Jenny Slate on Seasoned Professional and her "silly, funny, kind of horny" COVID tale

Center: Jenny Slate (Photo: Mike Coppola/Getty Images); Jenny Slate in Seasoned Professional (Prime Video/YouTube)
Center: Jenny Slate (Photo: Mike Coppola/Getty Images); Jenny Slate in Seasoned Professional (Prime Video/YouTube)
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Many comedians have come for her crown, but Jenny Slate remains the undisputed queen of vulnerability comedy. Few comics can navigate a gnarly diarrhea story, a takedown of the “impossible ideals” our culture pushes upon women, and an earnest treatise about love being a reflection of another person’s goodness shining back on you—let alone make it all laugh-out-loud funny. Slate’s new special, Seasoned Professional (premiering February 23 on Prime Video), proves she’s an expert navigator.

Almost five years after her last special, Stage Fright, Slate’s new act has a lot of ground to cover—so much so that it spilled over into a second essay collection, Lifeform, set to be released on October 22. Much like her eclectic body of work, Slate’s conversation with The A.V. Club has a bit of everything, from notes on fashion to the gift-giving equilibrium of performance. As a self-professed microphone addict and a true seeker of connection, there’s little the writer, comedian, and actor isn’t willing to share with an audience that’s willing to receive it.

The A.V. Club: You talk about loving adornment in the special and your book. You also say that if we’ve seen you at a show, then you’ve spent a lot of time beforehand deciding what you to wear that day. So I thought to start I would ask, how did you land on your fun tuxedo look for Seasoned Professional?

Jenny Slate: Well, I wanted to wear something that felt like an old-fashioned kind of fanciness, like Fred Astaire and Judy Garland in Easter Parade, which is a movie I saw as a little girl so many times. They would play it on PBS in the spring. I think it is my way of inviting in my sense of legitimacy. I like to work within traditional forms and make them a little bit silly or tailored to myself or my personality. So, I had worn this Thom Browne tuxedo to something during the awards push for the Marcel The Shell film, and I felt really good about it. I loved wearing the shorts. I felt so confident in the shorts. And I thought, well, that’s a nice way to be fancy. It’s almost like I’m a fancy little boy. I just really, really like that. So when it was time to film the special and I was thinking about, ‘What should I wear?’, that was the first thing that popped into my mind. I asked Thom Browne if they would give me one for the special. He was nice enough that he did.

AVC: It’s funny you had the joke in regards to adornment, that you wanted to wear something that a rom-com heroine would wear, because the intro to the special—with the tuxedo, carrying the umbrella, the music, and everything—felt like such a rom-com moment. Was that a conscious choice for framing the special, or something that came from collaborating with your director, Gillian Robespierre?

JS: Yeah, that was from Gillian and Elizabeth Holm, our producer. We all just thought of it together. We wanted to have a coherent look to the production. There is so much romance in my mind about getting to be a comedian, getting to perform at this level, being fortunate enough to be able to make comedy specials, and performing at BAM, which is such a beautiful theater I used to go to before I ever was a professional performer. I felt so dreamy about it. And I think we just wanted to capture the romance of that and have it be a little bit chic. I think it felt like the right way to also be me. We did film that moments before I did the special, so we wanted it to feel continuous, not just in what you’re watching, but in ourselves while we were making the work. I think it shows up that way, and I really like it.

AVC: You had a lot of life to catch up on between the last special, Stage Fright, and this one. How did you decide on structuring the show as the “weird love story in reverse?”

JS: I structured it that way because ... I tend to ask myself, just in my daily life, ‘How did I get here?’ I’m kind of constantly reassessing, especially when I’m really happy. Like, ‘What happened for me to get here?’ I like the idea of telling a love story in reverse because when you look back on it, sometimes you’ll realize that if things were to be predicted, they might seem terrible, and they might seem like endpoints. But instead, they were big, big steps toward your current situation, and they were openings, and they were flowing with a really important, benevolent current. But you just didn’t know, you wouldn’t have known.

I told the story in reverse to encourage myself, to be like, ‘Yeah, no one ever said that it needed to look perfect. No one ever said that it needed to be a string of obviously identifiable successes without any messiness.’ And, of course, why would I ever expect that? That’s not the way anything has gone. But these strange little beauties that sometimes arise within challenges, very messy challenges, or really scary things, add up to the romance and the nice life that I find myself in right now.

AVC: It was so interesting that a section of the show is about early COVID-19 times because a lot of artists have struggled to integrate that topic into their work. Did you have any qualms about telling that, and how did you navigate it?

JS: My main concern is: is it funny and is it going to allow people to see something unexpected, and make them feel welcome there? I want people to know that I’m grateful that they watch my comedy and they’re listening to me, because I’m just telling the story of my life and I’m giving my perspective about what I think it all is, and nobody’s required to take that in. It’s a big gift to me that anyone listens, and that’s why I try to give a gift back in terms of a performance that’s gonna be entertaining. I like trying to maintain that equilibrium of gift-giving.

But I also just felt like I never did anything to try to be sensational. I’m not trying to gross anyone out. I’m not trying to jar anyone in any way. But I did feel like this is part of the real story and the risk in it and the the way that things were so uncertain and the panic of it, they are those things. There’s a risk, there’s panic, and there’s real danger, but they are respectfully placed in a story that is silly and funny and kind of horny.

I don’t think that there’s even one moment where you could ever say I’m making light of the pandemic. I trusted myself to find that balance where I’m bringing up something that changed our world and broke our hearts. And I’m giving an example of how I—one person, me, one person in the world—stumbled through it. I try to just be thoughtful. I think if anything feels to me that it’s pushing it, that’s just not my style. I don’t find that to be fun.

AVC: Did you feel a difference returning to the stage after the pandemic?

JS: I think the biggest difference in me was that I had had my baby and that there was a many months long period where I just felt kind of dimmed in my mind, like many postpartum people. Some people can just get right back to work—and I did make a movie when Ida was 10 weeks old. But that was different because acting is different than stand-up or writing. Someone else wrote those lines, and performing it feels like swimming or exercising to me. I really, really love it, and I love acting, and that was a great zone for me to be in. But in terms of writing or doing stand-up, I just felt so depleted, and also I felt depleted kind of in my thinking cognitive space.

But I felt so, so full of love and I could feel the importance of my responsibility in terms of being a parent and a nurturer for my child. And I kind of felt like, ‘How much of that can people see in me?’ Can they see how much I’m re-emerging and that I feel fragile and I’m tired and I want to be here? But I’m not desperate, I’m just kind of unsure. Am I the same or am I different, and if I’m different am I better? I felt surrounded by a lot of questions as if there was a small swarm around me.

I used to feel more like, ‘Hi, I’m here!’ and I would pop up on stage. I just felt different, a bit more shy when I started to get back on stage after having Ida. [At first] I had no intention of talking about pregnancy and birth, just because I had come through it and I was like, ‘It’s over, I want to get back to me.’ But suddenly it became clear to me, like, ‘Oh, but that is me. That is what I did.’ I tried it out one night at Largo in L.A., which is kind of like my home base place for performing. And I realized [that] the way I want to tell this is natural to me. It can fall in line with the rest of the body of my work. And I’m going to start to try to figure out what stories are funny enough that I can tell them a few times over and create an hour of material about it.

AVC: So much of your work as a comic, but also an actor and a writer, is an exercise in vulnerability. You say in the special you just like to share as much as possible. To go to that gift-giving equilibrium you mentioned earlier, what do you feel like you’re getting back?

JS: I think what I’m getting back is that I am understood and that I’m accepted in the world. I think every time I say something, that is an explanation of how I live my life or how I perceive myself. And I do that within comedy, and I say things that have been embarrassing for me and people laugh and they’re laughing with me, and I can tell there’s some sort of solidarity and connection. It makes me feel close to the world. I don’t want to be by myself. I want to be with other people. And I’m an extrovert, even though sometimes I can feel really shy. I’m very silly for sure—I think my husband would say that I’m extremely silly in our house—[but I] also need a lot of gentleness, and I need a lot of cozy times. I’m not just always making fart jokes and doing pratfalls.

I think that the difference is that when I’m on stage I can take the things that sometimes in my real life only sit in the zone of something I am purely worried about—like, if you saw me talking about it just to my husband or my sisters or my best friends, I probably wouldn’t be funny, I probably would just be sad [and] achy. But then I take those same things and bring them to the stage and I’m not faking it. I’m just able to put them in a different context, the context of entertainment, and I say the same thing. You know, ‘I got sent this weird audition.’ ‘I had diarrhea on the orchestra trip.’ ‘I had a fear that if I gave all of my trust to someone they would betray me.’

If you know that, you have to set that up so it exists as a joke, and you want it to be a joke but you don’t want to be an object of ridicule, it’s just an incredible way to pump your own life full of light. And it just feels so good. It genuinely helps me get on with it, [to] place things in a better context for me so that I can feel less burdened by shame and more really proud that I continue to connect.

AVC: With this special, did you find that sharing yourself has changed now that you’re in this different stage of life? Is there a discipline required in setting boundaries with the audience, or did you just come wanting to give as much as you did before?

JS: Yeah, I wanted to give as much as I gave before. The one thing is if you have a baby, they can’t say yes or no to what you’ll say about them, so I’m pretty mindful of that. As Ida gets older, I would always probably refrain from talking about her on stage unless it was about me, you know? It’s not like there’s a ban on talking about my daughter, but if it’s like, she and I are in the car and I spill coffee in my lap—that’s not very funny, I would never talk about that, I know that—I would talk about that, of course. But I just think a bit about her. What can she say yes or no to? I’m concerned about that.

But other than that, I just want it to be funny. I just want to make sure that even if it’s for me—and most of my work is for me—first and foremost, I need to say this because I need to do it this way so that I can keep going and feel okay about my life and have a clearer sense of who I am, and also of how I’m powerful. But if you just do it for yourself, that’s not a gift. Like, it’s for me, but I have to make sure that whatever I make for myself, I would serve everyone else and they would like it. And that’s my main concern.

AVC: Coming from a place where you have all these different artistic outlets, how do you decide what parts are going towards writing or stand-up or acting? Do you have a consciousness about, ‘I’m gonna save that for something else,’ or is it all project by project?

JS: It’s kind of like how you can tell some foods are for dessert and some are for dinner, if that makes any sense. For me, if something is for stand-up, it just has to be really, really funny. I mean, it has to be funny to me. But sometimes there will be something funny, but I want to be able to describe the level of tenderness that’s also in it. And it will just be disruptive to the flow of the stand-up.

I’ve said this before, I take myself seriously, but I don’t want to be self-serious on stage. That’s not where I’m trying to be. I’m trying to be like, ‘This is very important to me!’ But also I don’t want to be self-serious about it. I think there are some things that I put into writing, that especially through the use of more lyrical language, and language that feels more like somewhere between a spell and a song, [where] I’m able to fully realize the expression of experiences that just can’t live on stage without making the performance into something else that is not comedy. So that’s how I know.

Sometimes I’ll take a little piece of something, I’ll take only the funny part and put it on stage, but then I will reuse it in my writing. I do think of the literary space as a place for everything, but most certainly the things that can’t be fully expressed within a comedy set, that I still want people to know about me.

AVC: You also have pretty straightforward feminist messages in this special and your previous work as well. Those bits in the special are funny, but also kind of deadly serious. How do you walk that line, and how important was it for you to address those misogynistic things that you touch on in the special?

JS: It’s always important to me to call out and inquire within the joke. ‘Do you see what I see? This is how I see it. I think it’s here. I know it’s here. I’m going to call it out.’ ... I think it’s not just funny or important to be like, ‘This doesn’t work!’ Because otherwise you do run the risk of just kind of seeming morally superior, or giving a lecture, and I’m not interested in that at all. I am interested in being like, ‘It’s not fake, I experienced this, this is what it is, and this is the ridiculous, hilarious reason for why it just doesn’t work. If you try to make me be like this, this is how it’s going to come out.’ I think that is just interesting to me because I’m just trying to talk about how I’m navigating this world.

It’s not that I go into it being like, ‘I’m going to make sure to hit these points,’ but it’s more that if I notice myself shying away from something, I just make myself investigate it. I’m like, ‘Why are you shying away from that? Are you shying away from it because you think people won’t like you? Or are you shying away from it because your thought isn’t developed yet, and you shouldn’t go out there and just blast an opinion out if you haven’t been thoughtful about it?’ I think [that’s] important. Are you saying something because you personally just want to take some space and share your grievances? Or are you saying something because you’re noticing an event or behavior in this world you feel many people can relate to, and that you want to call out in your specific experience so that maybe you can connect to some other people? I think that the ladder there is really useful to me.