Jenny Slate Cracks Wide Open
Getting weird, wonderful, and real with the author and comedian.
As if she couldn’t crack herself wide-open enough on screen or in front of a mic, Slate is about to release her collection of 48 entries on November 5th. Little Weirds is a connectogram of Slate’s brain—with every sentence, a neuron fires, drawing a map of her being. In our tête-à-tête in the glam chair ahead of our nostalgic photo studio shoot, Slate got honest about why her vulnerability can sometimes make her feel like a burden, how setting rules for herself led to big emotional breakthroughs, and not following the “predatory system” of Hollywood.
Does being so open and vulnerable come naturally to you?
“There isn’t another way to be. I feel like if I try to sort and portion out who I am, I feel like I’m lying. It’s not lying, I guess, to omit [parts of my life]—of course, there are some personal things that aren’t relevant. There’s nothing about me that I think is treif or not kosher. I spend enough time in my personal life and my social life [thinking about] what about me will please other people or make them upset. I am a pleaser, and I like other people to be comfortable. I like to be a part of why they are comfortable. But when it comes to me in culture or as an artist, it’s none of my business how my identity is perceived. There’s only one.
“There are no compartments in me. There are many fragments, and that is what my book is handling and also what my special is about; I am a person that falls apart from time to time. I’m very sensitive, and I’m easily rocked. I’m like a planet; I have shifting plates, and sometimes shit just totally falls apart, but the special and my book are both reflections of a belief system that says the pieces aren’t useless.”
Have you ever felt shame about being sensitive?
“I feel like a burden sometimes, for sure. This is an honest answer; I can’t tell if I’m too sensitive or not. I can’t change it. It’s like denying that you have a broken foot and being like, I’ll still run the marathon. That’s just going to hurt more, and you’re going to have to deal with a worse result at the finish line. But yeah, I feel burdensome. Every two years, I have a bout of anxiety that’s just insane. I don’t have depression, and I’m a natural optimist, so my anxiety really clings against my nature, but what I have learned is that shame is not useful.
“There’s a large part of me that does what I do because it feels good, and I trust myself not to be [a] disruptive or totally selfish person in my community or in my relationships or in my work. I am constantly reacting to a world that still, until we can make huge changes, has pretty narrow margins for how they speak about and define women. I have often felt this very strongly when I wanted to start my career as a performer. I was so shocked that the ways in which I could even find [a job] seemed so scary and dangerous and totally non-specific to me. There’s some gross guy that’s like [*gross guy voice*], ‘I work for this production company. You should come up to my loft and meet my business partner.’ That is so disgusting, but I still found myself in those situations. I remember being like, How is this the only way in? I didn’t understand at that point that, yeah, this is a predatory system, but you don’t have to follow it. Because I am unsure about whether or not I will be accepted, and it has never felt like a given to me, I keep saying, ‘This is what I’m like, this is who I am, this is what I feel.’”
How did that sense of vulnerability shape both Little Weirds and Stage Fright?
“Vulnerability is just what is there—the compulsion to make myself bare in front of people is not going to go away.
“I’m constantly asking other people, ‘Did you ever feel this way?’ I just want to see how far off I am from what is a consistent human experience. I think my feelings are really strong, and sometimes I can feel like, Woah, is this normal? And am I the only one? And if so, am I in trouble? To get up onstage and say I can’t tell if I should give up on love, for example... In my special, I discuss this feeling that I had directly after the ‘Me Too’ movement really exploded. I was like, Uh, I’m just not sure how to meet men after this because I’m so angry at what patriarchy has done to all of us. I’m not sure how to meet a man and not scream directly into his face, ‘Do you get it, or do you not get it?’ I felt a moment of despair, where I was like, You know what, I’m just going to become everyone’s weird aunt and masturbate alone because that feels like the safest option for me. A lot of times we don’t want to reveal when we have felt despair because it seems unattractive, but I don’t think that it is. I just want to show all the levels.”
Was working on Little Weirds different from working on a film or a show?
“With film and TV, I’m not the editor or the director, so I do the performance and someone else decides what to cut—I’m comfortable with that. But with my book, I was so surprised at the velocity at which the words flew out of my mind. I wrote it very quickly; once the portal was open, the stuff came out, and then it closed—that’s how it felt. That’s probably the wrong way to describe [it]—I have this instinct sometimes to attribute my work to chaos and somehow I happen to catch a wave—but the fact is that I’m a professional and I’ve spent over a decade figuring out how to use my voice.
“The difference is that I have to learn how to edit myself, and honestly, I haven’t really learned how to do that socially. For me, to be able to trust Jean, my editor, so much was really important. I really dislike feeling that anyone would try to make me easier to understand. But I am also aware that sometimes I speak in a way that makes sense to me, but is part of a self-specific internal vernacular that is fragmented. Writing the book has made me feel really proud of my voice and more willing to edit myself privately and socially without connecting it to repression. I used to think, I don’t want to be repressed and live in patriarchy, the patriarchy wants me to be quiet. I really started to understand through deep relationships with my friends or healthy romantic partnerships that there are new rules that I have for myself, and they come from understanding that editing means clarifying; it doesn’t mean drapery, it doesn’t mean obscuring the point, it means making it clearer and being direct.”
How did you land on the title of your book?
“For a while I wanted the word flux to be in the title because I felt that the book was representative of a process of falling apart and coming back together. But Jean was like, ‘Well, what are these pieces? They’re not really essays, not fiction really, and they’re not poems.’ And I said, ‘They’re all of my little weirds that are in my brain.’ She was like, ‘Well, I think that’s what we should call the book.’”
Did you learn anything about yourself in the process?
“I wrote this book primarily last year, and September and October of 2018 was when it accelerated and came together. There’s a piece called ‘Blue Hour,’ which is really about learning the difference between solitude and abandonment and ceasing the strange process of being a victim. After I wrote that piece, I made some real decisions in my life about who to be around, what to say to people, what things were not healthy for me anymore, regardless of how attractive they might be. I stopped smoking weed. There were some personal decisions I made, like not taking certain types of jobs anymore.
“The funniest thing is that I was like, And I’m prepared to be alone, and then right when I made that decision, I was visited by the man who I will now marry. He was just a friend, I didn’t really know him very well, but he was nearby and we had been in touch, and he came to visit me on Martha’s Vineyard. At the time I was committed to this thing of dressing monochromatically because I felt this feeling of Ugh, there’s so many colors swirling around in my mind, like I cannot keep dressing in three different prints of silk every day—I’m too overstimulated, I need to chill. I was wearing a monochromatic outfit when I picked him up from the ferry, and I had cut my hair very short. It never crossed my mind what he would think about me. I was very focused on making him feel comfortable—not placating him—asking him questions, engaging, showing him that I was thankful for his visit because he was like, visiting me just for friendship. When he left, I had this feeling—it wasn’t that he’s handsome and he’s very smart—but I saw something about myself when I was with him. I liked myself, and he engaged with me in a way that I hadn’t really engaged with anyone else before. So I wrote to him and said, I would really like to see you again, and two weeks later I finished my book and I went to go visit him, and then I just never left [laughs].”
What piece of advice would you give your younger self?
“It’s always worth it to make sure that you feel safe. When I feel safe, I am the most productive and there’s just less garbage. When I was younger, I made a lot of compromises in that area, and I did it professionally. It never crossed my mind that I don’t feel good in this environment—I used to think, Sure, I don’t feel good, but there’s a greater reward.
“I also wish that I had understood that there truly is enough space. Women are set against each other. No one is ever going to be in my place—just like there’s no one like you, there’s no one like me. So unless you want to be a bikini model, I’m sure there isn’t enough space in that industry—but if you just want to be an artist, chef, doctor, or whatever, there’s space for you if you do your work and you’re kind.”
Switching gears, because we are shooting a fashion editorial, is there a specific ’90s or 2000s trend you remember really dedicating yourself to or loving?
“I had patent leather Sketchers, and I begged for them. I had a lot of baby tees, ringer tees; I was fully into the plastic baby clips, I had butterfly clips. I just tried to look like Gwen Stefani. I wanted to look like Cher from Clueless. Then I wanted to look like Fiona Apple. I never was like, full-on grunge; I always had a bit of hip-hop in me. I was girly, but I wanted to be like TLC, and I loved Brandy.”
Did your family subject you to the whole yearly family portrait thing?
“No, not at all. That’s why I kind of love stuff like this. We didn’t do any of that sort of American stuff—we didn’t get to watch a lot of TV, we didn’t have potato chips. Now I’m obsessed with potato chips and soda, it’ll never be over for me.”
How do these looks make you feel?
“These looks make me feel very important; they make me feel like it would just be so inappropriate for you to ever get in my way. I’ve just completely got both hands on the wheel, like a leader.”