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As a 'Seasoned Professional,' Jenny Slate now finds strength in her sensitivity

Jenny Slate's latest stand-up special is <em>Seasoned Professional.</em>
Amazon Prime Video
Jenny Slate's latest stand-up special is Seasoned Professional.

Comic Jenny Slate says her life is a non-stop "emotional multimedia experience." That also describes her new comedy special, Seasoned Professional,in which she opens up about childbirth, therapy and dating her now-husband.

Slate got her start doing improv as a college student at Columbia University, and began performing stand-up in her early 20s. A self-described "very sensitive" person, she shares that vulnerability onstage — including her tendency to pick up on the "micro bad mood" of whoever she's talking to.

Slate says the birth of her daughter in 2021 changed her in some ways. "My cheaper vanities have kind of fried off in the exhaustion," she explains.

But, she adds, "I still have the same personality that I've always had. ... There's very little that happens in my head that's not going directly into my husband's face."

Slate co-wrote and starred in the Oscar-nominated animated film Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, which was adapted from the web series that she co-created with her ex-husband Dean Fleischer Camp. She's also done voice work for other animated films and TV shows, including Bob's Burgers, Big Mouthand Zootopia.


Interview highlights

On talking about her feelings in her comedy

If you asked me to tell you what it is [I'm experiencing] right now, it would look the way it looks when I'm doing stand up. There would be screaming. There would be a doorway into my imagination where I'm imagining what would have even had to happen in the other person's head in order for them to interact with me in this way. And that is my experience. ...

I'm not one of these people that's going through her life and being like, "Ooh, that's material! ... I'm going to do something interesting, so maybe it will be material." I'm just going through and living my normal life, but I don't feel that I have to do anything to turn it into comedy. But of course I'll work on the bits.

On consciously channeling her sensitivity toward empathy and other people instead of self-reflection

I think that when I started doing stand-up in my early, mid-20s, like maybe 23, 24, I realized a lot of what I want to talk about is how I feel. I started to be more aware of it and I also started going to therapy. I think I felt ashamed of how much it was so self-focused. Like, what does this person think about me? I just felt like, why am I like this? This is such a gross way to be. ...

In getting on stage and telling the story and needing it to be dynamic and other characters have to exist besides you. ... With other people now it's become more of like, "How do I turn this into empathy?" Like if I am interested in this person, if I see myself starting to focus on them, make it about them, ask questions, don't make weird assumptions, and show them inside of myself and suffer by that.

On the bats in her childhood home

[My parents] got in a fight with a contractor who was working on our house, and there was a hole in our roof because he was like, "Forget it!" And he left. We had just so many bats in our house because we had, like, an open roof for a while. It still makes me laugh. ...

My dad, he would come out in the middle of the night in his nighttime apparel, which at the time was a very, very long night shirt. He worked at the time at the computer company called Wang ... and he had this shirt that said "Wang" on it. And he would run down the hallway with an old tennis racket and swat the bats against the hallway. We had, like, bat blood on our wallpaper. I remember just being like, "He got one!" Just such a bummer. Just such an intense way to live and be. I thought it was really funny. I talked about it on stage for so long because I was fascinated by it. Like, wow, I thought this was normal for so long that I didn't even think about it. And now I realized that this was actually very specific.

On growing up in a house her family believed was haunted

My dad had discovered a packet of love letters that were written to one of the previous owners of the house, but they weren't from her husband. They were from a captain of a ship. And when my parents first moved in, my mom woke up smelling pipe smoke. My dad smoked a pipe at the time, and she called out to him to come to bed and then rolled over and realized that he was asleep. And so she woke him up and she was like, "You left your pipe burning, you're going to burn down the house!" And so he went out into the hallway and saw on the stairs — he says he sort of saw it, but didn't see it — a man in a heavy mariner's [or] seaman's jacket walking up the stairs.

And there was a bunch of other stuff that happened. I'm the only one that never saw anything, actually, which in itself is scary to me because I feel like there's like a backlog, it's all going to come at once. ... I think we were all a bit proud of it, too. It's mystical. ... It was kind of like a treasure, but a terrible one to have.

On working through her shame about her divorce from Dean Fleischer Camp

I think it's probably just a very, very basic embarrassment of being like ... This [marriage] is the decision! Never going back. Absolutely sure. And then having it fall apart rather quickly, like we weren't married for very long at all. ...

When I look back on it now, I'm like, it's weird that I was embarrassed, but, I guess I don't like to fail, although I have failed many times. I think it was hard to look at the things that were actually really sad and really scary.

On talking to her 3-year-old daughter in the voice of Marcel the Shell with Shoes On

I talk in Marcel's voice, sometimes without realizing it. ... The first time she heard it, [she was like] "What is that?" She thinks he lives inside of me, but that's not disturbing to her. She also knows what he looks like, but she never asked to see him. She just wants to talk to him. Marcel gets more info from her. So actually, as Marcel, I just ask her questions. Like, "Why didn't you like that sandwich? What was wrong with it? What happened at school today?" Like, she'll give Marcel a bigger answer. Which is really nice. And then she likes singing with Marcel.

Heidi Saman and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2024 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Terry Gross
Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.