Spirit of sen­si­tiv­ity

Per­former and writer Jenny Slate is just as vul­ner­a­ble off­stage as she is in ‘Stage Fright’ on Net­flix

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY ELAHE IZADI

Per­former and writer Jenny Slate is just as vul­ner­a­ble off­stage as she is in “Stage Fright” on Net­flix.

As Jenny Slate wan­ders the Na­tional Por­trait Gallery’s pres­i­den­tial ex­hibit, she com­ments on Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton’s oddly shaped hair, Ge­orge W. Bush’s shock­ingly large shirt pock­ets and how funny it is that Richard Nixon’s por­trait is so small. “I hope they give Trump, like, a postage stamp,” she jokes.

Then the per­former and writer en­ters a mauve room and is sud­denly sur­rounded by women. They wear flow­ing dresses and wan­der through fields, sit at ta­bles and read books in Thomas Wilmer Dew­ing’s turn-of-the­cen­tury paint­ings. On one small can­vas, “In The Gar­den,” three fig­ures stand in a haze of emer­ald that matches Slate’s purse, which is slung across the el­e­gant tweed coat she bought as a gift to her­self.

“The green is just so beau­ti­ful,” Slate says, “that I just feel as­tound­ingly op­ti­mistic, al­most

about ev­ery­thing.”

This is Slate off­stage: a paint­ing buoys her spirit to sub­lime heights; a daf­fodil changes her day; a close friend say­ing “I’m re­ally glad you’re here” changes her week. This is also Slate on­stage, and now, on the page. Her lat­est works — a de­but stand-up spe­cial, “Stage Fright,” and new book, “Lit­tle Weirds” — are rooted in her com­mit­ment to beauty and sweet­ness, as well as her re­fusal to treat her sor­row as un­sightly.

Slate is known for many things: her dra­matic turn in “Ob­vi­ous Child,” her comedic char­ac­ters (“Parks and Recre­ation,” “Kroll Show”), her vo­cal dex­ter­ity (“Big Mouth,” “Mar­cel the Shell”). But she’s now show­ing her­self to the world in new ways. Slate has per­formed stand-up for more than a decade; Net­flix’s “Stage Fright,” out last month, is her first spe­cial. She has co-writ­ten three books; “Lit­tle Weirds” is her first solo one. In the col­lec­tion of earnest, funny and ef­fer­ves­cent es­says and mus­ings re­leased this week, Slate writes about “liv­ing with a dan­ger­ous amount of sen­si­tiv­ity.”

“For me, it’s just fig­ur­ing out — and the word is so overused but I think it re­ally does work — what the trig­gers are,” she says dur­ing a Sun­day visit to the mu­seum in down­town Wash­ing­ton. Slate has “beauty trig­gers,” and they fire off like crazy dur­ing her stroll through the gal­leries. Her hand cov­ers her mouth at the sight of Michelle Obama’s por­trait. “Oh my gosh!” she says, en­ter­ing the glass-ceilinged in­door court­yard filled with light. “I wish Ben had come here,” she says, re­fer­ring to her fi­ance, art cu­ra­tor and writer Ben Shat­tuck. ( They’ll re­turn to­gether in a few hours to lie down on the mar­ble slabs and stare at the sky.)

Walk­ing through the world with a ten­der heart is like car­ry­ing around a gift; it of­ten comes with em­pa­thy and com­pas­sion, and al­lows you to “have a height­ened ex­pe­ri­ence of plea­sure,” she says.

But sen­si­tiv­ity can also be a li­a­bil­ity, Slate knows, and has the po­ten­tial to wreck you. Ear­lier that week­end, she watched video of a female co­me­dian con­fronting Har­vey We­in­stein and a man yelling “Shut up” at the woman in re­sponse. Slate, fu­ri­ous, soon found her­self scan­ning news photos of We­in­stein and fo­cus­ing on the women around him. “I start to re­al­ize I’m here, in D.C. in a ho­tel room, and I want some­thing other than this rage that is in­tensely flammable and is spread­ing out,” she says. “I don’t want to have to judge these peo­ple [in the im­ages] for why they’re sit­ting there. I just don’t want to be them, and I don’t want to see it.”

So Slate must fo­cus her sen­si­tiv­ity and “fig­ure out what can I pos­si­bly do to try to deal with this ex­pe­ri­ence that is a large cul­tural ex­pe­ri­ence.”

“If you’re sen­si­tive, you start to think about health and how can I be healthy, how can I help,” she says. “How do I want to spend my day not be­ing com­pletely burned up by bad feel­ings?”

She cites an Adam Phillips book about kind­ness and laughs, given the line in “Lit­tle Weirds” she wrote about con­stantly bring­ing up his es­say on the super­ego while not in­ter­nal­iz­ing the les­son. “Kind­ness is about hold­ing other peo­ple’s vul­ner­a­bil­ity and see­ing it and shar­ing it with them and show­ing your own,” Slate says. She be­lieves her vul­ner­a­bil­ity is best dealt with when shared. “Peo­ple like to care for things, whether or not they’ve for­got­ten that.”

By that mea­sure, her new projects are ex­er­cises in kind­ness. In the past few years, Slate has gone through a di­vorce and an­other highly pub­li­cized breakup. In “Lit­tle Weirds,” Slate writes that her “life fell to pieces,” not­ing her re­cent “pum­mel­ing heart­break,” “loss of con­fi­dence,” “as­tound­ing lone­li­ness,” the elec­tion of some­one she con­sid­ers a racist bully and fac­ing misog­yny in the midst of the #Me­too move­ment. She wrote the book as an “act of press­ing on­ward” and “putting my­self back to­gether so that I can dwell hap­pily in our shared world.”

In the process, she ex­poses her­self as some­one long­ing for love and learn­ing to be alone with­out be­ing lonely, as a woman who trea­sures friend­ships and fan­ta­sizes about be­ing a “home­made Parisian crois­sant.” It’s not a mem­oir and she doesn’t name names (though Shat­tuck makes a name­less cameo in the piece ti­tled “To Nor­way,” which doc­u­ments how they met through mu­tual friends.) Still, Slate bares her heart via metaphor, fic­tion and mag­i­cal re­al­ism, “the lit­er­ary de­vice that rep­re­sents the way that I use my brain,” she says. “I tried to speak in the voice that I’m com­fort­able speak­ing to my ther­a­pist in.”

That vul­ner­a­bil­ity shows in Slate’s Net­flix spe­cial, which in­cludes doc­u­men­tary-like footage of her vis­it­ing her child­hood home, clips from home videos and in­ter­views with her fam­ily. View­ers also see a teary-eyed Slate grap­pling with crip­pling stage fright and then later danc­ing joy­ously on­stage to a Robyn song and de­liv­er­ing ma­te­rial she im­pro­vised that day. She com­pares her­self to “a tur­tle that just got roller skates and re­al­ized that things can be fast.”

Slate had never wanted to make a stand-up spe­cial, but she changed her mind af­ter see­ing Han­nah Gadsby’s ground­break­ing 2018 spe­cial “Nanette,” which me­thod­i­cally broke down com­edy’s lim­i­ta­tions. Slate re­mem­bers think­ing, “Well, this woman just tore down the form and built it back up, and left us with some­thing bet­ter, and left us with some­thing that to­tally be­longs to her,” and re­al­ized she could make a spe­cial ex­actly as she wanted, con­ven­tions be damned.

“When some­one does some­thing new, other peo­ple are en­cour­aged to see how they could also cre­ate new work,” Slate says. “You limit your pool of artists when the art form is ‘ we have now per­fectly re­it­er­ated this thing again.’ If that’s what the art form is, only peo­ple who are con­fi­dent that they can per­fectly re­it­er­ate the art form show up. I’m not one of those peo­ple. I’m not in­ter­ested in that.”

Stage fright first gripped Slate as her fame grew. She joined “Satur­day Night Live” in 2009 and lasted a year. She had a tough time on the show. Slate grew up idol­iz­ing Gilda Rad­ner, but “the spirit was dif­fer­ent, and I was to­tally not suited for it.” She was anx­ious and “I just didn’t get it. I didn’t get how to be there.”

Her name came up in com­par­isons this fall as SNL faced pres­sure to fire a new fea­tured per­former who had used racist lan­guage on pod­casts. (He was even­tu­ally let go.) Slate fa­mously cursed on-air dur­ing her first episode, but “that’s not why they fired me,” she says. “I think it’s al­ways bet­ter for peo­ple when they can just de­cide a rea­son for why some­thing hap­pened. I think we all want to do that. But, no, I think I just got fired be­cause I didn’t con­nect with the show.”

The per­former isn’t sure she’ll make an­other stand-up spe­cial — “It took a lot out of me” — but Slate knows she wants to write for the rest of her life, and to take on more se­ri­ous act­ing roles. “That has al­ways been a pref­er­ence for me,” she says. “I’ve made my way in the world by mak­ing peo­ple laugh, which is also a way for me to get past feel­ings of shy­ness that are al­most al­ways there. . . . But I feel se­ri­ous in my­self, and so I would like to be able to put that into my work.”

Slate wrote her book af­ter ev­ery­thing fell apart, and now life seems sun­nier. She lives part time with Shat­tuck on a penin­sula in Mas­sachusetts and says all she wants is to write her books there and “do my shows with­out feel­ing like peo­ple are an­gry with me.” She re­peat­edly in­sists she has no ad­vice to dis­pense, adding the dis­claimer “for me” when­ever she gives in­sights into art, life and mat­ters of the heart. “I’m no Brené Brown or any­thing,” Slate laughs.

As she de­parts the mauve room con­tain­ing that beau­ti­ful green paint­ing, Slate walks past an old, golden pi­ano. Com­mis­sioned by Theodore Roo­sevelt to in­ject mu­sic into life at the White House, its lid is adorned with nine women painted by Dew­ing. They rep­re­sent muses of art, mu­sic, po­etry and learn­ing.

“Well,” Slate says on her way out, “this is a re­ally nice room to stop in.”


Jenny Slate’s com­edy spe­cial, “Stage Fright,” de­buted on Net­flix last month. “Kind­ness is about hold­ing other peo­ple’s vul­ner­a­bil­ity and see­ing it and shar­ing it with them and show­ing your own,” Slate says. “Peo­ple like to care for things, whether or not they’ve for­got­ten that.”


Be­sides “Stage Fright,” her de­but stand-up spe­cial on Net­flix, Jenny Slate has penned “Lit­tle Weirds,” a col­lec­tion of es­says and mus­ings, and she’s also had var­i­ous act­ing and voice roles on TV.

He­lena An­drews-dyer and Emily Heil have moved on to new as­sign­ments at The Post. A search is un­der­way for a new Re­li­able Source colum­nist. The col­umn will re­turn.

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