comedy review

In Stage Fright, Jenny Slate Shows Us Herself

Jenny Slate in Stage Fright. Photo: JoJo Whilden/Netflix

In a documentary segment during Jenny Slate’s new Netflix special Stage Fright, she talks about the premise of the special’s title. In a moment filmed backstage a few hours before her set begins, she explains that she gets terrible stage fright. “I don’t earn the love unless I give something beautiful that goes out,” she says. “My stage fright comes from a deeper thing, of exchange.” She’s worried about earning the love, and she’s worried that in the process of performing, she will not be able to enjoy the experience. The thing she’s most afraid of, she says, is that because she’s so anxious, she “will deny herself the moment to have fun.”

It’s fascinating to include this admission within the specials that mix the stand-up and documentary format. It’s a kind of comedy special that, together with Gary Gulman’s recent special The Great Depresh, has become increasingly visible lately. Slate and Gulman are not the first to do it — Laurie Kilmartin’s 45 Jokes About My Dead Dad is another example — but together, they’re starting to define what the “stand-up with some documentary insertions” genre tends to look like.

Comedy specials usually include at least a little framing material. It’s that moment where the camera is with the comedian backstage right before they go on, or the bit where the camera follows them offstage at the end of the set. It’s a device that creates distance between the person and the performance. Offstage material emphasizes the authenticity of the comedian (hey everyone, that guy wears a coat and gets nervous just like us!), and it underlines the fact that the act is a constructed piece of stagecraft, that there is a distinction between the onstage and offstage self.

In Slate’s Stage Fright, the documentary material goes much farther than a few simple offstage glimpses of moments behind the curtain. Slate makes a show of bringing a documentary camera into her childhood home, and of asking her grandmothers and her sisters how they feel about being filmed. She tells a lengthy joke in her stand-up material about how her house is haunted, and then Stage Fright inserts footage of her house filmed in the creepiest imaginable horror-movie style. The documentary footage features Slate going through clothes from her grandmother’s closet and reading aloud from notes she wrote in high school. It’s prominent enough that it’s more than just, Here is Jenny Slate, a real person. It becomes a deliberate counterweight to the stand-up. They play off of one another, supporting and also puncturing each other.

It’s lovely and sweet to see Slate in her grandmother’s bright-pink dress, swanning around in a domestic space that means a great deal to her. It’s fun to watch her walk through her parents’ home. It’s like when you’re a little kid who goes over to your friend’s house for the first time; your friend makes more sense once you see them at home. In a few instances, the documentary footage reinforces and supports the stand-up material — there is a fantastic cut between Slate’s impression of her grandmother and footage of the grandmother herself, for instance. Much of the documentary material backs up an idea Slate returns to again and again in her stand-up: This is who she is, this is where she comes from, and those two things are tightly linked.

From that perspective, the entire stand-up portion of the special is just a way of illustrating that same point. This — the stand-up —  is who Slate is and what she can do, and you can see the origins of it all in the documentary footage. It’s like reading a novel interspersed with sections where the novelist interviews her parents about whether they always knew she was a novelist. It’s personal and endearing.

It also falls apart occasionally. As sweet as it is to watch Slate put on her grandmother’s dress, it doesn’t quite justify its own presence in the special beyond the sheer loveliness of the footage. There are a few moments in the documentary when it feels like Slate is trying to provide proof for something — something that, frankly, was perfectly fine existing without being proven. Slate is so great at the bits in her stand-up where she explains what it was like to grow up in a house her whole family thinks was haunted. Her description of waking up in the middle of the night, terrified, and gathering the courage to go wake up her mother is one of the strongest sequences in the stand-up portions of the hour. But when it’s accompanied by a documentary interview where Slate’s father tells a story about his own ghost experience with the house, a little of the magic and the energy escapes from the joke. I love to hear a good joke get taken apart, but it’s tough for a joke and its explication to exist in the same space.

The most interesting friction between the documentary content and the traditional stand-up is that admission Slate makes before the show, something that doesn’t appear in the special until late into the hour. She has stage fright, she says. She’s painfully anxious about performing. It is a backward-looking admission, one that shifts the way I’d experienced the opening of the show. When Slate first walks out onstage, she is bouncing and hiccuping with laughter, zinging with a nervous energy that she frames as performance — an offhand joke about asthma, a more developed bit about saying “Let’s get started!” way too late into a show. Does her admission, late into the special, that she is actually quaking with nervousness undermine the performance of those jokes? Does it explain it? Does seeing the “authentic” version of Slate undermine her stage self, or does it reinforce it?

For much of the hour, I’m unsure. There are portions of the stand-up that make me wish Slate were just performing them without the interruption of the documentary, segments like her great joke about nice football players that made me wish for more time spent on material like that, and less on her adolescent awkwardness. In spite of my reservations, though, the final leg of Slate’s stand-up does feel like a sum that’s doing its best to capitalize on all of the hour’s many parts; it’s a joke about the moon that’s even better for the time we’ve spent getting to know Slate behind the scenes. As for the rest of it, Stage Fright is a beautiful, personal hour. But I’m left wondering if I needed to know quite this much.

In Stage Fright, Jenny Slate Shows Us Herself