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Jenny Slate Wants Love for Herself and the Audience

Jenny Slate. Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Netflix

In October 2016, Vulture interviewed Jenny Slate and asked her why, after her many years performing, did she not film her stand-up. Clearly she thought about it, telling the interviewer, “I only want it to live in the moment.” She continued, “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.’”

What changed for her to release Stage Fright in late 2019? As she tells it, so, so, so much, both personally and societally. After a period of growth and working on her 2019 book Little Weirds, she came to the conclusion that her stand-up, as much as anyone’s, deserves to be filmed. Netflix let her film the hour on her terms, allowing for it to be spontaneous and loose and personal. Now, almost a year after she filmed the special, at a time where she can’t be in front of the audience for obvious reasons, Slate’s relationship to stand-up has only grown closer and more dear.

On Vulture’s Good One podcast, Slate talks falling back in love with stand-up, performing live again after the pandemic ends, and her decision to step away from Big Mouth. You can read some excerpts from the transcript or listen to the full episode below. Tune in to Good One every Tuesday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Overcast, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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On Deciding to Film Her Special

I started to spend a lot more time alone, and for the first time in my adulthood, I was not in an intense, serious relationship. I always felt like my best stuff goes to my partner, and then I’m onstage, and that’s great, but there is no reason to work extra hard to make my stage thing more. Then once I started spending time alone and starting to write, I just started to see that I had put a lot of my energy into my partnerships, and I just didn’t want to take the extra time to put it into my work. I wanted my greatest work to be my romantic relationships. I saw those failing over and over again because of limits in myself that I don’t think I could get past, or choices that I was making that really didn’t make sense for who I was.

And when I was alone, I was just like, Oh, I want to get into my work. You know, I’m realizing I’m not taking it to the end. I’m doing the equivalent of partying, even though I’m not drunk onstage for the most part. There have been times when I legitimately have pulled a cigarette out of my hair and started smoking and been like, Who did this? But that’s not where I was at. And what changed was that I experienced a moment where I was like, Wow, I really like writing and I want to write a book. I actually have been through a really formative personal experience in my mid-30s, and I want to write about it. And I … I just want more. I just wanted more. I didn’t want to give my energy to someone else anymore, because I realized something in me was really dying.

I had been on the verge of kind of tapering off of stand-up and doing more films, and then in the fall of 2018, I had a movie come out that summer, and a large movie come out that fall, the movie Venom. And I just felt really lost. I really did not understand the decisions I was making in my career. I looked back at some of my old notebooks from my days in Brooklyn, and I was like, These jokes, — they’re not jokes, they’re bullet points — what is this? What is “lobster tank”? What does that mean? What was I doing? I just thought, I’ve been working at something for so long and I’m acting like it’s not legitimate. I just have to step up. I wanted to do that. That, to me, felt like a personally feminist move, in that I have been giving my power away for the sake of harmony in a home that I have continued to lose. I have harmony in my own home when I’m here by myself. Let me get real about what I want. I want this. And I don’t want anyone to fuck with me while I’m doing it. I don’t want it to change.

And so I asked Gillian Robespierre and Elizabeth Holm, who I worked with on Obvious Child and Landline, “Will you do this with me? Will you protect me on it?” I asked my agent if she would ask if I could do a Netflix special. I was like, “I don’t want to have to write a statement to anyone. I’ve been doing this for long enough that either they’ll let me or they won’t. But I can’t tell them what it’s going to be about, really.” But I wrote a letter that was like, “I want to be able to explain myself onstage. And I think of it as sort of a feminist symphony rather than a battle cry, because I’ve fought my own personal battles and now I’m just ready to use these sounds and celebrate. I’m here, and I’m sure my life will tank again. But I’m here.” The way that I did it so that it was not disturbed is that I just used the people who knew me the most. We had an all-female crew also, which was a really great vibe. I just kept myself really protected rather than being like, What star move can I do? But there was never anyone in my mind to do it except for Gil.

On the Romance of Stand-up

Talking about stand-up the same way I talk about romantic love makes sense to me because those are two giant loves, and I’m the same person in either situation. It’s not that hard. It’s just who I am, and also, it’s what I want. I want love from stand-up. I love stand-up, but I also want, when I get offstage, to feel that the people felt loved and that I was loved by them. And that can sometimes be really gross to admit: “I want love.” Because sometimes it smacks of some sort of internal injury. But also, everybody has an internal injury, and it’s not bad. This is what I have to do, and I just have to do it.

On Returning to Stand-up After the Pandemic

It kind of feels like when someone dies and you’re like, Oh my gosh, if they were here, all I would do is just listen to their stories that I’ve heard a million times, or just tell them how much I love them, and not let a moment pass where my eye isn’t just trained on them. That’s how I feel about stand-up. I’ve acted like this was a given, and maybe one day I will be inappropriate for the art form. Maybe I’ll just become kind of corny, and it won’t be good anymore. That’s a possibility. But it’s made me just be like, Wow, I can’t wait until, in L.A., the place where I perform most often is Largo at the Coronet. That’s where my comedy family is, and I just want to get back there.

I also haven’t changed at all in that I’m like, Ugh, what if I don’t have anything to say? All this time has passed, what if I don’t have anything? But I do. Even if I get up there and I’m like, “Well, I’ve been sitting in silence for a year and a half, so it’s nice to hear the sound of my own voice! JK, I constantly talk to myself or anyone who will listen. I’ve actually been spending the last year and a half listening to my voice.” But something will come. I really miss it. I’m also scared of it in the way that they say it’s just like riding a bike. There’s also that part where you’re like, “Yeah, but I don’t remember how to ride the bike. I remember what it’s like to get skinned knees — that’s what I remember.” Like, the only thing I have right now are my legs, and I can see how they might be ripped open.

On Her Choice to No Longer Voice Missy on Big Mouth

What I don’t want to be is overly congratulated. It’s okay to talk about it because I think it’s a good example of somebody being like, “Oh shit, I really messed up.” I’ve learned how I’ve messed up, and I’ve only really recently understood those specifics, and it’s going to take forever to divest myself of the racism that has been allowed into me because I am a white person born into a culture of white supremacy. I think that when the news went from coronavirus to George Floyd’s murder, first, I was like, What what am I supposed to do? Because the week after George Floyd was murdered, there were all these people who have a lot of followers on Instagram — like people working in Hollywood or in the media or whatever — posting pictures of George Floyd or Black Lives Matter. And I was like, I’m not sure what to do, because I don’t want to just be doing something for the ornament of it, or for the look of it. And I don’t want to just be like, “Yep, I’m a good white person. I posted on my thingy, so you can’t say I’m bad.” But then I also thought, Well, I can’t not say anything. And I thought, What is that about silence? What is that about silence that I almost did, because I had decided, Well, I don’t want to just be somebody who’s doing a shallow thing. So I spent that week getting in touch with a person that I know who took a course on white supremacy and asking for their course packet, and buying myself some texts to read that I was like, Someone told me to read this two years ago and I should read it. I’m going to read this. And setting up monthly donations to different organizations to help the black community. But I still was like, I don’t get it. I’m just missing something.

For a while I had thought, I don’t think I should play Missy. But the reasoning that seemed okay to me at the time, which I now realize was not, was that I’m one half of the character. Which is basically the same thing as being “color-blind.” I understood that as racist reasoning, and of course, a white person that thinks of themselves as progressive is going to be totally nauseated by the fact that they might have done something racist. But white people do racist things directly, even though they might have been unconscious or not on purpose. As Robin DiAngelo says, there is a difference between what you intended and what your impact was.

I think the final straw for me was that one of the writers on Big Mouth posted a video about how to be an effective ally versus a good ally, and asked that people make a list of what three things they could do. I was like, This is really clear. We’re acting like a biracial actress doesn’t exist. I don’t know who will take that part, but she does exist and she’ll be wonderful, and it’s just not my part. It’s not my thing to take. You can clearly see that some people don’t understand, but it doesn’t matter to me. There was the full support of everyone I work with. It’s hard, obviously, to see that you’ve missed a lot and to see that you’re part of a problem. And I am; I still am. What was important to me was to try to word my statement in a way that was clear and not focusing on myself, and focusing on the issue, and that was unemotional and not asking for anything except for to be able to take a moment of accountability.

The time is really now to get clear on beliefs. It’s so weird because you don’t want to make it about anything but what needs to happen. I forget what the analogy is, but I think it’s in the book White Fragility, that when there’s an accident, you don’t go to the person that drove the car and hit the person and comfort them because they got in an accident. You go to the person who got hit by the car, and you help them. That’s the deal.

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Jenny Slate Wants Love for Herself and the Audience