Obvious Talent: The NYC Origins of Jenny Slate and Gillian Robespierre

The star and writer-director of "Obvious Child" talk about how they got their start.

Ms. Robespierre and Ms. Slate (Photo by Jill Greenberg)
Ms. Robespierre and Ms. Slate (Photo by Jill Greenberg)

It doesn’t seem likely that the funniest movie of the summer would be about a jobless woman getting an abortion during a subzero New York City winter.

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But Obvious Child is just that good. New York City native Gillian Robespierre wrote and directed the film, which is her feature debut, while comedian Jenny Slate signed on to play the lead in her first film role.

The movie’s writing, pace and jokes are so masterful, it’s tough to believe that it’s Ms. Robespierre’s or Ms. Slate’s first go at moviemaking. As is usually the case with apparent breakout stars, though, they’ve both been honing their crafts for a long time. So we caught up with the two of them to learn more about what they’ve both been doing until now.

Ms. Slate, a Boston native, got her start as a standup comic while attending Columbia University. Ms. Robespierre went to film school at SVA, then did production-assistant work and and had a job with the Directors Guild of America while writing and directing Obvious Child.

Obvious Child first saw life as a short film in 2009. Ms. Robespierre picked Ms. Slate to star in the short after seeing her in The Big Terrific Comedy Show, the weekly Williamsburg showcase that Ms. Slate and Max Silvestri co-hosted until Ms. Slate moved to Los Angeles two years ago. When it came time to turn Obvious Child into a feature, Ms. Robespierre once more tapped Ms. Slate.

Ms. Slate got her start doing standup around 10 years ago. She wanted to act, but found the typical paths to TV and film stardom like overpriced classes and cattle-call auditions frustrating.

“I was really turned off by all of the New York acting classes that are like, ‘Pay us $200 and we’ll give you a headshot,'” she told the Observer. “Just crazy scams and casting calls that just, you know, are horrible. I just didn’t like any of that. It didn’t feel right to me.”

So standup seemed like a great way to break into a world that seemed intangible, and to perform on her own terms rather than having to answer to executives. Plus, it was cheap.

“I didn’t know any actors,” she said. “I didn’t know anybody. But I knew how to talk and I knew that I felt really good about myself when I told stories about my life. So I recognized that my intellect was there and those were sort of all things that were points of confidence and that couldn’t be taken away by anyone, and were very personal to me.”

The deeper she went into the comedy scene, the more she used standup not just as a way to get onstage, but also “as a way to develop as a person,” she said. But becoming a touring comic with Comedy Central specials was never her goal.

“I didn’t really want to go on the road” as a comedian, she said. “I always wanted to be an actress. So I was never like, ‘Let’s make this act into a full-time gig.’ I used it as a way of satisfying myself and connecting to strangers and being a little less afraid of a very big world filled with big individuals who all have really sharp senses of what they like and don’t like.”

It’s tough to even find Ms. Slate’s standup on YouTube. Instead, search her name and you’ll find hilarious “Publizity” sketches from The Kroll Show; charming interviews and other video work — oh, and her SNL f-bomb, which she’s obviously recovered from quite nicely.

She prefers not to write down or record her standup sets because she tweaks her material every time she goes onstage to reflect the way she’s feeling about it. To record her stories and have them set in stone, she said, wouldn’t feel right. Instead, she tries to tailor her set to her crowd every time she gets onstage.

“I usually like to act as if I’m meeting people at a really fancy party that is filled with made-up best friends,” she said. “I usually start by saying, ‘Let me introduce myself,’ and I say my name and I explain that I’m Jenny and not Jennifer, because I’m from Boston and my mom didn’t want them to call me ‘Jennifa.'”

Some of her favorite ground to cover, she said, includes “my mom, my dad, our house, me as a teenager, masturbating, fear of tampons, my mom’s fear of tampons, a story about masturbating on the couch.”

Storytelling comedy is synonymous with the alternative comedy scene, which was popularized in the late 90s by West Coast comics like Janeane Garofalo and Kathy Griffin, as well as Mitch Hedberg. Ms. Slate was part of a similar scene about 10 years ago at Rififi, the East Village club that was shuttered in 2008. She and her standup partner Gabe Liedman met as Columbia students auditioning for the university’s annual “Varsity Show.”

“It’s like an improv-based musical about the school,” Ms. Slate explained. “It sounds kind of dorky but it was very, very fun.”

When they graduated, they became staples at Rififi along with a who’s-who of comics who are now becoming bold-faced names: Aziz Ansari, Nick Kroll, Mr. Silvestri, Jessi Klein, Chelsea Peretti, Reggie Watts and many more.

“It wasn’t even a comedy club,” she said of Rififi. “It was a bar with a black-box theatre in the back and a video store behind that, called Cinema Classics. There were comedy shows there every night and it was really the genesis of a scene… You would run into [the same] people every night. It was like Cheers but for comedy, and I was Norm.”

She thinks for a minute, then adds, “JK, I would totally be Diane.”

Although the group at Rififi was racially diverse, it was predominantly male — but that never presented a problem for Ms. Slate.

“Gender was not an issue,” she said. “It was just whether or not you were funny and social, and it was very supportive, and what was supported was originality. All the shows were free, you know? It was true comedy fans, no tourists.”

While she was doing comedy, and before her year-long stint on Saturday Night Live, Ms. Slate worked at a patisserie in Cobble Hill; an SAT testing agency, writing sample reading-comprehenstion paragraphs; nannying; and at one of the first American Apparel stores in the city. Then, she started to live on commercials and unemployment. She started to feel financially stable when she got her first TV gig on Bored to Death, and then was picked up by Saturday Night Live a few months later.

Ms. Slate and Mr. Kroll became friends seven or eight years ago, she said. She now plays a hilariously deranged publicist on his Comedy Central show, The Kroll Show. Mr. Kroll dresses in drag to play her business partner, who’s also named Liz, in a segment called “Publizity.” They skewer reality TV stars and a certain type of PR professional.

The reason “Publizity” is so hilarious is that “it is a private playtime between Nick and I, where we’re all dressed up and just trying to make each other laugh,” she said. “We are lampooning the sort of reality show people, but we dement them a little bit. It’s not an impression. It is us taking something and just kind of fucking with it a bit. There are some people that just were your playmates since you were little, and Nick feels like one of those people that I must have known as a kid, but didn’t. A comedy playmate.”

She didn’t just make friends with other comics at Rififi; she also met her husband, who’d seen her perform there before they were introduced.

“My husband saw me there, probably a couple years [before we met]. I like to think of him watching me. I think that’s very romantic. But you know, he was like, there on a date,” she said. “I just remember thinking, ‘He’s a really nice person. That girl’s, like, really lucky.'”

Obvious Child will draw comparisons to shows like Girls and Broad City not just because it takes place largely in Brooklyn, but also because of its indie feel. The sweaters are oversized, the actresses’ makeup is minimal, and the dialogue and stories are über-realistic. Ms. Slate pointed out that the Obvious Child short actually came before Tiny Furniture, but called both Lena Dunham’s work and Comedy Central’s Broad City “amazing.”

“I’m a huge fan of those shows and those voices,” Ms. Robespierre said. “They’re really funny, really thoughtful and very talented, so I don’t feel competitive or envious. I feel very excited to be part of just a tonality movement of creators — men and women who are able to share themselves and their stories in a real, authentic way and that’s really cool. I think audiences are seeking characters that they can see themselves in, partially because that’s what’s getting on TV and movies now, and partially because they’re sick and tired of the run-of-the-mill, laugh-tracky show where they can’t relate to the stories. It’s just an exciting time for storymaking.”

“It’s nice to be included in a group of distinct voices,” Ms. Slate said. “Lena is not the same as Broad City. When you see our movie, you’ll see it’s not the same as those projects. But what we have in common is a  focus on this unique voice and a thoughtfulness, really wanting to connect with the audience.”

When asked about the difference between New York and LA standups, Ms. Slate said she sees more people who might be more confident after having honed their skills in New York, and are now looking for jobs. There’s also a faux-hipster quality to some LA comics that can feel manufactured, she said.

“One thing I see in LA is that the alt comedy scene is just normal,” she said. “I think it’s become normal even in mainstream movies to have an alt tone. There’s this general tone of just, awkward! You see it in like, Verizon commercials now. Sort of this fake hipster, cardigans and glasses and scarves and shit, and it’s kind of just like… that’s a bummer.”

The best way to seem authentic, she said, is to “use whatever style is actually funny to you, not what you think is trendy or attractive. That’s the only thing I know how to do. There’s a part of me that’s like, ‘Well, I know a lot of my friends perform in club clubs, why don’t I do that?’ The answer is I’m not interested in it. I don’t want to, so I don’t. I think the best comics are the people who are doing what they want to do.”

In Obvious Child, there’s a great scene where Ms. Slate’s character is sharing some painfully personal details with her audience during a standup routine. The guy she’s seeing storms out of the club in anger. We asked if Ms. Slate has any lines she doesn’t cross when it comes to including her husband in her act.

“It’s sort of like an appetite,” she said. “Let’s say he does something really sexy, and something is interesting to me about that. Because a lot of times, I think about things that make me horny, you know? Like —”

“Like that lamp?” Ms. Robespierre said, indicating a highly phallic silver lamp in the corner.

“That lamp is… so fab,” Ms. Slate said. “You know, there are some things that just don’t belong [in my act], and I sense that. Just like when you don’t want to eat something. It’s just an appetite that’s not there. I have not made the same mistakes that Donna has made. I have said things about an ex-boyfriend that, I’m sure if he was there, he wouldn’t like. But I know he’s not there and there’s just a little bit of me that’s just like, fuck him.”

Ms. Robespierre, who doesn’t perform standup but wrote Donna’s sets in Obvious Child, has a different take: “My friends, my family, my fiancé… They’re all up for grabs,” she said. “Whatever they say is definitely something that will end up [in my work]. I have the funniest friends and family, and whatever they say is going to end up in the script somehow.”

“At least they’ll be played by fictional characters,” Ms. Slate said. “Instead of just saying, ‘Hi, I’m Jenny and this happened to my dad.'”

When asked if Ms. Slate feels like she’s finally made it after 10 years of standup and sketch comedy, she’s hesitant to put it in those words.

“I feel more developed as a performer and more confident,” she said. “But I would hope that the drive for more and the urge to be accepted in a community actually stays with me forever. Those don’t seem like bad things. They seem like things that help you to push forward. And I just don’t want to ever be bored. You know, I hope that I’m 75 and still asking around for what the cool scripts are. That seems good to me.”

“I would love to still be making movies with you when we’re in our 70s,” Ms. Robespierre said.

“Two old birds, walking really slowly,” Ms. Slate said. “Black Reeboks, going to film in Florida. Easy spirits.”

“I might rock the black Reeboks sooner rather than later,” Ms. Robespierre said. “I’m sick of fancy shoes. Why not? They are very orthopedic.”

Obvious Talent: The NYC Origins of Jenny Slate and Gillian Robespierre