Alright, let’s get it over with. Jenny Slate said "fuck" in her debut skit on Saturday Night Live. Or, more precisely:
“I fuckin’ love you for that.”
Slate was playing a biker chick in “Biker Chick Chat” with a habit of saying “frickin’.” She had bad highlights in her hair, a tank top with an eagle and a heart, and Kristen Wiig at her side. “Then bust into a frickin’ Yankee Candle store and get a Mayberry candle,” says Slate. “You know what?” goes Wiig, and throws an ashtray. The audience laughs. More banter. Then in comes the quote—whoops—and Slate becomes the girl who said “fuck” on SNL.
The clip was quickly picked up online in the same way all televised mistakes are now, becoming the “Shot Heard ’round the World” that fades quickly into silence. Gawker wondered whether Lorne Michaels would fire her immediately. Others wanted to know if the FCC would press charges for obscenity. He didn’t, and they didn’t. The videos were mostly taken down from YouTube, and the articles stopped being written, and the blogs were filled up with other controversies and quarrels. For Slate, though, the moment stuck around a bit longer.
Dropping an F bomb is ontologically onomatopoetic, expressing its own mistake as it’s being said, like Fuck, did I just say fuck? Say it on national television, and you risk more than having a verbal misstep—you risk becoming that mistake.
Slate’s contract wasn’t renewed at the end of SNL’s 35th season, and when you Google her, “Jenny Slate F Bomb” is still one of the top suggestions. But Slate’s story extends beyond that—there’s the stand-up comedy, screenwriting, co-creating viral video Marcel the Shell, being a fixture on Bored to Death, and graduating from Columbia College. To define her by one word would be sort of like defining the career of Will Ferrell by Land of the Lost, or Gilda Radner by Haunted Honeymoon. Accurate, but incomplete.
“What song is that?” Slate yells out to someone. I’m talking to her on the phone, and I can hear she’s sitting outside. She’s a recent Los Angeles transplant, and the sounds of both cities, cars, and loud chatter interrupt us. A stereo bumping Big Pun was the distraction at this moment. Someone replies to her question. Slate goes: “Oh right! He’s not a player. He just crushes a lot.”
Her voice is clear and pronounced, if a little cutesy. She’s got the habit, though, of slipping out of it, sliding into different voices according to the character in her story—and she’s got a good amount of them. The voice of her grandmother came with a Massachusetts accent (“she’s gonna be a pehfohma!”). Others got raspy, cigarette tinged growls, or a highfalutin-LA-business-type gloss. But when Slate’s just talking—about her time at Columbia, or doing stand-up at Upright Citizens Brigade, or her season on SNL—she’s sincere, in a kind and uncensored way. Her path, from student to stand-up and onward, has operated, as she put it, as a “step by step” process with an emotionally in-tune logic: “Where does it seem like I should be?” she asks. “What do I really love, what would make me happy? And then, I go do that.”
Slate was born and raised in Milton, Mass., in a “two cats in the yard” stable set up. (More accurately, two sisters, two parents, and one school up until college). At Columbia, Slate majored in English and comparative literature, but spent a good amount of her time with the funny kids, in improv groups and performing with the Varsity Show. And though Slate didn't create the comedy scene at Columbia, she did restructure it, with the help of her comedy partner and best friend, Gabe Liedman.
During her time at Columbia, there were two improv groups. Students were limited to performing whichever they belonged to. But the scenes overlapped, and so, in their senior year, Liedman and Slate decided to combine the two. Fruit Paunch—which exists at Columbia nearly a decade later—was their contribution.
But Slate’s extracurricular didn’t end at graduation, and, for this, Slate has become a quiet icon of the Columbia comedy scene. That step by step process that Slate followed to success, for most people, comes to a screeching halt when college ends. Dreams hatched in dorm life, in doing what you love for little money, can quickly disappear when the alternative is moving back to Mom’s basement. But for Slate, it worked out otherwise.
“Once we graduated, I knew I wanted to become an actress,” she says. “And I wanted to do comedy, but I didn’t know that I wanted to do stand-up. I didn’t really know anything about stand-up. Gabe and I just kept on getting on stage together, and it came naturally.” They eventually ended up hosting their show—“Gabe & Jenny”—at the Rififi in the East Village. She also had a one-woman show, “Dead Millionaire,” at Amy-Poehler-founded Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. It was consistently sold out.
Seeing “Gabe & Jenny,” or any work by the two comedians, feels like joining in on their friendship—just one in which you’ll never get a word in edgewise. They talk over each other excitedly, though somehow always in tandem. They often play scenes as a couple. Slate calls Gabe “her boyfriend.” (Slate was, in fact, married this fall, to Dean Fleischer-Camp, who directs many of Liedman’s and Slate’s videos.) Their dynamic is far from clichéd stand-up, with the slow drawl—“So this one time ... ”—that begins a joke, building up to the punch line. Rather, they are fast, but not so furious, silly, but not too sardonic.
There’s a video of the two of them doing stand-up together in 2010, for the Big Terrific 2 Year Anniversary Show. You see them onstage—Liedman on the left in a red polo, Slate bouncing around next to him. They seem confident and comfortable, still eager, as if they maybe hadn’t graduated all too long ago. They start to joke about meeting a decade ago, in Y2K. Slate talks about the fear of an ATM machine performing cunnilingus. Finally, she whips out some papers, and announces she "wrote a screenplay" for the event.
“Just a little bit of background,” she says. “It’s called ‘Jenny & Gabe.’” “Not ‘Gabe & Jenny?’” “Nope.” “Is it fictional, or—?” “No, it’s true, it’s based on a true story. It’s a little bit ’90s. It’s sort of like Friends, but sort of like Cool Runnings,” she quips.
“I’ll be playing the part of Jenny Slate. And you can play the part of Gabe Liedman, and you can also read the stage directions.” Liedman smiles a bit.
They launch into it—Gabe “rings the doorbell,” Jenny is “playing a cello.” She tosses it away. They talk for a bit, then Gabe reads: “I know that, as a friend, all you do is listen, you never talk about yourself, and all you do is listen to other people’s problems, with the understanding that they’re not yours, but that they’re still important.” Slate nods.
“That’s right. And I never scream out MUFASA on the subway, which I understand is embarrassing, and I’m sooo-rry.”
Together, Liedman and Slate provided something a little different in terms of tone. They provided something a little different in terms of demographics, too. As Slate put it, becoming part of the New York comedy scene involved realizing who primarily made up that scene. It was the “Oh my god, all of these comedians are 34-year-old men, and I’m a 22-year-old woman, and my comedy partner is a 22-year-old gay man.”
It didn’t seem to stop their swift entry into this world. “It wasn’t scary. It was awesome. It was awesome to be new,” she says. “We certainly had shows where it was like, ‘What the fuck were we just doing up there?’ But for the most part, the scene was really welcoming.”
In September 2009, it was announced that Slate had been chosen for the 35th season of SNL. The assignment was at once logical and surprising, in the way that most dreams-come-true are slightly unexpected. For a young and successful fixture of the New York comedy scene, a role on SNL seems like another pace forward in the measured step- by-step. She had made TV appearances, had two successful stand-up gigs, and a series of popular videos with Leidman. But it was also, of course, like other apex dreams—winning the lottery, or becoming President, or dating Brad Pitt—it was just the comedian’s version of it. “We had a VHS set of the first 25 years of SNL. I would watch those VHS tapes over and over again,” she says. “I loved Wendy Newman, and Gilda Radner, and you know —I loved SNL.”
SNL is, of course, famous for its creation of cultural icons, which it churns out season after season. Successful cast members have parlayed SNL fame into television shows, movies, entire franchises, comedic collaborations—careers with greater creative control. For most performers—and most people, in general—that ability to call the shots is the ultimate goal.
But mistakes, especially verbal slip-ups, run counter to control. They’re clumsy, silly things, sneaking in at moments when you’re not thinking. They’re a part of speech’s spontaneity. For audience members, though, spontaneity is part of what makes comedy, and especially improv, actually funny. We don’t laugh as hard when we know the punch line. It’s when impulsive ethos combines with the realities and the regulations of live network television, that a word becomes a mistake, and a mistake becomes a true mishap. “It’s hard,” she says. “It’s terrifying to achieve what you thought was your life’s dream and then make a giant mistake.”
There are still a couple clips of the “Biker Chick Chat” floating around the web. (SNL and NBC typically are known to track down unauthorized YouTube content. Nearly all of the originally posted clips are gone.) When Slate says the line, the camera almost seems to linger on her face, as she realizes instantly what she’s said. She puffs out her cheeks. In any other context, the face would be laughable, another voice or face to put on as a character—except here, it’s not. Slate looks at once surprised and crestfallen. Kristen Wiig delivers her next line after an excruciatingly long split-second, and most of the clips cut out after that.
“If a fortune teller had told me I was going to [say] that, I would have been like, ‘OK, well, I’m like just not going to go on that show, I never want to have that experience—that sounds horrible,’” Slate says. “But, you know, it’s fine—things happen in your career that you think would be the most embarrassing and horrifying thing that could ever, ever come to pass, and they’re not—they just happen, and you’re still yourself.”
It took Slate a while to get to this conclusion, though. She apologized to her co-workers, her parents, her grandmother, but also, finally, to herself. “I think the hardest apology is probably the one I continue to make to myself, everyday, which is that I’m sorry that I was so mean to you for making that mistake. I was so pissed at myself for so long and, you know, that’s just not helpful.”
Slate went on to finish her season with SNL, appearing in other skits with no further mentions of The Word. “You should try saying stuff on national television by mistake and then see if you have stage fright!” she says. “Then you’re going to have to deal with [it] and accept yourself as an imperfect human being—which is what I try to do.”
What’s strange and wonderful about Slate’s post-SNL story, though, is what she created during the picking-up-the-pieces period, with her then-fiancé, Fleischer-Camp. It was a character who would never say a curse word—he likely doesn’t even know any. That character is “Marcel the Shell,” star of two viral videos (“Marcel the Shell with Shoes On” and “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, Two”), a children’s book (Marcel the Shell With Shoes On: Things About Me), and a television show currently in production. Slate voices Marcel, while the animation, directing, and interviewing are done by Fleischer-Camp.
For those unfamiliar with Marcel, he consists of one shell, a googly eye, and two pink shoes. (I’m using “he” here, but Marcel is genderless. There’s been discussion on the subject in various forums.) Marcel’s voice sounds like that of a baby with a slight cold stuck in a shell. He introduces himself in the first video like this: “My name is Marshell and—oh, no, that’s not the first time I’ve done that. My name is Marcel, and I’m partially a shell, as you can see on my body. But I have shoes, and, um, a face. So, I like that about myself. And I like myself.” He’s interviewed in various parts of Slate’s apartment, moving around in stop-motion fashion. He tells us what he uses as a hat (a lentil), a dog (a piece of lint tied to a string), and skis (toenails from a man). People love the talking shell because he’s cute, poignant, silly, unexpected, or whatever adjective you want to attach to him. Most of all, though, Marcel is a hit because he’s not confined to adult humor, or child humor, because he speaks to, as she put it, “people humor.”
Slate and her husband are currently writing the second Marcel book, and she’s just been hired to reboot the Looney Tunes series for Warner Brothers. It may be tempting to see the stuff-for-kids as a retreat from the adult comedy world of SNL, but Slate hasn’t abandoned her other roles. She’s doing a monthly stand-up show in LA, and is in the upcoming movie The Longest Week, with Olivia Wilde, Jason Bateman, and Billy Crudup. (She may do well to give advice to Tom Hanks, who dropped the F Bomb last Friday, on Good Morning America.)
Slate’s story is pretty close to a happy ending—or perhaps a happy middle. Her career has moved on, and she has, for the most part, too. “The only fight that I fight on a daily basis is with myself,” she says. “Trying to keep my confidence up, and to stay positive, and to keep my eye on what I really desire—which is to perform in a meaningful way.”