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Philosophy of a Blowjob: An Interview with Jacqueline Novak

Monique Carboni
Jacqueline Novak in Get on Your Knees, 2019

Jacqueline Novak’s knees must be getting tired. She’s been on them since July, when her off-Broadway one-woman show about blowjobs opened in the West Village. Get on Your Knees became something of a downtown darling this summer, buoyed by celebrity attendees and rave reviews, plus its enviable list of comedy-world collaborators: director John Early, producer Mike Birbiglia, presenter Natasha Lyonne. It’s recently been extended again, this time through October 6.

Novak is a comedian with the soul of a poet and the mind of an auditor, splitting the finest hairs with unblushing lyricism. An aesthete’s sensibility hasn’t always won over clubs; several years ago, she took a break from stand-up to write a memoir about depression, How to Weep in Public, before finding her groove in New York City’s alt-comedy scene. In Get on Your Knees, Novak approaches the heterosexual blowjob, that quintessential act of female sexual service, with the bemused frustration of a philosopher who has lost her afternoon to troubleshooting a vacuum cleaner.

What ensues is a wonderfully cerebral take on giving brain. The gender of the penis falls under special scrutiny. Novak claims that the penis is “the most feminine thing on my boyfriend’s body”—nothing could be needier, more easily upset. She reviews its macho monikers—cock, anaconda, rock-hard boner—and sees them for what they are: the bluster of a small bird. But a bird has bones, however hollow; the penis has none, as Novak delights in reminding her audience, with gentle mocking: “If you were served the rock-hard boner in a restaurant, over a puréed celery root and jus, you’d be saying, ‘Tenderest meat I ever tasted.’” As she speaks, she absentmindedly swings the flaccid cord of her microphone behind her.

But Novak has bigger fish to fry than the old trouser trout. The true subject of Get on Your Knees is language, and its beautiful, delusional attempts to make amends for human finitude. I’m not kidding. Over eighty minutes of manic soliloquy, Novak transfigures the clumsy corporeality of fellatio into a sparkling ode to poetry itself. Upholstered in passionless grays, the comic paces the stage, talking, above all, to herself. Her delivery is breathlessly mannered, anxious for more words: faced, as a teenager, with her first expectant penis, she fantasized about having a second mouth with which to narrate the actions of the first. By the show’s rhapsodic finale, Novak is like Olivier on a day off, punch-drunk from the vigor of her own verse.

I recently sat down with Novak at a busy trattoria in the West Village, a few hours before curtain. Over deep-fried rice balls, we talked about coddling the male ego, the desire to narrate oneself, and what it means to play the fool. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.


Andrea Long Chu: One of the joys of the show is when you’re being misogynist to the penis. You actually berate the penis for fulfilling classic feminine stereotypes: it’s “so sensitive,” it’s the “ultimate drama queen,” it’s like a classic Freudian hysteric. For me, there’s a delicious tension there, and I wanted to ask how you felt about that move. 

Jacqueline Novak: I’ve agonized a lot over this specifically. Every time I ask myself what my point is, it’s grotesque. I’m like, “Ew, what am I, an unrigorous lecturer?” But then I think, no, I’m a nightclub act. If I’m complicating things a little bit in this dumb way, in the standup context, that’s pretty good. I do think I’m making not that sophisticated a point.

What’s unsophisticated about it?

I feel like I’m standing up there making people pay to see me be, like, “Gender, right?” Like, “Yeah, we know.”

That’s been done to death in comedy, sure. But it’s not how I take your show.

Thank god.

I think you’re genuinely interested in how these categories have more give than they’re supposed to. As though you’re saying, “In theory, it shouldn’t be possible to describe a penis as feminine, but look what I can do.”

It was huge in the Nineties to say, “Hey, homophobe. I bet you’re actually gay!” It was hurled as an insult to the homophobe, in the language of their own hatred. I don’t want to be like that, but my instinct is to start in the world of the annoying perspective I’m commenting on and point out the inconsistencies there. “I know you are into your supposed masculinity; let me just point out that even according to your own ideas about it, it doesn’t hold.” And now that we’ve cleared the table of that, other discussions can happen. But to me, there’s a schoolyard kind of feeling to it.

There’s pleasure there. One of the things that’s so grating about misogyny is that it can be fun for people, and I think part of you wants to steal that pleasure.

I enjoy initially poking back with the same weapon, perhaps? That feels like the first order of business. They’re poking you with a stick; you get the stick and poke them back. They’re, like, “What the fuck?” Then they’re destabilized, giving you a chance to say, “Look, I don’t think either of us should be using sticks.”

In general, I get annoyed by the way arguments are made, when I feel a rhetorical trick working on me and don’t feel fast enough to untangle it. There was that clip last night from the Daily Wire—those guys talking about why women aren’t funny?

Right, I saw that.

I can’t remember their names now.

They don’t have names.

One guy says, “Well, humor is inherently masculine. When women do comedy, they’re emulating men.” What was so irritating—this is why I’m interested in how people make arguments—was his implied generosity toward women: “Yes, women can be funny, but it goes against their nature, which is not funny.” There’s a theory there, an argument that someone’s made. It’s not what I happen to think, but it burns in me.

I’m too irritated not to engage. I need that imagined male asshole to know I can beat him at his own, lesser game. It’s totally juvenile, but I do get a pleasure in the release of those jokes. It’s the “No, you’re a pussy!” I feel like those jokes complicate things for people who would otherwise zone out if an academic were preaching about the patriarchy. At the same time, I kind of hate those moments.

But you also kind of love them.

I think so. No, you know what? I think I figured it out, sorry. I think I know what the show is all about.

Tell me, Jacqueline.

I’m telling this story of my anxiety around the penis and boys and engaging with this sexually—pleasing them, wanting to not be bad at sex. And at the heart of it was the vulnerability of the penis. The fear of biting the dick off, the fear of how I might hurt the penis, the fear of causing blue balls. So I spent my whole adolescence worrying about not injuring the penis, and then, at the same time, I felt I was expected to constantly prop up an idea of the penis’s—or men’s—strength and masculinity and whatever. I’m annoyed that I had to do both these things! Treating the penis as though it’s this vulnerable king.

That’s the sovereignty problem. If you need other people in order to be king, then you’re not much of a king. A penis, by its mythical reputation, should need absolutely nothing. And yet it has all this anxiety. You talk in the show about your own performance anxiety, both in terms of comedy and in terms of the blowjob. I wonder: Do you identify with the penis?

In terms of performance anxiety?

Maybe there’s two ways to call the penis feminine. One is saying, “You’re feminine; therefore, I can poke you with the stick and hit you with the tether ball as a way to separate myself from you.” And the other one seems to be, “You’re feminine. I get it, buddy. Me too.”

That’s really interesting. I remember one night a couple of weeks ago, this guy told me something about how he was inspired to embrace the tenderness of his own penis. He felt a little freed that his penis could be tender.

Performance anxiety is a traditionally masculine idea. Literally, it’s applied to impotence, the ability to “perform.” And I’ve obviously internalized the masculine quest for success from a young age—I talk in the show about my teenage interest in Tony Robbins’s books. So that’s one part of me. Then there’s another part of me—what I’ll call the poetic side—that just wants to train my eye to better enjoy the details of how life naturally unfolds. I’m pulled in both those directions. I think it’s possible that the typical performance-anxious male can easily identify with me in my quest.

And vice versa? Do you identify with him?

It’s funny. I’ve been thinking about this idea of being afraid of something because of its vulnerability. That’s scary for me. My nightmare is holding a little animal that I’ve just sat on and trying to put it back together as it falls apart.

When I originally wrote about this blowjob stuff, literally in a college essay, I included this nightmare I had as a kid. They had us raise caterpillars, hanging in cocoons in the classroom terrarium. It was a grotesque thing, to watch it unfold into a butterfly. They’re these weird little husks, and you think, “What?” I had a nightmare around that time, in which the teacher had each of us care for one, and we had to put them in our mouths. And I had one in my mouth and I had the fear of, what if I chomp down? And then I did. In the dream.

Oh my god.

Those are just the kind of nightmares that I have—“Oh god, the animal, I’ve accidentally left them in this closet,” or “I tried to transport my cat in a zipper bag and I forgot to leave open a space for air to get in!” The other night, I tried to drop something into the show about the monster in the movie—how it’s scarier when it’s limping. The terror of it dragging itself toward you.

Growing up, I didn’t question the fact that I both had to coddle the masculine ego in theory, and look as if I wasn’t coddling it in practice. It’s almost like this fake-punching thing, when he says, “Really give it to me!” And you have to pretend that you’re punching as hard as you can, but you know he has no abs. At some point, I’m thinking, “Jesus!”

There’s a line in the show about keeping up a steady stream of laughter under a man’s speech just in case anything he says is intended to be funny, and I used to add this other line: “If a woman’s never looked at you flatly after a joke you’ve made, then you’ve never known true respect.” So I give them this out, where if they can remember not getting a laugh, I’ve just bolstered their ego!

That’s like six-dimensional coddling. The problem with coddling something that shouldn’t need coddling is that even if it gets what it needs, it also knows that it’s being coddled, and that disrupts it. So you have to come up with a way for the man to be aware that he’s being coddled, but then also distinguish that from “really” being coddled.

That’s huge. Another piece of that six-level management is: if I’m willing to call out the male ego here on stage for you guys, I am respecting you by having the conversation with you in the room. But at the same time I don’t want to pressure them into laughing by leveraging their desire to be on the right side of things.

I’m still obsessing over this question of what it means to invoke stereotypes of women in order to criticize the penis. I’ve got to figure it out. I wonder if it isn’t cheating to say, “Look, I could argue that the penis is a stupid broad!” And in the moment, I’m saying it without apologizing for it, because it’s almost worse if I act as though I’m not doing the thing when I’m doing the thing. That’s why I try not to spend too much time luxuriating in those lines.

I think you are cheating, but I don’t know a way to do it that’s not cheating. Because the house is already playing dirty, so you have to cheat. Does that metaphor hold?

Oh my god.

I’ve never played cards.

Me neither.

I think you’re saying the penis is inherently a cheat. So cheating does seem inescapable to me. At least from an audience member’s perspective, I don’t stress about it as an ethical question. But that’s not my job; maybe it’s your job.

That’s why it’s an art, not whatever else. I’m not an academic. It’s art, and therefore a little drop of paint here, a little drop of paint there—it’s not a perfect argument. It’s a piece. It’s a living thing that nudges ideas around.

Speaking of which, I wanted to ask about literature. You talk about dissociating from a blowjob by imagining that you’re a character in a novel, which lets you move from a moral register into an aesthetic one, such that a bad blowjob could be a good short story. But there’s a sense in which you’re also alluding to the literary frame of the whole show—

Because I am casting myself as a character onstage. I hadn’t even thought about it that way. I’m so buried in every piece of the show. In part, I have to lose myself inside the show, and then I have to step outside of it to assess and make changes.

You have to dissociate.

In the show, when I joke about dissociating, I say, “I know it sounds fucked up. I am well aware of the horror.” And then I make fun of the devastating, romanticized idea of the woman who dissociates as a coping mechanism—the creepy, Seventies horror film version, which I take great pleasure in evoking. I could do that for two hours.

But I also believe that for someone who’s hyper self-conscious and has all the ego that comes with being an insecure performer, all the self-absorption of self-hatred, to dissociate can be a meaningful ego-transcending act. Arguably, it’s another version of mindfulness. Stepping back and observing, not being so attached. That’s why the original title of the show, as I was working it out, was How Embarrassing for Her. If it’s not me, if it’s a character in a short story, then it’s not embarrassing for me; it’s embarrassing for her. 

Which essentially means using language to dissociate, I think. There are two different moments when you’re faced with the blowjob, and the first time, you fantasize a second mouth to apologize for your inexperience, and then in the second case, you imagine becoming a novel that Vladimir Nabokov is writing. Part of the indignity of the blowjob for you is that the seat of speech is being obstructed. And so it’s taking away your ability to dissociate. It’s robbing you of the aesthetic.

Yes! I prefer to both be a thing and get to narrate the thing. I like to do both at once. So I want to be inside myself, and I want to control other people’s perceptions. Sometimes, I say to the audience, “I don’t like leaving you alone in your head to think things about me. I’m gonna force my voice in there. Drown out anything you might be thinking.”

You’re representing yourself. Like you’re in a court of law, doing the thing you’re never supposed to do in the movies: “Your Honor, I’ll be representing myself.”

Exactly. And then the only tolerable way to get through not being able to represent myself is to imagine that the greatest language possible would be used to describe me. And it’d better goddamn be Nabokov, you know?

There was actually a third blowjob at one point in the show, between the two you mentioned. An attempt that was successful because I prefaced it. I confess to the boy how afraid I am to do the thing, and how stressed I’ve been about it, and then, just when it seems as if there’s no way a blowjob is happening, I sort of demonstrate my concerns about it, physically, on the penis! I’m saying, “I’m not blowing you yet, this is not a blowjob. I’m just showing you how it doesn’t even work—” but by then, I’ve already stumbled into doing it.

This is not a pipe.

This is not a pipe, this is not a pipe, this is not a pipe. It was a switcheroo: “I’m not blowing you—oh wait, I am!” Then I would talk about how much I love a preface, because people say, “Don’t preface your work,” and my response is: “A preface is your best shot at narrating over narration.” Language atop language.

It’s the third mouth.

Yes. I always feel that a preface is cover fire. It’s language you’ve shot up in the air, and it provides a bit of cover while you get going, until the work itself takes over. Hopefully, by the time the impression of the preface fades, you’re really cooking. The performance, or the blowjob, or the book is already in motion.

It’s almost always the most coherent part of the book.

So, the show had this big preface theme, which, of course, you can imagine was worked into the beginning: a preface about my desire to preface the show, and all the structures mirroring each other. That got cut. The show is already too long!

That’s still the whole arc of the show, that desire for more language. It builds and builds and builds, and by the end, it’s exploded into this ornate epilogue. It almost sounds metered to me.

It is.

Get out of here.

I was having a lot of trouble memorizing the final speech because I kept rewriting it during previews. One day, as I was struggling to memorize the latest version, I thought: “Maybe if I throw it into iambic pentameter…”

That’s wonderful. It truly feels Shakespearean, in the granular sense of that word. You have this almost foppish tendency to use words that are too ornate for what you’re describing. You describe being heterosexual as “lusting after the common shaft,” for instance. Part of the joke is that you’re saying out loud something that’s meant to stay on the page. It retains its writtenness. It’s twice-baked language.

Completely.

And the end of the show feels like the culmination of that foppish tendency. “Foppish” isn’t quite the right word. I think of Puck at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, coming out to address the audience. Puckish, maybe.

Throughout the show, I’m wrestling with the desire to explain myself to other people. Along the way, I show the exhausting ridiculousness of all that. But in the end, I decide, Fuck it, I want to defend myself!

It comes as a result of a man not extending a generous gaze toward me in a key moment, after I’ve spent a lifetime poeticizing men’s flaws. I say: “Fuck it, I shall cast that gaze upon myself.” At least this once. And I’ll bring everything I’ve got, all the language, the meter, the references, to this fool’s errand. And because it’s comedy, I can play up the fool. I can let myself do the most ridiculous, ornate version of a defense of self.

You talk a lot about fools in the show. You don’t want to be the naïve fool, the fool who doesn’t know. You want to occupy this self-aware position, where you can acknowledge failure, even preemptively. But that too becomes a sort of foolishness in its own way, the fool who does know. Whereas by the end, it’s more that you’ve stopped being a fool and started being The Fool, in the Shakespearean sense. The character who, in absorbing everyone else’s failures and also personifying failure, is therefore the wisest.

I love that.

It’s a dialectic, Jacqueline.

If the show were an acrobatic piece, in the end I’d be slowly lifted up by wires. Then I’d falter, but sort of joyously. The final synthesis, to me, is: yes, we can defend ourselves, yes, we can give self-narration our best shot, and yes, we can even revel in the foolishness of that errand, because there’s something moving about the whole spectacle of the effort itself.

Much like a blowjob.


Jacqueline Novak’s show Get on Your Kneesis running at the Lucille Lortel Theater through October 6.