“It’s OK to Be a Bit Sassy”: An Interview with Jenny Slate

by Dina Gachman

Back in January, Obvious Child premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, where it was immediately called one of the best films of the fest (it was). The film’s star, Jenny Slate, was also hailed as the newest, freshest rom-com star in years (she is). It was also called an “abortion comedy” and a “comedy about abortion,” which it sort of is, but it’s also much more than that. It’s about Donna, a 20-something struggling standup comic in New York who is dealing with a terrible breakup, an empty bank account, and — as if things weren’t rough enough — an unplanned pregnancy after a one-night stand. It all sounds very serious, but Slate and writer/director Gillian Robespierre have managed to make a hilarious, touching movie about a woman going through some tough emotional challenges. First and foremost it’s a romantic comedy, and despite what’s going on in Donna’s life it never strays from that, which is no easy feat to pull off.

The movie is based on a short film that Slate and Robespierre made a few years back, and it also stars Jake Lacy, Gaby Hoffman, Gabe Liedman, Polly Draper, and Richard Kind. They’re all great, and Slate — SNL alum, one-half of The Kroll Show’s PubLIZity duo, Mona-Lisa on Parks and Rec, Tammy on Bob’s Burgers — is a rom-com star you can relate to. She doesn’t wear designer clothes, live in a palatial home, or look perfect after a workout. She wears T-shirts, pees in the street, and casually stalks her ex-boyfriend. You know, normal stuff.

Slate has a new Marcel the Shell picture book coming out this fall, based on the squeaky, one-eyed snail who uses a raisin as a beanbag chair, created by Slate and her director husband Dean Fleischer-Camp. Right now, though, she’s got Obvious Child, which is an empowering, honest, and very funny movie.

Here’s Slate talking about why you should see it, what she loves about it, and why it’s much more than a comedy about abortion.

You’ve probably heard the term “abortion comedy” a thousand times in the last few months. It’s fitting in a way but it’s also a little reductive, so how would you describe the movie?

First of all, I appreciate any press about the movie. I want people to see it because I love it. I do think it’s more than a movie about abortion, though. In fact I think it’s a movie about one woman at a certain time in her life. It’s about her handling all the different moving pieces and going from a passive state to an active state. I would also just describe it as a very romantic, funny movie — it has all the satisfactions of a classic romantic comedy, but it’s plot points are just more modern and unique.

It seems like a tricky thing to balance the very funny moments with the more serious moments, like when Donna has her confessional standup scenes where she’s talking about very serious things, but trying to make people laugh at the same time. Was that a hard balance to strike?

I think so. We didn’t want to treat it so gingerly or treat it like it was so fragile and it would break and we didn’t want to be rough with it and seem glib or flippant or thoughtless about the situations that Donna goes through. I think people would agree that even in times that are more difficult humor can still be there, and just because there’s laughter doesn’t mean that there’s disrespect. It’s OK to put a toe over the line and be a bit sassy, and playing with those boundaries is OK, too. We weren’t jailed by them and weren’t afraid of being curious about how different situations could play out. In general, all the humor was coming from the point of view of one individual. Donna is never saying, “Hey ladies, isn’t everything like this…” She’s saying, “I’m me and I’m like this.” If people relate to it I think it’s maybe because even though she’s confident on stage, she’s confident in displaying a sort of vulnerability.

People who know you and your work might think, “That’s Jenny Slate up there on camera doing standup.” Did you separate your standup style from Donna’s at all? Did you do anything to try and differentiate the two?

I didn’t try to alter my standup style because that’s how I do standup. It’s sort of like a bodily function for me. That’s how I do standup, that’s how I dance, that’s how I kiss and that’s how I walk. All of those things are in the movie because that’s how I do them and I felt they shouldn’t be altered because I wanted it to be natural. It didn’t feel like cheating to me, in terms of acting. The standup itself is my style of standup, but the subject matter is in fact very different. It’s a delicate balance.

How is it different?

I don’t talk about my husband and our sex life in my standup. I talk about maybe what made me horny as a teenager or weird things that might make me horny now, but I’m never going to put my husband out there and make a meal out of him for everybody else. I’m not interested in that and I think I’m very careful in my standup about walking the line between showcasing myself and hurting myself. I don’t think anyone wants to see me being fully self-deprecating because I don’t think they really relate to that.

What do you think people relate to?

I think what people relate to is the good-natured ribbing that we can give ourselves in order to explore different things we’re curious about. I share that with Donna, for sure. But it was kind of confusing to do something that I usually do in earnest and in a sincere fashion that I do in my own standup and to do it as somebody else and tell stories that are not mine. It was a whole different thing. I think with the right amount of focus it came out OK, but it was tough.

Have you gotten any crazy reactions to the film from anti-abortion groups? Has anyone had a reaction that surprised you?

Nothing yet. We’ve been very lucky to have open-minded audiences, and I think because the film is about so much more than a woman who has an abortion, people tend to come up to us after and share their personal stories. But a lot of them are just romantic comedy fans that are happy to see a rom-com that stars a woman that might be in their neighborhood. I also tend to just focus on what I’m doing, and I’m not interested in being part of an argument, so I’m not going to seek it out. I am interested in being part of a useful conversation and I welcome anybody that wants to join that.

You Tweeted a photo of your grandmother’s pro-choice stickers recently, so what was her reaction to the movie? I’m guessing she likes it.

She has a kitchen bulletin board full of ‘I Stand Up for Planned Parenthood’ and ‘Keep Abortion Legal’ stickers. Those have been there for years; that’s just her thing. She’s just a really cool lady. In general I have a good group of women in my family who stand up for women’s rights and they’re feminists of all different ages. She loved the movie.

This is what my 86 year old grandmother has on her kitchen bulletin board. #BeautifulPerson pic.twitter.com/ovWEjwOBKo

— jenny slate (@jennyslate) June 1, 2014

When did you know you wanted to be on stage? What or who has inspired you creatively along the way?

I’ve always wanted to be an actress since I was very young. I was really influenced by people like Madeline Kahn and Lily Tomlin and Ruth Gordon and Gilda Radner — actresses that could not be replaced by anyone else. They had their own thing and their own sense of style, and individuality was the first and foremost thing [for them]. They had confidence and an acceptance of whatever their sexuality was and of their womanhood, and that pumped me up. I really liked that. And as a teenager I really loved Margaret Atwood.

We’ve got Maleficent, there’s a big budget Tom Cruise movie coming out — why should people check out Obvious Child instead?

There’s nothing like Obvious Child that’s coming out right now. It’s a small, homemade narrative. It doesn’t have any explosions in it but it has a lot of great jokes and it has a true beating heart. I think it’s the coolest, most authentic thing you’re going to see. But then again, I’m in it.

Obvious Child opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday.

Dina Gachman is a writer in Los Angeles. Look out for her first book, Brokenomics, coming from Seal Press in spring 2015. She’s on Twitter @TheElf26.