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Not everyone is born with a complete set of parts. Some people are missing a fifth toe or a sense of smell. Jenny Slate appears to have materialized with no discernable sense of shame or filter. That’s a drawback if you’re, say, a president, but a real plus if you’re a comedian. You can follow your uncensored brain out loud without much worry wherever it takes you; in Slate’s case, that’s places both wild and mundane, each fertile ground for amusement. “If your brain is going the way that my brain goes, everything is cast in a comedic light. Everything is funny and most people are really funny.” Her humor has less to do what’s going on around her than what’s going on inside her head, which seems like a very interesting place to be.
Slate’s comedy goggles were never rose-colored, though, and that’s likely what led to her breakout film role in 2014’s Obvious Child, “a comedy about abortion.” It followed the life of a young standup comic as she grapples with an unplanned pregnancy and eventual abortion, and was widely acclaimed, with Slate’s performance especially praised. If Slate’s balanced and relatable performance surprised critics and just about everyone else who saw it, they can’t be blamed. If they knew of her prior to that film, it was from sitcom appearances, comic voice work, Late Night sketches and Saturday Night Live, where (besides a famous f-bomb) she was best known for impressions (Hota Kotb, Lady Gaga, Kristen Stewart) and characters like Tina-Tina Cheneuse, home shopping purveyor of personalized doorbells, alarm clocks and car horns.
Dig into the toy box of any really funny person, and you’ll almost always find more than characters and jokes. Piled beneath them are smarts and curiosity, and often a middle child with a need for attention. Slate and her older and younger sisters were born in Milton, Massachusetts to poet/author Ron Slate and Nancy, a ceramicist. After graduating (as valedictorian, no less) from Milton Academy, she entered Columbia University as a literature major, where she met her other (comic) half, Gabe Liedman. In 2008 they launched Big Terrific with Max Silvestri, performing standup shows in the back bar of the Williamsburg record store Sound Fix. Over its seven-year run, it emerged as the best comedy show in the city, partly due to guests like Sarah Silverman, Chris Rock, and Aziz Ansari, but mostly due its founders, whose comedy Vulture called “individually and consistently hilarious.” She followed that with her one-woman UCB show, Jenny Slate: Dead Millionaire.
The farther Slate’s imaginings stray from conventional comedy platforms, the more odd and wonderful they get. In 2013 there was her web series Catherine, which Hollywood.com tried valiantly to define. “Frightfully mundane – there’s no other way to aptly describe the kooky series besides smashing two opposing adjectives together and hoping it all makes sense. Catherine goes to work, talks to co-workers, orders bread and butter sandwiches, and… that’s pretty much it. But it’s oddly fascinating. It’s an odd experiment in comedy and tone…but paired with subtle musical cues, everything begins to feel really creepy, like something is seriously wrong with these people.”
And then, of course, there’s Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, a stop-motion film created in her apartment with director Dean Fleischer-Camp. Slate voices the anthropomorphic seashell, who despite being outfitted with a creepy single Oobi eye and a pair of miniature shoes, is absolutely adorable. In pseudo documentary style, Slate improvises Marcel’s dialog as he discusses his activities, hobbies, hopes, and disappointments. It won AFI Film Fest’s Best Animated Short and the Grand Jury and Audience Awards at the New York International Children’s Film Festival, not to mention tens of millions of views on YouTube. Studio offers rolled in, complete with merchandising opportunities, which Slate is tabling until marketers agree to make plush toys no larger than Marcel actually is (he’s quite tiny – what would you expect from a chap who wears a lentil for a hat?).
Last year she and her father co-authored About the House, sharing family memories, quirks, and confessions in a singular collection of stories, essays, and poems about their (possibly haunted) family home. She kicked off this year by playing a woman figuring out her family, her marriage and herself in Landline, which Collider called “a reminder that Slate should be leading way more movies by herself.” Coming up are Polka King with Jack Black and the more somber Gifted opposite Chris Evans. And that’s just this spring.
Maybe Slate moves so fast to keep up with her frenetic talents, or perhaps to keep anyone from putting too specific a finger on them. Or maybe it’s simpler. As Marcel says, “Really, what you just have to do is take a ride.” We call shotgun.