Jenny Slate Is Co-Parenting With Marcel the Shell

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Emily Sandifer

In her new comedy special, Seasoned Professional, Jenny Slate’s specific brand of delighted silliness is on full display, apparent from the moment she gallops, dressage-style, into view. It’s her first special in two years, in which she spends plenty of stage time delving into the harrowing experience of giving birth, a debacle involving overalls and peeing on the side of the road, and a traumatic digestive explosion she experienced during a seventh-grade trip to the Hard Rock Cafe in Montreal. Somehow, she manages to get through all that and a very sweet love story without inducing much cringe.

There’s a lot for her fans to catch up on, and she’ll get even deeper into what she’s been up to in the last few years in her just-announced essay collection, Lifeform, which will be told in the following phases: “Single,” “True Love,” “Pregnancy,” “Baby,” and “Ongoing” — categories that could also be applied to Seasoned Professional. Slate has never shied away from getting personal, including in her approach to interviews: “I hope it’s okay that I’m sitting on my bed. This is really intimate already,” she says as soon as she joins a call with the Cut, before sharing that her outfit for the day (green-and-purple beaded necklace, sheer polka-dot blouse, light-purple jeans) was chosen by her 3-year-old daughter, who may have a future as a stylist. “I could have changed, and I’m wearing this fully because I’m like, It’s really good.”

Your special was filmed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Is that a significant space for you?

It is certainly a significant space for me. When I graduated from college, my friends and I moved to Brooklyn, to the Fort Greene area. I actually lived in Carroll Gardens, but most of my friends lived in Fort Greene. I remember feeling that, in terms of the movie theater, it was such a fancy way to go to the movies. But in terms of the space itself, I had seen Sufjan Stevens do this piece — I think it was an ode to the BQE, the highway. I remember thinking that it was a space for fine art, and that it was a neighborhood treasure. It’s a really important cultural institution. I felt like if I could perform there, that would help me define where I’m at in a way that would feel really good.

I very openly have pretty intense stage fright. I guess I kind of assumed that for some reason they were going to just actually put me in the basement or something. But in fact, no, like, you’re letting me on the stage. It’s just me. And they’re fine with that. In fact, they expect it. I’m the person that has to now just do that kind of delightful work of realizing that wish became a reasonable request, and now has become my reality. And weirdly, I’m still me.

As funny as you are, your work always feels built with a core of sincerity, and that was felt in the special as well. What was on your mind as you created it?

That’s just what I’m like. Those are my levels. I definitely have arrived at a place, as a person and as an artist, where the work of separating yourself out so that, by your own weird standards, you can be presentable doesn’t make sense to me anymore. If I’m going to be telling the story of my life, I want to include everything. It feels very limiting and old-fashioned to say that some emotional states don’t belong in comedy. In the actual storytelling of it, I felt like so much time went by. I wanted to report back, because it is true that I ended my last special basically being like, “Actually, romance is dead and I’m masturbating to the moon.” I didn’t believe that, of course, but I think there was a big part of me that did.

You could say, “This is a story about a divorced woman who met a stranger in the Arctic and married him really quickly, but before she could actually get married, she got pregnant with his baby on the first night of a pandemic. And then she gave birth wearing a mask during a pandemic.” It’s like, Wow, this sounds like a really intense story that is too dark to even be an interesting movie. But, in fact, it’s a really fun story about the romantic, happy, sexy, fun, and interesting things that are occurring in my life. It just depends on who’s telling it.

I have to ask … have you introduced your daughter to Marcel?

Oh, for sure. It’s a little different; she hasn’t seen the short films. She’s seen a little bit of the movie on a plane, when I became desperate and was like, Okay, if anybody’s aware of my work, or me, and they see me here, they’re gonna see me putting on my own movie for my baby. But it’s just that she knows Marcel’s voice. I have one of the Marcels that we used for the movie out on our bookshelf at home, so she knows what he looks like. The way that she interacts with him is that he’s just somebody that she asks to talk to. She’s like, “Can I talk to Marcel?” and then I’m like, “Let me let me see if he’s around.” And then I just yell out, into our house, “Marcel?” And then literally, sitting in the same spot, I’m like, “Yeah?” and then it’s like, “Ida wants to talk to you. What are you up to right now?” And then he’s like, “Oh, hold on one second. I’m just in the bathroom. It’ll take me about three hours to get down.” And then I’m like, “Oh, he’s in the bathroom. It’s gonna take him too long. You want to go up?” And then we go to the bathroom. And then while we’re there, usually Marcel is the one that can convince her to brush her teeth, that she probably actually had too much chocolate milk and she just needs to have water. Marcel is very active in our household. He’s the parent that apparently gets her to listen to him.

In the special, you talk about moving cross-country — what’s your No. 1 rule for a big move?

First of all, I love moving, so I’m kind of a weirdo. I will unpack anyone’s home. But my number one rule, which I think is very reasonable, is to donate or give away absolutely as much as you can before you leave the last place.

In the first move, I basically took nothing because we left in such a hurry. I think I talked about this in the special, but in this weird sort of animal moment, I just picked a bunch of stuff off the trees. I picked a bunch of lemons, which, especially if you’re like me and you have a typically Jewish gastro tract, you can’t just eat raw lemon without completely burning your tract. So I’m not really sure what I was thinking there. One thing I wished I had done the last time I moved is go through old papers and cards. I just had these boxes of papers and they came here with me. Now, none of them even make sense to me, and then I had to go through it years later. It can make you feel kind of weird about yourself, that you’ve been posing as somebody who’s rather responsible, but in fact you’ve been carting around junk.

I’m obsessed with the cropped tux you wear in the special. What’s your No. 1 fashion rule, for performing and in general?

Don’t wear anything that you can’t fully squat or lunge in. You have to be able to do a squat position as if you were trying to show someone your actual undercarriage. You need to get as wide as possible. You need to be able to jump, run. Nothing that is going to inhibit actual movement. The other thing is, nothing that obeys the self-doubting instinct to tone down your own feelings of wanting to present as attractive by your own standards, if that makes any sense. Of course it’s about the comedy, but I’m presenting myself. I kind of like to dress like I’m going on a date, or going to a really fancy party where I’d also be allowed to jump into one of those ball pits that they have at Chuck E. Cheese or McDonald’s or whatever.

Part of taping a special is making sure you have a good audience. What’s your No. 1 rule for being in an audience?

Don’t call anything out. Even if you think you should, don’t. That said, I’ve never had the urge. Like, don’t throw a tomato at me. Don’t say anything. I’m not that kind of comedian. I’m very sensitive. There are some challenges I legitimately don’t want to accept. If you heckle, I will probably start crying and then leave. I have not developed that muscle. Don’t bring crinkly stuff, and if you have to go to the bathroom, you know, just do some tiny little whispery apologies.

What is your No. 1 rule for a successful dinner party? 

Have just enough of the cooking left that you can have that really fun moment of all standing around in the kitchen with wine. I think it makes everybody feel that they’re in a really fun ’90s rom-com, where they’re just friends and everyone’s living their life and having a really fun time with their adult treat. Love that, where you can give someone the opportunity to lean against your countertop and drink their wine and be like, “I’m so glad it’s Friday.”

What’s your best rule for raising a child?

Maximum hugging and minimum shaming. Like, zero shame, 100 percent hugs. That’s not to say I’m being permissive as a parent. But if I could say anything, it’s to not invest in shaming as a tool — because not only does it not work, I think it actually reinvigorates our own sense of shame, like whatever we felt shame about as younger people. So that’s the one thing I really try to avoid. I think so far it’s going pretty well. I keep a pretty close eye on it.

Your No. 1 rule for advice giving?

Always ask if someone wants it before you give it. My friend has this phrase that she uses — I don’t know if this is something that she made up, or other people — but she says, “Is this a ‘fix it’ or a ‘feel it’?” And I really liked that. She said it to me this past summer. By the way, with me, it’s always a “feel it,” but you never know.

Would you ever send an Edible Arrangement?

I have and I will. I think that Edible Arrangements, especially if you’re someone who grew up in the ’90s, feel really nostalgic. So usually, if I’ve discussed them with anyone, I’ll send one to them. If it comes up, I’ll just send one randomly. They’ve got a pretty extensive catalogue. I ended up with a gift certificate for an arrangement, and I believe I sent it to one of my sisters, but I genuinely could not believe the wide variety of treats that they offer. It’s not just cantaloupe in the shape of a chrysanthemum or whatever; they are really doing a lot of different stuff. Whenever I see their vans going by, I’m always imagining all of the different arrangements inside and just where they’re going and all the different little chocolate-covered strawberries just shivering in the dark of the van. I just love it. I don’t know. They’re just making their way.

What’s your No. 1 rule for meeting other famous people?

I get really nervous when I meet other famous people, but if there’s someone who has really affected my life in a positive way and I’m lucky enough to somehow be in a conversation with them, I will try to find an appropriate moment to just tell them how much I appreciate them. But yeah, I don’t know. Just try to be normal. That’s not a great rule. But I just try to try to be normal. I don’t normally get there.

And what about your best rule for engaging with people at parties?

Don’t run away screaming because your social anxiety is so bad at this point in your life that you can’t talk to anyone. That’s kind of what I’m working with right now. I cannot believe how shy I have become at parties, as a person who is definitely an extrovert — meaning I get energy from talking to people. I’m enjoying talking to you right now, but I am working with a lot of social anxiety that didn’t used to be this bad. I guess, be a question asker. I think that’s always something that is appreciated. And it feels like a good bet for me.

I love people so much — it’s not that I go to parties where I’m like, “Everyone here is disgusting to me.” If I go to parties, they are usually filled with people that I know and love or admire and really like, but I still feel as scared as I used to feel when I would get to an ice-skating rink and realize that I hardly know how to skate. It’s kind of like, do one loop and then we’re done. Try not to fall on your ass.

What is your No. 1 rule on set?

This isn’t very funny, but this is real for me: I need to be aware of how much candy I eat. Because I grew up in a household where there were no treats. We had those carob granola bars. Not even the good kind of granola bars. The way that I am with candy, soda, and TV is like, if there’s candy there, I’m gonna eat all of it. When I used to smoke weed — which, I’ve been retired from weed for over five years, probably more than that, because I just can’t handle it — I ate a lot of candy. But now there’s no excuse. It’s just that my parents should have just given us a little bit. Because if there’s root beer, and if a TV is on, even if it’s playing a commercial for plaque psoriasis, I will be drilled in. I have absolutely no ability to regulate myself. So my number one rule on set is be aware of how much candy you’re taking in, because I do get that toddler-style sugar crash.

Do you gossip?

Okay, my New Year’s resolution two years ago, and then re-upped this year because I liked how good it felt, was to reduce the amount of gossip that I initiate. My best friend and I, we’ll tell each other stuff that we heard, of course. But I really, really, really try to keep it at a minimum. If my husband and I are gonna do that, that can be fun and silly. But generally, I just want to reduce the amount that I misuse other people’s identities. I just think that’s not worth my time and it feels bad.

What’s your No. 1 rule while walking on the street in New York City?

Have the right outfit for what you’re feeling. It never wears off for me that New York is so romantic to be in and that walking down the street in New York is always an opportunity to remind yourself, Oh my gosh, I am walking down the street in New York. When I visit New York, I really do take special care with my outfits because it’s just such a romantic opportunity, and one that I’ve been pretty fixated on since I was a little girl. It’s a feeling of observing yourself as an adult who can choose whatever you want, and striding down the streets of one of the most energetic and powerful cities. It just feels so old-fashioned and romantic.

What do you sign your emails with?

Usually an “XOXO, Jenny,” or an “XXX, Jenny,” or an “XX, Jenny.” But never one “X.” That feels like I haven’t earned that yet. I’m still jumping up everyone’s butt every time I end an email. I’m like, “Thank you so much. Thank you thank you thank you!

Do you have an etiquette-related pet peeve?

My least favorite thing that people say is when you’re wearing a short dress with tights in the wintertime, and someone’s like, “Aren’t you cold?” My reaction to that has always been deep embarrassment. That person is basically telling me that I’m just a big dumb shithead and that I’m not wearing enough clothing, which, especially if you’re a woman, has so many implications. If there was one central etiquette thing that I’m like, “Could you not do that?”, it would be that.

Jenny Slate Is Co-Parenting With Marcel the Shell