For those who aren’t yet familiar, Jay is already a pretty big deal in the comedy and TV world. She has written for shows like Saturday Night Live and The Damn Michael Che and has a Netflix standup special Sam Jay: 3 in the Morning, as well as her own shows Bust Down and an HBO late-night show titled Pause with Sam Jay.
Her standup special caught the eye of Kenya Barris—who is also making his film directorial debut with You People—and he reached out to the comedian to praise her work via social media. Soon, that conversation evolved into Barris expressing interest in her being part of his film as the character Mo, who is the straightforward and honest best friend and business partner to the main character Ezra, played by the hilarious Jonah Hill.
Mo helps Ezra navigate his interracial relationship with Amira (Lauren London) but they also work together to make their podcast a success after he quits his day job to focus on their dream. [Ed note: Look out for the Complex Networks shout-out at the end of the film.] There was a clear organic connection between Hill and Jay in the scenes they shared together, and working alongside a comedic genius like him made her experience even better.
“To be able to discover this character across from somebody as talented as Jonah Hill was the dream come true,” Jay tells Complex. “I’m a big Jonah Hill fan, a real fan, so I definitely was fangirling a little bit during the breaks. But he was super cool about it and he really helped me be comfortable, which I think really helped me succeed in the role.”
The director also seemed pleased with his choice to cast Jay during a previous conversation with Complex, where he said she was the film’s greatest surprise and that she transformed Mo into “the best role in the movie.” To say this when her castmates included industry vets like Eddie Murphy, Nia Long, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and David Duchovny, is quite a statement. But Barris was right, Jay is a pleasant addition to the story and more than holds her own in the film among the greats.
Working in television is much different than making a film, especially for someone like the comedian who is used to being involved in behind-the-scenes processes like writing and producing. Letting go of the reigns to bring someone else’s vision to life takes courage and patience, but her role in You People has piqued her interest in wanting to make more films—and maybe even star in some Marvel movies down the line.
“I’m just super open to what’s next, and excited about the limitlessness of the possibilities. When I first started, I put myself in a box, I think a lot of us do. ‘I’m a comic and I’m a standup, and that’s all I do and that’s what I am,’” she tells Complex. “The more I learn and grow, the more I’m like, ‘I’m an artist and I like to create things and I just want to be able to create things for as long as possible.’”
You People hit select theaters last week but it is now available for streaming on Netflix. Complex caught up with Sam Jay ahead of the film’s release and she talked about her experience working on the film, what she learned, and what her hopes are for the future of her career. Check out our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, below.
You People covers a lot of the conversations that people have all the time regarding interracial relationships, religion, and race. Do you think it’s important for a comedy to cover these sorts of topics and conversations?
A little bit. I think it is the job of comedy. I hate to say that in such a cliché way, but it’s the job of any artist to comment on what’s going on in society and bring a microscope to some of what is happening. Comedy has this real ability to play on honesty and directness in a way that sometimes other spaces don’t get to play. When it runs well, I think that stuff can really turn a needle or at least get some conversations going.
What are you hoping that people get from You People?
I hope they watch it and they go, “Sam is amazing and she should be a Marvel superstar.” And then they gave me $80 million to play Catwoman. [Laughs.] No. I try not to put any expectations on it. It helps keep me sane. So honestly, whatever you take away from it is what you were supposed to take away from it, like when you look at a painting. So if you walk away feeling this way, then that was what you’re supposed to walk away feeling. I hope people engage with it and it does something for them. I hope they leave feeling better, different, or more informed, or more empathetic than they were when they came into it.
Now that you’ve gotten a taste of the film side of things, are you looking forward to doing more in the future?
I’m open to whatever. I have some projects that I’ve been developing for TV. I’m a kid who was raised by the television—I was born in ‘82, I’m a TV baby. So there’s always just this love for sitcoms and TV that’s just in me. But I’m not opposed to anything. I’m in this place in life where I’m just super open to what’s next, and excited about the limitlessness of the possibilities. When I first started, I put myself in a box, I think a lot of us do, and I was like, “I’m a comic and I’m a standup, and that’s all I do and that’s what I am.” The more I learn and grow, the more I’m like, “I’m an artist and I like to create things and I just want to be able to create things for as long as possible.”
It’s also important when you’re good at what you do, other people start seeing other strengths, like Kenya.
Exactly, 100 percent. That’s like the community of it. Sometimes you need your community to shine a light on you. Because you’re not even paying attention to that part of your energy or your power.
You said you don’t want to be boxed in as just a comedian and you brought up Marvel. Are there other things that you are looking forward to in your career that are on your vision board?
Yeah, man, I’m going to write a book for sure. That’s something I’ve always wanted to do since I was a kid. I would write all the time and write little short stories. Eventually, that could possibly happen. The project that I have with Lena Waithe I’m just producing and I’m writing it, and I’m not even in it. That’s exciting to me because it’s a whole different space of casting people and making those types of decisions and being more separate from it.
Just knowing what it is to wear that hat when you’re not also going to hop in front of the camera, but you really have to give the product to somebody else, and hope that they run with it the way that you think it should be run with. And if they don’t, step in and give them the proper guidance to get it there. That’s exciting and a whole other stack of responsibilities. I’m really just down the clown. If it sounds cool and I’m into it, then let’s try it.