The mind-blowing comedy of Jacqueline Novak explodes in debut special ‘Get on Your Knees’

Jacqueline Novak’s debut stand-up special, “Get on Your Knees,” began as an essay she wrote in the early 2000s, while an undergraduate at Georgetown University, exploring her “evolving ideas about — and relationship to” performing oral sex. The piece developed into a sold-out, nationwide theatrical tour directed by comedian John Early and then a 90-minute filmed version now streaming on Netflix, shot by Sam Levy (“Lady Bird,” Jerrod Carmichael’s “Rothaniel”) and directed by actor Natasha Lyonne. As Novak explained, support from other artists was essential in creating a show that truly felt like her own. “Many people have helped me with this,” Novak said. “It’s really just quite stunning.”

The show is about the experience of performing oral sex, sure, but it’s also about how to poeticize our everyday existence. Novak “brings real stakes and gravity and poetry to the mundane,” said Early. “There are the tiny jokes she’s making within that exploration, and then there’s the larger joke that she’s giving this much attention to something so fundamentally silly or pedestrian.”

For Novak, elevating the ordinary is both the kernel of her jokes and a way to endure the world: “The only way to tolerate life, our mundane existence, is essentially to make it a big deal. To make everything a quest.”

Novak’s facility with language and her use of precise and surprising analogies delights throughout the special, including Novak’s many spirited descriptions of the male sex organ. “It springs up under certain conditions,” as she paces feverishly back and forth onstage. “That’s why I think it has the soul of an artist,” she says, adding, “If you’re describing a woman unfairly, you’re probably describing a penis perfectly. … They’re sensitive, they’re always reacting to things, they’re needy, they nag you … The penis is the ultimate drama queen.”

The rapport between Early and Novak was an electric factor in the process of working on the show. “The friendship kept us from being too formal or proper,” Early said. “We kept hanging out, and the fun of that was bleeding into the show. It always felt like it was crackling and popping because we were just having so much fun.”

For Early, it was important that Novak maintain her directness and conversational tone while performing. Being close to Novak helped with this aim. “That was the beauty of being both the director and a friend. I had a very clear sense of when she was veering away from something that wasn’t her,” he said. Novak, too, noted her kinship with Early and his unwavering commitment to her work. “He’s just such a champion of mine. … Working together was very intensive,” she said. “He’s so die-hard.”

Woman leaning on a chair under blue sky with clouds

“If I didn’t have [Natasha Lyonne directing], I could see myself panicking and defaulting to this idea of ‘OK, this is the big time, this is the one, you gotta get it right, this is television, baby,’” Novak said. “You definitely need someone to keep you from those things.”

(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Comedian Mike Birbiglia, who produced the first theatrical run of Novak’s show at the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York in 2019, has been an advocate of hers throughout her 20-year career. “He encouraged me from day one of doing stand-up. I could fill a book with pearls of comedy wisdom from him,” Novak said. Birbiglia praised Novak’s unique voice. “What is so special about the show is it has such specific language that she arrived at over years and years and years of revising and revising and revising to get it to be exactly what she wanted it to be,” he said.

Lyonne’s impact on the Netflix special was enormous. Her references for the look of the show included Robert Altman’s “Nashville,” D.A. Pennebaker’s “Town Bloody Hall” and “Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip.” Novak even refers to her film-expert director as “Cinema Guy.” Most important, Lyonne says she acted as Novak’s “protector” — a word both women used — in the process of making the show. According to Novak, her first comedy special easily could have taken on a “flawless,” overly TV-fied sheen if Lyonne hadn’t helped safeguard the work.

“If I didn’t have her, I could see myself panicking and defaulting to this idea of ‘OK, this is the big time, this is the one, you gotta get it right, this is television, baby,’” Novak said. “You definitely need someone to keep you from those things.”

The lighting of “Get on Your Knees” is a key example of how Lyonne kept it from becoming overly “perfect,” to maintain, as she called it, an aesthetic of “gritty New York by way of high-level intentionality.” For the special, Lyonne and Novak chose to have the comic followed by a spotlight as she stalks the stage. Novak explained that they were initially discouraged from using the following spotlight, “because it’s tricky and you get shadows that can be distracting.” Novak and Lyonne didn’t mind. “We were like yeah yeah yeah, we like that! Let’s have the weird shadows of me,” Novak said. “When you choose to have something that you can’t quite control, you get stuff that is beautiful, that you couldn’t have made if you tried. We thought, ‘Let the light do what it’s gonna do.’”

These touches of unexpected texture in the special balance the years Novak spent carefully honing the show, deliberating over every decision, including diligently editing the closed captioning text. “This was the comical version of myself, which also happens to be sort of real, thinking — ‘For time immemorial, the words must be right for the people,’” Novak said jokingly. “Like what, is T.S. Eliot not checking the transcript?” Lyonne greatly admires Novak’s attention to detail. “It’s very cool when people take their work very seriously. Especially in the business of jokes,” she said.

Woman stands leaning against a wall

Novak’s special includes many spirited descriptions of the male sex organ. “It springs up under certain conditions,” as she paces back and forth onstage. “That’s why I think it has the soul of an artist.”

(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

As a veteran actor, Lyonne easily identified with Novak’s passion. “I’m a really seasoned pirate. I’ve been through the wringer many times, come out the other side many times. I really know what it’s like to care, know from my guts what it’s like to have those feelings of, ‘I gotta nail this thing.’ I’m just trying to protect the baby genius,” she said.

Lyonne’s goal was always for Novak to be pleased. “This show is about her. This is not about me. This has got nothing to do with me. It’s about protecting that vision and that text and that person. And making sure that she has the time to dial in something extraordinary.”

A parallel between directing and parenting was explicit for Lyonne. “As a barren woman,” she quipped, “I really love watching the kids come up and being there for them. It’s very basic. We eventually lose interest in ourselves and gain interest in the things that are not the self.”

Lyonne says she too benefited from a motherly Hollywood sherpa when Amy Poehler took her under her wing. “Poehler really trained me well,” Lyonne said. “And I can see this sort of pay-it-forward transference. There’s a lineage there. My gratitude for Poehler enables me in some small way to know how to do the same with Novak.”

The special is a product of Novak’s talent, dedication and, as Lyonne says, her “big brain.” It’s also the result of benevolent creative buttressing along the way, particularly from Early and Lyonne. “They’re giants. I’m very lucky that I’ve charmed them,” Novak said.

It’s astonishing how many incredible jokes are packed into this debut special, alongside so much intelligence and meaning. As Lyonne put it, “This is definitely her opus. Or at least her first opus.” She further added, with reverence, “I don’t even know if it’s a show about [oral sex] if I’m being honest. I think it’s basically more of a framework for an explosion of genius.”

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