From Saturday Night Live to Obvious Child, the comedian and actress has proved that her talent knows no bounds. Here, she opens up about getting fired, finding her "perfect person," and what it takes to be truly happy.
“I am a human woman named Jenny,” Jenny Slate says, introducing herself to the audience at the Largo theater in Los Angeles. She is slightly out of breath from dancing, hopping, and punching her way around the stage before taking the mic. It’s the way she often launches into her stand-up routine, and it’s pretty indicative of what’s to come. Comedy is a world known for being dark and snarky, but Slate brings a joy to it, a singular quirkiness and, above all, humanness. The 33-year-old’s material is incredibly personal. Rather than constantly setting up punch lines, Slate spins yarns, most of them rooted in her life and relationships.
Anyone familiar with her work is also familiar with her family—her two sisters, her potter mother, and her nightgown-wearing poet father—the haunted Massachusetts house where she grew up, and her propensity as a child for masturbating on the arm of her parents’ living room couch. It’s why, when we meet in person for brunch at Little Dom’s near her home in L.A.’s Los Feliz neighborhood, I feel like I already know her. And it turns out, I kind of do. Wearing a cropped T-shirt embellished with green plastic spiders (“This is the chillest shirt in town,” she says), a striped skirt, and a messy high ponytail, she’s much like the Slate I’ve seen onstage. Which, after we’ve settled in to the restaurant’s Godfather-like corner booth, I find out is pretty intentional. “I take my real self, and when I do my stand-up, I give it to the people. I say, ‘This is me. I’m giving you the power to break me or hold me. I’m giving you the power to ignore me or connect with me,’” she says. She’s more soft-spoken than I had expected, and she pauses thoughtfully before she continues. “It’s like a real interchange. There’s tension there, and that is also what makes the moment pretty alive for me. That’s why I do it.” The Slate I’m sitting next to on the red leather banquette also seems slightly less animated than the performer version, perhaps because she was shooting a forthcoming indie film in Ojai until 1 a.m. “I came home at three in the morning and just honked like five cookies and then passed out,” she says, as we peruse the menu.
She’d baked those cookies in the short window of time between her morning shoot (which began at 5:30 a.m.) and her afternoon one, when the average person would’ve taken a nap. “I like to multitask,” she says. “It keeps my anxiety down.” This proclivity for doing several things at once will serve Slate well, as her schedule seems only to be getting busier. After guest-starring roles on shows like Parks and Recreation and The Kroll Show (her recurring publicist-skewering sketch “PubLIZity” was pure genius), a star turn in last year’s indie-movie-that-could, Obvious Child, took Slate from funny girl to bona fide actress. Playing stand-up comedian Donna Stern, a Brooklyn woman nursing heartbreak and navigating life in her 20s, Slate brought a poignant mix of laughter and depth to the film’s protagonist. When Stern finds out she’s pregnant after a one-night stand and decides to have an abortion, Slate brings authenticity to all the complicated emotions that follow. It may not sound like it, but Obvious Child (written and directed by Gillian Robespierre) is a rom-com, one that stole the show at Sundance and earned Slate accolades from audiences and critics alike when it was released nationwide last June. It was, as they say, a game changer. “I’m lucky because I got to do so many special things in the movie. And I got to really become an actress on that set, and understand that I could do it, which is personal for me and important to me,” Slate says, after ordering eggs, bacon, and a side of spinach (because she hasn’t “eaten any vegetables in a few days—real gross”). “For the movie to have the success that it had was so incredibly positive. And it didn’t feel unexpected. It felt like when you fall in love and the person’s exactly right for you. It feels totally natural because you’re like, ‘I found my perfect person.’ On the other hand, what are the chances, you know?”
Before Slate found her “perfect person” in Obvious Child, she was probably best known for being the girl who dropped the F-bomb on live network television during her first appearance as a Saturday Night Live cast member in 2009. What should’ve been a footnote in her biography unfortunately became a defining moment, at least as far as the media was concerned. It cast a pall on her time there, which turned out to be just one season. (If you haven’t seen her turn as Tina Tina Cheneuse, the doorbell peddler, Google it immediately). Being let go from the legendary sketch show is something Slate calls both distressing and a relief. “Once I got fired, I felt embarrassed and kind of mad, but I also felt very free and happy,” she says. “I have a lot of fond memories of it, and it was not a negative experience on the whole at all. Everyone was very, very nice to me.” But it’s no secret that working on SNL is a grueling experience. Days become nights, sleep is scarce, competition can be fierce, and the pressure of creating material that not only makes it to the screen but also gets a laugh when it does is some next-level mindfuckery. If Obvious Child was Slate’s great love, SNL was the boyfriend she’d always dreamed of having who turned out to be all kinds of wrong. “I left with this feeling that it’s just unnecessary. That amount of fear is unnecessary, especially when you’re creating comedy,” she says. “You’re not making laws, you’re not doing surgery—why should there be so much angst? I often feel extreme emotions within my creative process because they’re part of something I’m really, really passionate about. But to feel angst because you feel fear, I just don’t want to live like that.”
Knowing the ax was going to drop felt pretty terrible, but once it did, Slate, who seems to have an innately positive way of working things through, was ready to put it behind her. And she was especially ready to get creative without the emotional restrictions and comedic bureaucracy she’d been working under. “I just appreciated my freedom a lot. I appreciated that the future unfolded in front of me and I didn’t know what was there. And there wasn’t some person who didn’t understand me or my nature, telling me what I should do,” she says, still speaking gently, though her words seem forceful. “Like, I just don’t understand why I would bow down to that. And I really mean that in the best way. It sounds kind of bad, but I really want to live a life where I feel gentle and happy and where there isn’t one type of acceptable performer or comedic mind or way to create. It’s limitless, and it should be limitless—that’s how you get the best stuff.”