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  • Arts & Culture
  • Issue 36

What do you get when you cross a free spirit with a stand-up comedian? Over lemon squares at home in Los Angeles, Jenny Slate delivers the punch line.
Words by Robert Ito. Photography by Emman Montalvan. Styling by Jesse Arifien. Makeup by Kirin Bhatty. Hair by Nikki Providence. Set Design by Kelly Fondry. Photo Assistants by Patrick Molina & Angel Castro.

Jenny Slate is on stage at the Largo at the Coronet nightclub in Los Angeles, doing a very funny set. I’m furiously trying to scribble down bits of what she’s saying, but the place is so dark, her set so fast and manic, that the notes come out like this: Hippo covered with lichen. Has anyone seen my (indecipherable)? My mouth was stuffed with noodles. Slate talks about her fiancé’s beautifully crafted dreams (he’s a writer) versus her own weird, intricately disturbing ones, and about how, no, you shouldn’t try to “sleep it off” if you discover you’ve ingested poison. Dressed in a black T-shirt and black jeans, Slate is in her element, eliciting a nearly nonstop roar from fans who know her from her comedic turns on Parks and Recreation and Saturday Night Live, and likely saw her recent Netflix documentary Stage Fright, in which she opened up about her family, her childhood growing up in a haunted house (really), and the elusiveness of love. Three hours before this, I had been talking with Slate about some of these very things at her home, a lovely Craftsman house in nearby Silver Lake. “You’re coming to my show tonight, right?” she asked. So I did.

When I first arrive at Slate’s home, the front door is wide open. Hummingbirds are flitting around in the trees. She is not dressed in a black T-shirt and black jeans, not yet, but in a long, lovely dress that has the casual look of something that you would wear while baking, sort of gingham-y. And indeed, she has been baking, lemon squares, which she offers me on a plate (delicious). Ben Shattuck, her fiancé, who is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a recent winner of the Pushcart Prize for best short story, comes out to say hello.

Slate shows me around, pointing out delicate treasures on her desk (rocks and seashells, a small music box) and framed photos on the walls: her mom and dad as a young couple circa the 1970s, herself—age seven—at her older sister’s bat mitzvah, held aloft in a chair, eyes agog, her mouth a big, smiling “O.” There are flowers everywhere, fresh cut from the garden; on one wall, there’s a small framed picture of a yellow warbler that Shattuck painted for her for Christmas. “He calls me the yellow warbler,” she says. In one cabinet are dozens of very tall candles of assorted colors. “I can’t stop collecting candles and fabric,” she says. I tell her it looks like she’s preparing for some sort of ritual. “I know, it seems like we’re about to do something here!” she says. Her voice drops to a near whisper. “But we’re just living.”

It’s hard to reconcile this Jenny Slate, the one who makes lemon bars and collects candles, with the other Jenny Slate, stand-up comic. It’s something she gets a lot. “I think that because I’m a comedian, people think that I’m tough,” she says. “But I’m not, at all. And I’m not sarcastic. I’m just not…,” she pauses, looking for the word. “I’m not sassy.

She is, however, busy. The foundations of Slate’s career are the scene-stealing moments she created in ensemble series (Bored to Death, Girls) and films (2014’s award-winning Obvious Child, in which she starred), and her celebrated voice work in animated shows, some intended for kids (Zootopia, Star vs. the Forces of Evil), some definitely not (Big Mouth).

Over the last few years, Slate has been stretching her wings with a series of acclaimed projects that have ranged far afield from many of her past endeavors. Last October, she starred in Stage Fright, a comedy special that combined footage from a stand-up performance at New York’s Gramercy Theatre with home movies, behind-the-scenes vignettes and interviews with family members, including her two sisters (she is the middle daughter of three). In one of the most moving moments in the special, Slate talks about the often paralyzing fear she experiences before nearly every show (hence, the special’s title). If just preparing to take the stage is so painful, I wonder, why do it at all? “I have stage fright right now, for tonight,” she says, her body giving a shiver. “But I am of the belief that it’s not asking for sympathy to be vulnerable.” Besides, she says, she loves stand-up. “The second you begin,” she says, “you see what’s real.”

Stage Fright drew rave reviews for its deep dives into everything from the joys of dressing up (The New Yorker described it as “a secret, gentle, creamy treat for those who love and think deeply about clothing”) to the horrors of dating in the era of MeToo, when so many men are being outed as the gros-sest of pigs or “complicit in this ancient, heinous thing.” Slate is captivating throughout, by turns flirtatious and confiding and intensely vulnerable. Indeed, her desire to be funny, she tells me, comes from “just wanting to be close to people.” It also comes from a desire to push away her worries, or at least keep them at bay for a bit. “For most of my comedy,” she says, “the instinct is to gather pillows of joy around myself just so I can fucking recline for a second.”

A month after the release of Stage Fright, Slate published her first book, Little Weirds, a collection of personal essays that many reviewers admired (the Washington Post called it “eminently readable”) but others struggled to define (in an otherwise adulatory review, The New York Times described it as “a book-shaped thing”). Slate herself described it as “small, assorted pieces of an emotional existence,” but she’d rather not have to define it at all (she makes a “pffft” sound with her lips when I press her to try). Writing the book allowed her to do things, use things, she couldn’t do or use in any of her other artistic outlets. “It’s the privilege of being able to use everything. Use everything. Use all the styles that you like. Use the sad parts that, if you were going to try to put them into your stand-up comedy, might not work.” Although she majored in English at Columbia, Slate never saw herself becoming a writer, so the exercise has been an unexpected joy. The book, she says, “is by far the most precious creative effort of mine yet.”

Slate would like to write another book, and hopefully film another special. She also plans to start working on new material for her stand-up shows, talking “about things that are actually meaningful to me.” What sorts of things? “I don’t think I’ll ever talk about anything but love. I think I’m almost always only talking about love.”

In the meantime, she has a few films in the works. “The past nine or ten months, I’ve taken small parts with directors I really respect,” she says. Among them is a Sofia Copolla movie and she is in talks with the indie directing team The Daniels (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert). She also has a feature-length animation about her beloved character Marcel the Shell in production. In that one, she’ll reprise the role she created in a series of stop-motion shorts called Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, in which she voices an anthropomorphic seashell whose car is a bug and whose friend is a ball of lint.

What Slate doesn’t want to do anymore is work for work’s sake, or continue in jobs just because she’s afraid of saying she can’t do them. “There are times for me when I can’t act,” she says. “I’m too uncomfortable. And there’s something deep inside of me that does not believe in pushing through a certain type of discomfort.” Rather than endure that discomfort, she says, “I guess I fail! I fail. I get fired, or I apologize and say, ‘I don’t think I’m good at this.’ And that feels like the one thing you’re not allowed to do. You’re supposed to just silently hold your shame and go until exhaustion. But I  really don’t want to! I mean, we’re all gonna die, right? I don’t know why you’d wear yourself out for some shit you’re bad at.”

As a child, Slate often felt like she didn’t quite fit: Both among her peers (“I’ve really always felt like I had a different personality shape than everyone else”) and inside her own skin (“I can remember most of my childhood just really wanting to have an adult body”). She liked summer camp, but school was hard. “My memories of school aren’t good, at all. When I think about school, the refrain is like, ‘There’s not enough. It’s not here. I don’t have the friendship that I want, I’m not being seen for myself, there isn’t a place for me to be myself.’”

Perhaps that’s why she’d like to help kids in similar situations, to be a mentor to someone now. “I want to be the elder or a parent or an adult who is somebody you can ask things of, and they can actually help you,” she says. “I’d like to be a parent to some sort of cool person who’s going to make something good.” Last year, she gave a commencement address to Gwen Lynch, the sole graduating eighth grader of Cuttyhunk Elementary, a one-room schoolhouse on Cuttyhunk Island, off the coast of Cape Cod (Shattuck runs a writers’ residency on the sparsely populated island). “I spent some time with Gwen, who was taller than me,” Slate says. “She was confident. She pretty much knows what to do. So my speech to her was like, ‘You are starting your development, you’re at the beginning of your arrival into the rest of everything else. But you have the blessing of your island, your community. You have everything you need. You are mineral rich in personality and heart.’”

The sun is setting, the time coming closer to when Slate has to drive to the Largo to do her set. She is talking to me about dancing and how much she loves it, but how if she tried to dance now, everyone would laugh at her. She stops, recalling something else. She wants to tell me about something she saw recently that she’d been thinking about ever since, but she prefaces it all by saying she’s probably going to regret bringing it up because it sounds like maybe she was on drugs at the time, which she definitely wasn’t.

“The wind was blowing really hard from outside, and there was a curtain cord, and it was going up and down, up and down, and it was really rhythmic, and I was like, man! If I were some hotshot choreographer, I could do something at the Brooklyn Academy of Music or whatever, where I make a film of this cord going up and down, up and down, and then all of a sudden the film goes off and the light comes up on stage and there’s a huge replica of this night table and a huge lamp and a huge phone, and the plastic end of the cord is actually a dancer in a white leotard, and they’re on a fuckin’ harness and they get slammed against the wall, and you see that, and then the phone starts dancing.” She’s getting excited just picturing it. “And I was like, well, I’m not ever going to be able to do that, because I’m not a performance artist and I’m not a dancer, and people will just laugh at me.”

“But the fact is,” she continues, “I’m obsessed with that image now! And I’m happy that I could think about it. I’m happy that I could care about it.”

Maybe she could write about it, I offer, in that next book of hers that she wants to write?

“Yeah, maybe I could describe the dance,” she says. “I don’t know if I have the guts to be like, hey, anyone want to do this thing with me? Or if I really want to spend nine months of my life making some kind of weird, new age ballet about a window shade cord. But I could write about it. Because I do want to write about every single thing that I’ve ever thought about.”

“Because I’m a comedian people think that I’m tough, but I’m not. And I’m not sarcastic.”

“Because I’m a comedian people think that I’m tough, but I’m not. And I’m not sarcastic.”


This story is from Kinfolk Issue Thirty-six

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