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Jenny Slate on Avoiding Rom-Com Clichés, Doing Stand-Up As Someone Else, and Having Twitter Diarrhea

Jenny Slate. Photo: Jon Kopaloff/FilmMagic

It is hard out there for a rom-com, but this summer saw one wonderfully nontraditional addition to the genre: Obvious Child, known as “the abortion rom-com,” which is now out on DVD and VOD. Obvious Child stars the hilarious Jenny Slate as a Donna Stein, an aspiring stand-up who finds herself in a difficult situation after getting dumped and losing her job. Slate, however, is far from out of a job: Between stints on FX’s Married, Comedy Central’s Kroll Show and NBC’s Parks and Recreation, and a new Marcel the Shell book out this month, Slate is pretty much everywhere. Jenny Slate spoke to Vulture about the best and worst rom-com clichés, being a hopeless romantic, and whether she thinks she’ll ever find her way back to Saturday Night Live.

So, Obvious Child is obviously a pretty modern romantic comedy. Were there clichés of the genre that you tried to avoid or ones that you tried to embrace?
I think what Gillian Robespierre, the writer, director, and executive producer, and I tried to avoid were some of the clichés that just don’t work in our world. You know, like Donna is wearing clothes that are either Nellie, her roommate’s, she’s got them at Beacon’s Closet, or they’re her mom’s — you know, she’s not dressed up in really fancy stuff. That’s always frustrating to me, when it’s like, “She’s bohemian!” but she’s wearing Isabel Marant. Not that we don’t all want to wear that; we do, but the fact is that we don’t.

Totally. I’ve never ever worn that.
Yeah, I mean I have some, like, credit-card debt. [Laughs.] I wasn’t wearing that shit when I started doing stand-up. I was wearing stuff that I got for free at American Apparel because I worked there. I also think that we didn’t want Donna’s dilemma to be dilemma-light. We didn’t want it to be a fake issue. It’s like the problem with Sliding Doors — which I actually don’t know if that’s a romantic comedy because she dies at the end.

Half of it’s a comedy, right?
Yeah! And half of her dies. It’s always like, is she gonna start her cupcake business? Is she going to start her artisanal stationery company? It’s never a more subtle exploration of the complexities of just being a normal person. I think we wanted to really get into that.

Are you a rom-com fan?
Oh, yeah. I love the way that they can often spin what one individual sees as their faults or their stubborn idiosyncrasies and turn them into gems for someone else to find. I really like that. And I like that what trips Donna up at the beginning of Obvious Child. You know, she doesn’t really have her hand on the gears. She’s just going at 100 miles per hour, is what I’ve said before. She’s just flooring it. And I like that Max likes that about her. That’s maybe something that she feels is hurting her, but he likes it. I like that. And I love, you know, all the silly little bump-ins. Those are always great. And they’re very romantic.

Are there any other real-life relationship things that could be explored in a rom-com?
Well, there’s so many interesting things about trying to make a relationship work. And I think one thing that we never really get into, there’s a lot of “monster-in-law” type of stuff. And I’m married, I have a very nice mother-in-law, but trying to fit into someone else’s family, right now, in this world, when there’s Twitter and you want to get on your Twitter feed and just have total Twitter diarrhea out into the world about your personal life … I don’t know, that would be interesting to me.

The stand-up in the film is all so funny. Did you get a chance to sort of work a little bit more on that material than the rest of the script, or what was that like?
Gillian wrote the stand-up. And then she sent it to me, and I was like, “Well this is very, very funny and I like it. But it is also incredibly long,” I hate watching stand-up in movies that does not seem like stand-up. We got a grant from the San Francisco Film Society and went there for a day with Gaby Hoffman, Gabe [Liedman], and Elisabeth Holm, the producer and Gillian had me improvise based off of what I had read in her writing. So we drew out what I remembered and what hit me the hardest and what I thought I could actually do, and she recorded that and then rewrote that. And then on the day that we shot the stand-up, which was, like, 6:30 in the morning at Trash Bar in Williamsburg, we just bullet-pointed what she had written based off of what I had performed based off of what she had written, if that makes any sense. And I did two 30-minute sets that were a combination of directly what she had written and then me improvising off of scenes that she had written about. And then, she would yell out to me, “Circle back to your boyfriend’s dick!” And I would try to find my way, in a natural rhythm, back to those subjects. And they let the extras laugh and stuff, which was good! Like, usually the extras have to be quiet and that’s very, very disconcerting.

And the film ends with them watching Gone With the Wind together. Pretty romantic. What happens next?
We all have that question in our life. “Is this gonna last forever?” I think Gillian always says that on a good day, she feels that they stay together, and on a day when she feels a bit more cloudy or cynical, she feels that they have a great time watching Gone With the Wind and eventually go their own way. I didn’t write it, but I know that I am a hopeless, hopeless romantic — when I watch the movie, and I forget that I’m the person in it, I see the two people and I want them to start to go out and to be shy and to hook up when they’re not drunk and, like, admire each other’s bodies and start to go on dates and maybe move in within eight months to a year and, you know, maybe have a nice life together forever. If they want to.

And what happens for you?
I just really, really hope that I can continue to be in good little movies with good directors who I can be friends with. You know, the experience that I had with Gillian and with Liz is so personal. We’re gonna make another movie together that they’re writing right now, so I think that’s the thing that I’m truly looking forward to. And I don’t really care what the subject matter is as long as it is smart and adds something to our world.

A couple of weekends ago, Sarah Silverman returned to host Saturday Night Live. Do you ever hope to do something similar?
Oh, I don’t know. I really don’t know. I think it’s really great that she went back and I think that, I don’t know what her experience was like, you know? I can’t speak to it. For me, I think it’s best for me to try to go towards new things because I like the joy of introducing myself to new people and to new experiences. And oftentimes, it’s not best for me to go back. But you never know. What is old can become new, I guess! But for now I think I’ll stay off of live TV.

Jenny Slate on How to Avoid Rom-Com Clichés