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An Interview with Jenny Slate

“My sweetness is the most interesting and relentless thing about me.”

by Sara Black McCulloch
Illustration by Tony Millionaire
header-image

An Interview with Jenny Slate

“My sweetness is the most interesting and relentless thing about me.”

by Sara Black McCulloch
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

An Interview with Jenny Slate

Sara Black McCulloch
16 Snaps

Jenny Slate and I were having technical difficulties. First, her flight was delayed, and then our Facetime call kept dropping (a total of three times, the last as she was waving goodbye). Before we were finally cut off, she gave me a tour of the house she shares with her boyfriend, who’s since become her fiancé. It’s an old house in Massachusetts that once belonged to his great-grandmother. “It used to be an old dance hall and now we live here. It’s really heavenly,” she told me.

In 2009, Slate, who started out in stand-up with her comedy partner Gabe Liedman, joined the cast of Saturday Night Live for one season. Since then, she’s become known for her work as an actor and voice-over artist in shows like Bob’s Burgers, Parks and Recreation, Kroll Show, and Big Mouth. It wasn’t until Marcel the Shell, however, that Slate discovered what she now refers to as a “small but mighty voice.” In the stop-motion short, Marcel, an anthropomorphic shell, commands your attention: even if he is small enough to be overpowered by his surroundings, you hang on to everything he says. To date, the initial installment, which was directed and conceived by Dean Fleischer-Camp, boasts over thirty million views. It has spawned two sequels and was also adapted into a children’s book in 2011.

Her breakout performance as a film actor came in Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child (2014). In the film, Slate demonstrated just where she could take a performance: her playful humor was equally matched with a deep-rooted pain that arrived in small, powerful bursts. Her lesser-known YouTube series, Catherine (2013), about an oddball paper-pusher and her weird workplace, cut the levity entirely and put Slate’s sinister, unsettling side on full display. And her current Netflix comedy special, Stage Fright, which premiered in the fall of 2019, exposes the many selves she’s hidden away or compartmentalized. Stage Fright features documentary insertions starring Slate’s parents, sisters, and grandmothers that do more than simply frame her comedy routine: at one point, Slate tearfully reveals that her anxiety and stage fright are so overwhelming that she fears she will “deny herself the moment to have fun.”

In Slate’s new book, Little Weirds, she explores the source of that fear. Although this isn’t her first book—she cowrote About the House, a collection of stories regarding her haunted childhood home in Milton, Massachusetts, with her father, the poet Ron Slate—this is the first she has written with herself in mind. Little Weirds is hard to classify: it’s equal parts memoir and essays, and also what Slate describes as little prayers to herself. It is nonetheless a deep dive into her own interiority—the source of her creativity and pain. Although we can sometimes be the sum of our own destructive thoughts, in Little Weirds, there are small creeds and lessons that force you to look at their sources: the narratives we attach to ourselves, the bad patterns they enable, and the triggers that reinforce those patterns.

In the past, in interviews (and with her romantic partners), Slate was vulnerable and open about her own pain and loneliness, but she admits she was “pushy and faithless” toward the people in her life, which only made her feel worse and isolated. After a year of solitude in her parents’ beach house in Martha’s Vineyard, she had spent enough time alone to accept her sadness, embrace the other sides of herself, and more importantly, write. She’s now comfortable with all the parts that make her Jenny Slate, so much so that she no longer describes her own psychology as a burden. I caught a glimpse of this ease during our call, when she was beaming through my little screen, talking to me about her fiancé’s family house, and although a greater force was freezing up our connection, she wasn’t letting it phase her.
                                                                                                                                   —Sara Black McCulloch

 

I. “SOMETHING IS PULLING MY STRINGS A BIT THESE DAYS.”

THE BELIEVER: Mercury is in retrograde, and everything is all over the place right now.

JENNY SLATE: Thank god you said it! I really want to believe in astrology, or in anything completely in terms of a dogma or a system that tells you how everything works, but… I guess I’ll just try to focus on the systems within myself. Either way, it makes sense to me that the movements of the planets would affect the tides of my own spirit. I am incredibly sensitive to changes in the environment and just the smallest things. I don’t know if it’s because I believe Mercury’s in retrograde or because it’s real, or whatever exists in between total doubt and total belief, but something is pulling my strings a bit these days.

BLVR: Touching on astrology and your inner workings, in your book Little Weirds, you give us so much of yourself. When you were working on the book over the last few years, did writing help you to make more sense of everything that was going on in your life and within yourself?

JS: After writing this book, I feel OK, actually, which is strange! It’s very hard to reach a conclusion about oneself. It’s also not a great goal! I’m not really interested in completing a declaration of who I am eternally. I’m just trying to figure out what’s happening day to day.

In Hollywood, there’s this really gross description of what some creative people are: multihyphenate. That to me is ugly! It’s just an ugly thing. It puts so much focus on your function or what someone might be able to get out of you. Especially as a creative person, I’ve often felt the industry is fracking me for my sensibility.

BLVR: Was this the book you wanted to write initially?

JS: At first I really wanted it to have a feminist thesis—the thesis being that modern feminism shouldn’t be just about having an intersectional point of view, but that it should be a point of view that is… I don’t know how you would describe it, but biodynamic? Or something that is modeled after the success of biodiversity. And I was very obsessed with this thing I read about how forests are our dominant ecosystems and they thrive because of their plurality. And I was like, “Feminism needs to be about plurality!” I think that’s beautiful, but it sometimes turns out that one has an agenda of activism that is totally important but may be hard to implement if you don’t have a sense of who you are as the activist. After my divorce and after Trump got elected, and after I tried to go out into the world and be normal with everybody else and really failed on so many specific and astounding levels, personally and privately… I really disregarded the urgency I felt to write this feminist tome. Instead I started to find the voice of the person who even wanted that book to exist, and that’s what this book became. It is still, of course, a feminist effort, a feminist piece of work. Just different from what I started out to do.

Also because, working in comedy, there are few examples of comedy pieces that have a deep spirit and allow for sadness to exist within them. For me, the comedy I’ve done has either been really full of attitude and it’s been zippy, or it’s Marcel the Shell, where it’s very dear. In general, my stand-up is chatty, which is another mode I have, but the fact is that my personality is a totally different thing! And I just started to feel, not like I was hiding it, but that there just hadn’t been a real place for it in my work, except for in Marcel the Shell. But in that piece of work, I’m not even a woman! I just thought that nobody really knows what I’m like as a woman, and I don’t really go to any lengths to express it except to my partners, and they all keep dumping me, so, Jesus Christ, I better take some time alone and figure this out. And for someone who reads as much as I do, I just never thought I could think of myself as a writer rather than a reader. I have a lot of friends who are writers. My boyfriend is a very talented writer.

BLVR: Do you ever talk about writing with him?

JS: I do! But sometimes when I’m talking to him about writing, it feels like I show up with a McDonald’s hamburger to a Michelin chef’s house asking if we can eat this. I’m just such a total plebe! And part of it is that I admire him so deeply. His work is very elegant, but there’s also a part of me that so deeply wants to express myself and believes totally in my intuition and my appetite to thrive. I went away and wrote this book alone, and it’s been one of the first times I didn’t think about who would be receiving it except for myself.

BLVR: As an avid reader, whom do you keep coming back to?

JS: I always read Lydia Davis and Maira Kalman. Maira Kalman is really important to me. I read beautiful picture books for children illustrated by Barbara Cooney; Miss Rumphius is the most famous book she’s worked on. I love another one called Ox-Cart Man, but my favorite she’s done is Emma, about an old woman who paints pictures. I’m just a little baby! I like to be soothed!

 

II. “A PRETTY MISCHIEVOUS GARDEN”

BLVR: In your stand-up, you’re constantly checking in with the audience. How did it feel writing and working on something that was just for you this time? Was it difficult to shift your perspective and approach?

JS: I was definitely seeking out solitude because I have had a consistent problem in my life, in which I confuse solitude with abandonment. And because of that, I haven’t been able to tolerate the littlest bit of loneliness. I immediately feel like it’s going to be abandonment, whereas in solitude sometimes there’s a sweet tinge of loneliness that doesn’t need to be a curse or something that determines who you will be with other people in your life. I just felt that, well, even when I’m with my very best friend, even when I’m with animals or in nature, I feel what I have called a ribbon of loneliness within myself. I’ve pushed it away, or felt that it was my lot in life. I just never thought of the loneliness as a thoroughfare to or as a chord in anything.

When I’m performing, even when I say I’m insecure about how people will perceive me, unsure about whether or not there’s love reserved for me, I don’t feel great about my body, or blah, blah, blah. I’m always presenting it in a way that’s appetizing because that’s what the performance requires. And I felt I needed to stop avoiding this and see the parts of myself that I found to be unusable simply because they’re not usable in a performance or on first dates or job interviews. They are usable if I give myself permission to go and be alone and tolerate that discomfort.

In the end, writing a book and performing are both for your pleasure, for you to consume. That’s something I realized: that even when I’m alone, I don’t disengage from wanting to please. A good example of that in the book is this piece called “Tart.” In it, I’m trying to use my whole self and I can only do it privately. So much of my adult life has been about making my career, which was about fashioning myself in a way that other people can say I belong here and that there’s a use for me.

When I started to write these things that pleased me so much and I thought, Maybe they’ll be too sweet to be taken seriously, and maybe they’re too singsongy for some people’s taste—that’s when I realized I’m not willing to add sourness to my sap just to serve a dish at a restaurant for wimps. That’s literally a line or a version of a line in the piece “I Was Born: The List.” My sweetness is the most interesting and relentless thing about me. And it’s what makes me such a tough guy.

BLVR: I wanted to circle back to solitude for a minute. I think it can be much more difficult to appreciate it when you’re younger, because it’s hard to make peace with yourself and enjoy your own company at a time when figuring out yourself and your place in the world is paramount. I have a friend who says that as you get older, you’re able to see and care about the bigger picture. The little things don’t devastate you as much, because you learn how to hold more things together. I’ve completely forgotten what I was going to ask.

JS: I totally get you!

BLVR: I think what I mean is: Did you see just how much you had been alienated from yourself?

JS: I would say the biggest pain I feel in my life is that I suffer by my own hand. And that I can get ripped away from myself by the voices inside of me that say: Everybody can be safe except for you. Just because you are willing to accept people, doesn’t mean they are willing to accept you. My twenties were filled with hoping for a seat in the same room as everybody else, and trying to figure out how I could configure what I have found within my personality so that I could be the shape that fits through that door.

Now, at thirty-seven, I’m realizing that it is an emergency to not love oneself. Because there are times when I swear to god that everybody who knows me wants me to just fucking disappear. And I feel really sad. I feel so sad that I don’t know how I can keep staying alive being this sad. I feel sad about the fact that for some reason there used to be a light on inside of me and now it’s gone. And so I have to try very hard to keep the faith, and the difference—the bigger picture you’re talking about—is that instead of wanting to figure out how many people will put me on their guest list, and wanting to be on everybody’s list, a change has happened where I noticed how terrible it is to be disenfranchised from myself.

I realized that the rhythm of my life is a rhythm of feeling suddenly dead and then instantly reborn. And when I’m really sad, I feel like something is killing me. And when I am happy, I feel like I am being a mother to and also born into a beautiful situation. I like to mark the positive moments, like the piece in the book that is about the joy of making a sandwich for my dad. Those moments make me just as happy or happier than times when I’ve had some success in my career. This is the currency. This is what is precious. This is what you trade on. This is what you keep for yourself. This is the bank that you save up in. These moments, they are the treasures, I think.

BLVR: They’re fleeting too.

JS: Yeah.

BLVR: In terms of precious moments, you recount these really sentimental olfactory ones that you share with your mother. People usually don’t write about scent in that way—that connection you share with someone when you recognize something very familiar but rare. It was a small, brief moment, but very resonant. How did you feel about sharing very personal and intimate memories with readers?

JS: I love sharing memories. When you point someone toward something you think is beautiful, you definitely share with them who you are, how you perceive things, what your tastes are like, and why you are special. You saw this thing and you took note of it. It’s all so incredibly personal, but then they have their own unique experience of it too. And that’s how I feel about my memories as well. I give them to you as I remember them and see them. They’re mine, but once you know about them, they’re yours to be with however you like. I’ve never had a problem sharing my feelings or experiences with large groups of people or strangers. In fact, it makes me feel very safe.

Maybe I’ve talked about this before, but when I was little, some of the best sleeps I can remember are when I went upstairs during a party we would have during the day in our house—like if my parents had a big daytime party, like at Rosh Hashanah, and going up and sleeping in my bed with the voices of every adult I know downstairs. I find that soothing. Even at my thirtieth birthday party, I was like, I’m going to do whatever I want to do. I was very drunk and very stoned and I took a nap in the middle of the party. I was sitting in a booth in my friend’s kitchen—she had a little breakfast nook—and I put my head down on her lap and went to sleep for a little while. It was so nice. I felt safe. I feel the most unsafe when I have to keep my stuff to myself.

BLVR: Why is that?

JS: I don’t know. I mean, I have a very active imagination and the soil there is rich and dark, and I think my feelings of anger, disappointment, sadness, and hunger are best dealt with when they hit the fresh air. When they’re all planted within and kept secret, they kind of grow into a pretty mischievous garden. And I feel like it’s not helpful for me to be like, “I’m crazy!” or “I’m totally sane!” Those terms don’t really work for me.

BLVR: Do you feel more empowered to speak up now? So you’re not internalizing what’s happening within you, but contextualizing it in the world you’re living in?

JS: I’ve now learned how to speak about how I feel without making accusations toward myself or other people, and that’s a new skill I’m really into. I’m proud of it. Right now, I am having an emotional-chemical flare-up: I don’t feel well, but the story I’ve attached it to is probably not true.

BLVR: You open the book with the Stanley Kunitz poem “The Layers,” about sitting in your layers and accepting them as much as possible. Is that what you feel now? That you’re more comfortable with every part of yourself instead of picking apart the ones that you don’t like?

JS: I think I am, as he says, more dedicated to living in the layers and not on the litter, because any normal person can be preoccupied and obsessed with what has littered their life, but also the litter isn’t bad! The litter is also the residue from experiences you’ve had. But the layers you can travel up and down in are the most important. I am becoming more comfortable with that and with the creative person I want to be—to self-actualize in that way.

We were talking about belief systems at the start of this conversation—about astrology. I grew up conservative Jewish and eventually went through a feminist rising of consciousness.

I just recently said onstage that right now, if I could imagine what God would be, it would be like a tree that had shells all over it and some sort of a mouth that was also a vagina and just, like, daffodils growing out of the top of it. Just a ton of stuff happening! Some sort of a butthole blasting balloons, you know? Who cares? So anyway, that is a crazy thing to say, but it’s just that you have to practice the belief every day. And you have to let new beliefs become a part of that, and that’s what those layers are.

 

III. “I HAVE A REALLY HARD TIME WITH WHAT THEY CALL ‘AN ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM.’”

BLVR: I know you’ve been touring more lately. Has anything changed in your stand-up performance?

JS: I’ve always talked a lot about what it’s like to be a woman raised in a patriarchal culture, and so a lot of my stand-up is me saying I was raised on earth. I’m just talking about the conditions. And so I would say it is purposefully feminist work, but it’s also really personal, because that’s what I find funny: my own personal experience. It’s what I need to find funny.

I’m way more interested in the interpersonal events of my life, but as I get older and more mature and become clearer in my mind, I can’t disentangle the current events from the sociopolitical situation of living under patriarchy. And so, yeah, that is now onstage there. I care about mentioning it. I care about taking stances that will probably inflame a misogynist. I have no interest in being a contrarian, or an instigator, but I don’t think that has anything to do with saying the truth about how our world works. And I think that if you feel inflamed by a point of view that says “Patriarchy oppresses women and people of color,” then you’re probably a misogynist and a racist! If you have a problem with that and you want to fight that point of view, then you may want to look at what side of the line you’re standing on. I’m really tired of being “open-minded” about what we’re all doing here, because I’m very open-minded but I am so irritated at the idea that there is a question about what’s been going on. It’s really clear. Years after the remark Donald Trump made about there being good people on both sides… it’s still echoing and it’s still hurting people! I think it was a wake-up call, but we’re all still kind of tossing and turning in bed. I am too.

I am unsure of how to create the true political rupture that needs to happen, but while I am all for community dialogue, where people of all different opinions can meet and try to find a way to coexist—yeah, I give a big, absolute no to racism and white nationalism, and to people who don’t want reproductive justice for women. There is no other way to see it! I can sit across the table from someone who says that abortion upsets them and that they don’t want it to occur, and that they have religious beliefs that reinforce those feelings for them. That’s their space and that’s their little orb. But to have to be “open-minded” or whatever about any sort of legislation about people’s bodies is crazy fascist! That’s just fascism! I mean, what’s going on in the South, in the US, is disgusting and terrifying.

BLVR: Your work focuses quite a bit on connecting to people, and people have become much less invested in connecting; they’re much more preoccupied with their own little orbs.

JS: I feel that at least I have the instinct to reach out and say how I feel without wanting to shame people. I want change, but I don’t want shame; I want justice. I don’t necessarily have the stomach for conflict and I don’t love disagreement, but I would take respectful disagreement over fracture and drift.

BLVR: How do you turn a painful experience into a joke or a meaningful story? How do you figure out when it should be shared with the public?

JS: It’s about making it touchable, I think. That’s the most important thing. I have a really hard time with what they call “an elephant in the room.” It’s like if your birthday falls on the same day as a terrible tragedy—when it feels really weird to be celebrating and eating cake when we all know this is the day a building caught on fire. The dissonance is very uncomfortable, but I think it’s all about bringing it in. For me, it is not funny that the president is who he is and that his administration is so racist and beyond anything I could have imagined would be happening in my life at this point. That’s serious, but my reaction to it can be framed in a funny way. And I think it’s important to make situations useful and surprising, because when you show there are other options for how something can be handled, you shine a light on all those options that are hiding in the shadows and need to be brought out. A lot of art and activism are about gently coaxing out the things you’re not sure about sharing. And then you have to create a safe space for the thing that wants to be shown.

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