For comedian and actor Jenny Slate, the path to finding her own voice went through crushing failure (professional) and heartbreak (divorce).
She began her career in stand-up, was drafted to Saturday Night Live — and was fired. The path that followed was uncharted.
She starred in an indie comedy about abortion (Obvious Child), voiced a viral stop-motion animated character who is a gender non-conforming sea artifact (Marcel the Shell with Shoes On), and went onto a fair bit of voice acting (Zootopia, The Secret Life of Pets, Big Mouth). And she wrote. This fall, Slate has released her first TV comedy special for Netflix (Stage Fright) and a book of essays (Little Weirds).
Jenny Slate grew up around books, studied literature at Columbia University and her father is a poet. ("I read a lot of books before I decided to write one," she says.) Little Weirds is not a memoir or biography, but more like a series of observational stories, essays, and ruminations on the struggles of adulthood. In one of them, she compares herself to a croissant.
"I actually have always been an avid reader, but I guess I just felt like: Well, I'm an actress and I'm a comedian, so ... I'm not a writer, or something," Slate says. "I think I limited myself a bit."
For She's Funny, the All Things Considered series on women who have broken the rules in comedy, Slate and I sat down together on stage at Lisner Auditorium in Washington D.C.
On Gilda Radner, her first role model in comedy
[I] couldn't pay attention in school. I think that I felt for a while like I wasn't smart because I couldn't listen traditionally and people were mad at me for it. And my dad brought in these tapes of Gilda Radner, and it was sort of like, "No no no, you're just — you're like this." Which is, first of all, a great honor. ... It was a huge honor, and then it was just like: How can I get there?" ...
There's a sketch that Gilda does where — I think it's called "The Judy Miller Show" — she's a little Girl Scout, she's a Brownie, and she's jumping up and down on her bed in her room, and just playing. She's playing. That's what this whole sketch is. And she freaks out — this woman, alone, they gave her the whole stage — she just freaks out for, like, seven minutes. And she's exhausted, and she's out of breath, and it's like a silly, silly, sloppy ballet. And I remember seeing that thinking like, "Oh, I don't want to be a ballerina. I want to be a funny thing like this."
On the atmosphere at Saturday Night Live
I didn't like that there was a culture of fear and intimidation. Whether or not you're going to be directly sexist and give all the parts to the men or whatever, or whether there's going to be what I actually think is a much more confusing culture of misogyny that encourages fear and shame. That's what was going on there. That's a culture that is encouraged by the people that run the show. ... I think that feeling dressed-down, feeling shamed, feeling like you shouldn't have tried: those are all pressures that are encouraged in a misogynist environment, where there's not an openness, there's not a sense that power can present in a way that represents plurality — that there are many, many different ways to access power, and different people can hold it.
On being fired from SNL
First, I just felt really, really embarrassed and terrible. ... Hardly anyone gets kicked out of a cult, because I guess they want you to stay. Like, they're never like, "You're bad — leave." They're like, "You're bad, get in the bad closet. You have to make the salad dressing for everybody for three weeks!" But suddenly I just couldn't imagine anything worse than getting fired. And then I just thought: I have to keep going. And no one can ever take away the dream.
And nothing will ever dim the lights of that experience, which was like: getting the job, leaving 30 Rock, calling my parents and saying "I am going to be on Saturday Night Live"? That is what it is. It's such a beautiful achievement. And it's real and I did it. But it's also the same as thinking you really met your soulmate, and going on the fourth date, and being like, "Did they just say 'li-bary'"? ... Get over it, it's not a match. ...
But what had also happened at the time, and what always happens, is that: Until I eventually croak, I will not die. I truly will not lie down. And you can be kicked out of a place; I definitely believe that. But I also believe the opportunity to find self-love and creative fulfillment is not a hallway with one door guarded by a super-old man. Actually, it's spherical, and you just have to hold it between your legs. Just look down, find your opportunity.
On "Marcel the Shell with Shoes On"
First of all, it allowed me to be sweet and melancholy at once – and to understand one of the things that is essential in my belief as a performer, which is that sorrow is not the same as pessimism, and that you can feel sadness and still be an optimist and not be worried that that's being wrung out. ... And also, doing Marcel, for me, was like, "No, I can still be really strong at comedy, but I don't really want to compromise on sweetness." Like, I just don't think it's for wimps. I actually think it's for the strong.
On if she's found her voice in comedy
Yes, I do feel like that. I do. ... I really feel that something that started with "Marcel the Shell," which was drawing close sweetness, and understanding that smallness doesn't necessarily mean that you suffer from essential diminishment. Starting to gather things that can be held at once was really important. But then writing this book — first, I meant to write something else, and then I started to write things to soothe myself, and I started to like to read my reading to myself. And I just — you know, especially on the Internet, there's so much snark and posturing and posturing at joy and fabricated joy or people taking pictures of themselves in mid-laugh and stuff and really putting that there like, "I'm just happiness in action, there's nothing else going on for me! I promise! No stress!" I was reacting to that a little bit, to just feeling like I want to tell the truth. And the truth about me is not that I'm really volatile and I'm unstable, but that I'm really vibrant, and the color of my sorrow is just as bright as the stripes of my delight.
And I started to really find words that I loved, and now they won't go away. And I also noticed that in writing, I really enjoyed the odd pairing that occurs when you are trying to employ alliteration. And that my writing — at least to me without being juvenile — had all the tricks of a limerick, without being, like, "stupid little so-and-so fell into a shoe" or whatever ... I guess there is [poetry in my writing]. I didn't do it on purpose, but I think there is.
Christina Cala, Bilal Qureshi, Joanna Pawlowska and Emily Kopp produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Typically, when I ask a comedian about how they figured out they were funny, it ends in a story about making someone laugh. But actress and writer Jenny Slate said it was her father who helped his fidgety, frustrated daughter understand how she fit in the world. Jenny Slate told me that story earlier this month before a live audience here in Washington, D.C.
JENNY SLATE: As much as I did not - I was not a class clown, I couldn't pay attention in school. I think that I felt for a while like I wasn't smart because I couldn't listen traditionally, and people were mad at me for it. And my dad brought in these tapes of Gilda Radner and was sort of like, no, no, no; you're just - you're like this - which is a - first of all, a great honor.
CORNISH: Did it feel that way? I mean, when that tape first went in, were you like...
CORNISH: Was that recognition, or, oh my, God, Dad; why did you say this?
SLATE: No, it was a huge honor. And then it was just like, how can I get there? There's a sketch that Gilda does where - I think it's called "The Judy Miller Show."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")
GILDA RADNER: (As Judy Miller) It's the Judy Miller show.
SLATE: She's a little Girl Scout. She's a Brownie. And she's, like, jumping up and down on her bed in her room and just, like, playing. She's playing.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")
RADNER: (As Judy Miller, imitating fanfare).
SLATE: That's what the whole sketch is. And she freaks out. This woman alone - they gave her the whole stage. She just freaks out for, like, seven minutes. And she's exhausted, and she's out of breath. And it's, like, a silly, silly, sloppy ballet. And I remember seeing that, thinking, like, oh, I don't want to be a ballerina. I want to be a funny thing like this.
CORNISH: After college, Slate became a funny thing a lot like that. She did stand-up in New York, and eventually, she did land a spot on the same show as her hero Gilda Radner in 2009. But Slate barely lasted a year and became a household name when she accidentally cursed live on the show. Jenny Slate has since talked a lot about how she thought sexism played in the way her story was talked about. But at the time, she was at a loss about what to do next.
SLATE: I think that feeling dressed down, feeling shamed, feeling like you shouldn't have tried - those are all pressures that are, like, encouraged in a misogynist environment, where there's not an openness. There's not a sense that power can present in a way that represents, like, plurality, that there's a - there are many, many different ways to access power, and different people can hold it.
CORNISH: You have talked in the past about not being renewed, about losing that gig. I'm actually interested in what happened after. I mean, if you're the little girl who - whose dad brought home VHS tapes of this program and then you have this very short-lived stint and it is very talked about - right? - this kind of public conversation around it - what was the first instinct? What did you do?
SLATE: I mean, first, I just felt really, really embarrassed and terrible. But it also feels a lot like what it must feel like to get - I mean, hardly anyone gets kicked out of a cult 'cause I guess they want you to stay.
SLATE: Like, they're never like, you're bad; leave. They're like, you're bad; get in the bad closet, you know?
SLATE: You have to make the salad dressing for everybody for three weeks.
SLATE: But I just couldn't imagine anything worse than getting fired. And then I just thought, like, I have to keep going. And no one can ever take away the dream. But it's also the same as, like, thinking you really met your soul mate and going on, like, the fourth date and being, like, did they just say libary (ph)?
SLATE: I actually don't think I like - like, I can't.
SLATE: It's just like, get over it. It's not a match.
CORNISH: But what did end up being a match took people by surprise. It was a stop-motion animated series.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MARCEL THE SHELL WITH SHOES ON")
SLATE: (As Marcel the Shell) My name is Marshell (ph). Oh, no. That's not the first time I've done that. My name is Marcel, and I'm partially a shell, as you can see on my body. But I also have shoes and a face. So...
CORNISH: "Marcel The Shell With Shoes On" is exactly what it sounds like - a talking seashell with shoes and a face doing stuff.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MARCEL THE SHELL WITH SHOES ON")
SLATE: (As Marcel the Shell) My one regret in life is that I'll never have a dog. But sometimes I tie a hair to a piece of lint, and I drag it around.
CORNISH: And you know what? People liked it. It went viral.
This was an unexpected place to hear your voice and to see your comedy again. I know for a lot of people, it was like, what is this creature? How did this kind of work help you reorient yourself?
SLATE: First of all, it allowed me to be sweet and melancholy at once and to understand one of the things that is central in my belief as a performer, which is that sorrow is not the same as pessimism and that you can feel sadness and still be an optimist and not be worried that that's being wrung out. And also, like, doing "Marcel" for me was like, no, I can still be really strong at comedy, but I don't really want to compromise on sweetness. Like, I just don't think it's for wimps. I actually think it's for the strong.
CORNISH: And a decade after "SNL," you could say she's stronger than ever. Slate has done voices for animated hits like "Zootopia" and "Bob's Burgers." She's acted in indie films, such as "Obvious Child." And after many years in comedy, she's just released her first special, airing on Netflix. It's called "Stage Fright." And Jenny Slate, the daughter of a poet, has also published a book - a collection of essays called "Little Weirds." It's funny and strange and full of moments of reckoning with loss. I ask her about what that mix has allowed her to do.
Do you feel like you have found your voice, so to speak? Do you feel like you know who you are in your comedy? Do you know who you are as a creative person?
SLATE: Yes, I do feel like that. I do. Yeah.
SLATE: Thank you.
CORNISH: This was an unexpected path, in a way.
SLATE: It is. It is. It is an unexpected path. And it - there's - like, the stops are - one is not like the other. And writing this book - you know, first, I kind of meant to write something else, and then I started to write things to soothe myself. And I started to like to read my reading to myself. And I was feeling like, I want to tell the truth, and the truth about me is not that I'm really volatile and I'm unstable, but that, like, I'm really vibrant and my - the color of my sorrow is just as bright as the stripes of my delight. And I started to really, like, find words that I loved, and now they won't go away.
CORNISH: That's writer and comedian Jenny Slate. We spoke to her about her new book, "Little Weirds," for NPR Presents at the George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium.
(SOUNDBITE OF GOTH BABE SONG, "SUNNNN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.