Comedian Jenny Slate On 'SNL,' Marcel The Shell And Her First Book Now that she's released her first Netflix stand-up special (Stage Fright) and her first book (Little Weirds), Slate says she's finally finding her comedic voice in smallness.
NPR logo

'Sorrow Is Not The Same As Pessimism': Comedian Jenny Slate

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/779412430/780563175" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
'Sorrow Is Not The Same As Pessimism': Comedian Jenny Slate

'Sorrow Is Not The Same As Pessimism': Comedian Jenny Slate

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/779412430/780563175" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

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...

SLATE: Yeah.

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.

(LAUGHTER)

SLATE: Like, they're never like, you're bad; leave. They're like, you're bad; get in the bad closet, you know?

CORNISH: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

SLATE: You have to make the salad dressing for everybody for three weeks.

(LAUGHTER)

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)?

(LAUGHTER)

SLATE: I actually don't think I like - like, I can't.

(LAUGHTER)

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.

(APPLAUSE)

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.

(APPLAUSE)

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")

Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.