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HBO’s Pause with Sam Jay turns the stuffy late-night talk show into a party

There’s a quality that some long-running chat podcasts have that can feel like a brick wall for new listeners. Existing relationships, in-jokes, and context that friends and co-hosts have are additional barriers to feeling like you’re a part of the conversation. The casual hangout and chat format is tantalizing for its naturalism, but it also comes with parasocial relationships as baggage. Which makes HBO’s new late-night project, Pause with Sam Jay, so intriguing. It has hangout podcasts in its DNA, but it’s also out to reinvent a decades-old late-night format.

Pause is co-created by Sam Jay, stand-up comedian and Saturday Night Live writer, and Prentice Penny, showrunner and executive producer of Insecure. It feels fresh for some obvious reasons. Jay is a Black queer woman in a field filled with straight white men. But aside from the host, the format also feels unique. Where late night is dominated by monologues, desks, interviews, and panels, Pause is quite literally a party. Jay invites over her real-life friends and fellow comedians, and they shoot the shit, filmed by two camera operators, while Jay guides the conversation toward the episode’s topic.

For the episode I watched, that subject was selling out to white culture, or “cooning.” Jay and her guests think bigger than that, too, touching on the sorts of restrictions, labels, and classifications society can place on people who just want to be. The party atmosphere doesn’t always help communicate these ideas. Like a real kickback or house party, people shout over each other, ideas get lost in the mix, and jokes that play in the room just don’t translate without the context and history. But when it does work — or when Jay’s two white guests are gamely dunked on — it feels like something that’s never been available from this kind of show before.

This can make the diversions Jay and Penny take slightly frustrating. To support the natural discussion at the party, Pause weaves in cutaways. There’s nothing necessarily wrong or unfunny about interviews, sketches, or man-on-the-street segments. But they have a very different vibe from a party, and the hangout atmosphere is what makes Jay’s project seem like a shot in the arm when you’re on its wavelength.

And it should! If Conan O’Brien switching up his format, shooting for a shorter length, and literally getting out from behind his desk can be a major milestone in 2019, then clearly, late-night television needs something. In recent years, networks have turned to YouTube for inspiration (and extra ad sales). Segments on shows are frequently designed to be clippable and ready to be shared online, and networks like NBC have poached successful YouTube talent like Lilly Singh to offer relevancy and audience instincts to network late night. Jay and Penny are obviously working the problem from a different angle — and from behind an HBO subscription — but the instinct that the old ways can’t be the only way is the same.

One episode is not a lot to go on, but like the start of a great night with friends, there’s a ton of potential energy in Pause (despite what the name might suggest). There’s plenty of avenues the show could go down, but the most promising is playing with the party format and building out Jay’s guests as sources of humor and insight all their own. For now, though, it’s fun in its own way. Watching people drink, joke, and play pool just feels more engaging than an interview behind a desk — especially during a pandemic.

Pause with Sam Jay premieres on HBO on May 21st at 9PM ET and will also stream on HBO Max.

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