Nearly halfway into Jacqueline Novak’s very funny show, Get on Your Knees, she introduces the story of her first attempt at fellatio with a quote from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” “I’m 16 and I have a boyfriend,” she says. “I’ve got him on a bed ‘like a patient etherized upon a table.’”
The audience at the Cherry Lane Theatre, where the show is running through August 18, giggles knowingly. On New York Magazine’s Approval Matrix, I’d place pairing blowjobs and T.S Eliot closer to Lowbrow/Despicable than to Highbrow/Brilliant.
Throwing in a few more literary allusions, she continues, “I make my way down the torso. But when I get there, I hesitate. And I blame the schools. There should at least be an exchange program, where you can go to neighboring high schools and practice blowjobs, judgment free, on their worthless boys.”
Well, you had to be there, as I realize while reading the script just a few hours after seeing the 90-minute show. I don’t mean this as a criticism, or at least not as a conclusive criticism. Stand-up comedy, after all, relies equally on delivery and content, and it’s no surprise that Novak’s fans include her bold-faced producers Natasha Lyonne (Orange Is the New Black) and Mike Birbiglia (The New One). Some observations in Get on Your Knees land as less original than others, but for delivery, Novak scores a near-perfect 9.5. Fellow comedian John Early is the director, and they have chops.
She launches herself onto the stage, approaching the microphone and mock-confiding, “Okay, that was hell. I hate a confident entrance. I find it crass!” I’m instantly on my guard: Why do it, then? Well, she says, because it’s like the preamble to the activity that is her show’s subject, and “so this question hovers in the air, can she do it? Will she do the thing well or not well? That tenuousness! Do you feel it? Even now?”
She’s dressed in a gray t-shirt and faded black jeans, her dark hair in a high pony tail. Those opening lines are delivered conspiratorially, her eyes wide, her lips in a smile, her voice a near-whisper. “I will be talking about the blowjob a lot tonight” (oops, it was a matinee, which tells us something), she says, “but don’t worry, I will do so in a way that allows us all to maintain our dignity. For example, I call ‘doggy style’ `The Hound’s Way.’ The position deserves a term with some gravitas.”
And we’re off to the races. Those eyes are so animated, they play a second character, the straight-men to her punch-lines, offering reactions all their own. They’re our intermediaries, giving us permission to laugh at some of her more outrageous aperçus and observations. “To be trapped in the female form in particular is a burden. Every day you leave the house with goals and dreams and things to do, you’re forced to lug it along, like a sack of sex potatoes. Constantly having to say No taters for sale tonight boys.” Watch her eyes there: They’re the slitted equivalent of an APPLAUSE! sign.
What follows is an extended riff on non-blowjob matters that have a familiar ring: the “humiliation” of being, in these pansexual times, a heterosexual woman who “lusts after the common shaft.” The vulnerability, hypersensitivity and unreliability of male genitalia, the medical myths surrounding blue balls, and the absurdity of the phrase “rock-hard boner.” Just typing those words make me laugh. But this line of humor traces at least as far back as 2011 and stand-up Sheng Wang (with a line frequently misattributed to Betty White about the misguided imperative to “grow a pair of balls”).
It’s a long time, in this context, before we get back to blowjobs and Novak’s personal history. I have to admit that writing, let alone saying out loud, blowjob was difficult for me until fairly recently, and I don’t think of myself as squeamish. But in the early days of my own sexual initiation, in the Pleistocene, fellatio and cunnilingus were the last frontier in physical intimacy – not the first, as it seems to have been with Novak and her peers. That has taken some getting used to.
When we do get to the appendage in question and the manly sack below, the observations match in general hilarity the distinctive gestural comedy. “I just don't know how to bring a spirit of play to the balls,” Novak confides, eyes narrowing, prompting knowing laughter. “I mean know what I’d do with two clementines in a plastic bag if I was waiting at a bus stop.” Much of her own education in the matter is focused on the fear of giving a “toothy blowjob.” I won’t reveal how this fear eventually is overcome, but I can say that by the time we get there, Get on Your Knees has shifted on the Approval Matrix way over toward Highbrow/Brilliant.
But really, you had to be there.