The actress discusses her film, Landline.
Actress Jenny Slate
[Walmart Sponsor Ad]
Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.
Pleased to welcome Jenny Slate to this program. She stars as Dana Jacobs in the new family comedy, “Landline” which, as you can tell from the title, is set in the mid-1990s. You can also recognize this distinctive voice from two animated hits this summer, “Despicable Me 3” and “The LEGO Batman Movie”. Before our conversation begins, here now a clip from “Landline”.
Tavis: That was funny [laugh]. Tell me about “Landline”.
Jenny Slate: Sure, okay. “Landline” is my second movie with writer-director, Gillian Robespierre, and Elisabeth Holm. It’s about a family in 1995 living in Manhattan and two sisters who are 10 years apart, don’t really get along. I play Dana who is very uptight and a real goody two-shoes and her sister, Ali, played by Abby Quinn, she’s sort of a bad ass.
She’s going to raves at night, experimenting with drugs, and they don’t along. But when they discover that their father is potentially having an affair, they become friends for the first time under that stress. And it’s really funny and also sort of rather sad.
Tavis: The sad part comes where?
Slate: The sadness is throughout [laugh], much like life, much like the human experience. The sadness is finally woven in a beautiful latticework, yeah.
Tavis: That’s how that works.
Slate: Yeah, yeah, it does. That’s actually why I like this movie so much and why I like Gillian’s work is that it’s never one thing, which I find to be very true to human experience. It’s like you laugh at funerals sometimes. It’s just something weird happens and all of your emotions are there all of the time. And it’s actually weird to act like there’s only one mode, yeah.
Tavis: Have you always been funny? Have you always known you were funny?
Slate: I don’t know. I think that’s a question that people ask funny people or whatever. I’m pointing to myself, but I know that I do comedy. But it feels like it would be a strange simplification of myself to say like I’m a funny person. But I like to make people laugh.
I did notice it as a special thing or like a special sun that I felt shining on me when I was younger, and it was a way for me to stand out for sure. I noticed it like at camp, I remember. But I never really thought of it as anything but a part of me. I think it’s in adulthood when people are like, “And this is your thing” and you’re just like, “Oh, I thought my thing was being myself”, like the whole thing.
Tavis: Speaking of being yourself, what is it about your personality that lends itself to the comedy, to being so funny?
Slate: It’s a weird thing to say because I think people think comedians are depressive.
Tavis: Many of them are.
Slate: And many of them are…
Tavis: Or live rough lives or whatever, yeah, yeah.
Slate: I think my comedy comes from my nature and my nature is that I’m very community-oriented and I like to feel love and connection constantly. So the way that I put myself out there to say like I need something and I’m not a predator, but I have needs and I have a drive. I think it’s so cheesy to say, but it feels like it comes from love, yeah. Self-love, other people love you.
Tavis: See, I’m glad you said that because I don’t know that I’ve ever talked to a comedian — and I’ve talked to a ton of them over the years on this program –and ever gotten that particular answer. I mean, to your point, when you study the greats from Pryor on down, you discover that so many of them have these dark periods in their life and they find the comedy.
They find the humor, you know, running away from or at least either running away from or they find the humor in that darkness. But yours is a different answer, that love is what motivates and animates the comedy.
Slate: Sure. But that’s also because sometimes just like most people, I feel very, very lonely, and because I’m afraid of not receiving love. So there is a darker element to it.
It’s just that, first of all, both of my parents are artists and I think they recognized in me this sensitivity early on and they showed me Carol Burnett and Gilda Radner. I identified with Lily Tomlin, women also, and Sesame Street, which is like one of the first places that I thought…
Tavis: That’s PBS, you know.
Slate: Yeah, totally, I know. And also, I’d really like to be on Sesame Street. I wish that they would let me.
Tavis: I’m sure they…
Slate: Can I please be on Sesame Street, PBS? Yeah, it’s just that I have had a lot of support, so it’s always been put to me that you need to actually make an active choice between living in the dark and living in the light. That doesn’t mean denying either one, but I’ve just been centered on it a lot. But I get super anxious. Just try not to let it win.
Tavis: So since the producers of Sesame Street watch our program…
Slate: Do they?
Tavis: Yes. So what do you want to do on Sesame Street? Here’s your chance to tell them what — you want to pitch your idea?
Slate: Okay. Well, one thing, actually I saw Lena Horne with Grover when I was a little girl and she sings this song about like saying hello. And it’s like, “How do you do” — it’s like really great and Rover is really the one Muppet out of all Sesame Street or all the Henson stuff that I really relate to, more than Telly who’s very anxious.
Tavis: Why Grover? You know I got to ask this, right?
Slate: He’s Super Grover. He has an alter ego, but he has a soft little head and he likes to be kissed on his soft little head, that area that he’s always like offering up. You know, he’s sort of normal, but he is often making social mistakes. Like when he’s the waiter and he always brings the wrong thing.
I remember as a little girl relating to that, but also being like stressed. You know, I’m like that [laugh], and I get it. So anyway, I would like to sing a song to Grover about manners because I also feel like manners are very important and I think they soften us all.
Tavis: Well, if that doesn’t get you on Sesame Street, I don’t know what will.
Slate: Yeah. What the heck?
Tavis: I mean, you pitched that thing beautifully [laugh].
Slate: What the H? Come on! I know the whole alphabet [laugh]. Come on.
Tavis: That is funny [laugh]. You’re cracking me up. Let me go back to Gilda Radner because I was reading some stuff about you and your life and your career getting ready for our conversation.
I was really very — I was pleased, but I was actually sort of humbled, even blown away, I should say, by this list of women that you listed in our conversation that you’d like to hang out with, and Gilda Radner was on that list. You know the list I’m talking about, right?
Slate: I do, and I think on that list, you know, it’s Gilda Radner and it’s Ruth Gordon and Rosalind Russell and Madeline Kahn…
Tavis: That’s the one.
Slate: But also M.F.K. Fisher, who’s a food writer from the early 1900s. I was introduced to her through my friend, Zoe Kazan, who’s a wonderful actress and so smart. I was talking about food one day and she was like, “You would like really like this woman and her books.” I just tend to enjoy a female perspective that it’s so deep within itself and joyfully getting out into the world.
I don’t know that women are often offered that as a first alternative for how to live. You know, it’s either like it’s find a way to be in the world, but your inner life and your identity is not. That’s not for everybody in the same way that, for men, it often is just like show everyone everything, like we’re so happy to have you. I just also believe as an artist that you should take from everywhere and that includes plants and animals.
Tavis: Not to give the movie away, but I get the sense watching this that when you all filmed this, you were expecting — how can I say this — a different outcome of the presidential election.
Slate: Totally! Isn’t that so heartbreaking?
Tavis: There’s a scene in here, again that I won’t give away, but I got the impression that you guys thought that Mrs. Clinton was going to pull this thing off.
Slate: For sure. Of course, of course, he did. So did so many other people [laugh].
Tavis: Including her.
Slate: Yeah, yeah, certainly. Yeah, so there’s footage of Hillary Clinton in the film. And what I think is really interesting is that, at that time, Hillary Clinton was a woman who was forced to carry around the weight of her husband’s sort of bad behavior not as the president, but as a husband.
And oddly, that got put on her, but not oddly because under patriarchy, women hold men’s entire experience all the time and the men just go forward with what wins, which is a giant bummer.
And Edie Falco plays my mother and she is also taxed with keeping the secret of her husband’s weaknesses and misbehaviors knowing that if she, just as if Hillary Clinton had said, yeah, I don’t like my husband for what he did, the presidency would have fallen apart for many reasons, you know.
I mean, she was a major important point in that. And Edie in our movie is also forced into silence and under that stress.
There are three generations of women in this movie who feel unseen and silenced and some of it is heightened in the way that Edie’s is and some of it is so stressful because it’s normalized. That’s what my character deals with and what many women deal with is the normalization of silence.
Tavis: Yet you seem to have a pretty good handle on your womanhood.
Slate: Yeah, well, I’m not shutting up for anyone [laugh], but I just can’t help myself [laugh].
Tavis: I will leave it right there. Actually, there’s a quick exit question. Do you have — since nowadays, landlines seem not to exist, do you have a favorite landline flashback?
Slate: Well, my grandmother is not even ESL. She’s English as like a fourth language. The first time a boy called up at our house to ask me out, first of all, I was like 16, but for some reason, my grandmother was still babysitting me which like says a lot [laugh].
But, secondly, like I have a friend named Max. She straight up thought that his name was Hat. Like she cannot get a handle on names in the English language, which is odd. So a boy called. I was in the shower. I came out. She was like “A boy called and asked you out for tonight.”
I was like, “Who was it?” No one had ever called to ask me out before. She was like, “Howard? Howard?” I was like, “That is not from my generation! There’s nobody named Howard! No one!”
We didn’t have call waiting. So it was just like you just got to hope that this guy isn’t gonna be put off by my grandmother, you know, or not like me because I’m 16 years old and my grandmother is babysitting me, but he called back. Yeah, we went on the date [laugh].
Tavis: I feel like Chuck Lorre. And how’d the date end?
Slate: Oh, it was bad [laugh].
Tavis: Well, we will not be back in two and two. We’ll just leave that right where it is [laugh]. The project is called “Landline” starring Jenny Slate. Delighted to have you here. Come back again.
Slate: Please have me again.
Tavis: Of course, I’ll have you…
Slate: And please tell the Sesame Street people. Come on.
Tavis: Believe me, they got it. Good to see you, Jenny.
Slate: Thank you.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.
[Walmart Sponsor Ad]
Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.