Everyone has their own personal YouTube Hall of Fame—the fragments of ephemera they return to over and over, in times of boredom and/or desperate need. The lineup is as individual as a fingerprint, revealing something deeply personal about what entertains and soothes us.
This is the first entry in mine:
It’s a classic Talk Show Story, a perfect four-minute distillation of someone’s unique charisma. In a conversation with Seth Meyers, actress and comedian Jenny Slate narrates a mishap from her college days. The narrative is simple enough: Slate got too stoned for her evening astronomy class, hilarity ensued. The magic is in the telling. Slate has a bubbly, voluble presence; words spill out of her mouth in an unstoppable rush, even when they’re carefully rehearsed. She breaks into song (“I realized that marijuana was my soulmate—like, YUH-YUH-YUH-YUH-UUH-UUH-YUH-UUH-UUH”). She shakes her head and blinks her eyes, a motion that gets as much of a laugh as anything she actually says. She punctuates herself with quotable asides (“What that seems is COOL”). It’s the kind of bit you don’t just revisit—you lip-sync.
The clip is from 2014, when Slate was promoting Sundance indie turned early A24 success Obvious Child, an abortion rom-com and rare-but-welcome use of Slate as a full-on leading lady. Five years later, though, it serves as a useful primer for Stage Fright, Slate’s new stand-up special for Netflix, and only partly because the hour is Slate’s most prominent billing since her character got knocked up to that namesake Paul Simon song. Stage Fright accurately channels the paradoxes of Slate’s persona: a voice that alternates between raspy and squeaky, lending itself to animated roles like the dorky fanfic enthusiast she plays on Big Mouth; material that’s by turns writerly (barre classes “sculpt your clit into an ancient arrowhead”) and nonverbal, using screams as effectively as words; a sensibility that’s both childlike and frankly sexual, culminating in a story about masturbating to the moon. A half-decade has passed since the astronomy story, but the daffy charm remains the same.
Directed by Obvious Child auteur Gillian Robespierre and recorded at New York’s Gramercy Theatre, Stage Fright is a head-on look at a performer most audiences know through oblique glimpses: a brief stint on Saturday Night Live, a decade-old job that still frames her entire career; supporting roles in everything from Parks and Rec to, hilariously, Venom; occasional forays into tabloid headlines due less to her own celebrity than that of the superior Hollywood Chris (fight me), her most well-known ex. But Stage Fright inaugurates a high season for Slate, bookended by the November 5 release of Little Weirds—an essay collection that, like Slate herself, both is and isn’t part of the playbook for comic actresses in their late 30s. How many femoirs set the tone by declaring, “I am actually a homemade Parisian croissant … Pair me with jam”? From the MCU to TMZ, Slate has weaved her way through a system that prizes homogeneity, though her idiosyncrasies remain firmly intact.
For some of us, this moment has been a long time coming. It’s impossible for me to write about Slate without a litany of disclaimers explaining my personal investment in her fortunes. I happened to catch Slate’s one-woman show, a Westing Game–style story of a deceased millionairess and her eccentric lawyer, at UCB mere weeks before she was cast on SNL; we’re both upper-middle-class Jews who followed the rules in high school and then broke stoner in college—the same college, even. My admittedly one-sided connection to Slate’s work is a deeply specific one, but it’s also representative of the audience proxy relationship between Slate and her neurotic-hipster core demo, many of whom are employed by websites like this one. How else to explain the outpouring of enthusiasm for her year-and-change relationship with Captain America himself? To follow Slate closely is to feel like one of your friends has Trojan Horse-d her way into the entertainment industry without compromising any of her quirks. Her reflections on show business read like reports from the inside: “Everyone likes the women there to look long and lean and have the physique of Timothée Chalamet,” she marvels in the new special.
In Stage Fright, Robespierre and Slate seem to grasp the idea that we’re all interested in more than just Slate’s comedy. Straightforward footage of Slate monologuing into a microphone is interspersed with warmer, looser segments shot in her childhood home, a potentially haunted house in the Boston suburbs she and her father cowrote a book about in 2016. Interviews with Slate’s family, including both her grandmothers and sisters, cue up footage of her going through closets and childhood memorabilia. There’s a matriarchal feel to these conversations, and an accurate understanding that the audience wants to see the context that shaped Slate’s brain once it’s been treated to its contents. For most comics, an assumption like this would be hubristic; for Slate, it’s simply true. The special’s title comes not from her act, but an interview segment where she reflects on her own performance anxiety. “I don’t earn the love unless I give something beautiful that goes out,” she reflects. It’s not funny, but it is poignant.
Even though Slate got her start in the world of comedy, Stage Fright—her first special—comes well after she’s established herself in other avenues. Slate has done stand-up for more than a decade, coming up through New York alt venues like the now-defunct Rififi, where she met Robespierre and formed relationships with collaborators like Nick Kroll, who’d later feature her in staple Kroll Show sketches like “PubLIZity”; her long-running show Big Terrific, cohosted with Gabe Liedman and Max Silvestri since 2008, survives in occasional appearances at Los Angeles’s Largo. Still, she’s not really known as a stand-up. “I didn’t identify with the process that you had to go through in order to make a special, of perfecting the jokes and touring a lot,” Slate told Refinery29 earlier this month, by way of explaining why she’d never released one before. Slate doesn’t share the obsession with craft, polish, and repetition that marks some of her peers; in retrospect, it feels oddly fitting that the likely end of her time on SNL was an F-bomb blurted in the heat of the moment. Instead, stand-up feels like a convenient outlet for an energy that isn’t always best channeled through someone else’s vision.
It’s a strange irony that many bystanders’ perception of Slate’s spikiness is mediated through the smoothing filter that is the celebrity press. Slate’s relationship with Evans briefly launched her into a new echelon of fame, a strange interlude powerful enough to land news of Slate’s recent engagement to art curator Ben Shattuck in the pages of magazines like People. Mentioning Slate’s love life would feel prurient if she weren’t so open about it herself. A famous-in-some-circles New York profile of Slate contrasted the discretion of A-list stardom with the radical candor of her own disposition: “I’ve never, ever thought to keep anything private because that’s not really what I’m like, and now I’m learning those things, and they’re weird, kind of demented lessons to learn,” she told writer Jada Yuan. That she’s held on to her vulnerability regardless is a cornerstone of her appeal. In Stage Fright, Slate reflects on her experience with divorce from her first husband, as well as “learning the difference between solitude and abandonment” in her time as a single woman. As Slate is careful to remind us midway through the hour, “this is a performance.” But in her willingness to invite others into her romantic, family, and interior lives, Slate gives the distinct impression she’s not performing at all.