True or False: Parsing Fact From Fiction in Jenny Slate’s Abortion Comedy ‘Obvious Child’
Obvious Child isn’t based on the life of actor Jenny Slate, but “Donna” — a comedian who finds herself pregnant after an idyll one-night-stand — fits her like Brooklyn couture. After a brief run on Saturday Night Live was cut short in 2010, Slate found opportunities on Bored to Death and Parks and Recreation to support her own viral creations, like the adorable animated confessions of Marcel, the Shell with Shoes On. In 2012, Warner Bros. even hired her to write a new Looney Tunes movie (though, according to the star, her script was a little too Animaniacs and the studio was looking for another Space Jam instead).
Over tea at New York City’s Crosby Street Hotel, Slate explains why one might confuse her life with Donna’s. For one, writer-director Gillian Robespierre utilized her star’s raunchy stand-up as a starting point for the character. “I think she made a pretty good study of me,” Slate says. When Donna finds herself confronting a laundry list of female twentysomething hurdles — impending unemployment, familial tension, a spectrum of confusing male affection, and the dizzying experience of scheduling an abortion — Obvious Child deviates from the truth. Still, Slate could relate. “[Gillian] saw my urge, really, to be vulnerable, and also wrote scenes that let me get there.”
So how much of the actor is really in her fictional counterpart? Slate was happy to reflect on Donna’s historical, philosophical, and comedic exploits.
She’s worked boyfriend problems into her stand-up sets: False
“There are a lot of differences between me and Donna, but I think the main one is that I’m not really a smart-ass, in any way. I’m also very aware of trying to protect people’s feelings. Even my own. So even though I am self-deprecating, it’s all because I am kind of trying to test how people perceive me. If I’m too self-deprecating, people don’t laugh at it. You know, there’s a line where people don’t feel bad for you anymore. I can joke around about how I think I look. Like that joke about being in a bagel store and a synagogue is mine that I lent to the film. I do recognize my features as sort of typically ‘Semitic’ or whatever, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like them. But I do feel that taking those feelings of looking different or not looking like a traditional leading lady and talking about them just makes them more wearable for me. It’s working shit out, you know?”
She has no idea how to do her taxes: True
“No, I don’t know how to do my taxes. Somebody else does them for me. [Laughs.] It’s fucking boring. That’s why I don’t want to do it: It’s boring.”
She has hit the stage completely wasted: False
“I get onstage and I’ll be pretty buzzed, but I’ve never done what Donna does. I’ve certainly seen it. I drink Jameson and soda, usually, when I’m onstage. I also drink Miller High Life. And I will get onstage drunk, but I’ll never get onstage drunk and eat shit the way that Donna does. I just don’t do it. I know where the line is, and it is my job. Whereas Donna, she’s just really flooring it straight into the dirt. That’s where we differ. I will not allow for a complete collapse in front of other people. It just is not going to happen.”
She has a uniquely close relationship with her parents: Half-true
“[New York families] are super-close; they’re like mice. I’m very close with my family, but I don’t have the relationship that Donna has with them. I think I could talk to my parents about anything, but we don’t have that sort of physical proximity thing. I’m sure I could get into my mom’s bed if I wanted to, but I just wouldn’t think of it.
She’s appeared in an organic douche commercial: False
“I’ve never been on a commercial for a feminine product. I was on an energy drink commercial, but that’s as close as it’ll get. I think it’s so gross when people drink energy drinks in the morning. It’s fucking soda, man! It’s disgusting. At least coffee’s a fucking bean.
She’ll pee on the street if she needs to pee on the street: False
“I haven’t peed on the street. I’ve peed in the woods. At camp. I haven’t peed outside in a really, really long time. [And] I hate camping. I like using the bathroom and I like sleeping in a bed. I just don’t like [camping]. But I also went with, like, a boyfriend that I didn’t get along with. I’m sure that, if I went with my husband, I would probably like it a lot. Actually, even thinking of going with my husband seems cool. I’m the kind of person that’s, like, ‘I don’t want to do that.’ Then somebody puts it in a different light and I’m, like, ‘Let’s go right now! Let’s do it!’ My opinions can change very quickly.”
She thinks Los Angeles is the worst place on the planet: False
“I lived in New York for 13 years before I moved to L.A. 13 years ago. L.A. is no New York, but it is good in its own way. I think it’s a waste of time and a bummer to try to live in a way that continually asserts that L.A. sucks, because, if you live there, you might as well have a good attitude about it. And I think I do. I enjoy a lot about it, but it is a weird place, and you have to find the good people — but they’re there, and it’s nice. [And] you can get a medical marijuana card. Gabe [Liedman], who plays Joey, has one. He seems to have a surplus of weed.”
She loves pasta: True
“I love pasta. But [I'm not] on a ‘pasta train.’ Most people are on the ‘pasta train’! Donna loves pasta. She’s hungry. She also, probably, hasn’t been eating a lot, is what I always think about that scene. She’s going through a breakup, everything just smells and tastes gross to her, and all she wants is wine. That is what I had in my mind. I’ve had that, like, going through a breakup, you lose 10 pounds and become a wino. You smoke too many cigarettes. But I love all food. I love food.
She thinks a date warming up her butter with his hands is a romantic gesture: True
“I would love it. I think it’s nice. Very romantic. I like it when my husband brings me flowers and, like, buys me underpants on Valentine’s Day. I like just all the classics — chocolate, flowers, underpants, mixtapes … I’m so bad at computers I don’t know how you make a mixtape for anybody anymore.”
She’s all about sharing the female experience in her act: True
“I feel like most of the men I know are very curious about, like, what goes on in the world of women’s hygiene. Maybe I just know a lot of great men.”
The comedy community is as close-knit as it seems: True
“I think it’s pretty close. There was a group of us who started at a bar called Rififi, which was on 11th Street between 1st and 2nd. So, since I was 22, I’ve known Aziz [Ansari], Nick Kroll, John Mulaney, Joe Mande, Pete Holmes, Chelsea Peretti, Gabe Liedman — who’s my comedy partner — Max Silvestri. I’ve known all these people for a really long time. Reggie Watts, Eugene Mirman, Kristen Schaal — like, we’ve just known each other for forever. I go over to Kristen’s house for dinner and go for walks with Chelsea a lot, and Nick; Gabe’s my best friend; Max is one of my other really close friends; I live across the street from Joe Mande. We’re actual, real friends. It’s nice.”
She’s of the belief there’s always time for a good movie: True
“I watch a lot of movies. Amazon, Netflix, occasionally on DVD, if it’s an Aki Kaurismäki movie that you can’t get on Amazon.”
She has never seen Gone With the Wind: False
“I’ve seen Gone With the Wind, like, four times. I’ve seen, like, almost every single ‘old’ movie like that, because, growing up, we didn’t have cable, and my mom was really down on the TV, but she would rent movies from the library.”
She’s worked through life’s darker moments onstage: Half-true
“I will say anything onstage if I feel like it’s useful and it’s going to be funny and the energy is going to be up. But I’m not so unaware that I just use the stage as my therapist — it’s not that. I went through a breakup during my comedy career, but I didn’t talk about it onstage. I use comedy, in life, in my normal conversation. I need that levity, for sure, but I tend to have some things that just aren’t ready to go out there yet.
“I feel like there has been a clamoring for an authentic voice recently. I don’t know why, more than ever, but I think we always needed it. I think male or female people just want an authentic voice. Maybe it’s because we have the Internet or Twitter and people are able to be more honest and throw their shit out to everybody, but not have to see everyone’s faces. In general, we want the realest to really just pare that down. Obvious Child is obviously a work of fiction, but I think it does a good job of having a really authentic and unique voice in capturing this one woman’s experience.”
Matt Patches (@misterpatches) is a writer and reporter in New York whose work can be seen on Vulture, The Hollywood Reporter, and Time Out.