Jenny Slate on Her Comedy, Why She’ll Never Film Her Stand-up, and the Complexity of the Human Experience

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Photo: Taylor Hill/Getty Images

Jenny Slate is generous and unassuming, but deliberate when it comes to her work. She is a comedian who pushes herself to be more confident when it comes to working through stage fright, and takes on projects that make her feel good, and in turn, allow her audience to feel appreciated. She recently finished a new movie with Gillian Robespierre and Elisabeth Holm, the women behind Obvious Child, as well as the film Polka King with Jack Black, Jason Schwartzman, and Jacki Weaver. She then finished writing a book, About the House, with her father, Ron Slate. On October 29, she’ll be performing in Tenacious D’s Festival Supreme in Los Angeles, and afterward will be looking forward to finally taking a break, until the new year, to decide what she wants to do next. Jenny Slate took some time this week to talk about letting her stand-up live in the moment, collaborating with her father, and art that is moved by kindness. 

How are you?
I am feeling very gentle and very happy, and a little anxious, like I have a bit too much energy. That's my signature blend, I guess. I'm into it. It's what I'm like. Thank you for asking!  

I saw that you’ve started to perform stand-up again with Gabe Liedman and Max Silvestri as Big Terrific. What do you look forward to when performing? 
I look forward to trusting myself. I look forward to showing people that I love them and that I love myself. I look forward to being seen, and to accepting that part of myself that needs attention and is willing to give something nice to get something nice. I look forward to being a little scared. I look forward to being chatty and buzzed and full of the idea that people are generally good and that I can be alone with a group of strangers and that they'll listen. I look forward to pushing myself to be confident, because I get crazy stage fright, always have, and I feel proud every time I push through that. I look forward to holding the microphone. I look forward to the washed feeling that I feel when the set is done and I have to begin the cycle again. 

Do you find that it is easy to feel burnt out?
No, but I do get to a certain point where my material seems like it's not appropriate for me anymore. In my early 20s, my material was a lot about feeling like "an impostor adult," and I eventually arrived at a point where I had to transition out of that narrative because I simply didn't feel that way anymore. I don't get burnt out because my act is never exactly the same and because I perform comedy to help satisfy my personal needs. There's always more to do, there's always a new connection that I need to make with my world, always a new need to reaffirm that love is available for me to give and receive. 

Why do you choose to never film your stand-up?
I just don't want to. I know that seems too simple, but I just don't want to. That's not why I do stand-up. It's not that people haven't offered, they have, but I just don't feel that it's a challenge I have to accept. Maybe I only want it to live in the moment. I want to be able to create it again and again, using the same stories, but tailoring them specifically to the people who are there, and what the vibe of the room is. I'm looking to keep it active and alive. I want to let my stand-up be small and immediate and let it float up into the sky like a balloon when I'm done. I want to not fetishize what I do as a comedian, but I also want to keep it exactly what I want it to be. I don't want notes on it. I don't want people to be able to dissect it. I don't prepare much, and that might be because I'm lazy, but I do stand-up as part of a way of staying alive. It feels like asking "Why did or didn't you record your birth or your wedding?" Even though, in my case, there are other people there, I feel like my stand-up is a personal experience. I want it to be like a wild animal that runs through your backyard. Free. A flash of movement. Something other. I like the flaws, I like the oddness. I don't want to say, "This is what I am and what I did," I just want to keep getting up there, no matter how hard it is, and say "I'm here, in this way, in this outfit, in this mood, only now." 

You recently wrote a book, About the House, with you father. What has it been like to collaborate with a parent? 
My father asked me to do it, after talking with Ann and Stona Fitch, the people who run the Concord Free Press. I am always looking to be creative in new ways, and I love my parents deeply and the idea of being able to work with at least one of them (they're both artists, my father is a poet, my mother is a potter), was delightful. I was really scared and I dragged my feet a lot and I was late a lot in bringing my pieces to Ann, our editor. It turns out my father is a procrastinator, just like me, which is great. Nobody gets upset. 

All copies are free with a donation to any charity. What made you choose to do this?
I like the idea that in order to take in a piece of my work, you only have to give to someone or something that you want to care for. And that then you pass the book on. I like that it encourages generosity and connection. I like that the art itself is moved by human kindness, that it has kinetic energy. 

You’re a big advocate of Planned Parenthood, and through films such as Obvious Child, were able to make audiences more aware of the often unspoken problems surrounding abortion and reproductive rights today. Do you think we’re making important strides in the right direction?
In Obvious Child, I played a woman who is able to make whatever decision is right for her, but many women in our country don't have such easy access to Planned Parenthood and other centers for women's health care. In our movie, the challenge was not that there wasn't access to abortion, there was, but we wanted to remind our world that just because a woman has the right to her own choices when it comes to reproductive health, it doesn't mean that those choices are easy. We ask for our rights because we are alive, and, by the way, not one person is perfect at that. 

Do you believe that recent film and television have been able to portray this process more accurately?
The human experience is endlessly complex, and shows like Transparent do a wonderful job of exploring that complexity in deep and unexpected story lines. 

What goals do you have in mind when creating your own work?
I guess now, for me, the choices I make in my own work are about making sure that I am comfortable in my daily life, first and foremost. I want to make sure that I don't feel that I'm taking any steps backwards or reinforcing oppressive narratives or character tropes when it comes to women in our society. I want to keep my eye on all of the tiny ways that I am complicit in that. I want to use my voice more that ever. And I want to make sure that I'm not needlessly cruel, and that my comedy is fresh and new. In the work that I create from the ground up, I just want to help myself feel good, to use my heart and intelligence for growth, even if it hurts a little, and to give people something that can open their minds and make them feel appreciated as complicated and flawed and gorgeous live beings.