Today, Slate is dominating the same medium that propagated her life-changing professional and personal embarrassment. Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is an extraordinarily likeable "meta-documentary" short starring a diminutive, self-conscious mollusk forced to adapt to human scale. The film stands tall among the defenses of YouTube-driven viral video's artistic and cultural merit, and possesses a rare power to lift the mood of anyone who views it, despite its undercurrent of sadness. Also, it's profanity-free.
Jenny and her director-boyfriend Dean Fleischer-Camp came up with Marcel shortly after she finished that ill-fated SNL season, at a point in her career when Jenny admits she was unsure of her footing—although she didn't know at the time she wouldn't be returning to the show for a second season. "I just wanted to do something that I didn't have to explain," she told me over the phone from Vancouver, where she was filming Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chip-wrecked. "I think we're lucky that it's popular, being what it is."
Marcel grew around a voice that Jenny started using while sharing a crowded hotel room with a group of friends who had traveled together for a wedding. In an interview for the blog A Bostonian on Film, Fleischer-Camp said that at the time, "I think we both felt very small and lonely and unfulfilled and like we weren't getting our due credit."
Marcel the Shell with Shoes On—which now has over nine million views on YouTube—earned Slate and Fleischer-Camp a two-book deal with Razorbill, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group. The first book, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On: Things About Me, will be published on November 1st of this year.
When asked about the career-changing SNL flub, Jenny is forthright about how much it disturbed her. "I wrote that sketch. I wonder if it was something that I subconsciously did to myself. I am eternally confused by it," she said. "I don't like to make mistakes."
In that show, Dead Millionaire, which ran for a year at the Upright Citizens Brigade theater, Jenny inhabited a version of herself (along with supporting characters) who reflects on her life at her "funeral party" and wonders what will come of the $300 million she has left to her dog. "A lot of one-woman shows can be so douchey," Slate said. "I wanted mine to be interesting, not shitty." An SNL scout came to the show one Thursday, didn't think it was shitty, and the next Thursday Jenny was auditioning.
"My experience at SNL completely shapes where I am now. I can choose my career path. But I will never have a job like that again," Slate said. "I could not imagine myself without it. But the compromise that you make is that the show is your life."
Despite some memorable characters and sketches on SNL, Slate never really gained traction on a show where writers and performers are pitted against each other to get their sketches into a given episode. But Jenny doesn't feel that her slip-up affected that hyper-competitive dynamic in any meaningful way: "I was so embarrassed, but everyone was really comforting to me."
Although the circumstances of her eventual firing were less than comfortable—she first learned about it on a blog—she has nothing negative to say about the man who pulled the plug on a lifelong dream. "Lorne [Michaels] will always be my favorite person on SNL," Jenny said. "He's this really powerful god-dad. If you can make him laugh it's really fulfilling."
Fleischer-Camp is less diplomatic. "I was relieved when she wasn't renewed. [SNL] is exactly the creaky old ship you imagine it to be. There's hardly anything fresh or energetic or youthful or progressive going on over there, and it's not for lack of talent. There are a lot of really wonderful writers and performers on that show, but none of them are doing anything interesting because it seems like risk-taking is looked down upon... I don't think Lorne Michaels would cast Gilda Radner these days."
Although Jenny considers herself to have gotten a late start in her acting career, it's something she has imagined for herself since she was a girl growing up in Milton, Massachusetts. "I didn't want to be a child actress," she insisted. "I wanted to be a lady actress." (Also, her parents—with whom she has a very close relationship—wouldn't have permitted her to pursue an acting career at a young age). So Jenny "put it away like a collection of handkerchiefs with my name on them."
And she put her energy into her schoolwork, eventually graduating at the top of her class from the prestigious Milton Academy and enrolling at Columbia. "I've always been academically oriented," she said. Jenny recalls having her confidence shaken, though, by a mean-spirited second-grade teacher, Mrs. Fenstemacher: "The only adult I can safely say caused trauma for me."
Somewhere along the way, Slate came to believe she wasn't pretty. A regular theme in her performances is a wish that people might not immediately recognize her as being Jewish (she is). At a show in April, she and Gabe took aim at the television show Game of Thrones, incredulous that it could be classified as "fantasy" by anyone's definition. The bit prompted Jenny to describe what she considers to be a real fantasy: As she's about to sign the contract on a three-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn Heights, some unidentified people burst through the door proclaiming "We were wrong! You actually got a 1600 on your SATs," followed by a murmur of "Is she Jewish? You can't really tell by looking at her."
Jenny Slate: Self Esteem is Jenny and Dean's most recent collaboration: an experimental, genre-defying film project that is best summarized in the director's own words. "It's just footage of Jenny going about her day while three unnamed people (in a voiceover) praise her every move," Fleisher-Camp said in the Bostonian interview. "I guess the conceit is that it's a video Jenny might have hired some company to make to help her with her self-esteem, and these voices are just saying exactly what Jenny wishes strangers would say about her if they saw her across the room."
"It started as a fantasy that I have had since I was a teenager," Slate said in an email, "That people who â€˜matter' would be watching a live feed of me in my house, just doing whatever, and that they would just NEED to see me, that they would find it SO INTERESTING, and that they would talk about me to each other in a positive way. But then when we started talking, it became a mix of honest things and ridiculous things that I should be embarrassed about wanting."
The reception of Self Esteem has been mixed. When screened at an art gallery, the audience found it hilarious. But when it was shown at Big Terrific—a weekly show Slate co-hosts with Liedman and Max Silvestri in Williamsburg—Fleischer-Camp insisted that it "bombed" (although I would disagree). "Maybe it's not the kind of thing people really laugh out loud about, even if they love it. Too arty for a comedy show, too funny for an art show? If that's what we've created, I don't mind."
Whatever it is that they've created, it perfectly demonstrates Jenny's awareness of her own motivations and her understanding of the latitude acknowledging them offers her. Rather than trying to walk the tightrope between insecurity and narcissism, she allows them both to fuel her act. This kind of thing has been done before—Kathy Griffin comes to mind—but it hasn't been done in quite this way, or by someone as youthful and promising and sought-after as Jenny. "I'm still trying to get my head around my self esteem. I think it's either really good, or it's terrible and psycho. I just literally can't tell sometimes, but I'm a happy girl, so maybe it's normal?"
As is often the case with talented, multifaceted, and hungry performers, it's difficult to pinpoint where the act ends and the "real" person begins. It's something Slate seems to be conscious of herself. "I don't want to be eaten by my goals," she said. "I want to learn how to be a good person and a good adult." It is important to Slate that she is known as a kind, considerate person—her Twitter bio includes the assurance: "I can promise to almost never hurt your feelings." It's not an empty promise: Jenny is cognizant of everyone's comfort level around her, and thoughtful to the point of neurosis. Weeks after she made a justified and far from incendiary observation about the place of female comics in Hollywood—prompted by a discussion of the Judd Apatow film Funny People—she was worried that it might have come across as too critical. "I don't want to shit on anyone," she said.
Jenny was open about her disappointment at not being cast in the much-anticipated HBO series Apatow is producing for Lena Dunham, with whom she has become friendly, and whose talent she effusively admires. (She was also passed over for the role given to Kristen Schaal—another friend of hers—in Dinner With Schmucks.) Slate has a few new projects on the go, including work on a CGI adaptation of The Lorax, and she's always looking for more: "I audition all the time."
Slate is not the kind of actress who will come in and take over someone else's vision. "I want to be directed," she said over dinner at Buttermilk Channel in Carroll Gardens, where she is a regular and popular with the staff. Perhaps this is a function of her having created and performed her own material for so much of her early career. During a segment at a Big Terrific show in April, Jenny mocked the improvisational component of the audition process—specifically when an actor is encouraged to "play with it." "I hate when they say that," she complained, laughing. "You play with it!"
Although she is polite about it, Jenny is clearly not a fan of Los Angeles. "I never wanted to be thrown into a cattle call experience," she explained. While being based in New York might not offer quite as many opportunities for work as Hollywood could, Slate wouldn't have it any other way. "I will do it on my own terms, even if I have ups and downs." In 2009, Jenny took a role on one of the few television shows that are shot in New York, HBO's Bored to Death—as Jonathan's (Jason Schwartzman) love interest, Stella. Slate appeared on five of the show's (better) episodes, and was an audience favorite.
When describing her "dream job" of hosting a TV variety show in the style of The Carol Burnett Show, Jenny said she would want Schwartzman to be the first guest. "It's because of him that I have an agent," she said. "He and his wife Brady are two of the most special friends I have in my life."
Jenny Slate is not a private person. She is perfectly comfortable—even eager—to share intimate, ostensibly embarrassing details about her life. She's a "sleep eater," and had to stop buying pudding cups after too many instances of waking up with them in her bed. She recounted a time she was so taken aback by the magnitude of her own fart that she wet herself in alarm and laughter. When a dress she was to be photographed in proved to be see-through, she assured the crew it was no problem, since she'd had a bikini wax that morning.
One gets the sense that Slate is aware of her power to disarm. It is not a question of sincerity—her kind of candor can't be learned—but there's an understanding that she is the center of attention and that she'll be the one to set the mood. She is unfailingly polite, punctual and gracious—it is from this platform of decorum that Jenny dives headlong into a raunchiness that sometimes flirts with Sarah Silverman territory, but without the alienating sense that she is aiming to shock. Rather, Jenny just wants to be free to say "pussy" and make fart jokes and wear her need for validation on her sleeve. And she wants everyone else to have the same freedoms.
Jenny is more famous than her two life partners, and while neither could be accused of hanging on—both are talented and successful outside of projects with Slate—Fleischer-Camp and Liedman seem content to let her lead. Gabe and Jenny share an equal amount of dialogue and (deserved) laughs when they are onstage together, but it's Jenny who drives the narrative, with Gabe acting as something of a piercingly funny chorus. And while Jenny is almost always looking out at the audience, Liedman's gaze is more often turned subtly in her direction.
"I'd never met anyone who made me laugh, every single thing she said," Gabe said of first making Jenny's acquaintance at Columbia. "I was just like: I need her. I need her in my life; she's perfect. We were really fast friends, kind of obsessed with each other, but not in a bad way, I don't think. Just lucky!"
Slate moved to Brooklyn in the summer of 2004, just after graduating. Although most of her friends (including Liedman) headed to Fort Greene, she chose Carroll Gardens, in part because of its abundance of "old people and dogs."
"I get really lonely, really easily...I like to be surrounded by as much life as possible." During her first summer in Brooklyn, Jenny took a job at Sweet Melissa Patisserie. "I ate everything," she said. "And I smoked too much pot." In the warmer months, Jenny visits Cobble Hill Park every day, occasionally stopping to buy a single balloon at Pizzazz Kids on Court Street. "I love balloons. I always get a red one; I love to walk around with it," she said. (But she never admits to the store clerks that the balloon is for her own use.)
"In terms of â€˜having arrived,' I don't know if I'll ever feel that way, nor do I want to, I think. I like the ascent, I like hoping, and I like building," Jenny said. "I guess the one clear point where I was like, â€˜Ok, here we go,' was when I signed with my agents at William Morris... Dean says that I am way too personal with the people who are supposed to be in the â€˜business' area of my life, but I can't help it. I love performing more than anything, and I truly love my agents because they are the people who help me.
"Sometimes I daydream about bringing my agents to my childhood home and showing them my old bedroom, and conducting a career planning meeting in there, in my most personal place, the place where I would daydream about being an actress."