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

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And Donna Stern's spiritual sisters have been everywhere in recent years. There was Kristen Wiig as jilted cake entrepreneur, Annie Walker, in Bridesmaids. There was the fall of 2011, which found network TV presenting a spate of girl-centric shows like The New Girl, 2 Broke Girls, or Whitney. There was Greta Gerwig as a broke, klutzy dancer in Frances Ha, and before that, there was Greta Gerwig as the hopeless and jilted Lola in Lola Versus, a schtickier indie rom-com. Today, there are Ilana Glazer and Abby Jacobsen floating through New York in a cloud of weed smoke in the buddy comedy Broad City, Emily Mortimer and Dolly Wells attempting to reconcile friendship and business in L.A. in the HBO mini-series Doll & Em, while Amy Schumer dissects modern femininity in surreally real sketches on Inside Amy Schumer. And there is, of course, Lena Dunham and Girls, a show so buzzworthy that discussion of the series has become its own form of entertainment.

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If it was merely a trend in 2011, the theme of flailing, complicated female characters in comedy has since metastasized into a bigger part of television and film. Rather than die out like a fad, it's become larger and more porous, allowing new sorts of female characters – although still exasperatingly white – to populate highly visible spaces. Now it simply feels like there are a lot more normal – that is, struggling, ambitious, lazy, imperfect-looking, successful, whatever – women depicted in entertainment than ever before, even if a big fuss is often made of the sheer fact that they're normal women. That Donna Stern is not a unique character in 2014 feels more like a triumph for entertainment at large rather than a failing of Obvious Child, despite what critics may say.

Obvious Child
Jenny Slate in 'Obvious Child.'
Chris Teague

"If there is a fatigue with that genre, then I think those people are idiots," Robespierre says. "There's some slight sexism in that idea. They don't say that about all the cop movies that come out. Or shows that take place in offices! They don't consider Modern Family and Parks and Rec and The Office the same thing."

"It's never going to make any sense to be sick of women," says Liedman, now a writer for Brooklyn Nine-Nine. "And it's an artistic compliment to be lumped in with Lena Dunham or the kind of shit or the kind of shit she's made really cool, because it is cool."

Not that Slate is all that concerned with what her peers are doing – or at least, not that she'll admit. Slate confesses that she's never watched Broad City, and that she's not caught up on recent episodes of Girls, even though she made a cameo in its first season. "I should be, but I'm not. I tend to watch things that aren't really the genre of my own work," she says. She's got more old-fashioned tastes, listing movies like the original You've Got Mail and Meet Me in St. Louis as favorites, and says she's interested in period pieces like A Month By the Lake or The Age of Innocence because she "really likes looking at how women have been costumed." Her engagement ring from Fleischer-Camp is an antique, a tiny yellow diamond set in a silver bow band from the 1930s. 

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When she considers the similarities, both aesthetic and thematic, between Obvious Child and shows like Girls or Broad City, Slate doesn't convey any frustration or concern that it'll be pigeonholed as part of a larger cultural trend. "We own our project," she says. "It's ours."

Slate also explains that "there's so much interference, so much static and people's voices talking about what you do and why you do it that I've learned to be like, no, no. It's actually simple. I just do this. There's not a giant eye looking down." Maybe that's a coping strategy she adopted years ago in the aftermath of her SNL misadventure, during which a lot of random, vocal spectators congealed into one giant, glaring eyethat seemed to imply: You failed, and now you're fucked. "I learned my lesson early in my career that it's not helpful to go and look at what other people's opinions are," she says, sounding gently defiant.

To many viewers, Obvious Child will feel familiar. It'll probably draw the same sorts of audiences who watch Broad City and Inside Amy Schumer and live in young, urban neighborhoods. But that insular familiarity belies the true radicalism of the film, which tackles abortion in an unprecedented way. For one, Slate's character actually goes through with the procedure, which is virtually unheard of in film or television. Even in the most boundary-pushing popular art, abortion is kept at arm's length. Katherine Heigl's character in the Judd Apatow film Knocked Up barely considers the procedure after getting pregnant by a stranger she has drunken sex with. Miranda from Sex and the City schedules an abortion, but winds up changing her mind and having the baby (and eventually marrying the father). And Jessa from Girls – widely beloved for her brazen, no-fucks-given approach to life – is spared the procedure at the last second by the show's writers. Obvious Child is a sharp reminder that even commonplace female experiences like abortions are still categorically off-limits in Hollywood.

But even more novel is the way Obvious Child handles the idea of abortion: not as an earth-shattering event that permanently derails a woman's path in life, but as a decision that's a bit unsettling, a bit inconvenient, often necessary – and occasionally funny. "You're going to kill it," Stern's best friend Nellie (played by Gaby Hoffman, who, yes, is also on Girls) tells her before a stand-up set the night before her procedure is scheduled. "Tomorrow I am," Stern cracks, and the two unravel in sheepish giggles. There's no hand-wringing, no overt politics. The abortion is just a thing – one of many things – that happens in Donna's life.

"Our film is not an agenda movie in any way," Slate says. "The whole point is that women have this procedure, and they should have it safely, and it's a part of life. It doesn't have to be this giant obelisk sticking out."

Slate now talks about the SNL gaffe in a similar way. "I just don't get why it's such a big deal. People say horrible things on Fox News every day and they're socially irresponsible," she said in a recent podcast interview. At brunch, she has a simple, shruggy explanation for why things panned out the way they did on the show. "Looking back on it," she says, "I think I wasn't the right fit."

Maybe the bad fit, ultimately, helped facilitate Obvious Child and Slate's present-day coming out as a performer. It's a reintroduction, which isn't exactly her favorite thing. "Every time I extend my hand for a handshake," she admits, "there's a part of me that says, 'Please don't hurt me.'" But, she quickly adds, "I go to a lot of parties! It's not like I stay home."

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