It may seem to some that losing your dream job is surely the end of the world, but for comedian/actress/writer Jenny Slate, it proved to be a total blessing in disguise. Slate made headlines back in 2009 when she was let go from “Saturday Night Live” for accidentally dropping the f-bomb on air, but since then has become a noticeable presence in the industry for her talents. She has appeared on various television shows such as “House of Lies,” “Kroll Show” and “Girls,” authored a book that has made the New York Times bestseller list, and was recently hired to reboot a “Looney Tunes” feature film. So, I guess you can say she’s doing okay.
Slate was kind enough to speak with The Smoking Jacket about comedy, her past stage fright and how writing for children might be her new-found passion.
The Smoking Jacket: So how did you start out in comedy? In college?
Jenny Slate: I always wanted to do it, always wanted to be a performer. I’d do school plays and stuff whenever I could when I was younger. My parents didn’t want me to be a child actress which was such a bummer to me but now I’m really glad because I get to be a grown-lady actress. [laughs]
But in college I started to do improv, and it was never a means to an end; I always knew I wanted to be on “SNL” or something. So my friend and I started up a sketch group. I didn’t know enough about stand up to know it’d be a good fit for me. Eventually, my best friend – Gabe Liedman – and I started doing stand up as a duo. That’s how it started for us.
TSJ: Is that when you hooked up with Max Silvestri and started up “Big Terrific?”
JS: Actually, no. We met Max at Rafiki’s, which I’m sure you know of, but we just did a show by ourselves for a while. We would split a night with Joe Mande and Noah Garfinkel. I think they’d have the first and we’d have the next. Then, I think, we took over Nick Kroll and John Mulaney’s show or something. But we all had our own shows. When Rafiki closed there was no central point for alternative comedians to hang out. It was uncertain where that scene would go, and at the time, none of us were performing professionally or making money from it so it was time to step it up. We made the choice to go to Brooklyn and then about five years ago we started “Big Terrific.”
TSJ: That show blew up. It really became a popular ground for comedy.
JS: It did! It’s awesome! It’s always been a total delight, always been free too. I think even though its about five years old the show is still a place where people can come and try stuff out. That’s how I always picked my favorite performers. It’s a very special show to me. Have you been?
TSJ: I have actually! It’s a great show. It also seemed like a good place to try new material because the audience appears to be very accepting.
JS: They are. The audience knows there’s a reason that they’re there and not at Caroline’s, you know? Not that I have anything against that type of comedy, but “Big Terrific” was just where I felt comfortable. And I think as you perform more you open yourself up to more criticism. It was important to me to have that show because I was able to do my own shit and remember what I like best about being a performer. Those moments where you’re totally wild and saying something that is also important to you, that’s what I love.
JENNY SLATE ON “THE KROLL SHOW”
TSJ: So doing all of those live performances, was it at all more challenging performing on “Fallon” where there wasn’t a live audience?
JS: It was for different reasons. The biggest challenge was that I was really nervous and had never met Jimmy Fallon. I didn’t want to fuck it up. Plus, you’re also working within the office. You feel like you’re in the temple, you know? The biggest challenge often is not whether or not it’ll be funny but whether or not I will or not beat myself up for things.
TSJ: That, I imagine, is a very difficult thing to rid.
JS: Yeah. I don’t think my stage fright or self-judgment will ever go away but at least I’ve learned to use it in a way that is helpful for me. [laughs]
TSJ: I think you have to do that. Are you one of those people who freak out before or after a show? I always saw the before being worse but some comics seem to dread the after. What are they saying sort of thing.
JS: I would say there are two totally different feelings. Before I get that typical diarrhea nervousness, the type that you’d get if you were going to jump off a diving board or go on a date with someone really attractive, something exciting. That’s the kind of nervousness I get.
But when I get offstage I think I feel like I’m free. I’m really empty; like I did something I needed to do. It’s almost like going to the bathroom. [laughs] I describe so many things in terms of going to the bathroom. But that “preshow diarrhea,” as some comics have called it, I welcome it in that I’m about to figuratively and literally just let it rip out there. But for the last year and a half I did experience a totally different type of nervousness, which was just straight up paralyzing stage fright. I resented it. I hated it; it was something I had to work through. It was super difficult but I think it’s over. I’m psyched when I get on stage now.
TSJ: Can I ask what brought that on?
JS: Well, when I started doing comedy, I remember people asking what would you do if there were a heckler? And all I could think then was, I don’t know what I’d do. I’d probably walk off the fucking stage crying. I have never felt the need to have a thick skin; that’s not what my act is about. You’re going to see me for what I am, and I’ve always had a great time doing that.
But when I started doing TV, there were so many people I met, both nice and mean, that made me start feeling really sensitive. That’s what happens. I think it was just textbook nervousness. It felt like seventh grade. But after that comes eighth grade, which is when I discovered Nirvana and Garbage. You started feeling crazy and awesome. That’s where I am now, eighth grade. [laughs]
“MARCEL THE SHELL”
TSJ: Obviously you’ve pushed through all of that. Is it true that you’re writing the “Looney Tunes” reboot?
JS: It is! I’m actually about to go home and work on it right now
TSJ: How cool is that! How did it come about?
JS: I met the very nice people who work at Warner Brothers about a totally different project; one of them suggested me to the people who were in charge there. They asked me to pitch an idea. I’ve never written a movie before, so I didn’t have anything to lose. I figured I’d just pitch a movie about these characters that I love. When I started thinking about it I got so excited. I know those characters real well so I went in with an idea and it was weirdly not stressful. It went great.
It’s funny, I guess I consider myself a writer but I really write my own things, unless it was something through me and Gabe. But this came very naturally to me. And with that, they hired me after the third or fourth meeting. They were very nice; they walked me around the lot and bought me a Bugs Bunny pencil. [laughs] It was nice. To me, it’s made me realize how much I love writing things for kids because kids are so funny. They feel a million emotions everyday, you know? They’re courageous and awesome. I hope after I write this I can write more for kids.
TSJ: It must be weird for you that you’re not writing to perform. You’re writing to write.
JS: It is! The people that I work with are so supportive; they hired me knowing I never wrote a feature before. And writing animation is different too. But this is a very fun and peaceful project for me. With that though, I’ve been also filming “House of Lies” and “Parks and Rec” so I’m sort of performing too.
TSJ: And we’ve seen you on “Kroll Show.”
JS: Oh, I love that show. I love Nick Kroll; he’s the funniest. He’s one of my favorite people I’ve ever met. I feel like I say that more in interviews but when I see him in person I get really embarrassed. But he knows I love him very much. Hopefully people will keep interviewing me and I can keep expressing myself and my love for other people. [laughs]
TSJ: Was “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On” an unexpected success for you?
JS: Oh, totally! It was a totally unexpected success. Also, you’re talking about a few different types of success. There were quantitative successes like the views on YouTube and our books. The first was a New York Times Bestseller, which his nuts. But what’s cool for me is that my husband and I made it privately during a time when I felt personally that whether or not anybody thought so, it was important for me to express the fact that I like myself. That was a personal exercise that touched a lot of other people. That was the most unexpected and beautiful success that I think I’ve experienced.
JENNY SLATE ON “CONAN”
TSJ: So not only are you an actress, a comic and a writer, but also a New York Times bestselling author.
JS: Yeah, that rules! [laughs] It makes me laugh so hard because there are so many times where I’m just sitting somewhere and I have BO or lost my car keys and all I’ve eaten is pizza, and I can take those times to say, You’re a New York Times bestselling author so get your dick up! [laughs] Just keep going!
TSJ: I’m not going to ask you about “SNL” because everyone does but with what happened, do you ever think of it as a blessing in disguise? Because let’s face it, from that you’ve gone on to do movies, to be in TV shows, to become a NY Times Bestselling author, to write a feature, etc.
JS: Yeah, I think not even in disguise really. It sucks to be a part of a group that you like or have a job that was a dream and then have that go. It’s like meeting someone who you’ve always wanted to meet but when you do they have a different face and voice and then dump you. [laughs] I was super bummed when I got fired but I rarely thought of it as anything but a blessing in disguise. Even if it led to self-doubt and some stage fright, it’s much better for me to be a free agent. I felt a little like I was a bird in a house. [laughs]
Jenny Slate on Twitter: @jennyslate25