Everyone in New York is talking about Jacqueline Novak, but Jacqueline Novak is talking exclusively about blowjobs. Specifically, the simultaneous grace and indignity of giving them. She’s been doing so on stage in downtown New York this summer, seven times a week to her consistently sold-out show, “Get on Your Knees,” in faded black Everlane jeans and a gray Current/Elliot T-shirt she found at Bloomingdales with comedian, friend, and the show’s director John Early. “It’s a palette of gray on gray on gray, basically,” she says.
The T-shirt isn’t tight, nor is it loose; it is, as Jaqueline puts it, “just a T-shirt.” The New Yorker’s Alexandra Schwartz described it as “sillhouette-swallowing” in her glowing review of the show, and “schlumpy” in a shorter write-up for print, as in: “[P]acing the stage in a pointedly schlumpy gray t-shirt, [Novak] goes deep on the semantics of the male member and the equally vulnerable male ego.”
“I think by ‘schlumpy’ she means, ‘She was not attempting to flatter herself with her T-shirt,’” Jacqueline tells me over dumplings in Chinatown, while wearing the shirt in question, this time layered over a black unitard with white sneakers. “But could a T-shirt, no matter how shapeless it is, be ‘schlumpy’ on a perfectly toned and fatless body?” She considers this for a moment. “It’s hard to say. It’s hard to say.” Jacqueline picked the shirt for its seeming innocuousness: “I liked the heather. There are a lot of lesser heathers out there that are almost like a stripe. This heather is one of the most neutral in the world to me. I like it—much more than the charcoal. I don’t like an overly light heather.”
If this seems like a lot of thought to put into a garment chosen specifically for its lack of character, you’ve pinpointed one of the many maddening features of getting dressed for an audience. When I saw her show during previews in July, I noticed her gray-scale outfit right away, and assumed it was something akin to warmup gear, to be replaced with a more statement-making option for the regular run. But today she tells me a statement is exactly what she doesn’t want to make with her clothes on stage, at least for now.
“John and I talked about it a fair amount,” she says of her plain wardrobe choice, which she’s committed to for the full run, which has just been extended for four weeks at the Lucille Lortell Theater due to high demand. “It’s a show with a lot of sexual stuff, and so it’s like, if I’m wearing something real buttoned-up, then that seems to say, Oh, I’m the librarian, or, I’m the academic approaching this sexual material.” She pauses, and her forehead wrinkles as if working out a point.
“But something overtly revealing might feel too on the nose?” I ask.
“Yeah,” she says, snapping out of it. “Sometimes I do a joke about wishing I could appear before the audience as just, like, a sheet of paper with arguments on it.”
Jacqueline’s brand of comedy is hard to categorize. It’s not blue or physical or shocking, although it certainly has those elements. You could call it observational, but it’s more…dare I use a ten dollar word, perspicacious. It’s thinkier. It’s an externalization of the most brilliant thought you’ve ever had while stoned. And she delivers it every time as if it’s the first— in a thoughtful, stutter- and pause-laden staccato. This is how she talks off-stage, too. It’s misleading almost, because it’s easy to underestimate the significance of what she’s saying. To assume she’s jumping around a point instead of plunging into its molten core.
Over the course of our conversation, I am struck by her casual lucidity: She dresses in ways that attempt to “neutralize the body or something.” Clothes are “another language.” Her body is her “soul’s outfit.” Her wardrobe is simple for this show because she doesn’t want people to “contemplate polka dots for 90 minutes.”
The first time I saw Jacqueline Novak she was opening for John Early at The Bell House, and she was wearing a sheer, billowing pink peignoir with frilly hems and a tie at the neck, floating around on stage like a blurry peach. The look is burned into my memory because she and the dress converged for me that night, becoming a singular, cheerful idea. This can happen with clothes and personhood, to varying levels of advantage.
“I got it at this vintage store in my neighborhood,” she says of the dress. “I was wanting to feel more glamorous or fun or something. I thought about wearing something like that for [‘Get on Your Knees’], but I just felt like any of those things were going to get over-emphasized.” It’s a concern most male comedians probably don’t share. “I think that with a lot of men’s clothing, you kind of project a neutral-ness onto it.”
Neutrality or “blankness” as an aspiration comes up often in our conversation. Being understood at a remove from her physical form is the ideal for her right now. “I talk a lot in the show about the body being this burden. The female body on its own, no matter how you’re dressing it, means something to other people,” she says. “I’m not looking to erase myself. But it feels like, with stand-up, [clothing is] adding something that’s distracting or confusing.”
When Jacqueline takes the stage, because of forces both natural and manufactured, what she wears changes the meaning of what she says. It might even serve as the prism through which she is understood. This is a challenge we all face, on some level, in the performance of life; we’re just not being written up in The New Yorker about it. It makes sense that neutrality would hold appeal for a performer like Jacqueline. It’s a way to retain control for lack of a more pointed plan.
“I wish I had a really strong, specific vision for what my clothes should be like,” she says, adding that, maybe, if an outfit “mirrored her soul perfectly,” it might achieve the same kind of disappearance as something inherently neutral, like a heathered gray T-shirt. It wouldn’t distract from her, like a costume, but rather converge with her, like a uniform. “I’ve come across moments in my life where I’m like, This. This is me. But a lot of times when I feel that, I’m essentially in home clothes that are not suitable for outside, like a big, emotional T-shirt and some boxer shorts, and I’m not proud of that.”
In anticipation of this shoot, in which we hoped to collaborate with Jacqueline to capture her at her most aesthetically expressive, divorced from the heady demands of her show, she offered the following as inspiration to Harling, who would be styling her: “old glamour, stage looks, Gypsy Rose Lee, classic female comedians like Joan Rivers, cool suits, powerful looks, 70s Broadway Gwen Verdon, Alexander McQueen.” In other words, the spiritual opposite of faded black Everlane jeans and a gray Current/Elliot T-shirt she found at Bloomingdales.
When I ask how she felt in the looks Harling put her in, she says she felt fun and free. “I totally trust you guys, and that’s the only way I’m going to get something that actually looks significantly interesting.” She enjoys being styled, she explains, because she likes the ceding of responsibility—and especially the onlookers’ knowledge of that cession. She remembers looking at magazines as a kid and having an understanding that the cover stars had not chosen their own outfits. “You don’t blame them for the outrageousness, whether it’s the fashion or glamor of it,” she says. “The more fashion-y or outrageous it is, the more you know they’ve been put in it. They’re even more, like, off the hook. That’s why I’m probably so at ease with [being styled]. Anything that’s my responsibility, such as posing, is a little harder.”
The posing was a problem. From the moment Jacqueline arrived, she mentioned she was nervous about it. Halfway through shooting the first look, she asked me to Google “models posing.” I pulled up the Marc Jacobs Instagram account and suggested she try this pose or this one, which I supplied in jest but she took in earnest. Or perhaps she was kidding; Jacqueline has a way of doing both at once. During the second outfit she gave me a pleading look, so I began to flail my arms and legs around in exaggerated poses behind the camera, telling her to have fun with it. She immediately mirrored my movements with a gentle trust, laughing stiffly between takes. “You’ll feel silly but it will look good,” I said (and it did).
Before shooting the final look, she FaceTimed John Early for tips. “Give them this—” he replied, his dead-eyed, slack-jawed expression freezing so completely Jacqueline and I thought we’d lost service. It was just what she needed—more character than mimicry. And her energy in front of the camera for the final shot was transformed. She wasn’t herself; she was someone else.
A few days after the shoot, I get a text. “I need a look for Monday,” she writes. “Seth Meyers.” She sends a photo of Phoebe Waller-Bridge looking pretty on a talk show.
“With PWB?!” I text back.
“Ha. No. Sorry. I just saw that photo and realized I have no outfit, because what she’s wearing looks serious.”
I text Jacqueline a flurry of ideas while she interjects with opinions such as “wondrous,” “hmmmm,” “sleeveless not ideal,” and “intrigued.” We decide to meet at Tibi’s Soho store the next day for an emergency stock pull. She arrives in The Outfit. Faded black pants and a gray T-shirt: a neutral palette upon which to imagine who she is in the context of late-night TV. We start poking through racks. She tells me she “generally requires some shape or structure,” but is down to try anything, because if you don’t go big on TV, when will you?
After an hour in and out of the dressing room, of her limping around the store in a single heel and pondering the meaning of blazers, we settle on two options: a black and white halter dress with white trim (“more cocktail”) and a green turtleneck dress with an asymmetrical hem (“more fashion-y”). I take photos of her sitting on a couch in both, as she’ll appear on the show, leg crossed away from the camera, body turned 45-degrees to the left. A science. Jacqueline sports a Mona Lisa smile in all.
Two nights later, I watch as she’s introduced on Late Night With Seth Meyers. She enters stage left in the black dress, barefoot with her heels dangling from her hand. She sits down and starts to put them on. “As you saw, I opted to not walk out with the shoes,” she says to a laughing Meyers. “I’m not an athlete! That’s not what it’s about.” They go on to talk about her outfit for five minutes. “The look was planned for sitting…” she says truthfully, tossing her hair dramatically, explaining that she’s always wondered what she’d wear to a thing like this, and now here she is.
She handles the appearance exactly as you’d expect her to: With a charming surplus of thought, presented by a character who isn’t her, exactly, but who has access to her ruminating mind. The dress, the heels, the big hair—they are layers between her and the audience she cannot deny, nor does she want to. The pretending wouldn’t suit her.
This knotty negotiation between self and other is at the heart of “Get on Your Knees,” a one-woman show that’s purportedly about fallible blowjobs but is also about the fallibility of human perception. At one point in her show, she mimics looking in a mirror and weighing the risk of being self-critical (if you’re wrong, you’re good and humble) versus self-confidant (if you’re wrong, you’re a loser and a fool), and reasons that the former feels like no risk at all. This makes a kind of backwards sense, and betrays the outsize impact the other, or the audience, plays in the perception of the self, even when that other is the self.
When it comes to self-presentation, this blurriness persists. Clothes as a mode of expression may be limited compared to words on a sheet of paper, or at least less precise, but they are never neutral. They will always add layers. Being on stage heightens the challenge of clear-eyed communication, and raises its stakes, but it doesn’t warp it, necessarily. It’s a framework we all understand. Jacqueline’s desire to be understood by others as much as by herself exists whether she’s on stage in several shades of gray, on Man Repeller in a red sequin suit, or in front of me eating soup dumplings in a unitard. It’s there in all of us, too, whether we choose to ignore it or embrace it for the messy undertaking it most likely is.