Jenny Slate and Sharon Van Etten Talk It Out
It's Nice to Laugh

Jenny Slate and Sharon Van Etten Talk It Out

Mutuals is a PAPER series dedicated to conversations between musicians and comics. They tend to be some of the most interesting people in the room and do very different yet remarkably similar things for a living. From navigating a stage persona, to the writing process, to their precarious industries, there's a lot to discuss. Plus, we realized they were all already hanging out.

They're the same age, but Jenny Slate and Sharon Van Etten's creative careers are at first glance pretty different. Van Etten is a touring musician and actress with a voice precisely tuned to heartbreak and yearning. Her screen appearances — on The OA, Twin Peaks and Eliza Hittman's delicate abortion drama Never Rarely Sometimes Always — hit hard in the same way.

Slate's stand-up routines and sketches, meanwhile, are raucously hilarious, with an emphasis on character work and improv. But she's always had a more sensitive and introspective side — one that's fed by long drives singing along to Van Etten's music, and wearing vintage nightgowns while feeling horny for the moon, as viewers may recall from her Netflix special Stage Fright.

The two women are friends and fans of each other, and share the poignant quar experience of having to postpone their weddings. Instead of celebrating, both have been holed up for months with their respective fiancés, trying to figure out what it means to make art while the world comes precariously close to ending. Van Etten released the standalone single "Beaten Down" earlier this year, and her Remind Me Tomorrow track "Seventeen" features in Lili Reinhart's new movie Chemical Hearts. Slate's currently working on a screenplay while taking the time to "make some really needed adjustments" after announcing she will no longer voice the biracial character of Missy on Big Mouth.

PAPER got them both on a Zoom call to talk about having difficult conversations with yourself, LA's pizza deficit, and how Ghostbusters doesn't translate in 2020.

Jenny: I'm going to use this conversation later to remind myself that anyone wants to speak with me. Where are you now, Sharon?

Sharon: I'm in Los Angeles. We moved here from New York last fall, officially.

Jenny: Oh, wow.

Sharon: Yeah, which is weird, 'cause we've been in New York for 15 years, but you know, we have a little one now who's three and we just wanted to slow down and spread out and try new things too. Where are you right now?

Jenny: I'm in a little town, kind of near Cape Cod — it's really not near Cape Cod. I don't really know why I say that. I feel like it's just like that's all that people know about Massachusetts, maybe, is that Cape Cod is here. I mean, they know other things. That's really rude. But whether or not you want to know about Massachusetts is really up to you, I don't recommend it or not recommend it. I live half the year in LA. Basically, the night before the lockdown in LA, we were like, "Should we leave? Should we go?" 'Cause we have a small space in LA and there's lots of land here. So we decided to come and try to be in the countryside and we drove across the country in three days.

Sharon: Woah. That's hardcore. Did you not sleep?

Jenny: We slept. We kind of joke about it, like we were on the lam or in a zombie movie, where they're like, "We have to keep moving."

Sharon: "We have no other choice."

Jenny: My emergency packing is so personal and so dysfunctional — I packed all of my fanciest coats, which I will never need, and a lot of lemons from the lemon trees, which also are not a car snack. And then we left at dawn, so it really did feel like one of those movies. The first night we made it to New Mexico and then we slept for maybe four or five hours, then just got up and did that again.

Sharon: Did you sleep in the car?

Jenny: We slept at a Fairfield Marriott. We would look on our map and be like, "What's 16 hours away?"

Sharon: We decided not to go yet just because we have a yard at least, and we're lucky that we're so close to the ocean here, but there's the sense of the apocalypse right now that I keep at bay.

Jenny: Yeah. I feel it too. I don't know about you, but I can do my job a little bit. There's some voiceover work I'm still doing, and I'm trying to write a bit, but any thoughts that are appropriate for standup, I have them and I don't know what to do with them. Is your daily life that you play music no matter what? That's what I imagine, but I actually don't really know what it's like to be a musician.

Sharon: I think it's similar creatively. I feel like I have days where I'm really productive. I was supposed to be off March and then I was going to tour in April and for part of the summer and I was going to get married in April and all the shit. So in the garage, there's a studio where I have a place to work, which is nice because that was something I didn't really have in New York where I had a space that was mine. So that's helped me start to get into a routine, somewhat. But then after a month, I was just like, "What am I writing about right now? And how important is this right now?" And then as the quarantine and isolation continued, I was coming to terms with all that, then Black Lives Matter and all the protests stepped into my isolation and made me open my eyes a bit more about what, on top of what I'm already feeling, other people are feeling and what other people are experiencing and how they are interacting with the world. Everything I'm doing is so unimportant right now. Anything I have to say right now, it doesn't matter. And I know that's an extreme, but I'm also just putting things on hold that I would normally share. In the meantime, I started taking online classes at Pasadena City College.

Jenny: Oh, cool!

Sharon: I'm taking a philosophy class, sociology class. One of my long term goals is to become a therapist, and so I'm working towards my undergrad. 'Cause I never got a degree, and it just seems timely. So I'm balancing the mom, the writing, and trying to do online classes right now. But I don't know if I'm doing any of that well.

Jenny: That seems like a dream. And you have an honest encounter with the necessary disruptions and changes that are happening and how that affects you and how it affects you as someone that speaks out loud. I've been thinking a lot about that too. Does anyone really need to hear from me about my feelings? My book or my stand-up, it's really about my feelings, and I think it hasn't felt very appropriate to do anything but learn right now.

Sharon: You don't seem like the kind of person that gets bored — I feel like you pivot in mediums.

Jenny: I do get so bored though. I get really bored. I'm not a workaholic in any way. In fact, I think of myself as quite lazy, which is not like a nice thing to say, I wish I hadn't put it that way, but I do think I spend a lot of time just gazing at nothing.

Sharon: Thinking! You're thinking.

Jenny: Yeah. A lot of the past few years of my life have been trying to do constructive thinking and curiosity-based wanderings in my mind, rather than just worrying. I used to lose a lot of time to fear fantasies, and then I started to take that impulse and just put it into my work. We also were supposed to get married during this time, which is like a flat bummer. I don't know how you feel about it, but...

Sharon: There's people who are like, "I'm so sorry." I'm like, "Yeah, it sucks, but I don't want you all to die." I want it to be a celebration and I don't want people to come in fear. It was definitely sad, but we celebrated in our own way on that day. It's not like, "Okay, now we're doomed to never get married." I doubt that. There's just a lot of things that, of course, for the safety of everybody involved, these are the things we have to do and it's not ideal, but hang in there.

Jenny: I think, we had the same thing, we had a really nice day on the day that we were supposed to get married. It sounds so cheesy, but there was definitely a time when I thought I probably wouldn't ever get married again. And then when I met my fiancé, there were a lot of new feelings that I had never felt before. When he proposed to me, I was like, "Yeah, this is really what I've wanted all along." I would've married him after two weeks of being together, and that feeling does not diminish. It only grows. And I would love to celebrate it with a wedding and I get excited when I think about my vows and what I'll say to him, but I'm just sort of glad that I have him.

Sharon: It's not like we're not getting married so we don't have each other right now.

Jenny: Yeah, and we're still allowed to have sex, so.

Sharon: Gives us more time to write our vows.

Jenny: Yeah, that's it. I think the only thing for me is that I saw our wedding, which was supposed to be in June, as a way for my friends from Los Angeles to come and see where I live out here. But again, they'll be able to do that when we're not all terrified. At least not terrified of coronavirus — I'm sure we'll be afraid of something else.

Sharon: There's a lot to fix right now. I saw that you announced you're not going to do Missy [from Big Mouth] anymore. That must've been hard.

Jenny: It's hard when you're like, "Oh! Wow, I really didn't get it." The set of emotions when you realize, "Okay, I thought I was this progressive white person, and I was still taking all of these treats from the system of white supremacy and I didn't get it. I'm starting to get it, but I have to take action right now." And the real situation that I created where a biracial actress or a young biracial girl watching the show then sees that I play that character and is disheartened or worse. That's all hard. And also making sure that you're finding the right language to not make it about you or whatever when you say, "I'm not going to be here anymore." It is an important challenge to not defend yourself. All this shit you have to look out for. But once your beliefs are clarified, it's like, "Oh, shit."

Sharon: Have you talked to other writers about it and other voiceover actors about it? I mean, is it a conversation in your community right now? How is that happening?

Jenny: I think there's a major conversation about how much space and how many top jobs white people take, have and who the decision makers are. So that's happening. I think what first happened was a couple years ago, I was like, "Uh, I don't know, I'm not sure if I should play this character." But still then, I was wrongly, in a flawed way, able to reason. "Maybe I'm just being over-whatever about this." Missy is half-Jewish and white, so am I, isn't that...?

Which comes from a culture of white supremacy. Saying, "No, no, there are actually gray areas and you're free to take the whole space." And that area doesn't exist, it's not real, and I understand that now and I regret so much that I didn't. And that's my own fault, my own lack of investigation. Anyway, in the last couple of months, I also started to realize that I have to directly educate myself.

The conversation is just beginning. I did this one thing that I had to do, but there is so much that needs to change, and we're really not there. But the other thing I'll say is that you and I were supposed to have this conversation, our meet-up, a while ago. Whenever we were scheduled, over a month ago, I feel like we wouldn't have been talking about this. I think it's important to talk about it, but the thing that I am most uncomfortable with is the idea that I would have done this [interview] so that there could be a focus on me as a good liberal or something. A good white person. And that's where I feel uncomfortable. I have to get used to my own discomfort and tolerate it, but I don't want to put myself at the center of a thing. Or my actions at the center, when it's really about the issues. It's just a little weird to talk about it because I can imagine people being like, "Oh, she did that and now she's just talking about it."

Sharon: Right right, and I'm sorry if I made you uncomfortable by turning this on you; you handled it very well.

Jenny: No, no! Not at all! That's nice of you to say. It's important. I'm incapable of a short answer. That's not my strength. I think you have to be able to talk about it and figure out how to just stay with whatever makes you feel uncomfortable about it and be super honest about it all and keep moving forward. It's sort of how I want to do my personal relationships anyway, you know?

Sharon: You have to tackle the difficult things, and it will get uncomfortable. There's been a lot of things that are wrong that people have been sweeping under the carpet for a very long time. You know, even in a relationship, your lover can be so close to you and you can still get into really tough times that you just, if you don't address, then they'll fester and you won't be close to someone that you are in love with.

Jenny: I think that's so right. It's been really strange in this time to have this cultural upheaval and all of this stuff that feels so hard to see, and hard to see how the Trump administration is handling it and all this other stuff. There's stuff that can make a person feel so much despair, and there are also these moments that I'm having where I'm like, "The changes I need to make go from way out there to way inside of me. My behaviors are not just my behaviors at work, my beliefs out in the world, but the way in which I encounter conflict even in my most intimate relationships is still tinged with how I've had to be in the world." It's been nice to take this time to make some really needed adjustments.

Sharon: Absolutely. I mean it can be overwhelming, though. We're new to California, and I feel like we're very lucky to have this home and now we're both working from home and that's what we really wanted to do. He's in a little office in the back, and I'm in my little office in the back, and we're coexisting. We're seeing a lot more of each other in this little bubble. We're getting more into routines, we're talking more about what we're doing. But we are also communicating a lot more and going through all of these hurdles of, "Okay, so daycare? How do you go grocery shopping? Do we go to a protest?" We're talking everyday about what we are exposing ourselves and our child to. I don't know, if I was on tour or if he was in an office downtown, if we'd think about that on a different scale without COVID. I just think that we're finding our rhythm in a weird way in the chaos.

Jenny: It's just like, we're stuck in a room and suddenly you're looking at all this stuff. That's at least how it feels to me.

Sharon: Is your fiancé a creative?

Jenny: Yeah, he's an oil painter and a writer. So, he works from home, too. That's really nice, we do spend a lot of time together. We kind of always have. I don't think he feels like he gets too much of me, but maybe he wouldn't be able to tell me if he did. I don't know, we don't have kids yet, so we're chilling out. But we're not like, sitting here getting wasted or anything. He has a writing project, he's working on a book now; he's working really, really hard. In fact, to me, I'm not very productive right now, and I'm pretty down on it, I would say. I think all the time of the line from your song where you say, "I hate to admit it, but I don't know shit, and neither do you."

Sharon: [Laughs] Brilliant line.

Jenny: It is a brilliant line! I think of it a lot and sing it in the shower because it's something that I would only be able to spit out of my mouth after, like, a constriction in my chest because I feel so bad or scared. And it's made really beautiful and really bird-like, and I sometimes even imagine a bird on a tree on a branch. I do try to do that in my work, make these kind of moments like "I don't know what I'm doing" into something that can work or that is more than just okay.

Sharon: The act of acknowledging that you don't know is so important. There are days where I feel like I don't understand, but in acknowledging it, I'm trying to understand whatever it is I'm going through. I have days where I can't write and I can't focus and I think, especially right now, the worst thing you can do is be hard on yourself about it because everything is hard right now. When I can't write, I'll listen to music or I'll read and that is going to feed something that I write later. This plant that you're watering. I don't know your process, but whenever I'm working on something, regardless of what my intention was, I'll know when I need to stop because I'm destroying it at a certain point.

Jenny: I'm just discovering my process as a book writer, but it turns out to be, of course, because it comes from the same thing, very similar to my stand-up. Which is like, "Oh, I want to talk about that weird vacation that I took with my parents." I think the center of my process is allowing myself to wander, to really have a starting point. I really, really do not try to reel anything in and that feels really good. I've gotten better with performing because you have to make the date. It's just shitty to be like, "Sorry, I won't be there." I can have tremendous social anxiety, and sometimes not show up. But I'm getting better at showing up to an actual performance date, I really don't skip them anymore.

Sharon: You would skip? You would stay home?

Jenny: Yeah. I really haven't done it for a while, but sometimes a couple days before, I would be like, "I can't do it, dude." I mean, comedians are — it's not like I'm not showing up to a huge venue. It's usually a show that's pretty stacked anyway, but either way it's really bad behavior.

Sharon: Is that why they don't announce all the comedians? Because people bail all the time?

Jenny: Yeah.

Sharon: I don't know how that world works so much, but I used to go to Comedy Cellar all the time when I lived in the Village, and I always loved how they were like, "We're not announcing the lineup." But you just come because you know the club and you know it's going to be great either way. But I was always curious. I mean, how many clubs are you doing in a night? You go to more than one place in a night?

Jenny: I don't. I mean, I used to, but not anymore. I just don't care to. Also, I've never been to the Comedy Cellar; I was always too scared to go. And I mean, I've always in general done stand-up on my own terms, trying to balance being scared to do it and really, really wanting to do it and finding a way to do it. But usually, in LA I go to Largo and do a show there, and Flanny, the man that owns Largo, knows that, again I've gotten a lot better, but that there have been times where I just feel really depressed. I feel like I can't do it, and I'll be very honest with him and be like, "I've got nothing. I don't think I can do it." And he'll understand that, but he also pushes me to do shows. He texts me and is like, "I think it's time for you to get up again." And has been a mentor to me since I moved to LA eight years ago. One of the first shows he put me on and gave me a chance on was opening for Fiona Apple, and I was truly so frightened and wanted it so badly. Now I'm kind of of the opinion that, I don't know how you feel, but I'm not sure that comedy and music go together unless people really know. It's not a welcome surprise, often. It really isn't; if people want to sit down and listen to music, there's not a really easy mindset to get into. Part of watching a stand-up is the feeling of risk in the room, and if you don't want that, people can seem really nervous. That's my experience of doing comedy to open for a musician. Unless it's like, "Tonight it will be Jenny Slate and this musician!" I opened for Andrew Byrd, and that's like a beautiful, elegant, rich, soothing experience, and those people, they come for that. They come for his violin and his beautiful voice and his original music, and they're probably not expecting some lady to come up on stage and be like, "Anyway, my pants fell off and everyone saw my anus!" [Laughs]

Sharon: [Laughs] They didn't know they wanted to hear that. When we're thinking about booking bands together, similarly, we don't want to have two very similar bands playing. We think about something that will offset the other so it's not same-y. But now I'm nervous because Flanny asked me to play when John Mulaney and Nick Kroll were working on their Spirit Awards intro. They were hosting it, and they asked me to play and I was working on all these new songs and I was like, "Are you sure? I'll just come." But I felt like these people, the audience, didn't want to hear music in the middle of a comedy show. People just want to laugh, and my shit is like, not funny. I'm talking about break-ups and pregnancy while Trump is getting elected, I'm talking about my own personal dilemmas with settling down and losing my old self. Why would somebody want to sit down at a comedy club and hear that? I hear you.

Jenny: I mean, it's so funny, and it might just be that I love your music so much, and it is music that I listen to when I want to feel like myself. I drive around and I listen to you sing, and I think of myself as an optimist who also, inside of her, contains a weird, deep dark pool, and I need to feed both of those environments. There is sorrow in your music and it also has life force, and I like anything that says sad can go with alive. I do think that all of the things that you're saying are in your songs, are also in comedy. It is also what we're talking about, but it's just how you want to take it in. But again, maybe I'm just taking a hit at myself by saying that, because it doesn't seem weird to me that you would pair up with Mulaney and Kroll and be an interlude there and play your music. In fact, it just makes it cool to me.

Sharon: It's like DJing, how they'll go from genre to genre, different tempos. I think those emotional journeys, the roller coaster, can be fun. Like, "Okay, that was really heavy, now let's laugh it off. Now let's dance, now let's talk about literature or whatever." I think Flanny does pay attention to that when he books shows, he's sensitive and he's a great curator. But I think not everybody does that well.

Jenny: If the show is mine, and there is a musical guest coming, what I always hope for is to be able to compare myself to the musician. On my book tour, I had a harpist on stage with me, and the harpist would just play underneath while I was reading my pieces. I feel like the harp is really serious and really fancy, and I feel like people took me a little more seriously, too. Being like, "Yeah, I'm a total fart in the wind compared to this harp, but we're both here together."

Sharon: How was that book tour?

Jenny: It was so much fun.

Sharon: That was last year, right?

Jenny: It was in the fall, yeah. I had such a good time, and my fiancé, Ben, hosted most of the Q&As. I make a point of trying to be personal. I like to reveal myself, and I would like people to see the object of my affection onstage and watch us talk and have that extension of that. I think it's really nice. So we got to travel around and it was really dreamy, especially now that it came before these changes in the world. We would go to different cities, and I always have kind of the same pattern on tour; on the day of the show, something I've learned to do to curb my stage fright is I usually go to an arboretum or a botanical garden or any plant/tree curated space like that, and that has replaced getting really drunk. Also, the show was just as satisfying as stand-up, but so much easier because I know everything that I'm reading and because I'm so eager to share that side of myself that I don't think is my sunny side. My hyperimaginative side, that comes out in stand-up, but it doesn't always get to be there. It doesn't always fit. And sometimes things are just sad, and if you are a stand-up and the thing is just sad, you can't make it funny. It just doesn't belong on stage, and it can make you feel inauthentic or separated from yourself. That's why I started writing my book, to be able to use those other parts. But yeah, we just ate noodles all over the place. As an adult, being able to be like, "You know what? Let's get the Coca Cola out of the mini-bar."

Sharon: Woo!

Jenny: Wow! It was so nice. And to meet all the different harpists who I just found on Twitter was really fun, and sometimes they'd be so shy.

Sharon: [Holds up pacifier] I just realized I was like, "What is poking in my pocket?" And it's one of these.

Jenny: What is it?

Sharon: It's a pacifier.

Jenny: Oh, I couldn't see!

Sharon: I took it from him this morning. He only sleeps with it, we're trying to phase it out right now.

Jenny: What is your son's name?

Sharon: His name's Denver.

Jenny: Oh, yeah! I remember you told me. The last time we were in touch, you were having a piece of pizza with him. I just have that image in my mind, like, "God, that would be so nice to have a child, have a baby and give it pizza." Have a young friend.

Sharon: We do our pizza Fridays, he still loves the pizza. Still finding our pizza places out here, Little Dom's has been our favorite so far just for our LA spots. But we miss our old 'hood because it was just a pizzeria on every corner.

Jenny: Pizza in LA, I think it's an impossibility. It's not going to be New York. There are other things. Man, I would just kill for some pizza right now. I would love to have pizza.

Sharon: What's Boston pizza like? Or Massachusetts pizza?

Jenny: Well, when I was growing up, it was all about Papa Geno's, which was a chain. I don't know if you had that, maybe it's an East Coast chain. I feel like they're going out of business. Just plain, what you would call "birthday party pizza." But where we live here, there's no delivery or anything, and we're about 25 minutes from the supermarket. So —

Sharon: You're cooking a lot.

Jenny: Yeah, we cook a lot and our garden is growing things, but it's not enough that we don't have to go out. But we do have chickens who are blasting eggs out of their butts constantly, we have way too many eggs. But otherwise, we drove like an hour and a half to go to a drive-in movie theater the other night. First, we drove about 40 minutes to Providence, Rhode Island where we got falafel and then we drove even more to get to the drive-in movie theater and we saw Ghostbusters and ate falafel. It was wonderful, and on the ride back was a silence and then musings about Bill Murray's character in Ghostbusters and how that character doesn't work anymore. It's really funny, I don't know if you've seen it in awhile, but it doesn't translate. It doesn't translate anymore.

Sharon: I haven't been to a drive-through yet, but they're opened up now in LA. I've never been as a kid, and I've never been as an adult, so now would be a good time to go. I just have no idea how they work. But you tune into your radio in the car?

Jenny: You tune into your radio. It's sort of hard to figure out, our car kept turning off, so we kept having to turn the car on and we would miss a line, which is fine because I know every single line of Ghostbusters. We bought the tickets online, and you pay per car, and you show up there and we flashed them our phone. And then they give you a receipt and a giant trash bag, and I was like, "What is that for?!" It's just so frightening to be handed this big trash bag, like what's going to happen? But it was just for our trash.

Sharon: You sound really good. For there being a pandemic going on, the light looks great, you look happy.

Jenny: Yeah, same to you. Same to you. It's really cool that you're taking those classes.

Sharon: I have a long way to go. I read Camus yesterday and Nietzsche; there's so much that I don't know. My mom used to say, "You just went to the school of life." Because I chose not to go to college and got a job and an internship and took that route, but now I just feel like I don't know how to be a student, so I'm learning how to be a student, how to play the game. Especially with the sociology class, I feel like I'm getting a good education on what problems I already knew our country has had but in the context of the world. Seeing facts and numbers and where we fall in developmental countries. It's eye-opening, for sure.

Jenny: Yeah, that's really good.

Sharon: What's next for you? Do you have projects coming up?

Jenny: Kind of. I have a script that I'm writing that I really like. I really love comedies from the '90s where people are really in full characters, like The Adams Family and Wayne's World and even Tommy Boy. For a while, I've really wanted to be in what feels like a broad comedy that asks you to believe a lot and that is obviously very silly. But I haven't been able to find one of those with a woman in the lead. It feels like the comedies for women are mostly about partying or one woman where it's like, "You're 35! We're all giving you an intervention, you really need to grow up. You've been in a rut since your dad died and you never followed your dream." Or whatever. Just ladies waking up. That has really bummed me out. So I'm writing a movie for myself where I play twins, one really shy, foolish twin and one very uptight, but horny twin. Anyway, I'm slowly working on that with my friend. My dog is just throwing up outside, don't worry about it. And then trying to write another book; I mean I am, but it's hard.

Sharon: Sorry, you froze, I'm so sorry.

Jenny: Unstable internet. Oh, no! I have bad internet here, like really bad all the time. Which is nice. But anyway, I'm just trying to keep writing, trying to keep doing that. And as you said, some days, I have a bad day, but I do try to do it.

Sharon: You work towards it, right?

Jenny: Yeah, I work towards it. And I think after we're done, I'm going to tell my fiancé that we're having pizzas tonight, which will be great, inspired by this conversation. And I think I'll go on a walk and listen to you sing.