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Jenny Slate's Unconventional Path to Comedy Powerhouse

The comedian's new Netflix special is the latest stop in her quirky rise to the top of the alt comedy scene.
  • Jenny Slate (Photo: Katie McCurdy)
    Jenny Slate (Photo: Katie McCurdy)

    This week's big Netflix stand-up comedy offering is as close to a can't-miss as a stand-up special can get. Jenny Slate: Stage Fright highlights the comedian's chaotic-good energy in her spry, deceptively affecting stand-up routine, while also digging into her life and experiences via scenes with her family and home movies. It's like if the scenes at Lady Gaga's grandma's house in Five Foot Two were less a secret emotional tug-of-war over the ownership of grief and Joanne but were instead about a likeable Boston family, with supportive siblings and two eminently quotable grandmas.

    The main draw, however, is getting to see Slate in her stand-up element, even though almost all of us are more familiar with her via some other medium. Whether it be sketch comedy, viral videos, indie film, TV guest shots, or as one of Hollywood's most colorful, expressive voices in animation, Slate has seen her career go from SNL infamy to one of the most prolific voices in comedy.

    These days, Jenny Slate's stint as a featured player on Saturday Night Live is remembered almost exclusively for uttering an accidental F-bomb on her very first night on the show. Which is a shame, because as a result her most promising featured sketches — that doorbells sketch! — have been all but forgotten. Leaving SNL after just one year, Slate scored notice with some fantastic viral videos, including the great Marcel the Shell and, less well known, but deserving of widespread acclaim, this "Bestie x Bestie" sketch with comedy partner Gabe Liedman:

    But Slate's true post-SNL breakthrough came on a couple fronts. On TV, she was cast in a recurring role on Parks and Recreation as Mona-Lisa Sapperstein, twin sister to Jean-Ralphio and (sing it with me) the woooooooorrrssstttt. In film, she earned a ton of acclaim for her lead role in director Gillian Robespierre's Obvious Child. That performance got her an Independent Spirit Award nomination and a Critics Choice Award, among many others. Aside from being a very good movie, Obvious Child gave depth and increased possibility to Slate's career. Much like her SNL contemporaries Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader (and even going as far back as Bill Murray), Slate showed that her comedic chops could handle weightier subjects, as well.

    Since Obvious Child, Slate's film roles have included the domestic drama Gifted, in which she co-starred with Chris Evans (whom she dated for a time), and last year's supervillain extravaganza Venom. But Slate's most prolific calling — perhaps as prophesied by Marcel the Shell — is that she's become one of the most consistently employed voices in animated films and TV. Whether it's as a bureaucrat sheep in Zootopia, a pampered Pomeranian in The Secret Life of Pets, or as Harley Quinn in The LEGO Batman Movie, Slate's distinctive voice has taken on a wide variety of characters.

    This is doubly true on television, where she's best known for voicing pushy queen bee Tammy on Bob's Burgers and nervous Nathan Fillion obsessive Missy on Big Mouth.

    Slate pulls a nifty trick in Stage Fright, starting off her inaugural Netflix special with a barely-constrained rapid-fire stream of observations, absurdities, and non-sequiturs. Almost imperceptibly,  family vignettes and backstage moments begin to vibe with Slate's routine as it begins to streamline itself. Suddenly, her childhood memories and present-day post-divorce neuroses and weird family tales become one, and by the end, Slate has sharpened her closing story into something both strange and wise, not to mention squealingly funny. It's a shining moment for a performer who has placed herself at the heart of modern-day comedy.

    Will you be watching Jenny Slate: Stage Fright? Strike up a conversation with others doing the same in our forums.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Jenny Slate: Stage Fright, Netflix, Big Mouth, Saturday Night Live, Jenny Slate, Standup Comedy