‘Jenny Slate: Stage Fright’ Review: Equal Parts Silliness and Sincerity

     October 22, 2019

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Does Jenny Slate really have “stage fright,” like her new Netflix comedy special claims? Upon first glance, it seems like an overmodest, even preposterous claim. Slate owns the stage with unbridled enthusiasm, glee, and a special brand of confidence. She absolutely radiates with self-love, laughing at her own riffs while saying, “I’m my biggest fan, I guess.” And yet, at the center of this uniquely bold stage presence lies a palpable sense of anxiety and, yes, fright, even before Slate starts tackling these issues explicitly. How did such a gulf between performing bravado and inner turmoil exist simultaneously? To answer this, Jenny Slate: Stage Fright splits time between Slate on stage and documentary footage with her family, resulting in a refreshingly unique, consistently entertaining, and sometimes over-loose special.

If you’re only familiar with Slate’s comedic voice from Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, Big Mouth, or Parks and Recreation, you might be surprised to see just how untethered and silly her standup persona can get. Her Twitter bio reads “I’m an Animaniac,” which is a pretty simple, fairly accurate introduction to her style. But even the Animaniacs performed tightly patterned, scripted comedy with a clear focus. Slate is prone to erratic flights of fancy, following the impulses of her muse to their naturally absurd conclusions. And if this reads as criticism, it ain’t: Slate’s pure sense of play and silliness is a joyful palate cleanser to other prestige standup specials like The Great Depresh or Nanette that traffic in melancholy, “grown-up” material. The rest of Slate’s Twitter bio reads, “I’m glad to be here and I love tons of stuff.” That love, that gratitude for performing, shines bright with childlike wonder.

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Image via Netflix

This is not to say that Slate isn’t interested in “grown-up” stuff. In fact, the strongest moments of her standup come from the purposeful clash of “grown-up” stuff with her “childlike” point of view. Christianity is reframed as celebrating a deity who “got killed as a hunk and he’s not even upset.” Memories of school bullies are filtered through a performatively “adult” voice: “I’m going to opt out. It’s been bad,” she states firmly, affecting a “middle-aged woman dealing with a telemarketer” tone. And in the hardest I’ve laughed in a long time, she dismantles the inherent problematism of football by explaining the basic components of the game sweetly, with a loving tone and absurdly simple language (the concussion crisis is swept away as boys who “haven’t figured out how to make their hats work”). In this joke, and her best jokes, hard topics like the patriarchy, divorce, and trauma feel manageable and universal, with no affected sense of performative progressivism (cc: Aziz Ansari). Her politics are baked in with everything else, and should be, too.

How does the documentary aspect play into all of this? Firstly, you’ll be pleased to know that Slate even views the act of “documentary filmmaking” with whimsy: “The movie comes to your house!” she exclaims, confirming a childhood fantasy of hers. Wait, Slate’s childhood fantasy was to have a documentary made about her? Ah, now we’re starting to see why Slate’s family background is part and parcel to her artistic point of view. Under director Gillian Robespierre, who collaborated with Slate on the essential Obvious Child, Slate speaks with her parents, her sisters, and exhumes her childhood trophies — sometimes literal trophies, for speech — for clues as to why she is the way she is. From a formal standpoint, Robespierre’s intercutting choices sometimes work tremendously (a long take on Slate examining a box of childhood frustrations smashing to her onstage drew a huge laugh), and her sense of style, while understated, is felt and appreciated. Unfortunately, some of the editing starts to feel unstructured to a fault. At many times during Slate’s performance footage, obvious attempts at match cutting between different takes fall flat. Robespierre also has a tendency to let a riff go for one beat too long before cutting away — there were at least three times when Slate reaches a natural climax to a joke, and then we get one more moment that invariably doesn’t reach those heights. Perhaps these ramshackle moments are intentional, but it couldn’t help but take me out of Slate’s engrossing reality.

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Image via Netflix

For the first half of the special, you may think the documentary footage to be less rich than desired. Slate’s interactions with her folks are always fascinating — her father, in particular, is still in a way Slate seems to be actively rejecting while existing in her own skin. And when Slate speaks with her sisters, you can sense an unspoken tension between Slate’s willingness to be loud and performative versus her sisters’ tendencies to stay calm, even withdrawn. But then, a little more than halfway through Stage Fright, the dam bursts. And Slate dives into the title topic with startling frankness. After seeing her capably filter her anxieties through goofy make-em-ups, the sight of Slate bluntly saying things like, “You should see how many selves there are in my psyche. Some of them are murderers and they’re trying to kill me. I’m surviving them and living with them, you know?” Suddenly, Slate’s high energy feels less like a choice and more like a fight. And her parents feel less like “endearing weirdos” and more like “accidental purveyors of childhood trauma.” I appreciated and related to Slate’s honesty in these moments, and found Robespierre’s choice to save them ‘til the backend to be subtly powerful — the medicine hits harder because of the sugar we’ve been fed before.

In its ending moments, Stage Fright basically mounts two “grand finales.” One, onstage, felt just a touch too unearned to me — like Slate was trying purposelessly to tie everything up in a Mike Birbiglia-esque “everything happens for a reason” visual statement. But the other, a private moment captured in her childhood home, nearly moved me to tears. The moment, like the best moments of Slate’s special, fit snugly in between the crevasses of joy and terror. Here’s hoping Slate keeps wiggling around to make room.

Rating: ★★★★

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