Right off the bat, comedian Jacqueline Novak makes clear that she’s someone concerned about dignity. She always has been, considering that growing up, she eschewed terms like ‘doggy style’ in favour of the more dignified ‘hound’s way’, a position she believes represents “a more mature kind of love where two lovers can look to the future together.” It’s a prudent, perhaps necessary, disclaimer given that Novak subsequently launches into a 90-minute investigation into ‘the blow job.’ Her new Netflix special Get On Your Knees is primarily centred around the blowjob, where she asks questions of this ‘art form’ perhaps never asked before: What does a blow job mean? Can a blow job be a love letter? And perhaps most importantly, what is the role of teeth in this heroic endeavour?
For those expecting crude comedy and sexual innuendo, let me clarify that that’s not what Novak is doing here. Instead, her story—because the entire show is a narrative of sorts, building up to a ‘climax’ if you will—is one of coming of age, and her concerns are more philosophical, literary, almost spiritual, rather than sexual. “For Jacqueline, the show is about taking a very mundane, crude act and whipping it into a cosmic frenzy,” said the comic John Early in The New Yorker. Fred Armisen, another comic and actor, put it differently: “It feels somehow good-spirited—there’s nothing mean in it. I really could bring my mom [to watch it] without having to explain anything.” And apparently, Novak’s own parents have seen the show dozens of times.
A large part of the brilliance of the show lies in its deconstruction of the language around sex, and Novak starts off with the appendage at the centre of her topic of concern: the penis. “Penis, the word just kinda slips out the side of your mouth. I think the problem with penis for people lies in its tender emotionality. I think the word is a problem for people because it sounds accurate to what it is. Penis. Penis. It sounds like a soft heartbeat. Penis. Penis.” She deconstructs and deconstructs the word into near oblivion. Meanwhile, ‘cock’, she says, is the sexier word, something your boyfriend wants to hear. It exudes a feeling of strength and invulnerability, “landing on the same damn consonant it started on.” These bits gave me a distinct flavour of The Vagina Monologues, the 1996 play by Eve Ensler that transformed, for ever after, how people looked at vaginas. Novak seemed to be doing the same thing for the penis; a reclamation of the penis, if you will – made all the funnier coming from a woman.
But then again, calling a penis a cock, for Novak, meant that she wasn’t calling it like she saw it. ‘Penis’ was real; ‘cock’ was exaggeration. Which brings us to a theme that Novak keeps returning to throughout the 90 minutes: authenticity. She is deeply concerned about authenticity, and has carried over this concern to all her sexual endeavours, including the blow job. How to give an authentic blow job? How to bring ‘an authentic spirit of play’ to the balls? These are questions she’s thought carefully and deeply about, and regales the audience with her insights on the matter. I won’t issue any spoilers, but safe to say that if you watch the show, it’s a bildungsroman that details a young woman’s journey to sexual awakening and becoming, in her own words, the ‘blow job queen’. The tale has a fair share of ups and downs, a sprinkling of suspense, and copious cues for laughter.
Even apart from what Novak says, it’s how she says it. She has a casual, conversational way of ambling along the show, where it seems like she’s in a two-way conversation with herself: posing commendable questions and answering them in the same breath. Unlike other comics, she doesn’t stand in one place, but spends the show pacing, almost jogging, from one end of the stage to another (she has admitted to wearing a ‘sports bra’ for her performance, because the entire show is an athletic exercise of sorts, and because ‘why is the audience owed a separation of my breasts?’). It’s a tireless restlessness that mirrors her thoughts and speech – and feels somehow appropriate. At times, she’s almost gasping for breath, half from fatigue, half from laughing.
In ways, this Netflix special has been years in the making. Novak wrote a first draft back in 2017, where she called it ‘How Embarrassing For Her.’ In 2019, she performed it at the Cherry Lane Theater in New York, and later that year, was offered a deal by Netflix. From 2019 to now, she has endlessly workshopped the piece, honing and crafting it to perfection. The 2024 special—directed by actress Natasha Lyonne, who you may know from her darkly comic performance in Russian Doll—has thus been a culmination of almost seven years of work. And it shows. Novak knows the material inside out, and it’s a pure pleasure to watch. And for those who feel the need for a more regular dose of Novak, be sure to check out her podcast ‘Poog’, an inversion of Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle brand ‘Goop’, where Novak and comedian Kate Berlant are supposedly talking about the wellness industry; but actually, just shooting the shit.
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