Comedian and actress Jenny Slate kicked off her “Little Weirds” book tour Nov. 3 to a well-attended and enthusiastic crowd in The George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium. The event was hosted by NPR and moderated by “All Things Considered” co-host Audie Cornish, with plans to be produced for broadcast on the NPR radio program. At the reading, Slate shared the ups and downs of adulthood and comedy with an engrossing honesty and a razor-sharp wit that made for a night to remember.
The event was part of the show’s special series “She’s Funny,” which focuses on women in comedy, like previous guests Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Hannah Gadsby. Slate had plenty to celebrate and discuss, as her book “Little Weirds,” a collection of short stories, was published Nov. 5 and her first Netflix comedy special “Stage Fright,” arrived on the streaming platform Oct. 22.
After a brief introduction from Cornish on “All Things Considered,” Slate walked out to eager applause. She blew kisses in every direction of the room and waved excitedly, then straightened herself, cleared her throat and stepped to the microphone situated on the far right of the stage to read an excerpt from her book.
What was overwhelmingly evident throughout Slate’s time on stage was that she has been on a journey. While the particular details of it might not all be known, given what she revealed through her statements and the stories in her book, the journey has been fraught with confusion, sadness and a sense of being lost.
The short story she chose was titled “Treat,” which at first appeared to focus on her comical wish to be perceived as French, before transforming into a deeper reflection on wanting to be desired and her need to satisfy others. While the audience initially rippled with laughter, it soon gave way to a silence replete with reflection, seemingly in awe of Slate’s words.
After finishing the reading, she walked over to the center of the stage and sat across from Cornish to begin their discussion. The conversation meandered in a variety of directions, ranging from Slate’s interest in writing, to her unpleasant experience on “Saturday Night Live,” to her animated work in films such as “Zootopia” and “The Secret Life of Pets.”
Slate shared musings about the beginnings of her sense of humor, providing context to her comedy and providing a meaningful basis for her entire career. She described herself as an “animal human,” clarifying that, for her, the turn of phrase translated to deriving happiness from the ability to immediately spark joy in the faces of the people around her. Reflecting on early displays of her humor, to the audience’s delight, she fondly recalled prank calling her grandparents and pretending to be various Jewish organizations to get a laugh out of them.
Her love of making people smile has not waned, which is especially evident in her new Netflix comedy special “Stage Fright.” Slate’s answers to Cornish were full of authenticity, which elicited newfound admiration and respect for her particular brand of comedy that puts honesty at the forefront and embraces the organic flaws and improvisation inherent in being funny.
In addition, Slate spoke candidly about her time on “Saturday Night Live” from 2009-10, a job that was cut short by her firing. Slate described a culture of fear, intimidation and misogyny that left her feeling dressed down. Despite her experience, which she said made her afraid to try new opportunities, she still held that working on the show was an extraordinary accomplishment, highlighting Slate’s characteristic ability to find light even in dark situations.
However, it is safe to say that through her reflection, creation and fierce empathy for herself, Slate has come to a place where she can more clearly see the path she is on and what she needs and wants out of life — a refreshing and empowering take, especially in the cutthroat and patriarchal world of comedy.
While there was plenty of laughter throughout the night, it was typically coupled with her profound, sincere and self-aware commentary. The audience traveled through a range of emotions as it reconciled Slate’s funny girl persona with the contemplative side she revealed both in conversation with Cornish and within the pages of her book.
She ended the evening by reading another excerpt titled “To Norway” from her book, which, with equal parts humor and somber introspection, chronicled observations from a trip to Norway that moved from the airport, to time in a boat, to the return flight home. While reading the last line of the story, Slate’s voice audibly cracked as she seemed overcome with emotion.
With that final moment — a tangible depiction of the layers of feeling and thought that Slate had welling up in her — the night was over, and the audience roared with applause. Slate found the happy medium between vulnerability and humor, illustrating the empathy that makes her comedy undeniably human.