Comedian and actress Jenny Slate gained attention for her work on “Saturday Night Live” (maybe a little more attention than she’d like, actually) and her roles on “Girls,” “Bored to Death,” and “Parks and Recreation.” She also co-created and voiced the adorable animated viral video hit “Marcel The Shell With Shoes On” — which spawned a hit children’s book. But her latest project is decidedly adult: she stars in the indie film “Obvious Child,” a funny and poignant comedy about a struggling comedian named Donna who falls in love… even as she plans to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. Rico asked how she and the filmmakers made a romantic comedy that somehow doesn’t trivialize the most controversial issue in America.
Take a listen, too, to her 2011 visit to our show when she gave a list of her favorite voices.
Jenny Slate: Yeah. I mean, the number one issue, first, for me, is that I’m a huge romantic comedy fan. And when they’re not good, it’s such a bummer. So, that’s number one: Is it going to be romantic? Is it going to make you feel good?
But then, number two: it’s a modern story, where… I think the statistic is one out of three women, in their lifetime, will have had an abortion. And women talk about it. Some don’t, but in general, it’s not talked about on film in a way that’s normal. And I think the way to do that, if we were going to make it a funny story, was to not make jokes about abortion, or say that abortion is funny, but to say that life is funny. And people are funny. Sometimes they go through stuff that’s more serious, but that doesn’t mean they don’t joke. I think we just tried to make our jokes thoughtfu, and make sure that they’re not shocking. You know, not trying to be shocking or tough or rough.
Rico Gagliano: It’s true, and the one time — I can’t remember what the joke is — but there is one moment where one of the characters does tell a joke that is very shocking, and everybody in the scene is like, “Oh, my God!”
Jenny Slate: Right. It’s where Gaby Hoffmann’s character, Nellie, says to Donna, who is about go do her last standup set, and she says “You’re going to kill it out there.” And Donna says, “Oh, I actually have an appointment to do that tomorrow. Sorry sorry sorry!”
I think that’s important. It is shocking, but it’s also… Donna knows she put a toe over the line, and it’s okay. It’s okay to dress up in someone else’s voice, and to be flexible with the limits and say, “I actually don’t think that. I don’t take this lightly. But you know what? Let me laugh for a second. Let me feel a little bit of relief.”
Rico Gagliano: I have to say, regardless of all this — because you do thread that needle expertly — I still kept thinking to myself, “Where did everybody involved in this film get the guts to take it on?” What is the drive? There are so many reasons to say, “There’s no possible way to pull that off and have people, at least 50 percent of America, not hate us.”
Jenny Slate: Yeah. Part of that’s probably a question for Gillian, our director, but I think… First of all, it’s such a small movie, an independent film. You don’t know if anyone’s going to see it. We made it for very, very little money, in Brooklyn, last April, for 18 days. So, first, we had the luxury of privacy. We didn’t think about what the giant reaction would be.
I don’t think anybody was, like, “Should we do this,” or “Are we brave enough?” I think it was more a gentle but persistent nudge, like: There’s a lot of stuff being said about what we should or shouldn’t do with our bodies, and there are a lot of stories being told… where is that one story? Where having the abortion is a clear decision, but what’s not easy about it is that even though the decision is clear, a person is complicated. They are confronted with, “Well, I could have done this or that.” There are a million complications, and many people to whom their decision connects. A lot of women go through it, and we just hadn’t seen it yet.
Rico Gagliano: You did not write this movie.
Jenny Slate: I didn’t, no.
Rico Gagliano: But, it does feel like there’s a lot of you invested in it, and there’s no denying that the character is a comedian, like you are. And one of the big issues in the movie — you could argue it’s the heart of the character — is that she is dead set on expressing anything that comes to her mind, publicly.
Jenny Slate: Yeah. She can’t help it.
Rico Gagliano: Yeah, to the point where it destroys her relationships. We had Marc Maron on the show, and he deals with the same issue in his TV show. So I’m gonna ask you what we asked him: why do comedians have this need to make their private lives public?
Jenny Slate: I think, for me, I am aware of the nuances and the boundaries. I wouldn’t talk about my husband in a bad way on-stage, or if we had an argument, I wouldn’t get up on stage and be like, “Well, I just came from really getting my butt chewed off by my husband!” Whereas Donna would.
That line is different for everyone. For me, I’m a middle child. I am also really gregarious. I like to talk to people and I talk a lot, and sometimes I get embarrassed about that — that I’ve talked too much. But, it’s something I need, so how can I process that need? I’m lonely by nature. I like to be around people all the time. I want a lot of friends. So, when I get on stage, the hope is, “Will you be friends with me… but really, really me?” But, also, I don’t actually have to talk to you afterwards, really!
Rico Gagliano: You want them to like the real you, but you also want the distance of, they’re the audience.
Jenny Slate: Yeah, a little bit. They don’t actually get to tell me back.
Although I have stayed at shows, especially after screenings of our movie, and hugged every single person that came up to me, and meant it. I liked it. And then I got a cold, of course, because people don’t wash their hands.
Rico Gagliano: That’s the danger of being friends with everyone.
Jenny Slate: And I put my hands in my mouth, all the time.
But seriously, it’s an exchange that really benefits me.
Rico Gagliano: We close this conversation out every week with two standard questions we ask everyone on this show. The first one is: If we were to meet you at a dinner party, which question should we not ask you?
Jenny Slate: “Aren’t you that girl that said the F-word on SNL?” That is the number one question I wish people would stop asking.
Rico Gagliano: For those who don’t know, you blurted out the F-word… was that your first night on Saturday Night Live?
Jenny Slate: Yeah. And by the way, everybody knows. Everybody asks me. And it was years ago, and it was one swear! I’ve said that word a million times since then…
Rico Gagliano: I know — that was an especially public one, but yeah.
Jenny Slate: I know, I get it, but it’s done. Yeah, I did it. I don’t care!
Rico Gagliano: The end. So, the second question is — it’s kind of the opposite, actually — tell us something we don’t know.
Jenny Slate: I feel like you probably know this, but one thing that I’m very interested in is that palm trees are not indigenous to California.
Rico Gagliano: I was aware of that. But they’re from where? From Spain, is that right?
Jenny Slate: I think so. Everyone thinks of Hollywood as palm trees and stuff, but it’s actually just a desert dressed up in someone else’s trees.
Rico Gagliano: Makes sense, though, doesn’t it? For L.A.? That the most iconic thing about it…
Jenny Slate: …yeah, is manufactured, is synthesized? I also like that it’s a tree that basically has a hair style.