Jenny Slate has forged a fascinating comedy career over the past 10 years, moving with ease among television, the Internet, on-stage performance and film.
She gained Internet cult-hero status with an absurd and adorable cartoon she wrote and voiced called “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On,” a day-in-the-life look at the trials and triumphs of a shell that speaks through a tight, throaty gravel. The video has gained more than 22 million hits on YouTube.
Slate also appears in a small role on Showtime’s “House of Lies” and “The Kroll Show” on Comedy Central. But she may have received the most attention for being fired from “Saturday Night Live” after her only season, in which she used profanity in her first episode on live television.
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That unfortunate event will likely end up a tiny footnote in a career that should gather considerable momentum with Slate’s stellar turn in the movie “Obvious Child,” the comedy from writer-director Gillian Robespierre.
Slate worked closely with the first-time feature filmmaker to create the character of Donna Stern, a brash Brooklyn-based stand-up comedian who gets pregnant after a one-night stand. Stern wastes little time deciding she wants to terminate her pregnancy and uses humor as both a shield to protect her pain and as a blunt weapon to attack anyone who shows concern.
Slate, who recently moved to Los Angeles, says there are some similarities between her and Stern, though she admits Donna attacks life recklessly.
“In my life I tend to actually be a bit timid, and I’ve always been anxious about getting good grades and stuff. But there’s also a part of me that’s a total animal that just wants to smoke pot and color on the walls,” Slate says. “That sense of finding a way to not repress your pain but express it and make sure it doesn’t completely stink up the atmosphere is a tool that I have as a person that Donna has as well.”
Slate’s timidity and sensitivity took a hit following her firing from “SNL.” After her dismissal she suffered terrible stage fright and felt audiences were constantly whispering about her and judging her solely as the girl who got fired for cursing.
During that period, Slate was filled with anger, not about the firing, but over the loss of the ability to get on stage and freely express herself. The disconnect between the audience and an artist who emulates dynamic vaudevillians ran counter to Slate’s natural rhythms.
“I like to perform in a way that would encourage people to come have dinner at my house,” Slate says.
Thanks to the work of an eccentric hypnotist, Slate regained her confidence, and her bold mixture of silliness and swagger informs all of her work. While you can see glimpses of her depth in her broad comedic work, the role of Donna Stern gave Slate an opportunity to shade a character with nuance and humanity in a way she has yet to achieve.
“I’ve always thought I had the ability to do respectable, good acting, but I’ve never gotten the chance,” Slate says, while making sure to praise her myriad opportunities. “This was the best job I’ve ever done in terms of the experiences. I just came away knowing that it’s not just a dream that I can act, but that I really can. I think I learned to doubt myself a lot less.”