Natasha Lyonne is excited to hear an interviewer refer to Jacqueline Novak’s Get on Your Knees — Novak’s freewheeling, often poetic, literary-reference-laden monologue about blowjobs — as a film.
“We think of it that way,” she explains. “Is it possible for a philosopher/poet to be as funny as Jacqueline Novak? I think that by virtue of the scale of her writing, a comedy special does accidentally become something of a film.”
Lyonne adds: “We do like to aim high. Why bother making something without a measure of grandiosity at the start? You need energy to keep going, especially with a low budget. … We’re playing as many filmic games as we can without it being absurd.”
The typical Netflix comedy special consists of a comic slowly prowling the stage, doing set-ups and punchlines and act-outs for a tight hour, interrupted only by shots of audience members laughing. The title usually comes from the best joke of the night, or some reference to the comic’s public image.
But Get on Your Knees breaks the formula. Novak spends 90 minutes on one subject, not going for easy puns, but exploring the power dynamics of sex acts, the expectations and fears everyone has going in, and how miscommunications are exacerbated by moments when at least one party isn’t talking. Racing around the stage, Novak travels back to her teen years, re-examining misunderstood intentions.
“Despite the show being personal and about blow jobs, I still don’t experience it as particularly confessional. Probably more intellectual,” Novak said in a recent interview with Rebellious Magazine.
In Get on Your Knees, she spends a lot of time talking about teeth, as well as Vladimir Nabakov’s Lolita, and T.S. Eliot, and ghosts. She examines how the potentially painful and spiky parts of something can make it what it is. It’s no surprise she declined to reduce it to a more-typical 60 minutes.
“There were definitely internal discussions — should it be cut down so it’s a traditional Netflix hour?” Lyonne recalls. “And I’m so proud of her, speaking as an elderly wizard/great-great grandmother, I am so proud of her for sticking to her guns and her vision and saying, ‘Hey, the show’s the show. I’ve done it for years, and people seem to like it OK. And I guess if they don’t, they don’t — that’s the show I wrote.’”
Natasha Lyonne on the Directing Inpsirations for Get on Your Knees
Lyonne, 44, started acting as a child, and has embraced an old-soul persona since her teens. She refers to everyone as kid, like George Burns used to do when he was twice her age.
To direct Novak’s special she turned to inspirations from decades past, including the work of Lily Tomlin and George Carlin, D.A. Pennebaker’s music documentaries, Bob Fosse’s 1974 Lenny Bruce biopic Lenny, Joe Layton’s 1982 Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Trip and Jonathan Demme’s Swimming to Cambodia, which captured Spalding Gray’s monologue about traveling to Southeast Asia for a role in The Killing Fields.
From the first time she saw an early version of Novak’s Get on Your Knees, Lyonne was struck not just by Novak’s comedy, but also by its three-act structure, and how loose and spontaneous Novak managed to make her setups and payoffs feel.
“If you don’t have this bit, if you don’t have the A side, that doesn’t give you the B-side payoff. And who cares if it’s 40 minutes later? That’s the way the thing was crafted,” Lyonne notes. “So ultimately, you do end up with a sort of ’70s situation — because if you have an artist who’s willing to stick to their guns at that level, I mean, in the first place, you don’t see that anymore, you know?
“Everything is about marketing and algorithmic comfort levels, and the terror of the completion rate: ‘Will the algorithm go for it? Will the kids on TikTok buy in?’ Once we’ve all completely drunk that Kool Aid, I’m not sure where it leaves us as a community. So it really is so cool to watch somebody believe in themselves and the power of their work that much.”
Get on Your Knees, which Lyonne presented and Mike Birbiglia executive produced, became an Off-Broadway word-of-mouth sensation when Novak started performing it at the Cherry Lane Theatre in 2019, with fellow comedian John Early directing. It scored repeat viewings, earned Novak a Drama Desk nomination for Outstanding Performance, and received widespread praise from top stand-ups including John Mulaney, who called Novak the “the Muhammad Ali of comedy.”
Lyonne’s directing credits include episodes of her shows Orange Is the New Black, Russian Doll and Poker Face, as well as Shrill and High Fidelity. To film Get On Your Knees, she enlisted Frances Ha and Lady Bird veteran Sam Levy, with whom she worked while appearing alongside Carrie Coon and Elizabeth Olsen in Azazel Jacobs’ new dramatic feature His Three Daughters.
The special was recorded at The Town Hall, which Lyonne counts as a New York City landmark nearly as iconic as the subway. One of the highlights of the directing experience was delivering tips to the Town Hall team wearing a New York Yankees hat she had recently bought for a trip to London — “just to make sure that they knew where I was from.”
“They have their operation center of their spotlights and stuff, and I remember one of our most fun moments in our little 48-hour journey of filming was giving a pep talk, in my Yankees cap, with the entire Town Hall spotlight team, just being like, ‘She’s never gonna stop moving. And this is a low-budget special with little time for camera rehearsal. So just everybody, look alive,’” Lyonne recalls.
It was a familiar feeling, one that reminded her of appearing in 2011 with Ethan Hawke and Ann Dowd in the Tommy Nohilly play Blood From a Stone. Every night, she said, “we were as wired and terrified as if it’s the first time. … and it’s such a rush when you’re in the pocket.”
Novak would also try things onstage during the taping for the first time — very rare for a Netflix special. Comedians often spend months honing every syllable of their act before releasing it to the streaming masses.
“She does variations at her own sort of whims,” Lyonne says. “She would sort of try an old twist on an old bit.”
One thing that didn’t change was the opening song, Madonna’s “Life a Prayer.” It’s a perfect introduction for many reasons – the allusions to kneeling, but also searching for something higher. And Madonna’s career has been largely dedicated to presenting a sexualized image while commanding control over it.
Novak had used it on stage for her live performances, but Lyonne and the team were sure Madonna and her co-writer, Patrick Leonard, would never agree to let them use it for Netflix. So they sought advice from Novak’s cousin, songwriter-producer extraordinaire Jack Antonoff, about what music they should use instead.
“We’d be on all these calls with him, getting ahead of it and figuring it out, since we were never gonna get Madonna,” Lyonne explains.
But then Madonna said yes. Apparently she had gotten word of Get on Your Knees.
“We recently heard from a friend of a friend of a friend that Madonna on tour was like, ‘Wait a minute, that’s that special — like, I keep hearing about that girl, this Jacqueline Novak — I gotta see this.’ I guess word had gotten back to her. It was just genuinely kind.”
Lyonne hopes all the work that has gone into the film might benefit audiences, especially young women, sorting out their place in relationships and life.
“When we watch it in a final color session or something, I think what I’m most moved by is the idea of young women seeing this thing, and just being like, ‘Holy shit — I’m not the only one thinking these thoughts.’” Lyonne says.
“And there’s something about the power and the scope and the scale of that song that really bolsters, in a way, that what Novak is saying is universal.”
Get On Your Knees is now on Netflix.
Main image: Jacqueline Novak at the Townhall in New York shooting Jacqueline Novak: Get on Your Knees. Credit: Emily V. Aragones/Netflix © 2023