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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.”