In college, comedian Jacqueline Novak's professor implored her: Don't do stand-up. Do sit-down.
Novak was a thoughtful, complex "sit-down" writer. A poet, even. But she rejected the idea that "it had to be one or the other."
"What I sensed at the time was, OK, they have an idea of what stand-up is," Novak said. "And they think it won't be able to contain the things that are good about my writing ...
"I hear you, but I think that's exactly why I'm doing stand-up."
In her stand-up and her memoir, her podcast and her one-person show, "Get on Your Knees" — which she'll bring to Minneapolis' Parkway Theater this weekend — Novak delights in embodying the supposed binaries that she believes our culture often forces women to choose between.
She is both brainy and sexy, confident and overthinking. Being a woman is like being "the great American novel baked inside a cheesy crust pizza," she has joked. "Whether someone's hungry or they're looking to read, either way they're annoyed."
On her podcast "Poog" — that's "Goop" backwards, a play on Gwyneth Paltrow's wellness empire — she and fellow comedian Kate Berlant probe their wellness fascinations. Lipstick, spas and lymphatic drainage. But also, and with equal ease, the architecture of the internet, the performance of domesticity, the theories of philosopher Michel Foucault.
So Novak, 39, knows what you might expect when you hear that "Get on Your Knees" is about blowjobs.
And she's looking forward to proving you wrong.
From her home office, adorned with a poster of the Bill Murray film "Scrooged," Novak spoke via Zoom about "Get on Your Knees," which the New York Times praised as "brilliant on the absurdity of having and being a thinking, feeling, desiring body, especially a female one." The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What sparked this show?
A: It came from an essay I wrote in college that traced my thoughts around the blowjob from first being introduced to the idea to my changing thoughts and experiences related to it. The prompt was "the personal as political."
I had always wanted to use that as a thread for a book, which I am writing now. ...
Even as I'm writing, technically, a memoir, I tend to think of my life less as a series of events that have happened and more as a series of changing ideas about things. Giving it a narrative structure allows me to place those ideas, to tell the story of evolving thinking.
It's sort of a grounding of the abstract.
Q: What tropes were you trying to avoid? Where, in creating a one-woman show about blowjobs, could things go wrong?
A: Because I am a stand-up, the tropes traditionally associated with the format of a one-woman show are pretty in opposition to each other. Stand-up tends to have such a focus on the crowd's reaction. It's cutthroat, can-you-hack-it.
The stench around the one-person show, traditionally, is that it's self-indulgent. It's sort of the opposite of crowd-focused in that way. In stand-up you're allowed to talk endlessly about yourself — as long as you're making people laugh. That's the trade.
Because I'm a stand-up, and I love that form, I wanted to maintain that feeling as much as possible, even when putting it up in a theater context. So we have a mic stand. We have a corded microphone. We have a spotlight.
My director, John Early, and I always joked about avoiding a scene that starts, like ... [She pantomimes throwing a football] "Dad always wanted me to be a football player." I don't want to hear the rain on the rooftop. I don't want to smell the coffee. Any moments where that's happening, we're like, "Cut it."
It has to be notion-based.
I want it to keep the danger of stand-up. Can she achieve it? Will she pull it off?
It's the equivalent of walking into a circus and seeing nothing but a tightrope, lit by a spotlight. You feel the tension of knowing, "Someone is going to have to go out and walk on that."
Q: When did you realize you were funny?
A: Omigod, I still haven't. Even with this show, I don't always process the laughter because that feels like a risk. If I start letting that in, I'll relax too much. That's just the stand-up mentality: Just because someone's laughing at this joke, I could lose them on the next one — that tightrope feeling.
I always knew that trying to be funny would not work and would cause a level of self-consciousness that would make me deeply not funny. I realized early on that I have to trick my brain ... to allow the parts of me that are funny to unconsciously happen. I have to have a goal over there. [She points off to the side.] Whether it's to communicate these ideas I feel strongly about or to convince people of something, I keep my eye on that.
I don't feel entirely in control of my power, so to speak.
Q: What do you have your eye set on with "Poog"?
A: "Poog" is completely unedited and spontaneous — we just truly press 'Record' and we go for 45 minutes to an hour, and that's it. Sometimes I think, oh, maybe I should try a little harder to remember that this is a comedy podcast. [She laughs.]
But I actually think "Poog" is a really good example of this thing I'm talking about, because we're so obsessed with skin care products or hotels or whatever. We know that there's something inherently funny about our obsessive quality. We're going to allow ourselves with utter seriousness to obsess about these things, knowing that that fact is humorous in itself.
A lot of times when people hear it's a comedy podcast about wellness and beauty, they assume it's parody. It's Goop backwards; it's a parody of Goop.
And we're like, it is absolutely not. That would be very unfunny. Everyone knows that world is ridiculous and that there's plenty to be mocked. Everyone knows that. That doesn't feel like interesting comedic territory to us.
We almost think that our sincerity is funnier.
Q: The lore is that the podcast started while you two were naked in a spa, right?
A: We were in a spa doing dry sauna, wet sauna, cold plunge — that fabulous routine. And being unsure if it's the red light or the jade stone on the wall we're supposed to be leaning up against. Where's the healing coming from? And going: We're not alone in this, there's no way we're alone in this — there's something absurd here.
There's no editing and there's no preparation. It's me working through an idea. I worried at first that it would detract from me trying to develop a persona. The mystique of an artist, right? You're creating different pieces of work, you're putting them out there very carefully, you're trying to curate exactly what goes out in the world.
And then "Poog" is just this leak.
But I also have some faith in that. There's another part of me that strongly believes that it can't all be so manicured.
Q: One thing it's helped me realize is that I believed that serums should be secret. That for me to be taken seriously, that interest had to be tucked away.
A: The perfect example is, if you went to a professor's home and into their bathroom and saw, like a hair product or something, you'd be like, "They, too, care about their hair."
I don't know why we turn these people into avatars of the one thing we know them for.
No, these things can and do both exist in the same person. Arguably, that's also true of the show. I guess if there's an underlying drive of mine, it is: How dare you think these two things can't exist together?
Get on Your Knees
When: 7:30 p.m. Fri.-Sat.
Where: Parkway Theater, 4814 Chicago Av. S., Mpls.
Tickets: $30-$40. theparkwaytheater.com.