A Standup Special, a Memoir, and a Career Spiraling Upwards
Jenny Slate yearns for your adoration. For the past decade and a half, she’s carved out an impressive career with both her distinct live-action and voice performances. In 2014, her performance in the abortion comedy Obvious Child even garnered her a handful of awards. Now at (as she’d say) thirty-blurp years old, she’s here to flaunt her talent and rock-solid sense of self, which she unveils via her two newest works, the Netflix comedy special Stage Fright and the book Little Weirds.
In 2010, when her twee stop-motion collab Marcel the Shell with Shoes On cutesied its way across the internet, the appeal of that particular project eluded me. But then, in 2013, when she popped up on Parks and Recreation as vacuous baby-woman Mona Lisa Saperstein, and as the other Liz on the PubLIZity segment of the under-adored Kroll Show, her appeal suddenly made all kinds of sense. In fact, these particular characters made such impact in my house that at least once a week, someone throws out a variation on one of her nasally joyful catchphrases. (Okay, usually it defaults to a Mona Lisa style “Moneeeeeey pleeeeeeeazzze!”)
It’s thrilling to watch Jenny Slate at work. She’s a ball of kinetic, upbeat, and painful self-awareness. She currently flexes her gifts to superb effect voicing Missy Foreman-Greenwald on Netflix’s bawdy, Emmy-nominated puberty cartoon Big Mouth. As the network preemptively greenlit six seasons of the show, and also won an Emmy for her cohort’s “John Mulaney: Kid Gorgeous at Radio City, it’s likely Netflix pinned some high hopes on Stage Fright. So did I.
Stage Fright opens with home video footage of Jenny as a mousy child at a violin recital, nervous, serious, and awkward, before revealing her today, resplendent in black satin, giggling, delighted, and in charge. As such, she invites us to viscerally experience her personal growth. She intimately shot the standup special in a compact venue, with Slate positioned in front of a red curtain à la The Muppet Show, nothing more than a stool at her side.
She wastes no time launching into a fit of giggles as she ponders the absurdities of our government, the pressure to be tiny in Hollywood, and masturbating in her haunted childhood home. She’s a millennial Martin Short, with a “like me please” aura that veers near the edge, but, at least here, that never crosses over into the terrain of too much. Her gift for mimicry shines through, too. When Slate vividly describes her Baba, the exact feel and form of the woman somehow take shape onstage even before the film cuts to actual footage of her.
However, if Stage Fright has a weakness, it’s in the way it erratically veers from the live stage performance to somewhat stilted home movie footage and docustyle interviews with the Slate clan at large. To watch Slate the stand-up lob her clever material into the crowd before leaning slightly back to breathe in the impending laughter is joy incarnate. She knows that she knows how to please, and she revels in it.
Juxtaposing comedic revelations with footage of the family hanging on the couch chit chatting is inherently less compelling. It’s an odd device that simultaneously pulls one in before pushing away. In an interview, Slate indicated that Hannah Gadsby’s acclaimed special inspired her to adhere less to traditional stand-up format and to take risks. By that measure, Stage Fright is a definitive success for its creator. I believe she made exactly the special she intended. As a viewer, though, it left me hankering for more onstage routine, less off-stage revelation.
Little Weirds is largely similar. If Brene Brown and Isabelle Allende cowrote a memoir in the afterglow of an ayahuasca trip, it might read much like this book. It visits many of the same themes as those addressed in Stage Fright, in a complementary way, and somehow also manages to be both revealing and obtuse.
As a book can’t cut away to interviews with other people, Slate instead tends to bury her vulnerable sentiments within rambling tales of animals, slams against the patriarchy, and myriad imaginings of her death. The writing is clever, and Slate’s observations about life, the weight of sadness, and the pressures of the world are quietly profound. I wish she’d found the courage to provide more of that, less of the cutaway, but also feel confident she’ll get there. It’s clear these works indicate a powerful surge forward for Jenny Slate, the artist. If she truly wants us to watch her and wonder what she could possibly do next, it’s a mission soundly achieved.