Jenny Slate is perhaps best known for saying the F-word on Saturday Night Live—on her debut episode, no less. The sketch called for Jenny and castmate Kristen Wiig to use the word “freaking” anywhere in the dialogue that allowed for a modifier. At one point, Jenny said “fucking” instead. She recovered quickly, but her career on SNL couldn’t be saved. For those who missed the live airing in September 2009, or who wanted to watch it again, multiple clips of the flub quickly made the rounds on YouTube, with over two million views up so far.
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.”
Slate joined the cast of SNL in 2009 as a relative unknown outside of New York’s “underground” comedy scene, where she had become something of a darling. Jenny and her comedy partner (and real-life “nonsexual partner”) Gabe Liedman attracted a following with their Monday night show at Rififi, A Night with Gabe and Jenny. While Jenny appreciated the exposure the show brought them, she was eager to develop as an actress. “I wanted to explore doing more character [work],” she said. “I tried to write a show about a mall in Massachusetts, but it was horrible and I was really frustrated. I think that when I start to feel out of ideas, bored, or lonely, I start feeling like my life is soon to be over, I get really morbid and dramatic, probably just because I actually love life and I always want it to be zooming along. When it’s less than that, I can spaz out. So, I felt really lost and morbid, and that’s where the idea of having my one-lady show take place at my funeral began. I wanted it to be a funeral for myself, if I really had achieved crazy fame and wealth and become sort of adorably feral.”