Jenny Slate Doesn’t Want to Gross You Out

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“I’m embarrassed about the fluid situation,” the comedian Jenny Slate began, apologizing for her cold. We were talking on Zoom, and she was some three thousand miles away, in Los Angeles, so I told her I didn’t mind. Still, she continued, through coughs, “I’ve found, after COVID, that the sound of fluid in the nose is a turnoff for many people, which totally makes sense. So I’m calling it out—I know that I’m gross. That’s probably all you need for this interview! That’s really the center of my perspective.”

Is it? Consider the contents of Slate’s latest standup special, “Jenny Slate: Seasoned Professional,” an A24 production that débuts on Prime Video this Friday. With her trademark kid-sister zaniness, Slate talks about her “exploded” vagina after giving birth to her daughter, Ida; a seventh-grade orchestra trip that ended in a messy lactose-intolerance incident; and peeing in her overalls while fleeing early-pandemic L.A. But Slate’s perspective isn’t just about bodily fluids. “Seasoned Professional,” she got around to telling me, is a “love story told in reverse.”

Slate took a circuitous path to both love and comedic stardom. Her single season on “Saturday Night Live,” in 2009-10, is mostly remembered for the accidental F-bomb she dropped during her first sketch. Her breakthroughs came later, including her viral video “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On,” which was directed and animated by her then boyfriend, Dean Fleischer Camp; they later married, divorced, and turned Marcel’s miniature adventures into an Oscar-nominated feature. She starred in the abortion dramedy “Obvious Child,” made memorable appearances on “Kroll Show” and “Parks and Recreation,” and lent her voice (or her many voices) to animated projects such as “Big Mouth” and “Zootopia.” Her first taped special, “Jenny Slate: Stage Fright,” appeared on Netflix in 2019.

Slate, who is forty-one, splits her time between L.A. and what she describes as the “little seaside town” in Massachusetts where her husband, the artist and curator Ben Shattuck, grew up. When we spoke, she was in her home office. Behind her was a painting of her dog Reggie (R.I.P.) watching her other dog Arthur (who went with Camp after their divorce) on a TV set. When I asked her to name the weirdest object in the room, though, she looked around and chose an electric drill. “It’s very easy for me to say that objects have personalities, or, at best, a tiny spirit,” she said. “Just a touch of the pagan.” In our conversation, which has been edited and condensed, we talked about the power of turning forty, her obsession with her therapist, and how Marcel the Shell helps her with parenting.

Jenny, do you remember how we first met?

I definitely remember screaming at you that we should get margaritas but mistaking you for someone else, because I myself had had too many margaritas. Do I remember how we first met? I don’t think I do.

I’ll tell you. It was around 2005, when I had just started at The New Yorker, and you were dating a New Yorker fact checker and would come to our softball games and cheer us on.

Yeah, Josh! What a handsome, nice person. He was my college boyfriend. I loved going to those softball games, and I loved going to the bar afterward. Everyone was really nice to me. There’s a version of that where people are, like, “Somebody’s girlfriend? Blech!”

You were like our WAG. You were our Taylor Swift.

Oh, my gosh, what a friggin’ compliment, man!

You would bring us some spirit, which made up for what we lacked in athletic ability.

You guys were pretty good. Unless I’m wrong. I kind of remember you getting your butt kicked by the High Times team.

Yes! It was, like, Why are you not stoned and wandering off the field? It made no sense.

I would’ve been very stoned as well, and I’m not ashamed to say that. That was a pretty heavy marijuana time for me. Now I haven’t smoked weed for over five years, but at the time I had a really healthy relationship with it. I remember sitting there stoned and being, like, the specifics of this situation are dear to me. They’re softball players, but they work at a magazine. They all have to do that job, but then they’re willing to let each other see them play sports, and then they’re going to drink beer. It just felt so old-fashioned. I was, like, This is what I would have chosen as a kid, and now I get to have it.

I’m pretty sure I knew that you were a comedian then. But it wasn’t until years later that I saw you on “Saturday Night Live” and went, “Oh, my God, that’s Jenny, Josh’s ex-girlfriend from softball!” What kind of comedy were you doing in 2005?

I was right out of Columbia. It’s odd that I became a standup comedian, because I didn’t grow up watching any standup at all. I did grow up idolizing “S.N.L.,” of course, and Gilda Radner. I loved comedy. Anyway, Josh and I were living on Henry Street, in Brooklyn, and I was working at a bakery on Court Street. I had zero connections to anyone in the entertainment industry, but I had [my comedy partner] Gabe Liedman and a bunch of us from Columbia who had been in an improv group. I wanted to one day have a “Strangers with Candy”-type show. Gabe and I watched every episode a million times, and Amy Sedaris is, like, a living god. So we started a sketch group. We practiced and practiced. We had nowhere to perform. Finally, we got a spot at a tiny theatre near Great Jones Street, and we put on a show. Our group was called the Wiener Philharmonic, and our show was called—honestly, Michael, it was called “Doody Calls.” I thought I was going to get discovered, even though nobody knew where this place was and the only people who came were like our families. I can still quote some of the lines.

Let’s hear!

Well, one of my characters was the least intelligent girl in the graduating class, and somebody had made a mistake in calculating the valedictorian. They’re all, like, “Welcome our valedictorian!” and she’s just a big dum-dum. It starts with her going, “Dearly . . . gathered.”

Weren’t you your actual valedictorian in high school?

I was, yeah.

What was your speech like?

Oh, my God. I’m sure it was so self-serious and condescending. I had no idea how to be a person. But I do remember quoting “Mrs. Dalloway,” and the speech was about how what we should angle for is not one diamond-in-the-rough moment. We should look at the world as this scavenger hunt of precious things, and hopefully they’re unlimited rather than one big one that we need to keep tethering ourselves to in order to feel important.

Do you feel like you’ve followed that advice?

I do. I got bullied so hard in middle school, and my mom really drilled into my head, “The people who are hurting your feelings—this is a high point for them. They’re using you to step up a little higher.” First of all, it’s probably not true. A lot of those people probably became really nice and have a good life. But I remember being concerned with making sure that there’s this big feeling of plurality in my life. There’s so much to find. You don’t want to be the person who had that one moment where you sensed something shining. That has always scared me.

Is that how you feel about your year on “Saturday Night Live”? On paper, that was your big break, but your actual big breaks came later.

It was a doorway. A lot of things you don’t understand when they’re happening. Not that I’m obsessed with psychics, but my best friend and I got our natal charts read, and this lady gave me a reading that was scary. It involved a lot of loss. I was, like, If that happens to me, I’m basically fucked. And you can look back and think, Wow, everything that random lady said actually did happen. Of course, with psychic readings, you can always insert circumstances to fit the thing. But one thing the psychic said was “The relationship you’re in now”—at the time, I was not engaged to Dean, but we were together—“is not going to last.” And I was, like, “Ahhh!” Why would anyone ever want to hear that?

But one thing I think about “S.N.L.,” and what my therapist, Pamela, says, is that sometimes you only get one doorway, and you have to go through. I think about that time now as the opening to everything else. There’s a part of me that is afraid of injury, and maybe I wouldn’t have done the things that ended up happening to me. I really did become a much stronger performer. My identity focussed up because I had that job. Getting back to the graduation speech, you can say your whole life, “This is my dream. I want to be on ‘S.N.L.’ ” And, if you’ve been saying that since you were a kid, which I was, it sucks if you don’t ever get to try. I’m really glad I got to try, because if I didn’t I’d probably still be trying. It would be the one that got away.

You’ve talked a lot about your fears and phobias, including stagefright. So how did you wind up doing standup? That’s a No. 1 fear for many people, having to do standup comedy.

Totally. I really hadn’t seen much of it, but from what I did know it seemed intensely male. Like, Andrew Dice Clay in a leather jacket. I thought it was about making fun of people in the audience, like, “That date’s not going well!” I had probably just seen the episode of “Sex and the City” where Miranda goes on a date to a comedy club, and [the standup] makes fun of her because her date is actually married and his wife is calling. I had no references. In fact, Dean, my ex-husband, often referred to me as the only comedian he’s ever met who has zero references in the art form—which I take as a big compliment.

I started doing it because my friend had heard of Eugene Mirman, so she was, like, “I want to go see this show.” There was this alt-comedy scene, and we went and saw it, and I was, like, Oh, wait, it’s just people talking about themselves. It was so full of life. I wasn’t sure, but I thought that I could do it. I thought, I should do that. I wanted to. And Gabe wanted to do it, so we decided to do it together as a duo. Eventually, we got a thirty-second spot on “Invite Them Up,” which was the big comedy show at Rififi, a comedy club that doesn’t exist anymore, on East Eleventh.

What did you do with those thirty seconds?

Our joke was that I was telling everyone that he was my boyfriend, and he was telling everyone that he was gay, and I looked like a big, lonely idiot. That was always our opener. I was, like, “I’m so excited to be here tonight with my boyfriend!” And he’d be, like, “I’m obviously not her boyfriend.” And I would bring forth evidence as to why he obviously was my boyfriend, even though we’ve never held hands or kissed or anything: he was being respectful of me.

Your first special was called “Stage Fright.” Was stagefright a problem for you even then? How did it enter your life?

The first instance I can remember now was when I was a high-school-speech-team kid. I was really competitive. I would throw up before the tournaments, so much that I wasn’t allowed to ride the bus with the other kids. My mom had to drive me all around the state of Massachusetts. And you had to wear a suit—we looked like little lawyers, but I hadn’t hit puberty for most of it. My mom would get a suit from Talbots and then tailor it for me. But I would throw up beforehand, and then when the round would start I’d be off and running. It was almost unbearable, the way it felt in my body.

Then that went away for a long time. I would get a little nervous on the side of the stage, doing shows in Brooklyn and the East Village, but it wasn’t debilitating. There’s a big comfort in being a stranger, just being random and showing up. Then I started to get it once I had been on “S.N.L.,” and it just didn’t go away.

I was at the live taping of your new special, “Seasoned Professional,” last spring at BAM. I imagine there’s a lot of pressure when you’re taping a special that you know will be seen by many people, far more than are at the theatre. On a night like that, how do you feel and how do you overcome it?

It is deeply uncomfortable. If somebody said that the theatre was somehow contaminated and we all had to leave, I would feel a sense of relief—but also deep sorrow. Standup is something that I feel so much joy doing when I’m onstage, but before a show I feel sick to my stomach. I feel uncomfortably full of energy. I don’t know if you’ve ever gotten acupuncture. Sometimes there’s a point on my foot where, even before the needle goes in, I feel light shoot out of it. That’s how much energy I feel is in the foot. I’m just cranked up. And I do often like to have a beer, just in a chemical way to take it down. But my outward behavior seems very normal. My friend took a bunch of videos of us just hanging around when I was getting my makeup put on. I was, like, Wow, I appear to be normal! Which generally is the trick of my life: I appear to be normal. What holds me together is thinking, I asked for this. And I want it. I’m really grateful to have it.

You used to have a lot of resistance to filming your standup act. I read an old interview where you said, “I want it to be like a wild animal that runs through your backyard.” Why did you change your outlook?

I realized that I didn’t have to choose, and that I was holding myself back by acting like the only way to have that wildness is to keep it in a certain environment. That’s just a way to avoid larger challenges. So I decided to take that leap. You just have to think about what’s real. It’s my material. It’s clothes that I picked. And it’s a stage. I’m not doing something where I’m lowered in on a harness.

I get a little frightened about the audience knowing that this is a big deal for me. That trips me up a little bit. I was a bit embarrassed at the ceremony of it, like, This is a taping. That felt really charged, and I did feel bashful about it. You’re watching me do something that I care about.

But you also seem very attuned to spontaneity. I remember that on that night you knocked over your mike stand, and then it rolled off the stage. And you seemed thrilled.

I knocked over the mike stand on purpose, because I love that move of disrespect. It’s like I’m channelling Joan Crawford or something. I don’t want to make the audience uncomfortable, so sometimes I do little disobedient actions that don’t disturb the hospitality of the place. But then it rolled off, and I was, like, Oh, fuck! First of all, I don’t get to lean on it, which is my security thing. Some people run all over the stage. I mostly lean on the mike. I always have the stand on that side of my body. I was, like, Well, that’s not there anymore. It took half a second for me to watch it go off and think, Obviously, I have to cheer for the way that this has become new, has fallen apart, is going to have to come back together if I’m going to do this. I can’t think about the fact that, in the second show, someone’s going to have to take this stand off at some point, because otherwise our coverage won’t match if you want to pull from both shows. I tried to push that out. And the only thing I could think to do was to cheer.

You’re kind of describing Dumbo losing the magic feather and realizing he didn’t need it.

What is that?

That’s the movie “Dumbo.”

I actually have only seen it once, as a very young kid. All I remember is—is he a lost baby? Does he not know where his mom is?

Yes, he gets separated from his mother, and he’s in the circus. He thinks he can fly only with the magic feather, but then he loses it and finds out that he can fly without it.

Well, that’s true. That’s how I felt. I can fly without it. Wow. Why would they make “Dumbo” so sad? We can’t watch anything with Ida. Everything is way too scary for her, except for “Bluey.”

Why did you name the special “Seasoned Professional”?

First, because that’s what the hypnotist that I went to for stagefright told me to say in my mind: “I’m a seasoned professional.” But I also think it’s inappropriate to act like I’m not. There’s a part of me that feels like an outsider. I’m not a touring comedian. I’ve never played the Comedy Cellar. I’ve always been afraid to go there. Nor have I done the Comedy Store here in L.A. I’m not very interested in getting there the traditional way. I’m much more comfortable feeling a bit random. But I also got to this point where I was, like, Yeah, but I’m also knocking down my legitimacy, aren’t I? Because I am a seasoned professional. When I filmed my special, I had just turned forty-one. I had done my ten thousand hours. And I enjoy noticing how I am a creature of that landscape now. I feel the same way about being on a movie set or [doing] voice-over. I know every little part of this. I know how to do it for you. The difference is that there’s just so much uncertainty on a standup stage, and the audience is your companion—you’re on a tandem bicycle.

We’re around the same age, and I feel like that’s a very I’ve-just-turned-forty kind of sentiment: “I’m not trying to do this anymore. I know how to do it.”

I love being in my forties. It’s the best I’ve felt about myself. There is a very specific relief and peace that comes with not having to be an ingénue anymore. I could never achieve that. Now I can just completely disengage from it. This is where I’ve been trying to be. I’m here, but I’m still myself.

I feel that way about parenthood, too. I often say to my husband, “Do you think that Ida thinks I’m Mom, or does she know that I’m actually Jenny?” I am this person who’s doing all this stuff, but I’m me from before.

On one level, the story of the special is the story of you meeting your husband, conceiving your child, and then giving birth. But it’s not told in that order; it’s much more of a stream of consciousness. Can you talk about how you structured it and what you wanted to say about that period of your life?

There are two things there. One is that the structure answers a question that I’m often asking: How did I get here? Sometimes it’s a great question; it gestures at a miracle. Sometimes it’s a catastrophe, like, How the fuck did I get here? And the special answers that question. I think of it as a love story told in reverse, because it ends with the work that I needed to do with my therapist to be in a healthy relationship with my husband. So it starts with the birth and ends with the transformation.

The other thing is maybe something I need to keep proving to myself over and over again—that these don’t necessarily sound like the plot points of a love story, but they are. Exploding a baby out of my vagina happens to be the best thing I’ve ever done for love. I met a stranger in the Arctic and I married him! That sounds really foolish, really intense. I gave birth during a plague. I got married during a plague. If you told me that’s what was happening, I would have thought it sounds like someone who’s out of control. But in fact it’s the best and clearest and most purposeful decision-making I’ve ever made. And those are the elements of my love story.

We should be clear that almost all of the elements of this story are bound by some kind of bodily fluid.


Why do you think that is? It seems like a motif for you.

It might just be my taste. If somebody farts, even if it’s in a very serious situation, it would be really hard for me to not laugh. But part of it is trying to say, “I don’t get any special treatment for trying my best, for being a performer.” The body will always win. Eventually, it will die and take me with it. Maybe it’s a signal, like, “Look, I’m going to try my best, but I’m not totally in control.” It’s also a way to show a different type of emotional pain. There’s a moment in the special where I talk about having diarrhea on an orchestra trip in middle school, and that’s a really funny story. But, if a real seventh grader came home and said, “I shit my pants on the trip,” you would just ache for them. I know I would.

I’m sure your daughter is at an age where she’s obsessed with poop and pee. And most parents of kids that age have to tamp it down. How do you deal with it, as someone who is similarly obsessed?

I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but she doesn’t seem to care one way or another about pee or poop. I wonder if it’s because I’m so afraid of setting a bad example. But I love showing people what I’ve come through, and I can really laugh at it. I don’t want to feel that there are parts of my life that are toxic sites. I want to feel like you can go there if you need to go there. Pamela, my therapist, always says, “Whatever you’re afraid of now, remember that the bad thing already happened.” If you’re afraid people won’t like you, well, the bad thing already happened. If it happens again, you’ve done it before.

We have to talk about Pamela, because she’s a very important part of the special. You discuss your almost obsessive love of her. Do you talk in therapy about the fact that she’s going to be in the special? How does that work?

When I had the idea, I told her about it. And then we didn’t talk about that at all for a while. Then, the day before I shot the special, I had a session with her, and I was, like, “I’m going to do this, and I really want to make sure it’s O.K. with you, because it’s this incredibly heightened fantasy about you being with your own family.” It suddenly crossed my mind: What if there’s something wrong in her family? What if someone’s sick? What if there’s estrangement? What if there’s a broken heart and I’m just tossing it around, or I’m being rough with something that’s not meant to be onstage? Generally, I don’t go onstage and make fun of people. It’s hard enough on the audience when I shit on myself.

But she was, like, “This has been such a long time for you of worrying whether or not you can even do this.” Like many people who are in a postpartum moment, I was, like, Am I coming back? Will I ever think again? You get the worst injury of your life, and then you don’t even get to rest. I didn’t know if standup was going to fall away for me.

You give a very funny but visceral account of giving birth in the special. As someone who processes so much of your life through comedy, did it occur to you at the time that this was material on any level?

Absolutely not. It very rarely occurs to me when something is material, luckily. Thank God that’s not how I live my life. I never had any intention about talking about the birth onstage, just because, to be honest, really great comedians have done that recently, like Amy Schumer and Ali Wong. It’s intimidating to step into a zone that they’ve been in. But then what happens, if you’re lucky, you’re, like, Well, first of all, I do want to talk about it, which is a great indicator that I should. Who on earth would ever say that only a certain number of people can talk about giving birth? Once I started talking about it, I couldn’t stop, because I started remembering more and more about it. And I started marvelling, Oh, my gosh, this actually happened to me. I’m never trying to gross anyone out. I’m trying to be acceptable. I want to be invited back. But this is all I can bring. This is everything that I have.

How is Marcel the Shell? I think of Marcel as living his life, whether he’s onscreen or not. Has film stardom gone to his head?

Marcel the Shell never talks about his film at all. His role in the universe is to convince Ida that it actually is important to wear pants if it’s cold out. And she’ll do anything if Marcel tells her to. It’s a really weird trick. She’ll get in the bath if Marcel is there. And honestly I feel like she tells him a lot of things that she won’t tell me. She’s way more chatty with him.

Marcel is her Pamela!

Yeah, I’ll take it.

So you hold the little shell up?

No, it’s just the voice. That’s what’s kind of psycho about it. She’ll be, like, “Mom, can you get Marcel?” And I’ll be, like, “Hold on. . . . Marcel?” And then he’s, like [in the squeaky, guileless voice of a talking shell], “Yeah?” “Ida wants to talk to you.” “O.K., hold on. I’m just rolling a bead into a thimble. I’ll be riiight there.” “Hold on, hon, he’s coming. He’s rolling a bead into a thimble.” And then he’s, like, “Hey, Ida. What’s going on? Are you trying to get into the bath? If you want to take a bath, you can’t go with your clothes on, right?” And she’s, like, “Oh yeah, I’ve got to take my clothes off. I can’t get in the bath with my clothes on.”

I just got chills hearing that right now. I’d do anything for Marcel.

Me, too. I love him. I love that he lives inside my mind. ♦


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