With late-night TV hosts beginning to open their studios up to audience members again, and some new entries to the late-night world, it feels like a good time to take stock of the current state of the late, which I'll be doing in this column over the next couple of months. One thing is clear — TV’s most interesting and topical genre looks a lot different than it did just few years ago.
Let’s start with the newest entry to the field. HBO’s Pause With Sam Jay is a great example of what sets “late night” (which you may or may not watch late at night) apart from other TV shows.
Pause With Sam Jay
Fridays at 9:00 PM ET on HBO and HBO Max
PERSONNEL: Sam Jay, host
ELEVATOR PITCH: Real Time With Bill Maher, but with a queer millennial Black female.
BEST THING ABOUT IT: Sam’s people skills.
WORST THING ABOUT IT: All the cursing.
Because I had not seen her Netflix standup special Sam Jay: 3 in the Morning, and because I don’t keep up on the ins and outs at SNL (where, among other things, she co-wrote the “Black Jeopardy” sketch), Pause With Sam Jay, which debuted last weekend on the HBOs, served as my introduction to this talented comedian. So far I really like what I see. Along with Peacock’s The Amber Ruffin Show, this show has me wondering how many other funny women of color came and went during the decades when no TV executives would consider them as candidates for hosting a late-night talk show.
Though Pause has all of the components of a standard late-night show — monologue, interview segments, sketches — it's utterly unlike any other late-night show I’ve seen. HBO publicity dryly explains that in each episode “Sam hosts a party at her apartment, where she and her guests explore current topics.” But make no mistake: this isn’t one of those staged TV “parties” where everyone stands around in casual clothes holding a glass … this thing is loud. Music blaring, people yelling over each other, booze flowing, and plumes of smoke clouding the frame. It feels more like the show’s after-party.
Then, following a minute or so of crosstalk, everyone sits down and listens to what Sam has to say — in other words, it’s the monologue. Each show will have a designated topic, and for her first episode Sam chose the concept of “coon,” defined in a graphic as “exploiting one’s own community for personal gain or acceptance from a dominant culture.” Who decides who is a “coon” and why does it matter? It’s a subject you’re not likely to hear Bill Maher, John Oliver or that other Sam (Bee) discussing on their shows. Yet it’s one that I suspect they and many other white people would like to hear Black people having.
“We’re at a point where you can be a coon for anything, you can just disagree with the n***a majority and be a f****n coon,” Sam says. “Who is the n***a majority, Black Twitter? Who the f*** is Black Twitter?” (Someone off mic says, “White women,” which is one of the funnier lines of the night.) Sam explains how a joke she told in her Netflix special about trans people backfired and got her shunned by both Black and gay followers online. “I even got banned from gay magazines … because of how I choose to represent,” she explains.
Having established her politically incorrect bona fides, Sam is transported to a fancy mansion, where things seem eerily quiet compared to a few moments earlier. Here she interviews with Olivia Rondeau and King Randall, two young Black people identified in the graphics as “n***a conservatives.” As we soon discover, Sam’s guests have beefs with both progressive Democrats (for encouraging government dependency) and Black Republicans like Candace Owens (for their Trumpism).
Their conversation is enlightening and yes, uplifting. One of her guests even comes out during the segment. To me, this moment exposes the most important thing Sam brings to her show (besides being funny). It isn’t her queerness, blackness, or gender — it’s that she’s a people person. She likes pulling information and views out of people, wants to understand them (and, of course, to be understood herself). This is a sharp contrast to the older generation of late-night topical comics like Bill Maher, who once had an HBO special that was actually titled, “Be More Cynical.”
Other components of Pause will be familiar to the late-night crowd: a man-on-the-street segment, a comedy sketch, parting thoughts from the host. It’s how the material is assembled that sets this show apart. People wanting to watch an insult comic lop the heads off the usual suspects should watch another show. Beneath the blizzard of N-words and F-bombs, Pause with Sam Jay is the host’s earnest attempt to move America — and specifically Black America — beyond posturing and cancel culture, to a place that celebrates individualism as much as group identity. The trick will be entertaining her audience while challenging them to think differently. That's a tall order for a documentary filmmaker, let alone a late-night comedy host, but I’m rooting for Sam Jay to pull it off.
Pause With Sam Jay airs Friday nights at 9:00 PM ET on HBO and HBO Max
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.