashedly proud. They love the show! And if someone else were to say something disparaging to them, they would defend me to the death. We got through the awkwardness of sexual stuff literally when I was a teenager by watching Six Feet Under on HBO, or even The Sopranos. HBO programming really helped normalize sexuality in our house, so I always credit them.
Obviously you have Natasha Lyonne as a presenter, and the night I was at the show, Jemima Kirke from Girls and Alan Cumming were both in the audience in this tiny, tiny room. Is that strange for you?
Alan Cumming was, yes! I got to see his face from the stage, literally a round O mouth of shock. At a key moment his jaw was just open, and that was like, the greatest. Just thinking of him in Cabaret, I was like, “Maybe I need to throw in a dance number now?” [Laughs]