Comedian, actress and author Jenny Slate, 35, was born and raised in Milton and attended Milton Academy before earning her undergraduate degree at Columbia University. The co-creator of the Marcel the Shell With Shoes On short films and children’s book series has starred in the feature films Obvious Child and Gifted, and recently finished work on three new projects, the film Hotel Artemis, the animated show Big Mouth and live-action series Comrade Detective. On television, she was a cast member of Saturday Night Live’s 2009-10 season, and she has appeared on House of Lies, Married, Parks and Recreation, Hello Ladies, Kroll Show and Girls. As a voice-over actor, she has had roles in The Lorax, Zootopia, The LEGO Batman Movie and Despicable Me 3. She lives in Los Angeles.
Jonathan Soroff: Out of your three co-stars in Hotel Artemis—Jodie Foster, Zachary Quinto and Jeff Goldblum—who would you most like to do a love scene with?
Jenny Slate: Oh, my gosh. Why can’t I have them all? Aren’t we in the modern world? I’d want each to do something different, like one to be the main kisser, and somebody to be the main catcher, and the other to be the one taking the initiative, but those are private fantasies that I’m not going to tell everyone in my hometown. [Laughs.]
Big Mouth—are you one? I’m not a big mouth in terms of being a gossip, but I’m definitely a chatterbox. It’s something I say lovingly about myself, although I’ve often been told that I don’t have a fully functioning filter. I’m not careless or reckless, though.
Thing you miss most about Milton or Boston or New England in general? That smell in restaurants that even though there’s not a smoking section anymore, you can still smell the cigarette smoke mingled with the bacon smell, which creates this incredible aroma that actually gets my appetite going in a way that is disgusting. I love the smell of bacon, but when mixed with cigarette smoke, I’m going to eat everything in the restaurant, including the people and the table. I miss that and the accent. I love them so much.
Your mother is a ceramicist? Can we please make fun of that word for a minute? She doesn’t use that word. She’s a potter. She makes raku, which is a form of pottery where you fire the porcelain in a kiln and then you fire it in barrels filled with newspaper, and the porcelain takes on the markings of the fire. And while that sounds really cool, it also means my mom set the woods around our house on fire like a bazillion times. I actually grew up in a haunted house in Milton, surrounded by flaming woods. That was my childhood.
Are you a classic middle child? Yes. I crave attention, and I’m highly performative. I also think that middle children are forced to accept and share. They’re used to getting hand-me-downs and then passing them along. So you learn to adjust and be in a community.
Saturday Night Live—world’s biggest pressure cooker? I don’t know. I think it would be really scary to be one of those people on CNN who has to say what’s happening as it’s happening—and sound smart. SNL was so many years ago for me that sometimes I don’t want to talk about it anymore.
I saw Gifted and loved it. Do you prefer doing drama or comedy? I kind of prefer drama, just because it’s showing that part of yourself that you know is there, but you just haven’t had the chance to show people. It’s an opportunity to do something that you feel is very natural to you but has been hidden for so long. I just love it.
Biggest lesson you’ve learned on the set of a feature film? The things that usually work for me in acting are usually the same things that work for me in my life, which is like, “Be gentle on yourself for the parts you think aren’t that great, and be honest about what you’re trying to do.”
Is there any chance that PubLIZity [a skit from Kroll Show] will become a movie? Not that I know of, but if someone wants to give me that call, I would be really pumped about it.
But do you really feel those characters could carry a movie? Yes. I think it’s one of the funniest sketches ever. Well, it is a personality type that I think is real, but when we started doing that show, we were like, “Wow! Isn’t it just absolutely bizarre and crazy that people behave this way, and that reality shows are this way?” And now, five years later, one of those types of people is the president of the United States. So we went from irony and satire into just complete agonizing reality, and I’m just not sure we should make more material about those kinds of assholes. I think I should be in a movie where I play like a silent turtle to kind of counteract that.
Ever had any weird tabloid or online gossip moments? I don’t know. I try very hard to avoid looking at that kind of stuff because it’s always either totally incorrect or oversimplified in such a way that you feel like someone’s magnified one teeny-tiny part of your life and that never feels good. But one time I read that my stand-up was gross, and I actually found that the funniest thing in the world. First of all, as if that was some kind of discovery, as if I haven’t been going on stage since 2005 and talking about my pussy. And second, it’s not as if I’m going to get up there and say, “Well, as I was correctly doing my taxes last week at my synagogue, which I go to every Saturday…” I’m on stage talking about personal things, and I thought it was hilarious that anyone thought it was gross. I’m sharing my feelings up there. It’s not like I’m taking a shit in my hand and saying, “Smell this!”
Why are Bostonians funnier than everyone else? I think it’s their vernacular. It’s how emphatic Bostonians are. Even my mom, who is a very lovely woman, when she’s in a rush, says, “I’m just gonna bomb in and bomb out.” There’s this very muscular, urgent way that Bostonians speak, and I find it to be hilarious, often unnecessary and incredibly attractive. It’s like Bostonians are always throwing fastballs.
Why are so many famous comedians Jewish? Well, you know what my Nanna Rochelle always says? A sense of humor is essential to your survival. So if you think about the fact that everyone’s been chasing Jewish people around the globe, trying to kill them for thousands of years, maybe that’s why.
Are farts intrinsically funny? Yes. But sometimes when you are on the receiving end, it can be devastating, but it’s always funny later. For example, I was on an airplane the other day and there was a woman sitting next to me, and she farted for like five hours straight. In the moment, it was infuriating and disgusting, but in retrospect, it’s very funny that a woman can fart for five hours straight and not just float up into the air. If you have five hours worth of farts in you, why don’t you keep them there and turn yourself into a bubble?
How well do you do impressions? I think I’m very bad at impressions, but I’m very good at empathy. So that’s a real world trade-off that I’ll take. I can do like two impressions that nobody would care about, but if you want me to tell you what I think someone else is going through, I think I’ll be pretty much on the mark. Not that that’s a great skill for late-night comedy, but it’s wonderful for being in the world.
Hardest impression you ever had to do? Last week, when I stole my sister’s identity, and her bank account is now mine. But it’s difficult because I feel like I’m lying to my family. But I’m like, “You know what? This is for me. This is for me.”
Favorite voice-over experience? That would have to be Marcel the Shell. It’s my favorite thing in the world. But I love Big Mouth, the show that I’m on that’s written by Nick Kroll and Andrew Goldberg. It’s so funny, and it’s really embarrassing. There’s a lot of teens masturbating. They’ll be like, “So Jenny, this is the scene where your character’s humping her Gloworm. Can we just have a few gentle grunts from you?” This is my job. I have to visualize being a 14-year-old biracial girl humping a Gloworm.
Favorite animated show on TV? Bob’s Burgers, man. That show is so funny, and I would say that even if I wasn’t on it.
Three things you would never make fun of? Rape, eating disorders and molestation. Nothing about them is funny to me.
Pot smoking: yay or nay? It used to be a major yay for me. I used to smoke weed constantly. But it just stopped working for me, so I don’t smoke a lot anymore. It has to be a very special occasion.
How much weed went into making Marcel the Shell? People always ask that, but it was not a weed experience, actually. My ex-husband, who I did that with, doesn’t smoke weed. So that was actually just because that’s how my brain is. No weed at all involved. But feel free to smoke as much as you want while watching it.
Funniest person you know? Oh, man. I would say it’s a tie between Gabe Liedman and Max Silvestri. They’re funny in different ways but they are definitely the two funniest people I know, consistently, and to the point that when I see their stand-up, I wonder if I should just quit.
Fill in these blanks: _____ + _____ = Comedy. Honesty plus style. Or beauty plus risk.
When you did Drunk History, how wasted did you actually get? There was a lot of throwing up. I don’t think I can do it again. Every time I’ve done it, I’ve thrown up so much. And that’s saying a lot about what I’m like. I am really drunk, but I think I keep it together much more than other people do. Not to congratulate myself for being good at hiding how drunk I am, but that’s a skill I’ve developed doing stand-up. When I first started, I’d have a few drinks to get my confidence going. Now I’m scarily good at hiding how wasted I am.
Person you get mistaken for? John Candy. All the time.
Favorite thing about living in L.A.? I would say that palm tress look like ladies with really funny hairstyles. That is true. I laugh about it all the time.
Least favorite? That I’m constantly afraid that it’s going to shake itself off the continent in an earthquake that is going to break all of my dishes.
Top three reasons I should see Landline? It’s really funny. It’s a little bit sad, which I think is OK to feel, and I look a lot like Elaine Benes from Seinfeld, and who doesn’t love that?
Do you have a potty mouth? No. I’d say I have a very good vocabulary.
Have you practiced your Oscar acceptance speech? [Laughs.] I have not. But over and over again I practice telling people off. ◆
Styling: Ilaria Urbinati / The Wall Group; Hair: Nikki Providence / Forward Artists; Makeup: Kirin Bhatty / Starworks Artists; Wardrobe: Zac Posen dress and Dean Davidson earrings; Malone Souliers heels; Catering: Ruth’s Chris