An Interview with Jenny Slate

Jenny Slate and I had a few issues connecting. The initial problem was a delayed flight and then we had three dropped Facetime calls, the third while she was saying goodbye.

Before we were cut off, she showed me the house she now lives in with her fiance. It’s an aged residence in Massachusetts that was once owned by his great-grandmother.

She said, “It used to be a dance hall and now it’s our home. It’s truly a blessing.”

In 2009, Slate began her career in stand-up comedy with her partner Gabe Liedman and then appeared as part of the cast of Saturday Night Live for one season.

Since then, she has become well-known for her work as an actor and voice-over artist in Bob’s Burgers, Parks and Recreation, Kroll Show, and Big Mouth.

However, it was not until Marcel the Shell that Slate found her “small but mighty voice”. The stop-motion short, where a small anthropomorphic shell speaks, has over thirty million views and has even been adapted into a children’s book in 2011.

Her initial success as an actress was seen in Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child (2014) where her comedic flair was juxtaposed with a deep-seated pain that was expressed in subtle but meaningful ways.

Her less popular YouTube series, Catherine (2013) was a show about a peculiar administrative assistant and her peculiar workplace that focused more on the darker side of her personality.

Her recent Netflix special, Stage Fright (2019), gives an inside look at the many different aspects of her character, which she has either hidden or kept in check.

In this show, Slate also reveals her fear of not being able to enjoy herself due to her anxiety and stage fright.

In her latest book Little Weirds, Slate delves into the source of her fear.

This is not her first work, as she had previously co-authored About the House with her father, Ron Slate, a collection of stories concerning her haunted childhood home in Milton, Massachusetts.

Little Weirds is a hybrid of memoir and essays, as well as what Slate calls “little prayers” to herself. It is a profound exploration into her inner world, the origin of her creativity and hurt.

Although we can be the victims of our own destructive thoughts, Little Weirds offers small credos and teachings that urge us to contemplate their roots: the stories we tell ourselves, the detrimental habits they allow, and the stimuli that reinforce these habits.

In interviews of the past, Jenny Slate was candid about her own struggles and heartache, however, she owned up to her tendency to be “pushy and faithless” concerning those in her life, which further distanced her from others and exacerbated her sense of loneliness.

After taking some time out from the world, holing up in her parents’ residence in Martha’s Vineyard, she finally was able to gain some perspective on her sadness and other aspects of her personality.

This newfound clarity has enabled her to become more accepting of herself and not perceive her mental state as a negative.

I had the chance to observe this ease of being during our call, as she was gleaming through my computer, talking about her fiance’s family house, and although the connection was wavering, she seemed to remain unfazed.

— Sara Black McCulloch

  1. Lately, I have been feeling a certain tug on my emotions.

A BELIEVER’S VIEW: Currently, it seems that all is in chaos due to Mercury being in a retrograde position.

JENNY SLATE: I’m so relieved you verbalized that! I really want to accept astrology, or any doctrine or framework that might give a complete explanation of how everything works, but… I just need to concentrate on my own systems.

In any case, it’s reasonable to me that the actions of the planets would influence the ebb and flow of my own soul. I’m highly responsive to changes in the environment, even the smallest things.

I’m uncertain if it’s because I think Mercury is in retrograde or whether it’s real, or something that exists between total disbelief and total faith, but something is tugging at my heartstrings lately.

BLVR: In Little Weirds, you share a lot of yourself and your thoughts on astrology. Did the process of writing this book help you to gain insight into your life and your inner workings over the past few years?

JS: Completing this book has left me feeling alright, which is quite peculiar. It’s not easy to form an opinion about oneself.

Furthermore, it’s not an ideal objective. I’m not looking for a perpetual proclamation of who I am. Instead, I’m just trying to comprehend the events that occur on a daily basis.

When people talk about the creative types in Hollywood, they often use the term multihyphenate which is quite unappealing in my opinion.

It puts an emphasis on what you can do and what someone can get out of you. As an artist, I feel like the industry is trying to exploit my creativity.

BLVR: Was this the kind of book you had in mind when you first started writing?

At first, I dreamed of creating a feminist book with a thesis focused on the need for modern feminism to be more than just intersectional, but rather biodynamic or something similar to the success of biodiversity.

My idea was that feminism should embrace plurality, but I soon realized that this agenda was difficult to put into practice without a deeper understanding of the individual activist.

After my divorce, the election of Trump, and a series of personal failures, I started to listen to the voice of the person who initially wanted this book to exist, which is what ultimately resulted in the book.

While it is still a feminist effort, its purpose is different from my original vision.

Comedy is one of the few art forms where it is hard to find pieces that express deep emotion and sadness. My own comedy is usually full of attitude and zippy or is like Marcel the Shell which is very dear.

My stand-up is usually chatty. Even though people don’t really know the version of me that is a woman, I haven’t found a place for that in my work except for Marcel the Shell, where I’m not even a woman.

After having all my relationships end, I realized I needed to take some time alone and figure out my identity as a woman.

Despite the fact that I read a lot, I never thought I could think of myself as a writer instead of just a reader. I have many writer friends and my current boyfriend is a talented writer.

Do you ever discuss writing with your dad?

JS: Definitely! However, when I’m discussing writing with him, it’s like I’m bringing a McDonald’s hamburger to a Michelin restaurant and asking if we can have it for dinner. I’m such an amateur!

And part of it is because I have such admiration for him. His work is very refined, but there’s also a side of me which truly wants to express myself and is completely trusting of my instinct and my desire to be successful.

I wrote this book independently, and it’s one of the first times I didn’t think about who would be getting it other than myself.

BLVR: What authors do you continually return to when you are reading?

JS: I’m a big fan of reading Lydia Davis and Maira Kalman. Maira Kalman is especially meaningful to me.

As for picture books for children, I’m fond of Barbara Cooney’s illustrations; her most renowned work is Miss Rumphius. I also adore Ox-Cart Man, yet my dearest of hers is Emma, the story of an elderly artist.

Although I’m just a tiny tot, I’m still looking for the comfort of a good book!


This garden, which was pleasing to the eye, also had a mischievous streak to it.

BLVR: While performing your stand-up, you’re continuously inquiring the crowd. How did it feel writing something solely for yourself this time? Was it difficult to change your outlook and methodology?

JS: I was in search of being alone, as I have had an ongoing issue in my life in which I mix up solitude and desertion.

I have been unable to handle the smallest bit of loneliness. I often think of it as abandonment, however, in solitude, there is a pleasant tinge of loneliness that doesn’t have to be a bad thing or something that decides your future relationships.

When I’m with my closest friend, when I’m with animals, or in the outdoors, I experience what I refer to as a ribbon of loneliness within myself. I have been trying to ignore it, or feeling like it’s my destiny. I never looked at loneliness as a pathway or a connection to anything.

When I’m performing, I make sure to present myself in a way that is pleasing to the audience even though I may be feeling insecure about the way I appear.

It’s true that I often feel uncomfortable in my body, but I’ve come to realize that there is a time and a place for all the parts of me that don’t seem fit for a performance or a first date or a job interview.

I need to take the time to embrace those parts of me, even if it means spending time alone and going through the discomfort that comes with it.

To conclude, both writing a book and performing are for one’s own gratification. I came to the realization that even when I’m alone, I still have a desire to please.

This is demonstrated in the book with a composition called “Tart.” In it, I was attempting to employ my entire being, which could only be done in a solitary manner.

A lot of my adulthood has been focused on constructing a career where people can testify that I’m here for a purpose and I can be of service.

When I began to write the things that gave me so much joy, I worried that maybe they would be too saccharine to be taken seriously, and perhaps too melodic for some people’s liking– that’s when I realized I wouldn’t be adding any bitterness to my syrup to appease those who lack an appetite for adventure.

That’s a phrase or a variation of a phrase in the work “I Was Born: The List.” My sugary disposition is the most captivating and persistent part of me. And it’s what makes me such a hard nut to crack.

BLVR: With regards to being alone, I wanted to reflect for a second. It can be tricky for younger people to recognize the value of solitude since they’re in the process of understanding themselves and where they fit in the world.

A buddy of mine mentioned that as one grows older, they gain the capacity to take in a wider perspective. The minor issues don’t carry as much weight since you learn to handle multiple matters simultaneously.

I can’t recall what I was going to inquire about.

I entirely understand your point!

BLVR: It appears to me that you have become distant from your own self – did you notice this?

JS: The greatest suffering I experience is caused by my own actions. I often hear voices telling me that everyone can be accepted, but not me.

During my twenties, I constantly felt like an outsider and worked to figure out how I could modify my character so that I could fit in with the rest.

At the age of thirty-seven, I am coming to recognize how vital it is to love oneself. There are moments when I am certain that everyone I know desires for me to simply vanish.

This leaves me feeling utterly despondent.

I cannot fathom how I can remain alive when I’m so unhappy. I grieve the fact that a spark used to live inside of me and now it is no longer there.

In an attempt to keep the faith, I have discovered how disheartening it is to be separated from myself.

I recognize how my life has its own beat; the cycle of feeling wiped out then freshly grown.

When I’m in a low place, it feels like something is engulfing me, and when I’m elated, I sense that I’m birthing something wonderful.

I like to commemorate the upbeat times, like the part in the book where I’m making a sandwich for my dad. These moments make me content or even more so than when I have professional accomplishments.

These moments are what is valuable, what you exchange, what you keep, and what you save. These moments are the riches, I believe.

BLVR: Those moments don’t last long.

JS: Absolutely.

BLVR: You have these very emotional recollections of special times with your mom that are hinged on smells.

It’s not often that people write about scent in this manner–the connecting of someone to a rare but recognizable aroma.

Though it was a quick, fleeting moment, it was also very strong. How did you feel about exposing such intimate memories to your readers?

I find great pleasure in sharing my experiences with others.

It is a very personal thing when you show someone something you find beautiful, as it reveals who you are, what your tastes are like, and how you view the world.

They may then have their own experience with it. I feel the same way about my memories. I offer them to whoever I’m talking to, but they are still my own.

I don’t mind talking to a lot of people, or even strangers, about my views and emotions; it brings me a sense of security.

As a child, I remember some of my favorite sleeps were when I would go upstairs during the daytime parties my parents would throw, such as Rosh Hashanah. I find the sound of all the adults I knew downstairs to be soothing.

On my thirtieth birthday, I felt I could do whatever I wanted, so while I was very intoxicated and high, I took a nap in the middle of the gathering. I was resting in a booth in my friend’s kitchen and put my head on her lap, falling asleep for a brief moment.

It was so pleasant and I felt secure. I only feel insecure when I have to keep my emotions to myself.

BLVR: What makes you say that?

JS: To be honest, I’m not sure. I’m very creative, and the dirt in my head can be a fertile ground for my emotions such as frustration, dissatisfaction, gloom, and hunger.

I find airing them out is better than keeping them bottled up, as that can create an unruly garden of thoughts in my mind. I don’t think it’s helpful to categorize myself as either “crazy” or “sane” either.

BLVR: Are you more confident in expressing yourself now? So instead of keeping your thoughts and feelings inside, you are interpreting them in the context of your environment?

JS: I’ve acquired the ability to communicate my emotions without blaming myself or anyone else, and I’m thrilled about it.

Currently, I’m feeling unwell, though the narrative I’ve constructed around it could be false.

BLVR: In the book, the opening poem is Stanley Kunitz’s “The Layers,” which speaks of being able to accept all the different elements of oneself.

Do you feel like this is true for you now, that you are more comfortable with everything that makes up your identity, rather than focusing on the parts that you don’t appreciate?

JS: I appear to be more inclined to existing within the layers rather than on the surface, because any normal person can become wrapped up in what has been left behind in their life, although the litter is not always bad either!

The leftovers are the outcomes of experiences that have been had. But the layers which one can traverse are the most significant.

I am growing more comfortable with that and also the artist I wish to be–to reach my full potential in this manner.

At the beginning of this dialogue, we discussed belief systems, particularly astrology. I had been brought up in a conservative Jewish family, but later experienced a boost in my feminist consciousness.

Just recently I declared on stage that my vision of what God might be like would be a tree with shells covering it, a mouth that doubles as a vagina, and daffodils coming out of the top.

Furthermore, a butthole that shoots out balloons! Who knows?! Nevertheless, to have faith you need to practice it daily, while allowing new beliefs to become part of it. That’s what those layers represent.


BLVR: Are there any alterations you have made to your stand-up comedy routines since you have been on the road more?

JS: I often discuss my upbringing as a female within a patriarchal society and the environment I was raised in. My comedy is humorous yet purposeful, as I draw from my own personal experiences and what I find inherently funny. It’s what I require to be amused.

As I become older and more aware, I cannot ignore the effects of living in a patriarchal society.

I’m not trying to be contrary or stir up trouble, but it’s important to speak up against the ways in which such a system oppresses women and people of color. It’s not a matter of opinion, it’s a fact.

I’m tired of being told to be ‘open-minded’ about the world’s injustices, especially considering the comments Donald Trump has made about it still hurting people.

It was an awakening, but we all still seem to be struggling to face it. I’m no exception.

I am not sure how to produce the essential political upheaval, but I am certainly in favor of community conversations, where people with different views can come together to find a way to live together–definitely not for racism or white nationalism, or for those who don’t support reproductive justice for women.

There is no other way to think about it! I can talk to someone who is against abortion and has religious beliefs that back up their position.

That is their own view and choice. But to be expected to be ‘open-minded’ about any legislation regarding people’s bodies is a form of fascism.

It is outrageous and frightening what is happening in the South of the United States.

BLVR: Your art emphasizes creating connections to other people, yet it seems that people are increasingly focusing on themselves instead of engaging with one another.

They are more concerned with their individual lives.

JS: I have the intuition to express my thoughts without looking to humiliate anyone. Even though I am not keen on quarrel and discord, I would rather have a civil disagreement than separation and detachment.

My wish is for alteration, not for disgrace; I am striving for justice, not for blame.

BLVR: Is there a way to take an unpleasant experience and transform it into a joke or a narrative of significance? How can one tell when it is appropriate to share it with an audience?

JS: Making it touchable is the key thing here.

There’s this concept of an “elephant in the room” which is like when your birthday is the same day as a terrible tragedy and it feels wrong to be celebrating.

It’s not funny what’s happening in the current administration, but it’s possible to express my reaction in a humorous way.

It’s important to make the situation useful and unexpected by uncovering those hidden options which are kept in the background and showing them to the world.

Art and activism are the tools to bring out those things which are not easy to discuss.

Then, it’s essential to create a secure environment for those things to be voiced.

Other Suggestions

It is clear that certain aspects of technology have revolutionized how we interact with one another.

By providing us with the means to communicate instantaneously, we have seen a drastic change in the way individuals interact and form relationships.

This is a phenomenon that has been made possible only through technological advancements.

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