Jenny Slate Uses Comedy as a ‘Human Calling Card’ in ‘Seasoned Professional’

Jenny Slate loves a tangent. In “Seasoned Professional,” her comedy special directed by Gillian Robespierre that debuted on Prime Video earlier this year, she diverges from a story about preparing to give birth to her daughter to recount the horror she felt when she was asked to audition for Pennywise in “It.” Later, she links a story about a very public gastrointestinal incident from seventh grade to an epic bowel movement delivered while she was in labor. She nimbly fits all these memories together as pieces of who she is and clues to how she’s arrived at where she is.

Which is: happily married (to writer Ben Shattuck) with a daughter and creatively fulfilled. Her stand-up is not unlike therapy (a topic thoroughly covered in the new show) because for Slate, both hinge on bare-naked honesty. “Everything eventually winds up in the middle of the psyche — it’s all connected,” she said. “Truth needs to be dealt with, was dealt with, is being dealt with, and all of that, to me, is so appropriate for the stage because it has the live spirit. You know, I’m holding it, being like, Look at this f—in’ thing! I’m showing everyone I’m discovering it again as I’m talking about it.

Your first special was called “Stage Fright” and you’ve talked about how performance anxiety is a very real struggle for you. Given that, did you always know you would do another special? 

I did not know that I was going to do another special. I don’t tend to be a comedian who is lining things up perpetually. My first special came out in the fall of 2019, and I was starting to accumulate new material that winter, and then all of a sudden the pandemic began. As stated in my special, I really did become pregnant the first night of lockdown.

I didn’t know how to talk about what was happening; I didn’t really find it funny. I felt really shut down. And then I became a new mother and I was really, really tired. And I felt like, I have the same personality, but things are amplified that were regular sized before. And they’re not the funny parts of me. And so I just wasn’t sure if I would ever be able to do stand-up again, like maybe I just kind of lost that instinct. Then when my daughter was a little over 1, I started to want to get up on stage. I found myself starting to talk about where my body was at. And suddenly I was like, Oh, I guess I do want to talk about this. And it was incredibly satisfying.

Jenny Slate in “Stage Fright” (Netflix)

You’ve worked with Gillian Robespierre many times; she directed “Stage Fright.” Was it a given that you’d ask her to direct the new show?

Yes. She and [producer] Elisabeth Holm did my first special. They also did [the films] “Obvious Child” and “Landline.” And Liz produced “Marcel [the Shell With Shoes On”, the Oscar-nominated animated film that Slate co-wrote]. My stage fright is so bad that there’s not an in-depth discussion of the material because I never write it out.

It’s only bullet points, which means there’s not a plan, there’s not a script, and that’s hard on everybody. But they helped me with the progression of the bullet points so that everything flows. And they’re two of my best friends so they have to listen to me say, like, “I’m not gonna be able to talk! When I get up there, what if I can’t talk? Nobody wants me to be here” — you know, all these horrible things. On top of that, they’re incredible artists.

It’s interesting to compare the two specials because despite the nerves, you now seem much more confident and comfortable with who you are. It’s there right in the two titles.

Yeah, I think that’s correct. I mean, thank God! [Laughs] It would suck if I went the other way! I’m glad that it shows a progression. And it really matters to me that my comedy is not just true stories from my life and how I’m living. The thing that I like to do is [present] a general human calling card — like, I am a person. Here’s my evidence for that. I’m here.

Jenny Slate and Jake Lacy in “Obvious Child” (A24)
Jenny Slate and Jake Lacy in “Obvious Child” (A24)

In one of your stories, you explain how your former agents thought you should audition for Pennywise, which really hurt your feelings. It must be cathartic to turn something painful like that into comedy.

The incident itself was not traumatizing. But it’s really interesting that it was something odd that I remembered (when arriving at the hospital in labor). The stakes are so high in giving birth, but also in becoming a parent. Like, what if I’m just not the right one for the job? And the same is true for me in terms of being an actor: The stakes are so high. I have never loved anything in the world as much as I love performing; the only thing that has ever compared is my love for the beloved people in my life. So rather than it being like, “Oh no! This was a terrible degradation!” — which, of course, it is — but if you’re a performer, there are, like, 1 million terrible degradations.

You talk about therapy in the special and how it’s been very helpful for you, but it also seems to go hand in hand with your comedy. Both are cathartic. And both only work when you’re honest and vulnerable. Do you see the two as being in conversation with each other?

Yeah. There’s also a joke in my special about how I really was excited to use a microphone during our wedding because it was the pandemic and I hadn’t used one [in a while] and I say, “When you’re getting married or when you’re in therapy, just, like, be real.” There’s this really bad feeling that I get in therapy if I make my therapist laugh because I really, really need to be accepted by someone if I’m not funny at all. And I think of it as low-hanging fruit or something. And we need to hold the line and be really serious. But in fact, therapy — while it allows one to function in a way that feels satisfying and safe — you can’t do that unless you reveal what is wrong. And the end part of my special in which I perform what is sort of a fantasy about stalking my therapist — which is not a real fantasy that I have but but it’s one that I’ve thought of. You know, like, god, this is the level at which I love Pamela. The times that I’ve watched the special, I can see that I am drinking it in. It has a lot of medicine in it.

Yes, you talk a lot about how much you love your therapist, Pamela, in “Seasoned Professional. Has she seen it?

Yeah, she’s seen it. Even though I asked her permission [to mention her] and summarized what it would entail, I very rarely think about anybody asking me about my work [when it’s released]. Then I was really surprised that people asked me a lot about Pamela and the Pennywise audition. And I was like, “Oh, shit. I should have thought about this.” I was scared and I texted her. And I was like, “Can I send you a link? I’m getting nervous now that maybe this is actually really intense.” But, um, not to brag [laughs], but she said that it was really good, that I really worked on this. There’s a part of me that is like, “Yeah, Pamela! What other of your clients or patients are giving you this receipt?

A version of this story first ran in the Comedy Series issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more from the issue here.

Larry David photographed by Mary Ellen Matthews
Larry David photographed by Mary Ellen Matthews

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