Comedian Jacqueline Novak on sex-shaming: ‘there’s something fishy about the way teen girls are treated’

·6-min read
Jacqueline Novak performing in 2018. (Photo: Getty Images)
Jacqueline Novak performing in 2018. (Photo: Getty Images)

Laughter fills the room where Jacqueline Novak is performing in Chicago, then quiets when she descends to her knees. She knows the eroticism this pose can carry — it’s exactly why she’s here. Her mission is to scrutinize the sexual act it signals; to philosophize about its origins and wax poetic about its simplicity. To ask the audience to do just one thing: Consider the blow job.

It’s a concept the 38-year-old has been ruminating on for years, long before the debut of this hit one-woman show, which she aptly titled Get On Your Knees. “A thing I was always thinking is that there's just something off about the way anything sexual... is sullying in some way,” Novak tells Yahoo Life over Skype, her cat Mabel tip-toeing behind her. “It’s totally internalized in me — like I have all of that shame and rejection of the body. But I tend to think of myself as living in my head mostly, so I sort of stubbornly, almost in a cerebral way, just felt like there’s something fishy about the way teen girls are treated around these things.”

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - DECEMBER 18: (EXCLUSIVE COVERAGE) Signage for the (Re)Opening Night of Jacqueline Novak's
A New York City theater announced the (Re)Opening Night of Jacqueline Novak's Get On Your Knees in 2019. (Photo: Bruce Glikas/WireImage)

In GOYK, Novak takes the concept of performing oral sex on men and deftly dismantles it — stripping away the stigma and questioning the characterization of each role. “Describe a woman unfairly and you’ve described the penis perfectly,” she says, disputing its machismo identity and rebranding it as a “true drama queen.” Later she attacks the word “erection,” saying it’s a “bit architectural for what’s going one’s going in that building, it's not up to code.”

If the show comes off academic, that’s because it is. Novak says the idea sprang from an essay she wrote on the topic while an undergrad at Georgetown University. The show debuted in New York in 2019, directed by friend and Search Party star, John Early, who told The New York Times his goal with the show was to “introduce Jacqueline to the world as a public intellectual.” GOYK earned rave reviews, not just from the Times, but the New Yorker, The Hollywood Reporter and many more.

WATCH WHAT HAPPENS LIVE WITH ANDY COHEN -- Episode 17008 -- Pictured: Jacqueline Novak -- (Photo by: Charles Sykes/Bravo/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
Jacqueline Novak on Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen. (Photo: Charles Sykes/Bravo/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

Talking to Yahoo Life ahead of its second run this summer, Novak said not much had changed. “Mostly trims, so it’s like killing your beautiful darlings or whatever,” she says. “It's a lot easier after a year of not seeing your beautiful darlings.” But even with the edits, the goal has remained the same. “It’s just the kind of essence, me wanting to redefine something, me wanting to say, here's something that there are all sorts of associations of it being this degrading act and just like, ‘Well, why? Like, is that true?’ Knowing that it’s degrading, there’s something about that whole tangle that I wanted to get into.”

Novak isn’t shy about bringing herself into the equation — or admitting that the show is self-serving at times.

“When I first heard about it…[it was] me reckoning with, like, how does someone who considers herself almost, I dunno, a good student or a daughter like, is there no place for the blow job in my identity?” This is what Novak does best: really makes you think. “Taking what's crass and, and kind of tipping my head and trying to see something beautiful in it is one of my favorite things to do,” she says. “And you know, equally to take something that seems to have dignity just d-dignify it, it’s just fun.”

LATE NIGHT WITH SETH MEYERS -- Episode 1097A -- Pictured in this screen grab: (Clockwise from left) Host Seth Meyers talks with comedians Kate Berlant and Jacqueline Novak  on January 27, 2021 -- (Photo by: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
Seth Meyers welcomed Kate Berlant and Jacqueline Novak, cohosts of POOG, for a virtual interview in January. (Photo: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

Novak’s intellectual brand of humor isn’t limited to the stage. While on the road performing GOYK, she’s been recording weekly episodes of the hit podcast POOG, which she co-hosts with comedian, friend and fellow intellectual Kate Berlant. The podcast, which launched in 2020, is an irreverent take on the wellness world — a genius mix of self-deprecating humor and shameless product promotion that was just named one of the best podcasts of 2021 by Vogue.

The podcast's most memorable moments are those in which Novak and Berlant share deep irrational fears — as they did in the final minutes of the most recent episode. “We’re going to go eat... [with] one of those outdoor heaters with a flame in a glass tube, that’s my favorite kind because you don’t feel like your hair is going to get trapped,” says Novak. “Oh, the conventional outdoor restaurant heating lamp? Constant visions of it being tipped over, oil all over my face and body,” quips Berlant. “Instant flames,” adds Novak.

This constant worrying about the unknown isn’t necessarily something Novak treats as a bad thing, but more the byproduct of her “lifelong learner” identity. “I’ve always enjoyed reading about other subjects. I feel like they just sort of give you more and more to think about,” she tells Yahoo Life. “And so that just serves whatever kind of art you're doing. Go read something outside of the form you're in and it probably will inform whatever you do.”

It’s hard to say whether POOG, which has a 4.9-star rating on Apple podcasts, will ever earn the full focus of Novak’s career. In an interview with the Cut this summer, Berlant mentioned the fear of getting recognized for POOG and POOG alone. Novak doesn’t deny she feels the same. “Yes, we embrace feeling that way and say it publicly, because I feel like that's the honest spirit of POOG,” she says. “It’s a side project and that’s not an insult.”

A side project, Novak says, is more appealing than it sounds. “POOG is our mistress,” she explains. “If you marry your mistress, the affair ends, right? It's the mistress nature that makes it so attractive.” In the intro, the two mock their vacillating serious and silly takes on wellness, saying, “This is our hobby, this is our hell.” Novak says diving headfirst into that credo would ruin it. “The moment we were like, ‘Oh it was POOG the whole time and cut everything else out, POOG would buckle under the weight of that seriousness.”

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