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Jenny Slate and Obvious Child bring change to comedy

Jenny Slate plays a stand-up comedian in the new film Obvious Child.


Like so much comedy these days, the new film Obvious Child opens with a vagina joke. A vagina story, in fact, related by the main character, Donna (Jenny Slate), in a style I call 21st-century: deliberately faux-naive, self-consciously confessional, shocking-vulnerable, intimate-icky. Everyone's doing it, from Sarah Silverman and Lena Dunham to Seth Rogen and Louis C.K. (viz. his routine about farting during orgasms). So when I interviewed Slate in Toronto this week, I had to ask her: Are detailed descriptions of genitalia and their functions the last frontier?

"I think it's the first frontier," Slate replied, smiling. "I think everything comes down to penises and vaginas. When they're literally called our privates – that's what we should talk about."

We were sitting in a dark bar decorated with television sets. Slate, 32, was wearing a slim sundress; her hair was up in a bun. She has a pretty face that calls to mind a young Jennifer Grey, a petite frame, and a voice loud enough to carry across the room. Her star is on a steady rise, from stand-up comedy to Saturday Night Live; from the Web series Marcel the Shell with Shoes On to recurring roles on Bob's Burgers, Parks and Recreation, House of Lies and Kroll Show, where she's expert at sending up the sincerity and narcissism of her generation. She clearly prefers conversations to rote answers, and her manners are impeccable.

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"I think people are searching for things that are honest and authentic," Slate says. "They're tired of being marketed at, and tricked, and told what products to consume." Scatological humour, if performed correctly, is a way to give people something that feels real. "I think people want to feel that, even if they're in a crowd, the person on stage is saying, 'I have to tell you a secret, and it's so funny and so gross.' And that person is going to reveal enough of her personality to you that you don't feel she's flashing you. There's a difference between sharing something personal and being masturbatory."

Obvious Child, which was directed and co-written by Gillian Robespierre and opened in select cities yesterday, feels personal in the best way. If you diagrammed the plot, it would look like a conventional romantic comedy – which makes its swerves from the norm all the more interesting. First, Donna is not your typical rom-com goddess; she's a flawed, emotionally messy stand-up comedian. Second, the story is cat-fight free: Donna's sole enemy is her own self-defeatism, which is a lot more interesting to watch than two frenemies whacking each other with wedding bouquets.

And third, Donna gets an abortion and is not punished for it. (They shot the scene in an actual Planned Parenthood branch.) While this may not be a big deal in some quarters, it's a big deal in rom-coms, and it's a very big deal in parts of the U.S. where Slate and Robespierre have done screenings. In Dallas, for example, where health centres have been closed, the response was emotional, with many women in tears.

"We didn't do a story about abortion to be gutsy," Robespierre said in a phone interview. "We looked at it as something that was missing in our dialogue and in movies. But it wasn't just abortion that was missing. It was also the faces and voices of women who look and talk like me and my friends. We were trying to make something that's both fun and authentic."

"I think it's an interesting task to point out heinous flaws, yet force the audience to have an appetite for the character who has those very apparent flaws," Slate says. She doesn't try to shock her audience. She never makes fun of anyone but herself, and then only in a way that's good-natured and curious. And she finds it "exhilarating and addictive" that everybody who watches her knows that she loves to perform.

"I have a bit of Shirley Temple in me, in an old-fashioned, 'puttin' on a show' way," Slate says. "My audience and I have a desire that's paired: You want to be entertained, and I certainly want to entertain you."

She was that way since birth. Raised, as she says in her act, by a potter and poet in a haunted house in Massachusetts, she was an overactive, imaginative, bossy kid, an outcast in elementary school but accepted at summer camp as an entertainer. "I always wanted to be a performer," Slate says. "I always wanted to be on SNL. I was driven by this dreamy sense of, 'I'm going to get there.' Not in a Joan Crawford-scary way. But it just seemed like it was going to gently happen, that my goal was my partner."

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Slate did end up on SNL, at age 27, in 2009 (infamously, she dropped an F-bomb on her first night), but she left after one season. "I was proud to be there, but I didn't fit in," Slate says. "I felt like I was a bird in a house. I didn't like those feelings. They're not correct for me. I'm lucky that challenge was put before me, and I put my foot down hard and said, 'I am not going to be uncomfortable for anyone else's sake.' It taught me to understand the difference between wanting to give people pleasure and wanting to please people."

Slate and Obvious Child arrive at a time that feels unusually rich for women writers and performers – though most of those I've met don't like their successes being considered a trend. That's partly because it implies that a woman's success is some kind of anomaly, and partly because it suggests that this rich time will end. But it's difficult to deny there's a critical mass of hit woman-driven projects: sitcoms starring Amy Poehler and Mindy Kaling; Orange is the New Black; Veep. The announcements that Tina Fey is creating another sitcom, and that Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo (Bridesmaids) are writing another script, made news headlines. Dunham's book is due in September. Lake Bell (In a World…) was on the cover of Esquire; Shailene Woodley and Brie Larson are on the cover of New York magazine, talking about how they'd like to change Hollywood from the inside.

Two films starring Woodley – the action flick Divergent and the romance The Fault in Our Stars – are dominating the spring-summer box office, having already grossed $149-million and $88-million (all figures U.S.), respectively. Maleficent has grossed $170-million; The Other Woman has pulled in $82-million. Those are big numbers. It's not that women are more entertaining than they used to be, but it could be that more of the powers that be in the business are taking note and taking a chance on them.

Saying the word "vagina" 25 times in a comedy set may be a way of reinforcing the fact that the person on stage has one. But it may be more: Slate uses her comedy to remind us, joyfully, that a person with a vagina also has a voice.

"In a world where women are increasingly encouraged, or pressured, to put filler in our faces and make our bodies look like young boys," she says, "there's a part of me that's like, 'Maybe there are people who don't like how I look. Maybe my features are not what they want on their TVs.' That hurts my feelings. So onstage, I want to showcase my grossest parts, to ask, 'If you see all of these things, do you still like me? Because even though they're my grossest parts, they're also delightful. And could I please be somebody who has that kind of beauty, to you?' It's needy. But I think it's cool, too."

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