“The green is just so beautiful,” Slate says, “that I just feel astoundingly optimistic, almost about everything.”
This is Slate offstage: a painting buoys her spirit to sublime heights; a daffodil changes her day; a close friend saying “I’m really glad you’re here” changes her week. This is also Slate onstage, and now, on the page. Her latest works — a debut stand-up special, “Stage Fright,” and new book, “Little Weirds” — are rooted in her commitment to beauty and sweetness, as well as her refusal to treat her sorrow as unsightly.
Slate is known for many things: her dramatic turn in “Obvious Child,” her comedic characters (“Parks and Recreation,” “Kroll Show”), her vocal dexterity (“Big Mouth,” “Marcel the Shell”). But she’s now showing herself to the world in new ways. Slate has performed stand-up for more than a decade; Netflix’s “Stage Fright,” out last month, is her first special. She has co-written three books; “Little Weirds” is her first solo one. In the collection of earnest, funny and effervescent essays and musings released this week, Slate writes about “living with a dangerous amount of sensitivity.”
“For me, it’s just figuring out — and the word is so overused but I think it really does work — what the triggers are,” she says during a Sunday visit to the museum in downtown Washington. Slate has “beauty triggers,” and they fire off like crazy during her stroll through the galleries. Her hand covers her mouth at the sight of Michelle Obama’s portrait. “Oh my gosh!” she says, entering the glass-ceilinged indoor courtyard filled with light. “I wish Ben had come here,” she says, referring to her fiance, art curator and writer Ben Shattuck. (They’ll return together in a few hours to lie down on the marble slabs and stare at the sky.)
Walking through the world with a tender heart is like carrying around a gift; it often comes with empathy and compassion, and allows you to “have a heightened experience of pleasure,” she says.
But sensitivity can also be a liability, Slate knows, and has the potential to wreck you. Earlier that weekend, she watched video of a female comedian confronting Harvey Weinstein and a man yelling “Shut up” at the woman in response. Slate, furious, soon found herself scanning news photos of Weinstein and focusing on the women around him. “I start to realize I’m here, in D.C. in a hotel room, and I want something other than this rage that is intensely flammable and is spreading out,” she says. “I don’t want to have to judge these people [in the images] for why they’re sitting there. I just don’t want to be them, and I don’t want to see it.”
So Slate must focus her sensitivity and “figure out what can I possibly do to try to deal with this experience that is a large cultural experience.”
“If you’re sensitive, you start to think about health and how can I be healthy, how can I help,” she says. “How do I want to spend my day not being completely burned up by bad feelings?”
She cites an Adam Phillips book about kindness and laughs, given the line in “Little Weirds” she wrote about constantly bringing up his essay on the superego while not internalizing the lesson. “Kindness is about holding other people’s vulnerability and seeing it and sharing it with them and showing your own,” Slate says. She believes her vulnerability is best dealt with when shared. “People like to care for things, whether or not they’ve forgotten that.”
By that measure, her new projects are exercises in kindness. In the past few years, Slate has gone through a divorce and another highly publicized breakup. In “Little Weirds,” Slate writes that her “life fell to pieces,” noting her recent “pummeling heartbreak,” “loss of confidence,” “astounding loneliness,” the election of someone she considers a racist bully and facing misogyny in the midst of the #MeToo movement. She wrote the book as an “act of pressing onward” and “putting myself back together so that I can dwell happily in our shared world.”
In the process, she exposes herself as someone longing for love and learning to be alone without being lonely, as a woman who treasures friendships and fantasizes about being a “homemade Parisian croissant.” It’s not a memoir and she doesn’t name names (though Shattuck makes a nameless cameo in the piece titled “To Norway,” which documents how they met through mutual friends.) Still, Slate bares her heart via metaphor, fiction and magical realism, “the literary device that represents the way that I use my brain,” she says. “I tried to speak in the voice that I’m comfortable speaking to my therapist in.”
That vulnerability shows in Slate’s Netflix special, which includes documentary-like footage of her visiting her childhood home, clips from home videos and interviews with her family. Viewers also see a teary-eyed Slate grappling with crippling stage fright and then later dancing joyously onstage to Robyn and delivering material she improvised that day. She compares herself to “a turtle that just got roller skates and realized that things can be fast.”
Slate had never wanted to make a stand-up special, but she changed her mind after seeing Hannah Gadsby’s groundbreaking 2018 special “Nanette,” which methodically broke down comedy’s limitations. Slate remembers thinking, “Well, this woman just tore down the form and built it back up, and left us with something better, and left us with something that totally belongs to her,” and realized she could make a special exactly as she wanted, conventions be damned.
“When someone does something new, other people are encouraged to see how they could also create new work,” Slate says. “You limit your pool of artists when the art form is ‘we have now perfectly reiterated this thing again.’ If that’s what the art form is, only people who are confident that they can perfectly reiterate the art form show up. I’m not one of those people. I’m not interested in that.”
Stage fright first gripped Slate as her fame grew. She joined “Saturday Night Live” in 2009 and lasted a year. She had a tough time on the show. Slate grew up idolizing Gilda Radner, but “the spirit was different and I was totally not suited for it.” She was anxious and “I just didn’t get it. I didn’t get how to be there.”
Her name came up in comparisons this fall as SNL faced pressure to fire a new featured performer who had used racist language on podcasts (he was eventually let go). Slate famously cursed on-air during her first episode, but “that’s not why they fired me,” she says. “I think it’s always better for people when they can just decide a reason for why something happened. I think we all want to do that. But, no, I think I just got fired because I didn’t connect with the show.”
The performer isn’t sure she’ll make another stand-up special — “It took a lot out of me” — but Slate knows she wants to write for the rest of her life, and to take on more serious acting roles. “That has always been a preference for me,” she says. “I’ve made my way in the world by making people laugh, which is also a way for me to get past feelings of shyness that are almost always there … But I feel serious in myself, and so I would like to be able to put that into my work.”
Slate wrote her book after everything fell apart, and now life seems sunnier. She lives part time with Shattuck on a peninsula in Massachusetts and says all she wants is to write her books there and “do my shows without feeling like people are angry with me.” She repeatedly insists she has no advice to dispense, adding the disclaimer “for me” whenever she gives insights into art, life and matters of the heart. “I’m no Brené Brown or anything,” Slate laughs.
As she departs the mauve room containing that beautiful green painting, Slate walks past an old, golden piano. Commissioned by Theodore Roosevelt to inject music into life at the White House, its lid is adorned with nine women painted by Dewing. They represent muses of art, music, poetry and learning.
“Well,” Slate says on her way out, “this is a really nice room to stop in.”