Jenny Slate’s new Netflix comedy special Stage Fright feels like a public therapy session, both for herself and the audience. She’s barely able to stifle her own laughter as she jokes about her childhood traumas, anxiety, and divorce while the audience laughs awkwardly, perhaps relating a bit too much to these same issues. The hour and a half special feels much like having a conversation about the weather with someone you don’t know that well. Suddenly they change the subject to their broken relationships, and you’re left figuring out how to respond to this unwarranted information. Slate boomerangs from joking about her family’s haunted house to how she’d masturbate into “the face of an upside-down teddy bear four times a day.”
“Never said that out loud before,” she giggles as her face turns red. “…but never to like, a theatre.”
Photo credit: NBC
The real shock value of Stage Fright isn’t in Slate’s bits about “being born with the horniness of a 57-year-old divorcee,” or jokes of the like, though. It’s in the real suffering barely concealed behind her twinkling eyes and wide smile as she talks about her loneliness, anxiety, and depression. There’s a sense of desperation in her voice like these are things she’s kept to herself for years that she finally needs to release, but the only way she knows how to communicate them is through comedy. Stage Fright is perhaps the most intimate comedy special Netflix has ever released, and Slate’s message is loud and clear: she wants to be taken more seriously now, not just by her audience, but by herself, too.
Photo credit: Bustle
Stage Fright feels like uncharted territory in a sea of comedy specials that are purely stand-up routines. For once, the viewer gets a look into the comic’s personal life, and in the case of Slate, the tortured soul behind the boisterous comedienne is revealed. Sandwiched between bits from Slate’s show at New York’s Gramercy Theatre are interviews between her and her family members. She chats with her sisters about their childhood and leafs through her old diaries, reminiscing about embarrassing memories from her youth that she doesn’t seem to have totally gotten over. She raids her grandmother’s wardrobe, then proceeds to play dress-up, twirling around in various gowns like an overgrown child while her mother and grandmother tell her how well each dress suits her.
These scenes dominate the special so much that Jenny’s stand-up almost feels secondary. But that works because Jenny Slate the human being is much more interesting than Jenny Slate the stand-up comedian, as anyone who’s ever seen her in a late-night T.V. interview can attest.
Slate seems more comfortable with herself than ever before, or at least she’s trying to be. Her beginnings as the ditzy girl on SNL who got fired for dropping the f-bomb on air have long been forgotten, and she’s no longer overcompensating (for a lack of confidence, perhaps) by putting on a ridiculous Valley girl accent as she did in The Kroll Show. In recent years, she’s become an indie film darling with leading roles in Obvious Child and Landline. It’s an image she seems to want to solidify with Stage Fright, perhaps because she relates more to these films’ fictional characters, with their difficulties transitioning to adulthood and relationship problems.
Though Slate’s not entirely at ease with herself (as is made clear by the very title of the special), it seems she’s arrived at the realization that all Jenny Slate fans have known from the start: that she’s funniest when she’s just being herself.