Jenny Slate on Her Rage, Her Comedy, and Her Love for Michael Dukakis
Catch the Milton-born comic and actress at the Wilbur Theater later this month.
Jenny Slate is running errands on Martha’s Vineyard. It’s day one of some self-imposed alone time to work on a book that she describes as “not a memoir,” but “a pretty personal book about how it felt for me to come through divorce and political disillusionment told through small pieces and magical realism and essays.”
The setting feels ripe for a real-life romantic comedy, in which Slate, the bookish protagonist on the tip of a tiny island, is just steps away from running into the hunky love of her life. “The weirdest thing about my life over the past year is that almost everything I do looks and feels like a romantic comedy. I’m pretty sure this is supposed to be the part where I meet a hunk. It’s romantic to be by yourself and stuff, but not as romantic, it turns out, as having a boyfriend. I would love for that to unfold,” says Slate in her familiar sarcastic, yet playful, tone. “It would be nice for some man to want to bring me flowers or something. That kind of thing feels like it belongs to another dimension, but you never know, you could turn a corner and meet the love of your life and that’s how it goes.”
She can currently be seen in the latest massive Marvel movie, Venom, alongside Tom Hardy and Michelle Williams, and is also voicing a character on Netflix’s Big Mouth. But it was her starring role in 2014’s Obvious Child that gave a broader audience a glimpse of the type of charming and brutally honest humor that informs her standup.
Those who were already familiar with Slate—and many Bostonians are, since we’re fiercely proud of the fact that she grew up in Milton—are used to seeing this kind of straightforward vulnerability from her in interviews. She never sounds like a rehearsed public relations machine, but instead like a relatable human who happens to have a job in the spotlight.
This kind of transparency tends to mean that Slate can come across as both wry and rosy. But these days that sense of humor is lined with political activism. For instance, she’s filled with rage about the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh, “a Supreme Court justice who truly does not give one shit about women’s experiences and proved that he was actually angry about even having to discuss it.”
But instead of dwelling on her despair, she says it’s made her want to fight harder. “It’s not just a fight for women to do, or people of color to do, or trans people to do. It’s really a fight that everyone needs to do together,” she says.
One way in which she stretches her activism muscles is through her comedy. Slate got her start as a stand-up comic. In the beginning, she says it was “the first way that I learned to be seen and to be accepted for who I really am.”
A decade later, her comedy means something a little different: “It’s a plea for empathy. There is a lot of activism that I can do in my comedy by exposing my humanity and my doubts and my joys. More than ever, I want to be on a live stage and connect with people.”
Touring, however, isn’t so easy for Slate, and in the past, her crippling stage fright made the whole process more uncomfortable than it’s worth. But she feels honored to be playing a Boston institution like the Wilbur, a space she remembers from childhood, and where she’ll perform two nights of standup later in October.
“Before I really knew anything about being an actress, I always imagined that I would be one in Boston,” Slate says. “My parents always saw every performance at the A.R.T. in Cambridge and I thought I wanted to be in the Repertory theater. That was before I realized that I can’t do a British accent and will never be that kind of an actress.”
Her upbringing brought her to many of the city’s cultural institutions, from Fenway visits with her father, where she developed a deep love for third baseman John Valentin, to Bruins games at the Garden with her grandfather, to seeing Cathy Rigby in Peter Pan at the Wang Theater.
“My greatest memory is going to the Boston Pops with my dad and we ran into Michael Dukakis and I flipped out and invited him to my birthday party. He did not attend. He was one my first crushes that I ever had,” says Slate.
As for crushes today, the possibility for another magic moment like the one between her and Dukakis seems unlikely to her. “Generally, I don’t feel like men approach me. I don’t know if it’s because they sense from me that I’m glaring at them and saying you are complicit in the oppression that is the patriarchy and unless you’re super cool, I don’t want to talk to you?” she jokes.
And then, with her usual quick wit, she interrogates her own feelings about men these days: “I am so disappointed in men that I don’t even know how to masturbate anymore because I can’t fantasize about anyone because everyone fucking freaks me out. And I don’t want to condition myself to masturbate to things that are scary. I’d rather go on stage and say something disgusting and horrific and also true like that. I don’t know what else to do, but this is how I am behaving in the emergency that I think is my experience.”
As if sensing that masturbation anxiety isn’t a normal celebrity interview subject, Slate immediately starts self-editing. “I feel like yet again I’ve given a way too personal and totally earnest and embarrassing interview. But apparently, I just don’t know another way,” Slate says. Thank goodness for that.
Tickets are still available for her show on October 29 at thewilbur.com.