Laugh Track: Jenny Slate's Winding Road From 'SNL' to 'Obvious Child'

Having survived an infamous on-air gaffe, the actress finally gets her star turn in Gillian Robespierre's provocative new comedy

Jenny Slate
Jill Greenberg, Courtesy of A24
June 2, 2014 9:00 AM ET

Jenny Slate displays an unusually high tolerance for embarrassment. During an outdoor film screening in Brooklyn on a recent Saturday night, the actress smiles calmly, seated among an audience watching her run a gauntlet of debasement on a big screen. She's pictured being brutally dumped, drinking her sorrows away in pajamas, dancing drunk and half-naked during a one-night stand, joking that her underwear looks like it crawled out of a tub of cream cheese, getting sloppy and humiliating herself onstage, taking a pregnancy test, fielding parental disdain, getting laid off, getting an abortion. Donna Stern, the struggling stand-up comedian she plays in Gillian Robespierre's snappy, understated new rom-com Obvious Child, is a mess. But if Slate is unsettled seeing herself in this light, you can't tell. She doesn't flinch.

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Slate has been forced to hone this poise for most of her working life, which has seen her go from a frustrating – maybe even disastrous – short-lived stint on Saturday Night Live to carrying one of 2014's most provocative indie films. But in person, she doesn't carry around any weariness. The morning after the screening, tucked into a chair at a restaurant in the East Village Standard in a sailor-stripe T-shirt and light-wash jeans, Slate is tiny and tidy and perky and glowing – not the sort of woman you'd expect to easily slip into the role of a whiny blabbermouth who chugs a whole bottle of wine and sports perennially crusty underwear. Even her Donna-isms are graceful and well played.

"I'm in a terrible moment where I have to choose between a green juice and a Bloody Mary," she says. The waiter informs her that New York State forbids its residents from drinking before noon at a restaurant, which sends her into shock: "Is this an intervention?" she asks. "I mean, it can't be true. I've done it so many times!"

Maybe her memory of the city's rules is growing a little fuzzy. After nearly a decade and a half living in New York – she grew up in Massachusetts and got her undergraduate degree at Columbia – Slate decamped for Los Angeles a couple of years ago with her now-husband, director Dean Fleischer-Camp. Unlike Donna's, Slate's love life is more like something from a winsome romance. Seven years ago, after a stretch of platonic hangouts, the two shared a first kiss outside of a Williamsburg bar – in the rain – and Fleischer-Camp moved in with Slate just months later. The pair eventually teamed up to create the YouTube-viral Marcel the Shell With Shoes On, which finds Slate voicing a charming little mollusk. ("Guess what I wear as a hat? A lentil," squeaks Marcel.) In the fall, Slate and Fleischer-Camp will release a second installment of a picture book based on Marcel.

Only now, at 32, is Slate's career beginning to move into something resembling a steady upward trajectory. After that single unsuccessful 2009-2010 season on Saturday Night Live – her first real gig – she was cut from the show, and spent the next few years rebuilding her career with a scattered collection of small, diverse roles on the likes of Parks and Recreation and Kroll Show. Obvious Child, a movie that's been characterized as an "abortion comedy," represents her biggest and best work yet. If you're susceptible to career-redemption narratives, Slate's is a good one. 

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After she's denied the Bloody Mary option, Slate rejects the juice, too, and settles for coffee and poached eggs. She's chatty, and quick to offer information most would be inclined to keep secret – like how she "guilt-tripped" her high school classmates into voting for her as class president instead of the "cool arty pothead girl." Or the theory she has that her unfulfilled teenage horniness made her who she is today. Or the fact that her grandmother helped pay for her nice Cobble Hill, Brooklyn apartment when she was a struggling, jobless actress. Or the times she'd be hanging out with Fleischer-Camp and pretend to take the subway home before – despite her precarious finances – calling a town car to ferry her back to that nice Cobble Hill apartment in secret.

Slate doesn't really need to tell me about her SNL debut; she's already rehashed the story plenty. It was, from most angles, a waking nightmare. She first appeared in a sketch across Kristen Wiig, playing a rough-edged biker girl who peppered her sentences with the word "freakin'." That is, until she let "fuckin'" slip instead. Her eyes widened and her cheeks filled with air in knowing horror for a barely perceptible half-second as the live broadcast continued rolling, Wiig spouting the next line as though nothing had happened.

Slate kept performing on SNL that season, but her contract wasn't renewed. If the f-bomb incident hadn't happened, Slate might have been just one of those performers who passes through SNL and is quickly forgotten. Or if she had been kept on the show, the f-bomb incident might have been taken for what it was: an instance of an actress accidentally using a beloved expletive on late-television. But the unfortunate combination of the two has produced a rap sheet that can be reduced like so: actress royally screws up her big break, actress gets fired from America's foremost comedic institution, actress must repent and recover.

"[The biker sketch] kind of wasn't that big of a deal," remembers current SNL cast member Bobby Moynihan. "I don't even think we were fined. Within five minutes, everyone knew that no one was in trouble. It was more of just, 'Well, people will be talking about that for a long time.'" When Slate's contract wasn't renewed, he says, "It was pretty rough – you never want to see someone who's really great at what they do not be allowed to do that anymore."

Jenny Slate (left) and Kristen Wiig (right) in 'Saturday Night Live.'
Jenny Slate (left) and Kristen Wiig (right) in 'Saturday Night Live.'
Dana Edelson/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images

Current SNL cast member Nasim Pedrad, who joined the show at the same time Slate did, says there's a paranoia that permeates the performing and writing staff, a constant suspicion that contracts won't be renewed. "Especially that first year," Pedrad wrote in an e-mail, "As friendly as everyone can be and as much as you're consumed by the work, you still feel like a guest." 

"It's kind of like Vietnam rules over there," says Moynihan. "It's hard – once you first get there, you're told to write what you know and write what you love. But writing what you know and writing what you love doesn't get you on the show every week."

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Nearly five years removed from the ill-fated sketch, Slate views her SNL exit like a once-traumatic experience that she's since been able to fully process. She admits it makes sense that she was let go from the show, for reasons having nothing to do with running afoul of the FCC. "It takes a while to realize that just because you're a stand-up comedian and you do comedy, you're not going to be good at all comedy," she says. "It would have been hard for me to hear that at that point, because I would have received it as an insult: You're not correct. I didn't know about the choices I had as a performer at the time."

As it turns out, Slate had plenty of choices, some of which were less appealing than others. After a jobless, "scary" couple of months following SNL, her agent suggested she accept a role in 2011's Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked, which did not seem like a springboard to a fulfilling career. "But my agent was like, 'Do it. Get the money. Stop being stuck up about it. Do you really think P.T. Anderson is going to see this movie and decide that you suck?" Slate swallowed her pride and did the movie, which provided her with "exactly what I needed – a chance to get out of town."

Obvious Child was conceived about five years ago, when Robespierre decided she wanted to make a short depicting abortion in a sane way. "I wanted to find someone with both comedic and dramatic timing," says the director, who first learned of Slate at Big Terrific, the regular comedy show she hosted with her longtime close friend and fellow comic Gabe Liedman in Williamsburg. "And it was hard to find that actress for a short. Jenny had a very confessional style, and she was talking about stuff I could relate to, like dry humping furniture when you're little… And what it's like to be a woman."

This was 2009. Had Robespierre set out to make Obvious Child today, she'd have no shortage of examples of young comedic entertainers who've shown they know what it's like to be a woman, and that they can translate that experience into different sorts of palatable – and marketable – art. And she'd know exactly where to find them. If there's a single archetype to emerge from the last few years of social media chatter-fueled pop culture, it's the hapless, creative 20- or thirtysomething woman stumbling through bad sexual experiences, professional inertia, and small nervous breakdowns in a big city, and emerging on the other end with something like profundity in hand. It's Donna Stern, basically. 

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