Jacqueline Novak has had a lot of time to think about the act, the history, and especially the etymology of the blowjob for her runaway hit Get on Your Knees. Developed through years of standup and a solo show at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2018, the production went on to become an off-Broadway sensation last summer, and is headed to Vancouver on tour as part of JFL NorthWest.
“The word blowjob, I kind of like it,” the comedian muses to the Straight over the phone before curtain time at New York City’s Lucille Lortel Theatre, where the show has continued to sell out. “One, because it was the first term I heard. And two, it’s an outrageous term. If you try to look up the origins, there’s a lot of disagreement about where it actually comes from. And it has a cartoonish feel in a way.
“So it’s not really accurate and it’s intense and sort of outrageous in the way words have a feeling to them, and a texture. I always feel like words have a shape—in the same way that penis versus cock does,” she continues. “And I don’t like oral sex—it sounds dental, and, I mean, oral sex can mean all manner of things.”
With that, you get a small window not only into the mind of this literate, philosophical, and brutally honest overthinker, but into the entertaining tangents of her critically celebrated show. Scoring spots on both the New York Times’ Best Theater of 2019 and Best Comedy of 2019 lists, Get on Your Knees is executive-produced by comedian Mike Birbiglia and directed by her old standup cohort John Early. It’s billed as “the most high-brow show about blow jobs you’ll ever see”.
In it, Novak manages to interweave her own coming-of-age story with references to T.S. Eliot, meditations on why words like erection and snake are misnomers, and contemplations of the absurdity of the sex act. (The teeth: what to do with them?)
Novak traces the original idea all the way back to her years at Georgetown University. “I had played around with this story in an essay in college in a lyrical, kind of poetic way,” she says. “I like taking the vulgar thing and seeing if I can ennoble it.”
Because of her approach, Novak doesn’t think of herself today as a person who spends every night talking about fellatio.
“It’s all threaded up in this whole narrative and argument in my mind,” she explains. “Like, I still feel a ga-a-s-sp when I talk about it in the show—like I’m not a person doing a show about blowjobs. So much is wrapped up in my own language and it’s so abstract in a way to me. In fact, I don’t even know if I’ve gone that deep into the subject.”
Anyone who’s seen the standup artist’s appearances on shows like Late Night With Seth Meyers know she loves to dress up. So it’s telling that she chooses to wear plain grey jeans, sneakers, and a T-shirt for Get on Your Knees, her hair pulled into a casual ponytail.
“I feel like something else might be getting in the way of everything I’m trying to say or do if I’m talking about sexual stuff. I think for that show it helps create a semineutral canvas,” she says. “I’m still on the search for the perfect grey T-shirt.”
Critics have praised Get on Your Knees as being full of laughs, but the ever-inquisitive Novak turns serious about the courage it takes to “go there” in her show.
“In a world where a lot of negative stuff comes out of shame, I want to go against my instincts of not saying anything—that helped me move forward and go for it,” she says. “I think it’s important to push past my own discomfort. I don’t know who these imaginary people are who are judging me, but I’d rather have these people think I’m vulgar if it makes some kid feel less ashamed to say things.”
JFL NorthWest presents Jacqueline Novak’s Get on Your Knees at the York Theatre on February 22.