Jenny Slate Can’t Wait To Be A Ghost

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
I’m so used to hearing Jenny Slate’s breathless voice in my favourite TV shows and movies that I accidentally scream “HI!” the moment we get on the phone to talk about her new stand-up special, Stage Fright. HI! Like I just ran into my friend at the supermarket. Jenny Slate doesn’t know me, but after watching her new stand-up special, Stage Fright, and reading her upcoming book of essays, Little Weirds, I feel like I know her. Like, really know her. 
In Stage Fright, Slate takes her unabashed, sometimes crude, late-show vulnerability to a more personal place, opening up about her loneliness and romantic pessimism following the 2016 US election. Both the special, out on Netflix on 22nd October, and book, on shelves on 4th November, document Slate’s return to her childhood home in the midst of this hopelessness. Stage Fright weaves Slate’s traditional stand-up with documentary footage of her family and home videos, and through this collage we learn about her parents, her grandparents, the ghosts that haunt her house, and what felt like her life coming to a total romantic and personal end. 
Advertisement
But the Jenny Slate on the phone with me isn’t lonely anymore. Fans of the comedian know a secret that the comedian writing Little Weirds in 2017 does not: She gets engaged to art curator Ben Shattuck in September 2019. He’s actually part of the book — not by name, but is the man mentioned in the story “In Norway.” They meet while on the trip documented in the piece, but don’t start dating until two years later. When it came to Stage Fright, this meant Slate originally only had material from a past version of herself, who is as much a ghost as the spirits haunting her childhood house. 
These projects, both hilarious and heartwarming, illustrate the evolution of Slate as she pulls herself up from her lowest point to achieve her happy ending. After being with her through this journey, it kind of feels like we’re all part of the celebration — which, as her now close personal friend, is the least I deserve. Ahead, we spoke to Slate about her past two years, her take on Saturday Night Live’s recent controversy, in which stand-up comedian Shane Gillis's racist comments on his 2018 podcast were discovered, and what kind of ghost she hopes to return as when she dies. 
Refinery29: This is your first stand-up special ever. Why now? 
Jenny Slate: “I just haven't been interested in doing a special before and 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. I thought that that's what you had to do, but it really turned out that I could do it whatever way I wanted to. Netflix was really supportive. They did not try to change anything about how I did it. We had an all-female crew. It was just a very private experience and I hope that shows through.” 
Advertisement

"This special is more of the sibling that is popular and does sports, and the book is more the sibling that is dreamy and goes away for the summer to spend time with a very old aunt and likes to play the xylophone."

Jenny Slate
Your book and your Netflix special seem like companion pieces. Was that on purpose?
“I got the book deal in 2017 and at that point I did not want to do a special at all. But as time went on and I started to write the book, I became aware that I communicate in a certain way and that I want to go as far with that as I can. I think it's pretty wild that they're both coming out at the same time. I didn't intend for that to happen. I do think that they are siblings to each other. This special is more of the sibling that is popular and does sports, and the book is more the sibling that is dreamy and goes away for the summer to spend time with a very old aunt and likes to play the xylophone.”
Your name was brought up again in the recent controversy with Saturday Night Live. Many people pointed out that you were fired for saying “fuck” while Shane Gillis was hired despite ample evidence of him making racist comments and other problematic behaviour. SNL ultimately fired him after online backlash, but did you have any reaction to that considering your own history with the show?
“I don't even know who's on the show. The only thing that I care about in terms of SNL is Tim Robinson, who I never actually saw on SNL, but I just heard about him this year and I'm obsessed with his show [I Think You Should Leave on Netflix]. I mean, it's like if you went out with like a weirdo for three months, like 12 years ago, and someone's like, Did you hear what Trevor did in, like, another country? Do you have a comment about that? I really don't. I'm not connected to that at all. Thank God I at least got to work there because I always did want to. I always wanted to be on the show. So if I hadn't gotten there, I would still be trying to.”
Advertisement
There’s a line early in your book that reads, “This book is the act of pressing onward through an inner world that was dark and dismantled.” Do you feel that you pressed onward? 
“Yeah. But there's also a line in the book that's like, fall apart, take up the pieces, reassemble. This is my essential movement. So of course I pressed onwards. And there is, until I die — well, even after I die, I guess I'll just press onward into decay and become something else again. Like man, my life looks completely different now than it did when I finished this book last October.”
For instance, you got engaged last month, so your fiancé is not mentioned in the book nor the special. 
“I don't do a lot of the jokes from my special now because they are not true to who I am anymore. The stand up that I was working on for the special really started to feel like, Oh my God, I don't want to say this anymore because it's not how I feel. When I met Ben I was doing these sets, and I remember like on our third date, he came to see a show of mine in New York and I was like, Ah, this is the material I've been doing. It doesn't, you know —I'm sorry or whatever. And he was like, You don't have to apologise for your art.
"When we came back to the special, we had a dress rehearsal where I did all the old stuff and it was really one of the worst shows of my life. It was so bad and I cried my eyes out and I don't usually have bad shows, but because I was trying to be so rigid about the material it just didn't work. The next night when we did film the special that you see, I ended up doing a lot of new material. It's mostly about ghosts and Judaism and we really took out a lot of the love stuff and a lot of the jokes that I had been doing about being brokenhearted.”
Advertisement

"I think I would like to see a ghost [because] I do want proof of what I already believe, which is I'm definitely connected to everything and have so many more options than I allow myself to believe."

Jenny Slate
Speaking of ghosts, I’m curious: Did you ever actually see one in your childhood home?
“My sisters, my mother, and my father have all seen ghosts in the house and I haven't. My experience is basically that I am a person reacting to the fact that everybody else has been freaked out. That framed fear and fright and surprise and also other dimensions and an overactive cosmos as part of my inevitable experience that things are not settled. 
“What I love about that is that it made me into a person who is gentle, who believes in spirits and also knows how the human spirit can be very, very easily affected. I also think if you do see a ghost, then you also have proof that everything is so much bigger than you allow yourself to believe on a daily basis. I think I would like to see a ghost [because] I do want proof of what I already believe, which is I'm definitely connected to everything and have so many more options than I allow myself to believe and it's time for me to expand.” 
Have you ever had any kind of ghost experience? 
“Ben and I live in a very old house and it was made for his great grandmother as an old dance hall. A lot of people who sleep over, guests that we've had, say that they have wild dreams and hear things in the house. It makes sense to me that where I would finally land and have my life partnership is in a house for partying. I wouldn't be upset if I saw one of those party ghosts and I wouldn't be upset if I became one one day.”
Advertisement
Stage Fright is out on Netflix on 22nd October.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Advertisement

More from TV

R29 Original Series