Maiysha sits down with Comedian and TV writer Sam Jay about her HBO series “PAUSE”, her Peacock show “Bust Down”, her time writing for SNL, making space in comedy for others like her and more!
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Maiysha Kai [00:00:05] Hello, I’m Maiysha Kai, host of theGrio’s Writing Black Podcast. In West African tradition. To be a griot is to be a storyteller, one who carries and communicates the experiences and legacies of a people. As theGrio’s lifestyle editor, I’ve always been fascinated by how we tell our stories. That’s why we launched Writing Black, to explore the myriad ways Black writers craft stories and communicate our experiences. Thank you for joining us. Here’s an excerpt from this week’s guest.
PAUSE [00:00:37] Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen, my name is Samaria Johnson. I didn’t really come out. Like when I hear young people talk about, I gathered everybody in the living room. Excuse me. I have something to say. Do you think I’m an alcoholic? If I only freeze my head, is it like cheaper? It is cheaper. It’s a broke people thing that only freeze your head. That’s right. That’s a whole nother episode.
Maiysha Kai [00:01:07] I could not be more excited to have this guest on because this is somebody who gets a lot of play in my household. So I am very excited to have Sam Jay with us today, who is one of my favorite writers. As you know, someone who’s written in multiple mediums, you’ve done stand up, you’ve done TV, SNL, your own vehicles. I just thought you were such a perfect person to have on. As this podcast airs, you will have just wrapped your second season of “PAUSE with Sam Jay” on HBO. If y’all are not watching this, you should because it’s hilarious. So, Sam, how are you? And how has this season been for you?
Sam Jay [00:01:57] I guess I’m pretty good. I’m glad that the season is winding down. I need a break, so it’ll be nice to kind of not be so worried over the episodes and get a little space from it, to also kind of think about what I want to do next season. And I don’t know, I feel good about the season. It’s kind of hard when you’re immersed in it to feel anything, but just kind of consumed by it. But I feel like the reception has been good and people are taking to it in a really starting to connect with what the show is.
Maiysha Kai [00:02:41] Well, I mean, the show is really good. The reason it gets so much play in my household, I really think you in addition to just being a naturally hilarious person who surrounds yourself with hilarious people, you are doing this sort of cultural commentary that I think is a little different than what we’re used to seeing. It’s refreshing. it’s very rooted in the way that we speak to each other culturally. Like as Black folks, you know, you have a predominantly Black crew of folks around you, which is one of the reasons I really wanted to have you on as well. This is something that I think we’ve seen in the last few years in terms of getting a more realistic lens on how we speak to each other. I know you work with Prentice Penny. “Insecure” was a hit for a reason, and I would say the same about “PAUSE.” So how did “PAUSE” come about? Like, how do you all sit together and say, okay, this is what we want to do a show about. What was the genesis of this?
Sam Jay [00:03:38] I honestly, I got linked up with Prentice through like some agents and my manager and we’ve had a couple of meetings and just like talk to each other and just figured out if you would vibe at all with one another as people. And we, we vibe as people. And then, you know, we started talking about what a late night show could be. And it was just a lot of conversations really at first about more so what we wanted the show to feel like even before we kind of started talking about what it would look like or like what it could be, it was just like what type of thing are we trying to put out and what are we trying to get out of what we’re trying to put out? And I think just over time, you know, and once we really started getting in the writers room with it and working on different iterations of it, the iteration we have kind of just grew out of development really.
Maiysha Kai [00:04:31] I love that you brought the writers room because I think that’s something that not a lot of us are privy to. You know, we hear about them. You’ve been in some pretty legendary ones already in your career. But one of the things that’s really cool, I think about “PAUSE” in particular, is that I mean, and correct me if I’m wrong here, I always get the sense when I’m watching it because you’re surrounded by so many other industry folks and other comic voices, some of which, you know, are very recognizable, some of which we may not know, like it kind of gives me the feeling of a writer’s room. Is that was that the vibe you’re going for?
Sam Jay [00:05:07] The vibe we were going for more so is just how conversations actually happen.
PAUSE [00:05:11] This b**** was like, “I want to get Bantu Knots but I don’t want to hurt Black people’s feelings.” Why do you think you have the power rock my day? You just look dumb.
Sam Jay [00:05:23] That like open floor dialog that seems to happen at a party. Or when you’re hanging out with your friends, where people have their guards down and they’re not trying to say the perfect thing, but they’re just saying what they actually feel about something. And we were just trying to capture that as much as we possibly can. And I think by coincidence, you know, comedy writers rooms typically work the same way as that. But I don’t know that that was like the forefront in our mind of like it needs to feel like a writer’s room. Honestly, we were just like, it needs to feel like a party at my house. And I work in comedy and I work in comedy writing. So typically at my house there’s a lot of comics and writers and people like that if I throw a function. But mixed with my family and my friends who have regular 9 to 5s and all that stuff, and like that’s what we tried to bring to “PAUSE,” which just like a bit of a hodgepodge of people in my life.
Maiysha Kai [00:06:20] But you also are very much inviting us in as as guests of that party as well. So it’s always a really good time, I would say that. And you also, you know, the vibe is fun, but you’re hitting on some really light. I mean, you know, for lack of a better phrase, some pretty serious, you know, you just are you know, one of the one of my favorite episodes actually was about sexual miscalculations. I thought it was a really great way of phrasing that. And it’s something I think about a lot, you know, the politics of consent, the fact that consent has become very politicized, all that kind of stuff. You know, when you’re sitting around like brainstorming about these topics, like, you know, is this really are these just areas of discomfort? Are these things that people are, you know, have brought up to you that you’re like, oh, you know, you know, you sit around lists these things. I’m really interested in the process of how you how you decide you’re going to delve into these topics further and who you’re going to invite to discuss.
Sam Jay [00:07:19] Oh, I mean, really, it’s just more so like we just talk in the writers room and the things that kind of everybody grabs on to and has an opinion on. We kind of keep pushing towards those things. I mean, I think it’s it’s an it’s kind of a combination. Some of it is stuff I know I want to talk about. I come into the season and I’m like, here’s a conversation I want to have because I haven’t seen it had in this way.
Maiysha Kai [00:07:43] Mm hmm.
Sam Jay [00:07:45] I think we choose things based on if we have something to contribute to it. I don’t like to just talk about things, because the thing to talk about of the week or it’s the thing everybody’s talking about right now. If I don’t actually have a real opinion or anything to add to the conversation, then we typically steer away from things like that. But when it came to the ‘Sexual Miscalculations’ of it all, I just felt like I I’ve never heard that conversation being had in a very just kind of like open and honest way from both sides of it.
PAUSE [00:08:20] I didn’t say no. But also, I’m giving you all of the signs that say, stop.
Sam Jay [00:08:23] It’s usually a very heated line in the sand conversation. But there is so much gray that I just don’t think gets addressed. And so we were like, Hey, maybe a conversation around the gray of it all. And this is always usually stuff that I’ve talked about in my personal life or is sit around with my homies and been like, Yo, this is this is that or that is this. And like, why don’t we ever hear anybody talk about this part of it or that part of it? And that’s kind of how we choose stuff.
Maiysha Kai [00:08:53] You know, again, that was an episode that for me, I mean, those are conversations I have, you know, with my friends as well. I love the fact that you leaned into like the gendered aspects of it. I just thought the nuance of it all that is then couched in this really casual, often really hilarious conversation is kind of a marvel to behold. Is it true, I did a little wiki research here and you know we can’t always depend on wiki for everything, so is it true that you started the stand up a decade ago?
Sam Jay [00:09:22] I was 29. Yeah, I guess I feel old, but yeah, I guess, 29.
Maiysha Kai [00:09:26] Wow. I mean, because I look at like what you’ve accomplished in a decade here as a writer. Wrting for SNL. Black jeopardy, you’re part of like that’s a, you’ve been involved in some of these like, iconic moments that pop culturally, you know, all of us identify with. Right. Does that ever feel overwhelming?
Sam Jay [00:09:50] No, I don’t really think about it. Um, it’s just always stuff to do, you know, like with the Black jeopardy of it all, you know, that was already a thing when I got there. Che and Tucker, have been doing it. You had the Tom Hanks one. Yeah. Just jammed down with Tucker and Che on two of the joints. And that was fun and it was cool. It was a good time. Um, but I don’t know. It’s just, I don’t really spend too much time dwelling in that stuff because it can get overwhelming. So I try to just, you know, focus on what’s ahead of me.
Maiysha Kai [00:10:26] Just to be a little clear about what I meant by overwhelming, I guess I think of, you know, being a writer myself, producing a podcast, all those kind of things that we do, trying to juggle those things. And I’m not doing it anywhere near the scale you’re doing it and I get overwhelmed. And I think, you know, when we talk to writers, a lot of it is so much about like, where do you find the time? Where do you carve this out? You know, where do you find the space to be creative sometimes? Because obviously the more in demand that you are, the more difficult it becomes, even just have a life. So I think that’s kind of what I was more leaning into, I guess a little bit in terms of with that name recognition, do you find that you have to become more structured in the way that you approach your craft?
Sam Jay [00:11:13] I think I’m just realizing that, honestly. I feel like I actually just thought about it for the first time this morning. It was weird yesterday because I woke up this morning, I was like, I may have to create a schedule because things are starting to just pile up. And I don’t know that I’ll get to everything and give it its due diligence if I don’t start making it more like structured. Though, I’m not really that way. I don’t really approach things like that. I’m pretty loosey goosey.
Maiysha Kai [00:11:45] Yeah, same.
[00:11:46] When it comes to stuff and creating stuff. Um, but I was like, man, I have to start getting up at like 8:00 and dedicating like an hour to this and an hour to that and blah blah blah. So I don’t, I don’t have a firm answer yet, but I’m, I’m just starting to think about it, I guess.
Maiysha Kai [00:12:09] Listen, I mean, that was actually why I asked, because I know how it is as a creative. It’s hard because we like to be loosey goosey. We like to, you know, let inspiration strike. Yeah, but as we know, more money, more problems, more schedules, more, you know, all that. Yeah.
Sam Jay [00:12:24] Just becomes like a necessity to some degree.
Maiysha Kai [00:12:27] Right.
Sam Jay [00:12:28] But I guess, um, I’ll find a rhythm that it won’t. Because if it’s too structured, I know it won’t work for me. I’ve never worked like that. I was never like a comic who was like, I got to get up and write for an hour every day. I don’t do that. I kind of just write all day and I’m thinking all day and I’m tooling things around and moving things around in my brain all day long. There’s got to be some middle ground where I won’t lose that, but it’s not as loose as it’s been.
Maiysha Kai [00:12:55] So, speaking of comedy, so we’ve we’ve covered that this this whole career, this amazing and still growing career of yours has been a decade’s worth of work. And we know a lot of stuff happens before people become overnight successes, sort of speak. When did comedy make sense to you? I mean, did you just wake up one day and say, hey, you know, I really want to do standup. I want to just like, you know, get up in front of people? Like what would happen?
Sam Jay [00:13:25] I mean, I think I was always kind of one to do it and then thinking about it. And I like tried it in my early twenties and then went off and did a bunch other stuff. And I don’t know, I was going into my thirties, well I was about to turn 30 and just not feeling like I was living to my potential, honestly, and just trying to, you know, figure out why that was. What were the blocks and what was going on, to the why I was kind of in a rut in life. And comedy was like the one thing that I wanted to do, but I was scared to do kind of. And so I just kind of, you know, took it head on and was like, let me try it and see. It was really like a what do I have to lose dfeeling of like I want to know and I’ll regret if I never try. And I don’t find out. And what’s the worst that can happen? You know, I’m bad at it. And then, like, I go do whatever it is I’m already doing. You know what I mean? It just felt like, well, what could be the worst scenario wasn’t too bad in in retrospect. So I just kind of went for it.
Maiysha Kai [00:14:42] I mean, I think that’s such an A, it’s such a refreshing answer. And I think it’s you know, it is that thing. I don’t know that we’re asking that enough of ourselves sometimes, like, what’s the worst that can happen? You know, you’re thinking, Oh, I could fall flat on my face, I can humiliate myself, I could do whatever. But that regret factor that you talk about, I think, is it’s definitely got to be the overriding emotion when it comes to pursuing or not pursuing something. I love that answer. I also have a soft spot in my heart for another vehicle you’re involved with, which is ‘Bust Down.’ I have a feeling that the reason I’m so soft on this is that I can literally see Gary, Indiana, from my apartment. I live in Chicago. So I’m like, this is not all altogether unfamiliar to me. How did this come about? But this show is ridiculous, first of all. But like what happened there? How did this come together?
Sam Jay [00:15:39] I mean, way before even I was at SNL, Chris Langston, Jak and I were working on it. It’s really just a labor of love that we have been working on for a long time. And, um, it lived in a few places at Hulu and Netflix at one point and kind of bounced around, but we never gave up on it.
Bust Down [00:15:57] You didn’t help me. You watched her poor mango margarita on my head. No, I left before that. it just didn’t seem right to get involved in a domestic violence situation. Well, it wasn’t a domestic violence situation, bro. We don’t even live together. It was just regular violence, you dumb ass.
Sam Jay [00:16:15] We really wanted to do this thing together, so we all kind of just kept it at the tip of our tongues and in conversation and never really left it hanging, even though we were all kind of getting our own things. You know, Jak had gone to Big Mouth and Langston was with South Side and the Boys and Chris SNL and I was at SNL and then PAUSE and just like all the little stuff we were just doing. But we just really wanted to make Bust Down because we just thought it was going to be a good, fun, silly time. And it was it was a good, fun, silly time.
Maiysha Kai [00:16:48] Well, I can’t wait to hear more. Stay tuned for more from the Running Back podcast.
[00:16:57] TheGrio Star Stories with Toure coming soon on theGrio’s Black Podcast Network.
Maiysha Kai [00:17:09] Welcome back to the Writing Black Podcast. You know, one of the things I do think and you know, we were touching on this a little bit earlier when we were talking about the format of PAUSE and this kind of like party atmosphere that you create and even, you know, talking about Prentice and the kind of projects that he has become synonymous with. But it seems to be a really, really exciting time to be a Black creative and particularly a Black writer, a Black content creator. If you’re working in, you know, television, etc., a lot of people have definitely, you know, coined this time the new renaissance. How does it resonate for you kind of being able to not just bring yourself to the proverbial table, but do it with your friends? Do you know, have these communities of folks were just like, you know, bouncing ideas off each other and actually being able to make them happen? And maybe do you feel that same sense of gatekeeping or do you feel like some of that’s breaking down a bit? I know that’s a layered question there.
Sam Jay [00:18:14] Um. I don’t know. You know, like. I don’t know. It’s tough because I think things have as much power as you give it sometimes, you know, and I’ve never been a big believer in gatekeepers and that that system in itself. I mean, you go through that when you start to stand up, there’s a lot of gatekeepers. Even locally, before you can go and do anything nationally, you know, just trying to break into your local clubs, network and all that. You know, there’s always dudes who are telling you what the dos and don’ts of comedy are and how long it takes to do this and what it requires to do that. Like, there’s no one way to do anything. And most of the time, like those those people don’t really know what they’re talking about, especially like when you’re dealing on a local level, a lot of the times you’re dealing with someone who hasn’t necessarily left your hometown but is telling you what it takes to like make it in L.A. So it’s like you have to put all that stuff into perspective. You know what I mean?
Sam Jay [00:19:25] So when it comes to like the industry itself, I just focused on making cool things and working with people I liked, and I’ve had success that way. That’s all I know. You know what I mean? Like, I didn’t really fall into that whole thing. And I’m not to say it doesn’t exist. I just don’t know that I gave it that much of my time or energy. I just feel like, you know, you’re going to hear a lot of no’s as much as you’re going to hear yes’. That’s just the nature of it. Everybody’s not going to like you and everybody’s not going to get you. And at the end of the day, when you’re out here selling something, you’re selling something and someone’s buying it and they’re buying it because they feel like it’s an investment. And at the end of the day, they hope that it will help them sell ad space because they are a business and that’s what they’re in the business of doing. And if they don’t think your thing will do that, that’s fine. There’s a lot of ways to sell things too, and like there’s a lot of ideas.
Sam Jay [00:20:25] So I don’t know, I just kind of live by that and just do the things I feel good and do the things that feel correct for me and work with the people that I feel get me as an artist and like get the things that I’m trying to do. And yeah, that’s just how I choose to play the game, I guess, you know. So I don’t know if it’s like a relaxing thing or not thing or people just getting some stuff too much like, weight. That just doesn’t really have that much weight at the end of the day, you know what I mean? I hear a lot of times people say things like, Oh is the new way, and if you don’t have a bunch of followers, then you can’t do this. And if you don’t have this with you, all these new like gatekeeping rules. Right? But I’m not necessarily the most Twitter savvy person. I don’t have a lot of followers by 24,000 followers, maybe. You know? I’m not over a 100K on Instagram and like, I don’t get that many retweets, stuff like that.
Sam Jay [00:21:33] I just try to make cool stuff, you know, with my friends. So I don’t know. I think there’s a little bit of how much you play into that too. But, you know, not to say I haven’t had people do that to me, you know, I don’t want to paint that picture. I’ve definitely had some opportunities or I’ve gone to some meetings and they’ve been like, Yeah, you need to get your followers up, you need to do this and you need to do that. And then we can get you all these opportunities. And I just walked away from that kind of stuff because I was like, Well, that’s just not for me. I’m not that type of person and that’s not how I’m going to do this. So I have to find another way that’s going to work for me. You know what I’m saying?
Maiysha Kai [00:22:13] I do know what you’re saying. I think I think we call that integrity. I like it. But I also think, you know, the same could be said of, you know, identity, right? You know, we’ve I think we’ve both lived long enough. I’m a little older than you, but I think we both live long enough to kind of see this shift and sometimes pendulum swing when it comes to how identity plays a role and in terms of what people think is marketable and when it’s not and you are somebody who, you know, whether you’re talking about it, you know, and PAUSE or, you know, Bust Down, you know, you are very like. Candid. You know, you’re bringing a lot of yourself to the table, whether it’s talking about, you know, being masculine or center or, you know, talking about Blackness and very, very candid, you may not get this inside, joke kind of terms. Is that something that you feel has been a big key to your success, or do you think it’s something that sometimes people are pressing you to do?
Sam Jay [00:23:22] Hmm. I don’t think anyone is pressing me to do it, for sure. I just never wanted to make things that weren’t authentic to me and that didn’t feel like me, you know, especially if I’m the driver of it. I just felt like it needs to fit me and feel like me. I didn’t want to. Like, if you if you know my stand up. I didn’t want you to watch my late night show and go, like, who is this person? You know what I mean? Like, what’s happening? I didn’t want to put on a suit and sit behind a desk and be a thing that I’m not. So with everything that I’ve made, at least up till now, I just looked at it like, how can I make it fit me? And how can I, like, do this in a way that feels authentic to my voice?
Maiysha Kai [00:24:17] I mean, you’ve created that space for yourself, but do you also think of it in terms of like the space you might be creating for other people? Does that ever play into anything for you?
Sam Jay [00:24:29] Yeah and no, right? Like, yes, of course. Because it’s like an impossible thing to, like, not think about when you’re a minority in so many ways, you know, Black, gay, a woman, you’re going to think about it, you know what I’m saying? And like I do try to make sure when I’m doing stuff, I’m making space for people, you know, like for people who grew up like I grew up and talk, like I talk and move, like I move. And even when Prentice and I talked about, you know, PAUSE, it was like, I just want this to be something my n**** would watch and can go like. Yeah, like that. I’ve had that conversation or yeah, like just something where they could see themselves in it. And it is not just like completely foreign.
PAUSE [00:25:14] I’ve been a Black woman way longer than I’ve been a gay woman, but it’s like who decides what you’re supposed to align ourselves to?
Sam Jay [00:25:21] And I do think that matters. I do think you have to, you know, kind of move in spaces as authentically as you can because you make room for people to be themselves and and not have to put on airs to do things. And if you make a show and it, and it works and you’re talking like n***** around the away, but it’s still some level of intelligence to it and a conversation everybody can dig into. Then the next person who comes along with that vernacular in a gold chain may be looked at less like they might not know what f*** they’re talking about. You know what I mean? So in that regard, like. Sure. But I also don’t try to think about that too much because you don’t want to start doing things just for that reason, you know, it has to be creatively interesting to me and drive me personally. And at some point, you know, if I’m doing it right, everyone should dislike me for one reason or another if I’m being like a true dynamic person. And so I don’t ever want to get, like, locked into that mode either. In a weird way, if that makes sense, what I’m trying to say is like and then, you know, it can become a little self-righteous, if you like, O.D. on tip. So it’s like I’m also not trying to play in that lane either, of like I am here for the Black women. Because sometimes I’m just doing some Sam s*** that because I just want to do it and there’s nothing deeper than that to it, you know?
Maiysha Kai [00:26:50] Well, you know, you are definitely an authentic storyteller. And I really admire and appreciate you for that. What’s next? Is there something we can be look at? I mean, we know there’ll be more of PAUSE. I’m excited about that. What else do you have percolating? If you can share one.
Sam Jay [00:27:10] I don’t know. Just a bunch of stuff in development and ideas that I’m playing with and things I, you know, I’m thinking about all types of stuff from, like, cartoons to sketches, things to. So just see what. What excites me and what feels good, what feels right.
Maiysha Kai [00:27:29] I can dig it. And we ask this of all of our guests, I’m going to ask you as well, you are a storyteller. But when you are like, who are people that you admire who are also storytellers, you know, whether it be books or film, but people who I guess inspire you as a writer.
Sam Jay [00:27:46] Michael Che.
Maiysha Kai [00:27:47] Mm hmm.
Sam Jay [00:27:48] I think he’s a phenomenal sketch writer and a great comic. Hmm. I know so much stuff. There’s so much stuff out there. You know what I mean? That I’m always, like, consuming and stuff. Prentice, Jak Knight. I just think he’s such a phenomenal writer, phenomenal comic and just a great visionary. He did some directing this season. Well, he was supposed to, but he set up a lot of ideas for some directing this season, ended up getting pulled into a movie. But, you know, so he’s inspired me to just in the idea of what I can grow to become in this industry and stuff like that. What am I reading chillin on the side? I haven’t read a book in a minute. Don’t get me to lying about that. Oh, I have started the Water Dancer and I’m just in it, you know what I mean? But I’m not done with it. It’s been like a slow read for me. Whoa. You know what I mean? And then I like the classic people that everybody, you know, digs in, like, just finished Giovanni’s Room maybe last summer. I had good time with that. But I think I’m I’m just catching, like inspiration from everywhere.
Maiysha Kai [00:29:07] All right. Well, you’re giving inspiration to and we really appreciate you coming on to Writing Black to help us kick this podcast off and just to really sit and glean some of this this authenticity and it’s brilliant. So thank you, Sam Jay
Sam Jay [00:29:24] Thank you for your time.
Maiysha Kai [00:29:25] Thank you for yours. So we’ve reached the part of the episode where I talk about some of my favorite things to share with you. But one thing I do want to share with you in regard to this episode is that we had this conversation with Sam Jay just a few days before she lost one of her closest collaborators, Jak Knight. If you don’t know Jak Knight, he was an amazing comedian writer. His standup is brilliant. His acting is brilliant. He costarred with Sam and Buss Down. His writing was all over. PAUSE with Sam, Jay and just a really, really. Vibrant, young, fresh, you know, just ridiculously brilliant talent that I’m sure a lot of us feel is gone too soon. So we want to pay tribute to Jak Knight. And that I would I would say Jak Knight is one of my favorites and one of those voices that I wish I could have heard a lot more of. But I highly recommend go to YouTube, check out Jak Knight and you will get a taste of his writing, his humor, his cleverness. Watch Bust Down for the same reason. I will admit, though, that my favorite Jak Knight moment is actually not one that he wrote. It’s a performance and actually he’s animated, so he doesn’t even really technically appear in it. But if you watch the animated series Big Mouth that’s on Netflix, you will hopefully be familiar with a very iconic little musical number called Code Switching. And yes, it’s about exactly what you think it is. And Jak Knight performs that piece. And it really, to me is it kind of epitomizes the wonderful energy that we were just becoming accustomed to when we lost him.
Big Mouth [00:31:20] You don’t have a code switch. No. How does it code switch work? Well, it’s a little tricky, but let me break it down for you. As a Black kid, you got to learn this handy trick of social self-defense. You switch up your speak and give your manner a tweak depending on the audience. I mean, Will Smith, witty or cool, like Diddy or affable as you please, because when you’re young and Black, you develop a knack for putting the world at ease. It’s called code switching.
Maiysha Kai [00:31:50] All love to Jak Knight and Jak Knight’s family and his friends and obviously to Sam Jay and partake in his brilliance wherever you can. Thank you so much for joining us for another episode of Writing Black. As always, you can find us on theGrio app or wherever you find your podcasts.