Netflix Should Let Jacqueline Novak Do Anything She Wants, Forever
Whenever a movie targeted toward female audiences is a big box-office success, analysts and commentators react as though it’s never happened before. Barbie, the Twilight saga, Bridesmaids, Mamma Mia — all were treated as though they’d come out of nowhere and were once-in-a-generation freak occurrences that couldn’t possibly be repeated. Female audiences are underestimated on TV too, even though two of its longest-running drama series, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Grey’s Anatomy, are mostly watched by women. Typically, stand-up comedy is perceived to skew male — particularly on Netflix, which has not only had to settle a lawsuit regarding its underpayment of Mo’Nique but also, within the last month, premiered two comedy specials by men that were met with vocal disapproval.
But what if I told you Netflix also has a comedy special out this month that’s written, directed and performed by a woman and nearly entirely revolves around a matter of interest to women (and others who sleep with men)? It’s time for us to erase the sour memory of The Dreamer from Dave Chappelle and Ricky Gervais’ Armageddon by making Jacqueline Novak: Get on Your Knees the biggest comedy special in Netflix history. It’s certainly the most shockingly great debut I’ve seen in years.
You may have already heard about Knees in one of its earlier iterations: Novak started performing it Off-Broadway in 2019, a run that earned her mention in the Best Comedy of 2019 list in the New York Times. Frankly, if critic Jason Zinoman had not celebrated Novak in the category of Best Sex Joke, the whole list would have been suspect, since the show is about exactly the sex act the title Get on Your Knees suggests: fellatio. In Netflix’s roughly 90-minute special — a runtime that, according to a profile last week in The New Yorker, Novak had to fight for — Novak moves through thoughts on her own body (saying she moves fast on stage so that she never pauses long enough to be objectified; looking forward to discarding her flesh and haunting a house) and sexuality (on her shame at identifying as a straight woman, she imagines an observer wondering, “Does she even read?”). Before long (no pun intended), Novak arrives (no pun intended) at the subject of penises. And once she’s considered those from every imaginable angle — the terminology of “penis” as opposed to “cock”; “erection” (“No one’s going in that building. It’s not up to code”); physically imitating a penis’, well, not so much its motion as its overall vibe — she gets to blow jobs.
Some might say that Novak makes blow jobs her Hot Pockets (no pun intended). For a particular kind of comedy nerd, Jim Gaffigan’s Hot Pockets bit is a benchmark for taking a premise and wringing from it every single possible joke. Gaffigan himself has returned to the format with subsequent single-topic joke barrages on, for instance, McDonald’s. But even though “Hot Pockets” precedes it, Knees has so much more ambition. Fellatio is the show’s primary subject, but it encompasses so many others. To name just one, this is somehow the funniest and smartest explication I think I’ve ever seen of the gap between how patriarchal mass culture teaches us to think of our bodies and the truth of how they work, or don’t. The penis is vulnerable! Why doesn’t it retract into the body?! (Also, now that I’ve mentioned them side by side: I would pay good money to see Gaffigan and Novak in conversation about their writing process, because considering that one is a famously clean comic and the other is taking on a potentially dirty topic with near-academic analysis, I think they have more similarities than differences.)
Here, though, is a subject the show does not address: trauma. I think we’ve all had the experience of enjoying a stand-up special on a potentially dicey topic, only for the tone to take a sharp turn in the last quarter and indict us for laughing; maybe, going forward, we can all save some time and just call that Nanette-ing. This is not to dismiss all bittersweet comedy specials out-of-hand, but since that has been a common move in recent years, I didn’t realize I’d been bracing myself for everything to take a turn for the non-consensual until… it didn’t. Bad sex in Knees is just a disappointment, not a pivot point in Novak’s life story; even in stories of herself in high school, Novak only does what she affirmatively wants to do — something that should encourage older persons to direct the younger ones in their lives to check it out, even though Novak is explicit about not wanting anyone to think any part of the show is a lesson.
It diminishes Get on Your Knees to compare it to any of Netflix’s worst specials starring male comics. But good comedy on the platform only makes the bad comedy look worse. The care and craft evident in every frame of Knees makes me permanently pre-sold for everything else Novak does between now and when one of us dies. Watch this show so she can make three dozen more — or, failing that, at least one more than Dave Chappelle.