Elena Mudd

The Radical Vulnerability of Jenny Slate

She's baring all in a new book and a Netflix special, because she needs to. “If the feelings are just kind of in the tank and they can't be shot out into the atmosphere, I really start to suffer,” she says.
Oct 23, 2019 @ 10:00 am

Jenny Slate knows you think she could be your best friend.

As the twenty-something comedian in Obvious Child, a warbly-voiced crustacean in the viral Marcel the Shell with Shoes On videos, a cursing biker on SNL, or even as the irreverent Mona-Lisa Saperstein in Parks and Recreation, Slate radiates a warmth and familiarity that makes it feel as if she could be sitting next to you on your couch, sharing her deepest hopes and aspirations — or maybe a fart joke. That affability is why fans approach her constantly, an awkward number of whom are eager to tell her their embarrassing bathroom-related stories (to be fair, she does tweet about her own diarrhea).

“It’s not like I'm like, ‘no, I don't want to hear that.’ But it's also interesting to me,” she says. “I guess, to be honest, we're all so embarrassed all the time, and everyone's always editing themselves. If I'm the receptacle for people's stories that they need, sure, whatever — I'll do it, I don't care. I would much rather be that than be someone people are afraid of, that's horrible.”

I’m speaking to Slate via FaceTime, after our in-person interview was derailed (by my schedule, not hers) and she worried it wouldn’t be “worth it” for me to make the trek to the somewhat remote part of Massachusetts where she and fiancé Ben Shattuck spend half the year (they’re in L.A for the other half). So here we are, chatting on a chilly day in October as she flips the camera around to show me the stormy weather in her neck of the woods, explaining why she’d bundled up in layers of striped clothing. It’s not lost on me that plenty of people would kill to be FaceTiming with Jenny Slate from the comfort of her own bed. More surprising is how appreciative she is of it; she calls it a “gift” that so many people feel a kinship with her, saying there’s an almost transactionary quality to the give-and-take.

“I need you. Not that I need attention, or I need fame, but I need love,” she says. “I'm very honest about that, and while I don't know all the people who feel that way [about me], I think that's how I want them to feel. It doesn't mean that I have the capability to drop into your apartment and solve all your problems — I certainly have enough of my own — but my warmth is not fraudulent and it's there to be given away, because when I give it away, it comes back to me.”

There are limits to her openness, of course. She and Shattuck, for example, had “waited a bit” before announcing their September engagement to the world. Still, she doesn’t worry about her characteristic unguardedness, even after her on-and-off 2017 relationship with ex Chris Evans ended up becoming tabloid fodder. 

“The past is the past, and I have learned to speak about the present because that is where I exist. I've learned some very important lessons, but none of them involve me changing my personality or my faith in people,” she says. She’s moved on in love, yes, and now she’s putting some of that faith in people who’ll want to read her stories — not just watch them onscreen.

She has written a collection of short essays, her first solo publishing project, titled Little Weirds, which will be released Nov. 5th. Slate has previously co-written a memoir with her father, Ron Slate, called About the House, and she co-wrote the New York Times best-selling children’s book version of Marcel the Shell with Shoes On with ex-husband and collaborator Dean Fleischer-Camp. In Little Weirds, she writes that the book is the “act of pressing onward through an inner world that was dark and dismantled,” that it was a way of putting herself back together in order to “dwell happily in our shared outer world” after her life “fell to pieces.” She went through what she describes as “pummeling heartbreak” (she and Fleischer-Camp split in 2016, and her relationship with Evans began thereafter but ended in 2018), a loss of confidence, and “astounding loneliness.” 

If you hadn’t previously been aware of Slate’s dexterity as a storyteller, the book will be your awakening. Take, for example, the way she describes loneliness: “A day at the beach was never so dull as it is now. Without a person to love, I am too full of what must be let out, and while at least I can use my mind enough to bring out this image of the sea, it feels like life is the beach in the winter.” Or the way she writes about getting ready to go out to dinner: “Tonight I am going to the restaurant, where I will eat a killed and burned-up bird and drink liquefied old purple grapes, and also I will swallow clear water that used to have bugs and poop and poison in it but has been cleaned up so that it doesn’t make us ill.”

Elena Mudd

All this, her own special way with language, is a salve for her as much as it is for the reader. “If the feelings are just kind of in the tank and they can't be shot out into the atmosphere, I really start to suffer,” she says.

Slate recalls having been a storyteller and a performer from a young age. Her grandparents had always encouraged her love of talking and making people laugh, and her grandfather, Lester, often compared her to the actresses Sarah Bernhardt and Gilda Radner. 

“I just remember making people laugh at the Shabbat dinner table as a five-year-old, and that it felt like an uncomplicated moment of receiving love that I had brought to myself,” she says. 

Slate went on to study literature at Columbia University, and came up in the early aughts in the alternative comedy scene, performing standup alongside comedian Gabe Liedman; the two later formed a trio with fellow stand-up comedian Max Silvestri. In 2009 came a one-season stint on Saturday Night Live, from which she was let go after she accidentally cursed during a live broadcast.

“By the way, everyone always thinks I got fired for saying f—k: I didn't, that's not why I got fired. I just didn't belong there,” she clarifies. “I didn't do a good job, I didn't click. I have no idea how [SNL creator] Lorne [Michaels] felt about me. All I know is, it didn't work for me, and I got fired.”

A harsh review of her own work, to be sure. Critics at Vulture thought she gave memorable impressions of Ashley Olsen, Hoda Kotb and Kristen Stewart, and Paste Magazine noted that she had “the talent and charisma to be a cornerstone player.” Though Slate’s assessment seems rooted in her feelings about the show’s culture. 

In recent months, the drama has been resurfaced, thanks to the controversy over SNL’s hiring and subsequently firing of comedian Shane Gillis after his past racist and homophobic comments came to light. Slate’s name was linked in the scandal when fans pointed to her as an example of someone who had, in contrast to Gillis, been unfairly fired from the show.

“I am a woman who has made so much of her own work, and I've had a variety of successes — some small, some personal, some public. I'm a New York Times best-selling children's author, all of this stuff that is so intentional and worthy, but people often want to frame my success as an ascent from one failure that was the decision of some man who didn't understand me 10 years ago. I just wonder, if I were a man, would people be so obsessed with the fact that I said a swear?”

After SNL, Slate went on to viral fame voicing the Marcel the Shell series, which she wrote with Fleischer-Camp (it now has over 30 million views on YouTube), and Nick Kroll’s Kroll Show, in which she and the comedian both play obnoxious publicists named Liz. From there came steady work in TV and film, a turn as a compassionate teacher in the 2017 movie Gifted, and guest appearances on Netflix’s Lady Dynamite and Big Mouth. But in the last two years, she’s taken time for, as she puts it, “focusing on myself and my own work and making the risky bet that I can have a career — if I choose to — based on giving to myself.” That meant that aside from voiceover roles in The Secret Life of Pets sequel and Bob’s Burgers, she’s taken time to work on Little Weirds and put together her Netflix special, Stage Fright, which represents something of a dare to herself.

“I thought it was important for me to do this special because my peers are doing it, and I'm treating myself as if I'm not as legit as they are, and that's not true,” she says. “Nobody's saying that for except me. My peers wouldn't say it, why am I saying that?”

Stage Fright is her third collaboration with director Gillian Robespierre, with whom she worked on Obvious Child and 2017’s Landline (the fourth if you count the Obvious Child short film, which inspired the feature-length movie). What’s remained consistent in their collaboration is their close friendship. Robespierre has been there, Slate says, in moments when she “was not sure how to survive," when she felt “unlovable." When she didn’t deal with those feelings, she says, “they just stuck around and really grew mold on themselves and became very putrid.” 

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With the book written and published, the Netflix special out, and her recent engagement, I ask Slate what it looks like in her head and heart at the moment, whether those putrid feelings have been expelled, or have taken on new life. I ask if she has  done what she set out to do in writing Little Weirds: put herself back together. 

“For my whole life, I've been making a specific request,” she responds. “A specific flock of wishes has been flying out of my mouth, and a lot of them could not be returned to me until I learned a bit more about my own self-love.”

In the past two years, she feels as if her head and heart have come to a place where — well, I’ll let her describe it. 

“Now, the wishes have started to gather around me and I feel like they are descending down on me like a transparent and very porous dome,” she explains. “I'm living within that dome; it's a little church of wishes, and there will be times when a storm sweeps through and that structure is totally demolished. But for me, it's about being the creature of the dome no matter where I go. I don't feel scattered, but I also feel, for the first time in my life, in acceptance of myself as a person of volatility.”

Listening to this over a FaceTime call means experiencing both her conviction and my own reaction to it: the slow smile spreading over my face, feeling as honest-to-god happy for her as I would for a best friend who’s finally getting the good things she deserves. The contagious joy of imagining life inside a dome filled with wishes that sometimes come true.

And that’s when I realize that the thing about Jenny Slate is that her warmth doesn’t just come from her openness. It also comes from her ability to say, with her whole chest, something others would keep hushed away. It’s why she’s the receptacle of the stories people are normally too embarrassed to tell. When someone articulates so clearly her own hopes and worries and small shames, it feels like an opening to share your own in return.

When too many of us have been conditioned to believe it’s uncool to care, Slate basks in her unabashed vulnerability. When you’re in her presence, whether it be through her writing, her stand-up, or FaceTime, it feels like stepping into a world that has been recalibrated toward more tenderness, more generosity. Like stepping into Jenny Slate’s dome, surrounded by wishes that sometimes come true.

Photographs by Elena Mudd. Hair by Rheanne White. Makeup by Kirin Bhatty. Art direction and production by Kelly Chiello and Erin Glover.