Jenny Slate Is Comedy’s Next “It” Girl
The star of romantic comedy Obvious Child, the Sundance darling about to hit theaters, opens up about her anxieties and what really went wrong on Saturday Night Live.
Jenny Slate sat on a couch in her cozy Los Feliz bungalow and nervously tucked, untucked, and retucked pieces of hair behind her ears while a photographer tried to position her.
"I'm sorry," Slate said, laughing. "I'm really fidgety. I feel like I have 50 hairstyles a day." Her two small dogs, Reggie and Arthur, sat dutifully next to her on the couch. "I fidget and change my outfit a lot. It's really a way of keeping myself comfortable."
She's not just fidgety with her hair, though. She often interrupts her own thoughts with other thoughts, or breaks mid-sentence to address one of her dogs. ("Arthur, stop!" was a common theme.) For someone as accomplished as Slate — the Sundance film Obvious Child, in which she stars, hits theaters June 6, and she recently booked a recurring role on FX's new summer comedy Married — she's surprisingly anxious.
That restlessness and pressure to be in constant motion are possibly why Slate has been so successful as an actress. It's been two years since the 32-year-old comedian moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, but in those years a lot has happened for her, career-wise. She's had recurring roles as morally reprehensible rich girl Mona Lisa on NBC's Parks and Recreation, no-nonsense Sarah on House of Lies, and hilariously on-point reality star-publicist Liz B. on The Kroll Show, and also lent her voice to Fox's subversive animated comedy Bob's Burgers.
"I have a big thing about needing to know that I belong — in my group of friends, in my family, in my industry," Slate said of moving to Los Angeles. "And so being here and being able to work more, because there are more jobs, tightened my grip — my control grip — and so my anxiety became less. I became happier and then I could do more."
Before moving to Los Angeles, Slate was most often referred to as being "best known for saying the f-word on Saturday Night Live." It's what reporters misguidedly attribute as the reason she was let go from the show. (More on that later.)
But her latest role in Obvious Child (which critics are saying "deserves a universal round of applause") as Donna — a twentysomething comedian who gets pregnant after a drunken one-night stand — could be the mark of not just a significant change in her career, but one in her own confidence as a performer. It could be the role that takes her from being the girl who said "fuck" on SNL, to being the next Kristen Wiig.
Despite her omnipresent anxiety, Slate is a person who was practically born to play the starring role. She grew up in Milton, Mass., in what she described as a "giant haunted house." She's the middle daughter to two artists — her father an award-winning poet, her mother a potter.
"My parents really encouraged us to be creative," she said. Sun poured through the bay windows of her living room and highlighted an etched glass image of a chicken that leaned against a wall. Her husband, filmmaker Dean Fleischer-Camp, made it for their first Valentine's Day, a nod to a nickname he gave her. "There were shitloads of art projects going on all the time."
Slate described herself as a "classic middle" child. "I need a lot of attention," she said. "Very performative." While her older and younger sister chose different career paths, one an educator and one a nurse practitioner, Slate seemed to know from a young age what her life would entail.
"I always loved to sing and was very, very loud," she said. "I wanted to be a movie star, like Judy Garland."
Along with being a classic middle child, she was also a classic overachiever. In high school, she performed in plays, was the class president, and sang in an a capella group. Between her junior and senior year, she attended the Cherubs program at Northwestern — a competitive pre-college preparatory summer program — and was eventually accepted into Columbia University for undergrad.
"I wanted to be in New York because I wanted to be on SNL. I spent a lot of time wanting to be on Saturday Night Live as a kid. That's what I wanted," she said wistfully. "I went to a competitive private school, and it was in my mind-set that I wanted to be an Ivy Leaguer."
Rather than attend an acting conservatory, Slate chose to study English and comparative literature. "My parents put such a focus on being an educated woman, and being educated in many different ways."
"I went to Columbia, and then proceeded to cut a shitload of class and smoke weed," Slate said, laughing. (As though to make her point, small vials of weed can be seen littered throughout her house.)
It was at Columbia where Slate met her best friend and comedy partner, Gabe Liedman. "It was freshman year of college, and we were both trying out for the improv troupe," Liedman said in a phone conversation. "I had never met her before, but I remember seeing her audition and just being like, Oh my god. That is the funniest, smartest, prettiest person I've ever seen in my life. I was starstruck, even though she wasn't a star." (Incidentally, Liedman also plays Slate's friend in Obvious Child.)
Liedman and Slate's early friendship quickly snowballed into a complementary working relationship as well. They started to perform stand-up together, and as Liedman attested, "She's a very free performer, and as well as I know her, I could probably never guess in any conversation what she's about to say."
Eventually, they booked roles together, including a sketch show that aired exclusively at resorts — a gig Slate said she landed through her former weed dealer.
During the filming of that sketch show, she also met her husband, Dean. He'd recently graduated from NYU's Tisch film school and had been hired to direct the series.
"When I met Dean, I was in a tortuous relationship," she said. "One of those relationships you have when you're young, where it's like all yelling, because you're like, 'I'm 23 and I can yell!'"
Eventually, the torture ended, and she and Dean grew closer, despite her initial reservations. "I just thought, Oh, he lives in Williamsburg and he's handsome. He probably, you know, bangs like five chicks a night and is just cool, or whatever," she laughed. "I didn't think I was his type."
The couple has now been together for close to seven years, and they've collaborated on a number of projects, including Marcel the Shell, which Slate said came about while she was "waiting to be fired from SNL."
"I was so unhappy," she said, her voice wavering as she recounted her firing from the long-running sketch comedy show. "I was pretty wrecked by that experience. So ashamed, and, like, why didn't I measure up? And also so angry, because I was like, 'I didn't even get a chance.' I was embarrassed, because I didn't want to be the one who complained, and was like, 'I didn't get enough of a chance,' when maybe I just wasn't good enough."
For most comedians, SNL is formidable — a time-tested launching pad into bigger and better things. To even land a role on the Lorne Michaels-produced show is a testament to one's talent and potential. But for Slate, riddled with anxiety and still not yet having come into her own, the pressure to perform was crippling.
"I think the predominant feeling I had was that I wanted to be on that show my whole life, but I think I wanted to be on it in the '70s," she said. "Like I wanted to be on it with Lorraine Newman and Gilda Radner. That's when I would've fit better."
When Slate said the word "fuck" on live television it was 2009, and her debut episode. She was in a skit called "Biker Chick Chat" with Kristen Wiig when she said, "You know what? You stood up for yourself, and I fucking love you for that."
At the time, rumors were flying that Slate would be fired for the slip. However, Sharon Pannozzo, a spokeswoman for NBC, had put those rumors to rest, saying simply of the incident, "She will not be fired."
In fact, Slate was not fired for saying "fuck." She lasted a full season on SNL before she was let go. And yet, that verbal slip is still the reason that people claim Slate was fired and an incorrect fact that tends to lead most stories written about her.
"It's annoying. It's so annoying," Slate said, laughing. "I try to do new things, and I'm not saying it's not something that is a thing that happened. Of course it is. But so much more has happened and everybody says 'fuck,' and it's just boring. I've done so much more, and I've said 'fuck' in so many other ways, so it feels cheap, a little bit."
As for exactly why Slate was fired, Lorne Michaels was unavailable for comment, and an NBC spokesperson had no official comment on the matter. But Slate says that her nerves certainly played a role in her short tenure.
"A lot of people who are on SNL have really shitty stories about it — about sexism and feeling that they don't fit in as a woman," she said. "I didn't feel that. That's not why I didn't fit in. It's not my gender."
"It just didn't fit," she continued. "I was so frightened that I'm not exactly sure what I felt right away, except for fear… I was treated really kindly, and the person who was the worst to me was me. That's probably why I didn't belong there."
Four years later, and living on a new coast, Slate may have finally found the place where she belongs, thanks in part to the Sundance film Obvious Child, which was quickly snapped up for distribution by A24 during the festival.
"When I did Obvious Child, for me it was like, 'Oh yeah, this is what it really feels like to belong and to feel like you're pulling from something you haven't been able to use before,'" said Slate. Even just speaking about the experience, Slate's shoulders relaxed and her warm smile returned.
The project, which revolves around Slate's Donna, started as a short film in 2009, and was written by Gillian Robespierre, Anna Bean, and Karen Maine; it was then developed into a feature film that shot in 2013.
The decision to expand the film into a feature was, in part, due to Slate's performance, according to Robespierre. "I knew, sitting there in the editing bay, that she was so amazing, and her performance was so brilliant — she has such a dramatic range — that we had to make this bigger," she told BuzzFeed at the Sundance Film Festival, where Obvious Child debuted to much critical praise. "I wanted more of the world to see this story and see this character go through this experience."
That experience is likely to stir a lot of emotions among moviegoers, given that, even in 2014, abortion continues to be a hot-button issue. But Obvious Child handles Donna's decision with grace, humor, and candor, something that was important to Robespierre and her collaborators. "We were frustrated by the limited representations of young women's experience with pregnancy, let alone growing up," the filmmakers wrote on their Kickstarter page.
Indeed the film is an honest — at times cringingly so — depiction of the process of dealing with an unexpected pregnancy. Over the course of the darkly funny and sharply written film, Donna, played by Slate, drunk dials her ex-boyfriend multiple times, performs a stand-up routine about abortion, and watches her best friend Nellie, played by Gaby Hoffmann, pee in front of her. It's messy but never maudlin.
"The entire process was really curious and it was like hiking up a mountain or something," Slate said. "We're all doing it together and trying to get to this place."
That work ethic carries over into everything she does, according to Slate's best friend. "She's a sensitive soul and she worries about whether or not she's good enough," Liedman said. "But when she's actually doing her thing, I think she's a Xena: Warrior Princess-type."
While Slate isn't picking up a sword just yet, the character of Donna is one that she has yet to play: a deeply layered and ultimately incredibly strong woman. "I haven't done work like that before," Slate said, "and it represents a time when I was really happy and confident." On television, Slate is most often seen as playing manic caricatures (see: Parks and Recreation's loathsome Mona Lisa Saperstein), and for the first time, in Obvious Child she is getting to play a very real person, flaws and all.
"The kind of roles I'm getting tired of playing are generic bitches," she said. "I enjoy the various terrible women I've played on television. And I enjoyed making Alvin and the Chipmunks. It's not high art, but I'd never made a movie before, so I loved it. And now I don't want to do things I could do without very much preparation."
The luxury of being able to pick and choose your roles is not one that all actors are afforded, but it's here that Slate's anxiety truly seems to have abated. "I have less fear about being unemployed," Slate said, laughing. "I've been smart about my money and I lease a Prius."