the cut on tuesdays

Jenny Slate on Getting Stage Fright for the First Time in Her 20s

Photo: Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

The Cut on Tuesdays

A weekly podcast from the Cut and Gimlet Media, with host Molly Fischer.

This week we sat down with Jenny Slate to talk about how she gets it done. And at the moment, Jenny’s got a lot to do: She just published a new book called Little Weirds, and her new comedy special is out now on Netflix.

The title of the special is Stage Fright and Slate told us about how she developed stage fright in the first place, after growing up as a fearless performer.

MOLLY: Do you remember the first time that happened?

JENNY: I don’t remember the first time, but I remember like … I got on SNL. It was like the message had been answered. The way that I got on that show was incredibly positive. Everything was cool until my first episode and I said “fuck” on air. And the culture of that show was really “Don’t make a mistake. In general, don’t make a mistake, and don’t let anybody see weakness.”

And then it just hit me like a curse or an illness. I felt that all I was was mistakes and weakness. I suddenly was very, very frightened and didn’t understand the impact that that experience would have on me, because I had always thought of myself as like wild, rather reckless, and brave. Suddenly I was just like, You’re just an idiot. And so when I would go back down to Brooklyn and get up onstage after that happened, I just thought, Everyone thinks I’m — not even the woman, but the girl who said a swear. I don’t think swears are bad; I just felt like an idiot. And so I started to get up onstage and I felt like suddenly the crowd had, like, squiggles all over their faces. Have you ever seen those Liana Finck drawings? The way that she draws angry men, it’s like they just have these big mouths with pointy teeth, or sometimes there will be, like, scribbles there.

And that’s how it felt to me, which is not the fault of the people there. In fact, I couldn’t ever … I can’t trust my own perception of that time. But I got stage fright then and it got worse and worse and worse, and it hasn’t ever gone away, but it’s gotten better.

MOLLY: How do you remember processing what was happening at the time? 

JENNY: I was just genuinely so sad. And I really did not feel good about myself and I felt like, Well, here you are. You’ve arrived at the end of a childhood dream and you have no other destination, and you’ve really lost it. You’ve really lost your chance, and you’re just not what you thought, and what a shame

MOLLY: How old were you at the time?

JENNY: I was 27.

MOLLY: I feel like that’s old enough that in your own head, it’s the time where you could feel like, This is it; this is it. I’m done. Like, I’ve reached the apex of whatever I’m going to be able to be. But actually, in retrospect, it’s like, No, you’re crazy. You’re so young still, you know?

JENNY: Yeah, yeah. I think I was 26 or 27 when I got cast on the show. I also suffered from that wrong assumption that your 20s are your totally formed adulthood. I’ve said this before, but like the 20s were a total secret surprise adolescence. And it wasn’t until around 33 that I was like, Oh, okay, I think I get this.

To hear more about what’s changed for Jenny in her 30s — from making a home to finding a partner who can talk her through anxiety — click above, and subscribe wherever you listen.

Jenny Slate on Getting Stage Fright for the First Time