Watching Jenny Slate nail the role of the endearingly flailing twentysomething/aspiring stand-up Donna Stern in Obvious Child (out now), you'd be forgiven for thinking the actress has a lot in common with her character IRL. But one look at Slate's bona fides -- recurring roles on Parks & Rec and Kroll Show and a season SNL -- and it's clear that, unlike Donna, she's really got her act together. Here, we talk to Slate about poop humor, puberty, and her dad's 'Wang' nightgown.
How did you first start acting?
Stand-up is actually how I got into it. I didn't want to move to L.A. There are so many acting classes that are scams out there -- it's like, "If you sign up for this class, you'll meet a casting director." They all seemed crazy and I felt like I'd be lost out there. So Gabe [Liedman], my best friend, and I started doing stand-up, which seemed like the best way to perform. So, yeah, I've been doing it since I was 22. I used to perform four times a week in New York but now that I finally do live in L.A. and I work more, it's a little bit harder.
Did you ever make any huge or embarrassing mistakes in your twenties like your character Donna?
I've had a lot of drunken nights but I've never had an experience like Donna did bringing home a guy in a dorky way. I'm a serial monogamist. Since I could have a boyfriend, I've always just wanted to have a boyfriend. But in my 20s, the most regrettable things were the dumb jobs I did. There are jobs, like those Vh1 panel shows, that I look back on and I'm like, "Oh god, that was not good."
Why is that?
It's because you have people telling you what to say. They don't trust you or don't know you well enough to let you do your own jokes. I'm sure there are some people allowed to do their own jokes but when I was there, I was just saying whatever they told me to say and I didn't know enough to be like, 'That's not funny. I don't want to say that.' The things I regret most are any jokes that are pure snark. I don't think straight-up snark is funny and I don't love it when people go for low-hanging fruit in comedy. It sucks to make fun of people who are already down and out. I remember when I was doing it, it was when Britney Spears had shaved her head and when all of those actresses showed their pussies by mistake.
Like in 2007.
Yea. It was so weird and suddenly like, 'Everyone's vagina is here! Here they all are! No one is wearing underwear!' Recounting that time when everyone's vagina was out is funny but sitting there at the time and having someone who isn't a comedian telling you to make a joke about how Britney Spear's naked vagina looks is really regrettable and horrible and not something one woman should do to another woman. Especially when I look back on it and realize that she was on the verge of, like, a nervous breakdown. Those thing kill me. It makes me feel like shit. It's not like I wake up every day and perform a crazy self-flagellation for doing those things but I hate being known for them and don't like that they're plastered all over my IMDB page.
How would you describe the types of jokes and humor you gravitate towards?
I think the perfect stand-up set for me is when people laugh but also feel a little bit like I was in their head. In a good way. My vibe is very much to not make fun of people.
You're a nice comic.
I think so. But maybe not so nice to myself. I'm always teetering between self-love and self-punishment. I love anything that reminds people that I'm alive in the most vacant sense. I just think anything to do with the body and its functions are both really funny and really mysterious. I think poop humor is kind of a delicate art. You have to do it with finesse. There's a million different ways to make a fart noise and some of them are funny and some of them aren't.
Are there any topics that you find yourself returning to again and again?
I didn't hit puberty until I was, like, 17 so I love to talk about that -- how before you hit puberty, you have this growing, really urgent sense of horniness. I've had that since I was really young and it's just built and built and built. I feel now, even as a married woman, I feel a real grabbiness about sex and boobs and about being able to French kiss. There was such a long time where I knew I didn't have anybody to kiss. That killed me. I was so horny and lonely for so long. I could get up onstage and talk about that for three hours. It's not painful but it clearly made a mark.
I like to talk about my parents and my childhood. Both of them are artists and really interesting, unique people. The stories from my childhood don't need to be zhushed up at all. I talk a lot about how for much of my childhood, my dad slept in a long nightown type of thing. Also my mom is a Raku potter, which means that part of the process of making the pottery is taking the porcelain pottery she's made and wrapping it in newspaper and setting it on fire in a barrel, which is illegal. She would do it in the woods near our house so nobody would see it but she caught the woods on fire so many times. My parents would have to run outside in the middle of the night with buckets, both throwing out their shoulders trying to put the fire out.
So my parents decided to make a pottery studio in the attic but they got into a fight with our contractor and a hole in the roof never got fixed and all these bats from the woods would fly in and wake my sisters and I up and freak us out. My dad would come out in his nightgown with an old Great Gatsby-style tennis racquet and swat the bats against the walls of our house. And my dad's nightgown said 'Wang' on it because that was the name of the computer company he worked at in the early '80s and would get covered in bat blood. These were just things I was used to. I was like, 'Yeah, my dad sleeps in a long, bloody nightgown that says 'Wang' on it. What does your dad sleep in?' Eventually my mom made my dad's nightgown into a rag and he was so devastated. We tried to replace it but he was like, 'Nothing will ever replace my Wang.' It was just so sad.
Obvious Child is out now.