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Arts & Culture

Sam Jay's 'PAUSE' series captures the vibe of a house party debate among friends

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Sam Jay, is a comic, writer and actor who has her own series on HBO called "PAUSE With Sam Jay." A lot of her comedy relates to being a Black masculine-of-center lesbian who didn't come out until her early 20s. Her show "PAUSE" is kind of like a house party, with Sam Jay as the host and her actual friends, fellow comics and TV writers as her guests. They have lively talks about subjects like queer culture, relationships, Black conservatives, money and power and racism and tribalism in America. Last week, she talked about how her brother's life was changed by being in prison. Season 1 premiered a year ago. Season 2 is in progress.

Before "PAUSE," Sam Jay was a writer on "Saturday Night Live," where her sketches included Black Jeopardy, including the sketches with Chadwick Boseman in his "Black Panther" role as T'Challa and Eddie Murphy as his character Velvet Jones. She joined "SNL" in 2017 and left to co-create "PAUSE." She also co-created and co-stars in the series "Bust Down," along with Chris Redd, who she worked with on "SNL." Her latest stand-up special, "3 In The Morning," is streaming on Netflix.

Sam Jay, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's a pleasure to have you on our show. So how would you describe your show to someone who's never seen it?

SAM JAY: Oh, wow. That's always tough 'cause it's not - it's a weird show. But I guess I would say it's a drunken house party where you get to soberly go out and, like, prove your point afterwards, is kind of how I always looked at it. Like, what if you could take all the stuff you argue about at a house party and actually go out in the world and find out if these things that you're standing on and saying are true or false or what your assumptions are of what people in these situations feel like? What if you could go out in the world and actually talk to the people that are going through it and have conversations with them to kind of see if you were wrong or right?

GROSS: Do you find it easy to disagree with friends without your friend or you taking the disagreement personally?

JAY: Yes. Yeah. Probably because I'm a comic and we spend a lot of time yelling at each other and disagreeing. And it's a very (laughter) - it's just a very, like, argumentative space, comedy. So I guess for that reason, yeah, it's not really hard for me to not agree with someone's perspective but be fine with them as a person.

GROSS: So I want to play a clip from the current season, Season 2 of "PAUSE," and this is from the first episode. And you're talking to someone - I should add, in addition to the house party aspect, you do interviews on each episode and a sketch as well. So this is one of the interviews. And you're talking to a woman who was formerly in GLAAD, the LGBTQ advocacy group. She is a white woman who's wearing a men's suit. And in this interview, you're talking about how, as a Black lesbian, you don't really relate to what's considered, like, the gay community.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PAUSE WITH SAM JAY")

JAY: Do you think that the Black community is uniquely homophobic?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: As uniquely homophobic as what other community?

JAY: I know how [expletive] play, right? So if I hear something, I won't go like, oh, man, that's hella homophobic, or you're a bad dude. I'd be like, all right, man, you're being silly, or you're being funny. Whereas a white ear that doesn't know how we play may hear that very same thing and go, oh, this person needs to be educated; this person doesn't quite...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Right. Right, right.

JAY: ...Understand what's wrong with what they're saying. As a Black person, a lot of times I'm like, yo, I don't even feel gay, right? Because what gay culture is feels like...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Right, right. Right.

JAY: ...It has absolutely nothing to do with me. So I was like, I don't know; I just like [expletive] and hanging out with my homies 'cause I don't really know what the hell that is, right? And when that is happening, how does a culture or group really grow?

GROSS: So that was an interview from "PAUSE With Sam Jay." So, Sam, you said you don't really feel gay 'cause what gay culture is doesn't seem to have anything to do with you. What is it about gay culture that makes you feel excluded? And when you say gay culture, what is it that you mean?

JAY: Well, when I say gay culture, I mean the mainstream representation of gay culture. And just like most mainstream representations of culture in America, it lacks Black identity. So when I was growing up and I'm learning about what lesbians are through media and TV and what gay is, it's - for me, what I saw was a lot of, like, Lilith Fair lesbians and a lot of, you know, show-tunes-quoting dudes. And I just didn't see a lot of Blackness in that, and I didn't see a lot of my culture or anything that looked like anything I grew up around. And so it felt like something just so far from me that I couldn't wrap myself around seeing myself ever in anything like that.

And then later in life, when I discovered my sexuality, I still didn't feel necessarily gay, as in the way the mainstream culture presents it. I didn't really like the gay clubs that were being offered to me. I didn't really like the hangs that were being offered to me. I didn't really want to go to a club and only hear house music and, you know, watch "Golden Girls" on the screen and yell quotes back and forth. Like, that just wasn't how I had a good time. And so I didn't see a lot of, like, how my culture chills and hangs out within this culture. And so for me, it was a huge disconnect of, like, I don't - I am of this, like, as far as my sexuality, but I don't feel of this as far as my community.

GROSS: When you came out, you were living in Atlanta. Describe Black gay culture in Atlanta the way you saw it, the way you experienced it, when you were coming out in your 20s.

JAY: Yeah. So the thing is, like, you know, I used to move back and forth a lot. So I was in Boston and Atlanta a lot. So I saw kind of both what Boston had to offer, what Atlanta had to offer. Atlanta, because it was a Black city, it was extremely different, of course. It felt more like me. It felt like Black culture. It just felt like Black people who happen to like people of the same sex. You still got to listen to your hip-hop music in the club. You still get to hear Future. There was going to be Hennessy (laughter). There was going to be, like, a good time as to what I knew a good time to be. And it didn't feel as isolating as when I would go out in Boston to a gay club. And I was like, I don't fit in here.

GROSS: Like, what came first for you, doing stand-up or coming out? And I'm interested in hearing what your very early comedy was like.

JAY: Well, I tried to stand-up when I was about, like, 20 or so. It wasn't that great. I didn't really have any perspective or much to say. And then I didn't do it for a long time until I was, like, 29. And at that point, I had come out, and I had a lot to say. I had a lot of perspective. I had lived a good amount of life by then.

GROSS: You gave it up for nine years. Was the experience - was that because the experience the first time around was really bad? Did you feel like being a comic was going to be hopeless for you?

JAY: No, it was, like, a combination of things. I feel like it didn't feel like I thought it was going to feel, and I was kind of, like, thrown off by that a little bit. Like, I didn't feel the connection I thought I was going to feel to it. And I was like, well, something's off here. And I couldn't really put my finger on what was off. And then I got sick, and I got diagnosed with lupus, which my mom had passed away from, like, four years prior. And it just kind of messed with my head. And I was just going through a lot emotionally, and I was really lost for a while. And after I got better, I kind of ran to Atlanta, just trying to get away from Boston, family stuff, just running. And I would say I've spent six, seven years running. And it took me a year to, like, wrap my head around myself and come back to me. And then at 29, that's when I got back up. So just, you know, living. Growing pains.

GROSS: Yeah. So you dealt with a lot by the time you did stand-up again.

JAY: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. Yeah. I had been through some stuff.

GROSS: And I want to get to that a little bit later. But first, I want people to get to know your comedy a little bit more. So I can't really play anything from your 2020 Comedy Central...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: ...Because there's just too many words that you can say on a podcast but not on the radio.

JAY: (Laughter).

GROSS: So let's try to, like - talk it through. Give our listeners a sense of it without using the words that we are not allowed to use in this medium. And so there's one thing that you do where you talk about running into a guy you had been with. You know, he'd been kind of a boyfriend before you came out. And you looked at each other, and you realized you looked just like he did. Would you describe that moment for us?

JAY: I had went back home. I had went back home to Boston. And I bumped into him at a bar, and we were dressed pretty similar. And (laughter) - and he had asked me about - if he was the reason that I was gay now - did he do something? - which I thought was quite idiotic 'cause we dated at, like, 15. So it was just kind of like, what do you - what impact do you think you could have had on my life that (laughter) altered me into this? It's like, no, you had nothing to do with it. Don't try to take credit.

The situation wasn't that memorable or deep. But it was funny that it came kind of full circle in that way, you know, where you kind of walk into a bar and you see a dude you slept with, and you're like, we're probably wearing the same underwear. You know what I mean? Like, this is weird.

GROSS: (Laughter) Had you dressed very masculine before you came out? And was he surprised at how you looked?

JAY: Oh, I think, for sure, he was surprised because I didn't dress very masculine. I mean, I think there was, like, a period, but that was, like, the '90s. And you know, when you - I was younger in the '90s. Like, girls were wearing baggy clothes. TLC was a thing. It was, like, not a big deal to be a girl in baggy clothes. And then by the time I got to, like, the end of my middle school days or high school, that had transitioned into something else. So I definitely think he was - I mean, I had no hair. I had cut all my hair off by that point, so it was definitely very different. I looked very, very different.

GROSS: Did you feel much more like yourself?

JAY: Yes, a hundred percent. I always look back at that person, and I'm like, oh, man, I was trying to be something that I thought I was supposed to be. And I didn't even have any idea that's what I was doing, which is insane. But I was definitely trying to fit into something that didn't fit me at all.

I always say, like, even if I go back to being straight, like, whatever dude I'm with is going to have to be OK with a chick with a Caesar 'cause I'm not growing my hair back. I'm never putting heels back on. Like, there's just things you'll never catch me doing again.

GROSS: You wore heels?

JAY: I definitely wore heels. Well, I was a young lady, you know, trying to get boys. I was doing what girls did to get guys, you know?

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is comic writer and actor Sam Jay. Her HBO series, "PAUSE With Sam Jay," is in its second season. We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRINCE SONG, "THE BALLAD OF DOROTHY PARKER")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with comic writer and actor Sam Jay. She hosts the HBO series "PAUSE With Sam Jay." When we left off, we were talking about her latest stand-up special, "3 In The Morning," which is streaming on Netflix.

So another funny bit relates to packing for a trip with your now fiancee. And she's packing three pieces of luggage? Tell us what you're thinking 'cause I don't want to do your bit, and we can't play it for us on the show (ph).

JAY: (Laughter) Well, she does it all the time and still does it. And it finally kind of had came to a head 'cause we were going to Europe. And I kept telling her, like, hey, we're going to Europe, and we're going to all these different, you know, cities. So you might not want to overpack because the traveling is just - it's different. You know, things are - hotel rooms are smaller there. Just - it's different, and you may not want to have all these bags to, like, lug around.

And she proceeded to pack three bags. And I was like, well, why are you packing three bags when you only have two arms? Like, I just don't get why you're packing more bags than you clearly can handle. It's 'cause your expectation is that I'm going to handle it. And that's very crazy to me, to do something based on what you think I'm going to do and not what you can do for yourself. But I also think that's just the, like, way I was raised type of thing, you know?

GROSS: But you also say (laughter) that just because you're a masculine-of-center lesbian doesn't mean you were brought up with a sense of chivalry (laughter). You have no sense of chivalry.

JAY: Yeah, no.

GROSS: (Laughter)

JAY: Not at all. I have two brothers that took care of me and took out the trash. Like, I don't (laughter) - yeah, no. I don't feel that way at all.

GROSS: So on a more serious level, what's the gender nature of your relationship? - if you're comfortable talking about that. Did you feel like you're supposed to take on, like, the man's role and she's supposed to take on the traditional woman's role in the relationship? Or are you beyond traditional roles like that?

JAY: I think it's a little messy. I think some of it, yeah, it's very traditional. And then some of it is not. You know what I mean? Like, I do pay all the bills. I am the breadwinner in my house. You know, like, I do open doors for her now. That was a big fight and to-do. But I do it now. I don't - I didn't understand why I needed to hold the door. She has arms, but whatever. I do it now 'cause it's not worth fighting about (laughter).

But I do do some of the traditional masculine things, and she definitely does some of the traditional feminine things. But then, like, she fixes most of the things in the house 'cause I don't know how to fix things. You know what I mean? Like, she's an interior designer, and, like, she knows how to, like, measure and cut things. And I don't, you know? So I don't touch that. And she kind of does that. So I think it's like most households, you know? Once you dig into them, it's a little bit fluid, you know what I mean?

GROSS: You joined "Saturday Night Live" as a writer in 2017, but they got to know you as a stand-up comic. Tell us how you were discovered and what your audition was like.

JAY: Well, I want this to be more exciting than it is, but I did this big festival called Just for Laughs in Montreal. It's, like, the biggest comedy festival in the world. And when you're a comic, it's a very big deal. And I had got into JFL, and there was some "SNL" people there, a couple of producers. Erin Doyle, I believe, was in the building. They saw me, and they were like, hey, we love her. Would she be interested in auditioning to be on "SNL," which up until that point was not even on my radar? It wasn't something I ever thought about doing. I just didn't see myself in an "SNL" world. My style of comedy, how crass I am - it just didn't seem like anything that would ever line up, and so I never even thought about it. Plus, I'm not, like, an improviser. I've never done improv, you know? It just was a world completely not of me, I felt like.

So I was like, I guess, you know, 'cause I'm not in any position to turn down opportunities, and sure, why not? I'll audition. But I'm like, I'm not going to get it anyway. Who cares, you know? But maybe I'll get up, and there'll be other people from other things there, and they'll see me, and maybe, like, the thing I actually fit will happen, you know? That's how I used to kind of always and still approach my career is like, oh, well, maybe this isn't for me, but maybe this will lead me to something that is, you know what I mean? So let's not close the door on it.

And so I auditioned in LA, and it was, like, 3 minutes. It was, like - it was an insane situation. It was probably, like, 25 comics all stuck in the back of this place. So I did my little 3 minutes. It went well. And then I was like, oh, whatever, went home. And then, like, two, three days later, I got a call, and they were like, hey, they loved your audition. They want to fly you to New York so you can, like, audition in front of Lorne and the producers and all that kind of stuff.

So I flew to New York and went to the studio, went to 8H. It was another super stressful situation. And, like, there was all these people in, like, little rooms, which I later found out was, like, everybody's dressing room when the season starts. But they were in these little rooms, and they were, like, talking to themselves and making funny voices. And I was like, this is stressful for no reason, so I left. And I texted one of the producers or, like, assistants, and I was like, hey, can you just text me, like, 10 minutes before it's my turn? I'm getting out of here 'cause it was, like, not good for my brain.

And I went to this bar downstairs in 30 Rock, and I bumped into these older Black women who were visiting. And I told them why I was there. And they, like, wished me all the best. And they were like, we're going to say a prayer for you. And we, like, took shots, and I had, like, a really good time with these ladies. And then I got the text. I ran up, ran on stage, like, did my thing, got off. And I knew I had done well, and I just felt good, and I was like, yeah, I did well, but what the hell does that mean? And then a week later, I got a call, and they were like, hey, you know, we know you were auditioning for cast, but would you, you know, like to come write, you know? And I was like, sure.

GROSS: When you worked on "Saturday Night Live," you got to work with people who you - I assume, who you had idolized, like Eddie Murphy. I'm not sure exactly how old you are, and I haven't done the math in terms of what years he was on "Saturday Night Live," but did you get to see him at all when he was on "Saturday Night Live" or in reruns after the fact?

JAY: Yeah, I'm a big - I'm 40, and I'm a big Eddie Murphy fan. Like, when I was a kid, it was out of hand. And I don't know why my mom let me watch that much Eddie Murphy as a young person, but she did. So, like, I was a big "Coming To America" fan. I was a big "Beverly Hills Cop" fan. I grew a tail like he has in "Coming To America." I grew one of those braid things because he had one in "Coming To America." I was, like, obsessed. I got his "SNL," like, VHS. It was, like, "The Best Of Eddie Murphy: Saturday Night Live." And I would watch it over and over and over. I knew, like, every sketch - like, the most obscure sketches. That's how I ended up on that Velvet Jones thing, 'cause I pitched that to him in the room and - 'cause Velvet Jones is one of my favorite characters, and I pitched the Velvet Jones thing to him. So big, big, big, big Eddie Murphy fan, to say the least - huge.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Sam Jay. She's a comic, writer and actor and former writer for "Saturday Night Live." Her HBO series, "Pause," is in its second season. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOBBY TIMMONS' "THIS HERE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with my guest, Sam Jay. She's a comic, writer and actor who hosts the show "PAUSE With Sam Jay" on HBO. It's in its second season. The first airings are Friday nights. Her latest standup comedy special, "3 In The Morning," is streaming on Netflix. When she auditioned to join the cast of "Saturday Night Live," she got hired but as a writer, not a performer.

So you were surprised that instead of a performer, they asked you to be a writer. You hadn't seen yourself as a writer. You'd only written for yourself. So that must've been...

JAY: Right.

GROSS: ...A big transition. You did a few of the Black Jeopardy sketches, so I thought we'd play an excerpt of one of them. And this is one of the most famous Black Jeopardy sketches. It's the one with Chadwick Boseman as T'Challa, his role from "Black Panther" as the leader of the fictional African Kingdom of Wakanda. So can you set up - for any of our listeners who don't watch "Saturday Night Live," can you set up what Black Jeopardy is?

JAY: Oh, Black Jeopardy is a form of "Jeopardy!" where the questions are centered around Black culture. And, basically, only people invited to the cookout would know the answers.

GROSS: And there's often, like, a white person on the panel. There's usually, like...

JAY: Yes.

GROSS: ...Two Black people and one white person, who's kind of clueless about all the questions of Black culture. But in this case, it's Chadwick Boseman as T'Challa, the leader of the fictional African kingdom of Wakanda from "Black Panther." And so let's hear the very beginning of the sketch. And Kenan Thompson plays the host. Also in this sketch is Leslie Jones and Chris Redd.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

KENAN THOMPSON: (As Darnell) Let's take a look at our categories. All right. We got grown-ass...

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: (As Darnell) Aw, hell naw (ph).

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: (As Darnell) Fid'na (ph).

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: (As Darnell) Girl, bye.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: (As Darnell) I ain't got it.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: (As Darnell) And, as always, white people.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: (As Darnell) All right, Shanice, you're our returning champ. You pick.

LESLIE JONES: (As Shanice) OK. Let's go to, aw, hell naw for a hundred.

THOMPSON: (As Darnell) OK. The answer there - your barber has a two-hour wait, but he says there's an empty chair up front.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEVICE RINGING)

THOMPSON: (As Darnell) Rashad.

CHRIS REDD: (As Rashad) What is, aw, hell naw, there's a reason your chair empty.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: (As Darnell) You're damn right. You're damn right there is. You can end up looking like The Weeknd.

REDD: (As Rashad) You can.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: OK. Now let's skip a little ahead in the sketch.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

JONES: (As Shanice) Let's stay with grown-ass for 600.

THOMPSON: (As Darnell) All right. You send your smart-ass child here because she think she grown.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEVICE RINGING)

THOMPSON: (As Darnell) T'Challa.

CHADWICK BOSEMAN: (As T'Challa) What is, to one of our free universities, where she can apply her intelligence and, perhaps, one day, become a great scientist.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: (As Darnell) OK. Well, the answer we was looking for was, out my damn house.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: (As Darnell) But, you know what? I'm going to give it to you, T'Challa. Y'all must not have no mean streets in Wakanda. It must be nice.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: (As Darnell) All right, the board is yours.

BOSEMAN: (As T'Challa) Very well. Let's go to, aw, hell naw for 800.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: (As Darnell) OK. The policeman says, there's been some robberies in your neighborhood and asks if you have any information.

BOSEMAN: (As T'Challa) What is, not only do I tell this man what I know...

(LAUGHTER)

BOSEMAN: (As T'Challa) ...But I also assist him in tracking down the offender.

(LAUGHTER)

BOSEMAN: (As T'Challa) After all, our ministers of law enforcement are only here to protect us. Is this correct?

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: (As Darnell) I mean, it should be.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: (As Darnell) But I'm thinking you haven't spent much time in America. Let's just hear about today's prizes. Johnny.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Johnny) Thanks, Darnell. Today's Black Jeopardy winner will receive Uesta Hold Margarine, versatile plastic containers that used to hold margarine. Put whatever you want in there.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Johnny) And Well Done Steaks. If I see a speck of red, it's going back. You better cook my food with Well Done Steaks. And by Sprite - how did we become the Black soda? We don't know. Sprite. Back to you, Darnell.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: (Laughter) OK. That's such a great sketch. When you knew that Chadwick Boseman was going to be the guest host, how did you decide to write a Black Jeopardy sketch around him?

JAY: Well, that really - you know, Black Jeopardy is super collaborative. So that is a, you know, Bryan Tucker and Michael Che vehicle that's been there since before I got there. And when Chadwick came, Tucker was kind of just like, I'm thinking I want to do a Black Jeopardy. Like, I'm trying to think of an angle on, you know, him being his character from "Black Panther." And we just kind of jammed on it and came up with the angle of, like, you know, he's from a place where everybody's Black. And he's not dealing with the same injustices. So his perspective would be that of a superhero and, like, just more correct. And it should be kind of like, yeah, these answers are wrong but they shouldn't be wrong vibe, you know, versus some other Black Japanese vibes, which everyone tries to kind of take a different play.

GROSS: So your mother was diagnosed with pulmonary lupus. Lupus is an autoimmune disease in which your immune system attacks healthy tissue. And with pulmonary lupus, the immune system attacks part of the lungs. You were around 13 when she was diagnosed?

JAY: Probably about - yeah, maybe 12 - 11, 12.

GROSS: What was your understanding of your mother's medical condition? How did she explain it to you?

JAY: Just the way you just said it (laughter). My mom was a respiratory therapist at the time. And so she was also very, like, scientific. She was just always like that. Like, she explained things very scientifically. Like, when I was getting - I got my period, and she took me to the science museum in Boston to the reproductive part of the museum and showed me exactly what was happening in my body, and then took me to lunch and, like, talked to me about hygiene. Like, that's just, like, kind of how she was. So when it happened, she just told me exactly what you told me, that she has a disease, that it's a autoimmune disease, that her lungs are being attacked by her immune system because her immune system thinks that her lungs are a sickness and, you know, that the way that this - you get control of this is she's going to have to take a lot of medication that brings down her immune system and alters her energy. And, like, you know, she just kind of walked me through it quite science-like.

GROSS: What was it like entering your teens when your mother was really sick and your friends were probably going out and, you know, partying and doing things that, you know, young teenagers do? And I would imagine a lot of that time you were at home helping take care of your mother.

JAY: Yeah. I mean, it sucked, you know? I went through a time where I stayed out the house. I didn't want to be there. I wouldn't come home. I would come home real late, and we would get in a lot of fights. And she was having, like, a hard time controlling me. But I just didn't want to watch her die. I didn't want to be in the house. I just - I was just trying to run - run, a theme that I had to break out of. But, yeah, just trying to not be there. You know what I mean? And it was hard because I resented her a little bit. I didn't want to have to do stuff for her, you know? And I also wanted her to be the same mom and be able to do stuff with me. We did things together all the time, and now all she can do is, like, be in the bed. You know what I mean? So it was a lot of different levels of frustration and anger and stuff.

GROSS: Did you have a kind of dual mind about it? On the one hand, being really angry and resentful; on the other hand knowing that, but it wasn't her fault, and she really needed you. Were you holding...

JAY: Yes.

GROSS: ...Like, both of those thoughts in your mind at the same time?

JAY: Oh, of course, and then feeling guilty for being angry, you know, and feeling like a bad kid and, like, how do you not want to take care of your mom? You know what I mean? Like, just dealing with all of that.

GROSS: She was a respiratory therapist. Did she get good health care when she was sick?

JAY: Yeah, for a while, and then it got, like, hard. She had to fight for it. But she knew what to fight for 'cause she worked in the field, you know? But at first, 'cause she worked at a private hospital and - she worked at New England Baptist Hospital. And so she had, like, a lot of support, and she was very, like, loved where she worked. And so they took care of her for as long as they could, you know? And then when she finally really had to go on, like, state health care and stuff like that, that's when it kind of got crazy. So she would have to do a lot of fighting and demanding to get what she needed.

GROSS: She died when you were 16. How did your life change after that? You had already lost your father, and now you lost your mother. Who was there for you?

JAY: My brother tried to be, as much as he could be, but he was going through his own stuff, and he was young. Now I look at it. I'm like, he was so young, and that was a lot, you know, to even try to put on him at all. I lived with different aunts. And, you know, I have a pretty big family, so I kind of got shuffled around for a while, you know? It's not like I come from people with a lot of money. I come from a lot of love but not necessarily a lot of means. So sometimes, you know, there's no space for you. You know what I mean? And people are doing what they can to have you in their home, but they're struggling, too, and they got to take care their own kids and, you know, stuff like that.

GROSS: Let's take another break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Sam Jay, and she's the host of "PAUSE With Sam Jay" on HBO. And the first airing is Friday nights. Season 2 is underway. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAY-Z SONG, "DECEMBER 4TH")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with comic, writer and actor Sam Jay, who hosts the HBO comedy series "PAUSE With Sam Jay."

So you were diagnosed with lupus, the disease that killed your mother, when you were 20. How did you find out? Were you sick?

JAY: Yeah, I just got really sick out the blue, and I didn't know what was going on with me. I had coughed up blood on my way to work one day, and I was like, man, I got to go to the doctor. And it was just, like, random. Like, I was running for the trolley, and then when I stopped to catch my breath, I coughed, and it was just blood. And I was like, whoa. So I went to the doctor. But it was a nice day. It was like the first nice day of, like, the spring. And I remember sitting in the doctor's office, and it was crowded, and I was like, this sucks; I'm about to spend my whole day here. And it's nice, and I was coughing in the office, and it wasn't bloody no more. It was just like phlegm. So I was like, oh, maybe that was just a weird thing that happened. Let me get out of here. I don't want to spend my day here. I'm fine. So I left, went to work, finished my day, finished my shift, and then I was out. I was out having fun with my friends, went drinking that night, whatever, came home, was fine. The next day was fine.

The next day, I felt like I had a flu. And then it was like I was incapacitated. I couldn't go from my bed to the bathroom without being, like, out of breath. I couldn't shower. And then I went to the doctor. And this was around the time when SARS was going on, so they thought I had SARS, and they, like, quarantined me off in the hospital. And everybody who came to see me had to wear, like, a full biohazard thing. And then they determined it wasn't SARS (laughter) and ran some test for lupus, this, like, double-stranded DNA test. They do all this different stuff to see if the indicators are flaring. And they all were. And then that's when they told me I had lupus. And then I remember getting super depressed, and I had to be in the hospital for, like, three weeks. It was terrible. And I remember just being super depressed. I just remember feeling like my life was over.

GROSS: Well, you'd seen your mother die, so I understand why you'd feel that way. But from what I've read, there's better treatment for it now than when your mother had lupus. Is that right?

JAY: Yeah.

GROSS: So is your prognosis good now?

JAY: Yeah, I'm pretty good. I mean, I have to pay attention to my body, and, like, when I'm tired, I need to rest and, you know, just be more on top of how I feel. But overall, I'm stable. I haven't had any, like, flare-ups or anything crazy happen in a long time.

GROSS: How did you decide who to tell that you had lupus and when to tell them?

JAY: I don't know that it was a decision I got to make, you know, 'cause I was so young when I got sick. It was kind of like everybody just ran to my side. You know what I mean? In my later life, like with my fiancee and stuff, you know, we met when I was about 26. So I've known her for, like, 14 years now. And it took me a while. I got sick on her, actually, to be honest, is what happened. I never told her I had anything going on. And I got really sick at her house, and I was there for, like, three days sick. I couldn't do anything. And I started coughing up blood again. So I knew, like, oh, this is the lupus. You know, I got to go to the hospital. And then that's when I had to tell her. She came to visit me in the hospital, and she was like, what's going on? And, you know, she felt like it was something out of the blue. And I had to tell her, like, no, I have this thing, and that's what's going on. But I didn't really like talking about it. I think mostly because it made it real. And I didn't want to think about it, so I just didn't like talking about it.

GROSS: Were you afraid of other people's fear getting reflected back to you and making you more afraid?

JAY: Yeah, and also just people not treating you normal. And now I have to be, like, the sick person, and I don't get to just be me.

GROSS: But she stuck with you, right? She - obviously (laughter).

JAY: Yeah. I mean, we've had our ups, downs and all arounds. But yeah, for sure.

GROSS: So you do a lot of jokes about your girlfriend, now fiancee, and some of them are actually sexual.

JAY: (Laughter).

GROSS: And some of them are just about, you know, your relationship. So you have a series of videos in which you watch excerpts of your stand-up together and then you talk about her reaction. And she's very - she's really good about it. You know, she says, even if I don't like a joke, even if it seems, like, hurtful to me, like, I don't want to hold her back. I don't want to, like, interfere with her doing her thing and her doing her comedy.

I think that's really very generous (laughter). I'm not sure everybody would feel that way. I think it's awkward when someone who you're really close to is, like, a memoirist or a stand-up comic, and they draw on their own lives for their material because you're going to be a part of it.

JAY: Mmm hmm.

GROSS: Do you show her your comedy before you go on stage?

JAY: She's usually, like, with me when I come up with jokes. Or she's seen it. Like - 'cause she comes to a lot of shows - like, when I'm working on material or, like, figuring it out. Or, like, if something happens in the house and I'm, like, dying laughing at her about something, I'll usually be like, I'm going to talk about this. And she'll be like, go ahead. You know what I mean?

And sometimes, it's tough, though, you know? Like, this season of "PAUSE," I have a whole episode about cheating and our relationship and how I cheated in our relationship and what that did to our relationship and kind of totally just about relationships in general and how they grow and change and etc. And it definitely was hard, and it definitely caused a lot of fights in the house, so it's not always easy to do.

GROSS: Do you go through a trade-off in your mind - like a calculation before doing a joke or talking about something on your show - trying to weigh, is the material worth a fight in the relationship?

JAY: For sure.

GROSS: And does the material always win over the relationship?

JAY: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

JAY: Yeah. It's the artist in me, I guess. Yeah. You know.

GROSS: Does your girlfriend, in spite of that, ever punch up your jokes?

JAY: Sometimes. Sometimes. I have to give her that credit. She'll - yeah, she'll add a - like, a line. Or I'll say something, and she'll put a tag on it 'cause she's very funny. People always ask me who makes me laugh. She makes me laugh the most.

And I hate it. I hate it when she does a good tag that I know I'm going to use 'cause I'm like, oh, that was really good. I hate it because then I got to live with her being like, that's my joke and, like, all that.

GROSS: (Laughter).

JAY: Which (laughter) is annoying.

GROSS: Can you think of a tag that was hers?

JAY: No, I - as soon as I take it from her, I forget she gave it to me. (Laughter). So the...

GROSS: I'm sure that's very reassuring (laughter).

JAY: For my own ego, I just...

GROSS: So you think they're all yours (laughter).

JAY: But yeah.

GROSS: Do you feel like you're living the life you were supposed to have or that this is a life you never dreamed of?

JAY: Both. I feel both. I feel like I knew there was something greater out there for me. I genuinely feel like that goes for everybody if that's what they want. And also, sometimes, I look out my apartment window, and I go like, whoa, this is insane, you know? So I feel both.

GROSS: Well, Sam Jay, it's really been a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much. And congratulations on all the success you've been having.

JAY: Thank you. This was really nice.

GROSS: Sam Jay hosts the series "PAUSE With Sam Jay" Friday nights on HBO. After we take a short break, John Powers will review the new Library of America collection of Maxine Hong Kingston's major works. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JASON MORAN'S "BIG STUFF") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.