NOVEMBER COVER JENNY SLATE
Get ready to shake hands with a lightning bolt.
Photographing Jenny Slate barefoot for our cover was an unintended bit of #irony given that she’s beloved by many for her short animated video series Marcel the Shell With Shoes On. In her chat with features editor Greg Hudson, the comedian opens up about the upside to career setbacks and how being lonely can be “weirdly, achingly beautiful.” ON THE COVER: Jenny Slate wears a top, $1,775, Dior. Pants, $1,710, Etro. Photography, Arkan Zakharov. Creative direction, Brittany Eccles. Styling, Anna Katsanis. Hair, Rheanne White for TraceyMattingly.com/Living Proof. Makeup, Kirin Bhatty for Starworks Artists/Dior Makeup. Manicure, Rita Remark for essie. Fashion assistant, Paulina Castro Ogando. Photography assistants, James Lee Wall and Ian Bishop.
If you’re a professional funny person, you’re always looking for the comedic potential in an experience. When you find it, you repeat and refine it and push the anecdote through a kind of standup puberty until it becomes a real, honestto-God joke, complete with punchlines and buttons where there weren’t buttons before. But during that evolution, there can be some exploitative one-sided conversations, where friends are turned into audience members against their will.
Jenny Slate is sensitive to this. And so at the end of our photo shoot, she checks in with some of us, making sure that when she was telling her story, between shots, about a visit to a surprisingly hot dentist, she hadn’t made us feel used or uncomfortable.
Bless her heart. I’m not convinced she has the ability to make someone feel uncomfortable—even if her subject matter isn’t always PG. When Slate speaks—whether it’s directly to you or simply around and at you—it feels like she’s bringing you into her confidence; in that moment, you are her friend and co-conspirator, marvelling with her at the raw comedy of life.
She also asks if the story was funny. After we assure her that it was, she says she might use it as part of her set hosting an anniversary party for a popular feminist magazine tonight. I didn’t think to record the dentist story at the time, so here is a paraphrased version, based solely on memory (which is never the best way to hear a comedian’s work):
Slate goes to a new dentist, who is shockingly attractive. So attractive that she basically forgets why she’s there. Her brain instead decides that she is on a blind date or in the midst of a romcom meet-cute or something. He asks what he can help her with, and she’s all “Oh, whatever you want to do. It’s cool.” When they set up a return visit, she decides she’ll wear her cute underwear. You know, how you do when you’re taking care of your dental hygiene. Only then, when the day »
of her appointment comes, like Afroman before her, she gets high and totally forgets about her date. She told it much better, but trust me: It’s a very funny story. If Slate likes telling anecdotes in between shots, she loves wearing the clothes during them. It’s like each look inspires a role for her to play. An ’80s-inspired blazer by Stella McCartney, for example, transforms her into the kind of shoulder-padded shark that would intimidate Sigourney Weaver in Working Girl. “Where are my faxes! I fax and make stacks!” she calls out, miming a giant cellphone pressed like a brick against her ear. Of course, when it’s time to shoot, it’s all business.
The next day, we meet at a hotel bar in Brooklyn. She’s wearing a blank canvas: white overalls over a simple T-shirt. Her hair, possibly left over from the shoot she had that morning, is as flawless as a femme fatale’s. After ordering (roasted eggplant—“I would be so happy to have that” is how she asks for it), she gets up to hug one of the hotel employees finishing his shift. “That man is so nice to me,” she explains when she sits down again. “I stay here a lot.”
I ask her how the event went the night before. “It was OK, but it wasn’t what I wanted it to be,” she says. “I really should learn my lesson that I don’t like hosting. I like performing, but I really don’t like performing on a show that’s a mix of comedy and music.” She adds that her comedy is personal and that it’s like she’s having a conversation with the audience. “If I go up there,” she explains, “and tell a joke about how that dentist was hot and make a perverted but good-natured joke about him cleaning my teeth with his penis or whatever, and you’re there because you want to hear a feminist grunge-glam rock group, you’re going to be shocked. And I’m not there simply to be subversive. I reveal myself, and maybe push boundaries, but it’s always part of the very wide margins that I allow for myself so that I can be authentic in front of people and not feel like I’m tempering my experience so it will fit into a more normalized thing. It was still fun, but there wasn’t a way for me to connect with the room.”
I repeat this story to highlight a character trait that becomes immediately apparent while I’m speaking with her: What she likes, dislikes, wants and inevitably doesn’t want is a big part of Jenny Slate. Of course, it’s a big part of life, generally. What are we but the sum of our wants and interests? This means that the people who win at life are the people who have a preternatural clarity about those things and—this is essential—live their lives in religious accordance with them.
Probably more than she ever has, Slate seems to know what she wants; no wonder she’s killing it more than she ever has as well. “I’m more myself than I’ve ever been,” she says. “I enjoy my work. I enjoy my life. I enjoy myself. I’ve never been able to experience that holy trinity before. I have a very cool sense of gratitude and peace. I’m chock full of weird energy. I’m a lightning bolt you can shake hands with.” Slate doesn’t inspire a cilantro-type binary. You don’t love her or hate her; you love her or you love her but don’t remember her name. Yet. (You know who she is. It’s just that you’re bad with celebrities and their names.) Mention Slate, especially among millennial women, and you’ll get a lot of “Ooh, I love her!” And as one who had beers (and roasted eggplant and an awkwardly robust pork sandwich) with her on a stiflingly hot afternoon in Brooklyn, I can testify that that is exactly the appropriate response.
Of course, the world being as partisan and angry as it is, there are people who aren’t on Team Slate. After all, she is a raging feminist who moved from the liberal mecca of New York City to live among the coastal elites in Hollyweird. And like a true snowflake, she will do infuriating things like acknowledge her privilege, admit to her own unconscious, socially ingrained misogyny and talk intersectional feminism as readily as your father talks about traffic. Not to mention she starred in a romantic comedy where abortion was a major plot point—and not in a negative way!
That film, Obvious Child, is an important inflection point for Slate. One of many, actually. After building a healthy, if local, standup career with her comedy partner, Gabe Liedman, Slate landed her dream job at Saturday Night Live in 2009. But she only lasted one season.
It almost feels lazy to include the SNL setback in her narrative, because almost 10 years later it seems so incidental. Only, of course it wasn’t to her. It was a lesson that helped her gain clarity about what she wanted. “After working at SNL, I remember thinking that nothing will ever be that hard again,” she says. “And I do still talk about it because it was such a dream and then it was not what I expected. And the worst part is that you’re like, ‘Am I just being bitter that I didn’t cut the mustard?’ But looking back on it, no. I had to understand that as much as there are so many opportunities for joy, there are a lot of bad deals out there.” »
Almost immediately after SNL, Slate and her then husband and creative partner made a little stop-motion animated video of a tiny talking shell, wearing sneakers, that exploded. “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On,” which is adorable and hilarious, gave her viral fame, the chance to write a bestselling book and creative freedom. But referencing it now also kind of feels like insisting on talking about Nirvana with Dave Grohl. Besides Marcel, Slate is known for her work in
Zootopia, Bob’s Burgers and Big Mouth, but it was Obvious Child that made people realize how skilled a performer she is: vulnerable, funny, smart and perfectly believable. Entirely real and completely herself while still, you know, acting. Slate credits this film, which talks frankly about abortion, with inspiring her feminist awakening.
Now, Slate is trying on a big comic book blockbuster. She’ll be wearing glasses and a lab coat in
Venom. The role won’t earn her an Independent Spirit Award, but that wasn’t the point. “I love making indie films, and the more I work, the more I hope I can work with directors I admire,” she says. “But I also wanted to see if I could do work like this and if it would satisfy me. I think it’s really stupid to be pretentious. It’s like it’s jocks versus art. The people who make these movies and the actors who are in them work really hard and are making art.”
Of course, speaking of jocks and superheroes, there’s one more reason people might know Slate. It’s a big part of her “True Hollywood Story,” but even more than SNL, it feels silly—maybe even a bit sexist?—to mention: For about a year, she dated Chris Evans.
It’s always awesome to define a woman by who she dates. But with Slate you feel like she’s your new best friend. And when your best friend starts dating Captain America…well, it’s like Meghan Markle becoming a princess. It’s not rational, but it’s like a curtain parts and the banality of fame is momentarily exposed: Celebrities become real, and life is charged with lottery-winning possibility. Plus, it’s just like, “Damn, you take that, girl.” When we were kids, my sister and I started recognizing a trope in the shows we watched. We called her the Have You Ever Thought Girl. She was, and remains, similar to what would years later be labelled a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, only she was never concerned with rescuing a male character. The Have You Ever Thought Girl was always the lead. She was Anne of Green Gables or Vada in My Girl. The archetypal HYETG is always balancing on a fence next to a shy farm boy or lying platonically beside him on the grass, staring at the stars. “Have you ever thought,” she begins, usually with a slight British accent, before laying out some absolutely absurd theory, “that every star is a crumb from one giant solar cookie, and if we could follow them, we’d find that God is really terribly messy?”
Slate might just be the real-world incarnation of the Have You Ever Thought Girl, only grown up and full of real wisdom. Slate often peppers her speech with phrases that feel too poetic to be improvised. Only, I’m sure they are. It’s just rare to talk to someone who is as creatively extroverted as she is introspective and has seemingly removed all the clutter and criticism between her heart, her head and her mouth.
I ask her about loneliness, which seems to pop up in a lot of her interviews. It’s her nemesis—hated but also maybe essential. “It’s like I have so much I want to be able to give,” she says. “It builds up in me—it’s like colours or light that has to come out. I feel swollen with myself, and I need to be able to shine out.” “It almost sounds positive,” I say.
“Oh it’s very positive; it’s weirdly, achingly beautiful,” she says, leaning back in her chair, arms folded, but somehow not closed off. “But also, I don’t fetishize it. I don’t like being lonely, but I’ve learned to accept it. I would much rather be lonely and missing the man I love than be with a man or a bunch of men who don’t do it for me. I’m so lucky to love really hard.” Have you ever thought… Which brings us back to where we started, where the crew has gathered around Slate to listen to her tell a story that can’t be appreciated in a 10-minute set between musical acts. Here we’re caught, like happy deer, in the light that’s beaming out of her as she describes exactly how hot her dentist was. She’s the centre of attention, but it’s not because she’s performing. Not exactly.
“Standup helps with it [loneliness], but so does just going outside,” she explains as the waiter delivers the bill, right before we both check the time and realize we’re both late for something. “I alleviate my loneliness not from accomplishing some big feat, like going on a date and getting someone to admire me. I walk around the reservoir where I live to see other people’s faces. I smile at strangers. That’s all I need to do. I also need to prove it to myself every day, not because I lose faith quickly but because faith needs maintenance and that seals the deal for me. I smile at a stranger. They smile at me. I’m good.”