For Jenny Slate, fear is a funny thing

November 8, 2019

Ever since she was young, Jenny Slate wanted to make a documentary. Or, as she explains to her father in one of the many interview-style clips spliced throughout her first stand-up comedy special, she imagined a biopic arriving at her doorstep. Titled “Stage Fright,” Slate’s Netflix debut is more than just a performance in front of a live audience; it’s a look into her life and childhood. In fact, it’s the movie she often dreamed about. 

Directed by Gillian Robespierre, “Stage Fright” works well as a balance between Jenny’s naturally raunchy, carefree comedy style and a moving self-exploration of her anxieties and fears. Her optimistic personality, which she describes as “who cares, everybody poops in their pants” due to her “nickname-y” first name, shines brightly alongside her introspection and intelligence. Despite equating her brain to a malformed crepe, Jenny graduated as valedictorian from her high school in Milton, MA and went on to study literature at Columbia University. 

Robespierre also helmed “Landline” and “Obvious Child,” both starring Slate. With the addition of “Stage Fright,” these three films complete her trilogy of media that makes me want to be Jenny Slate’s friend, or maybe even her younger sister. 

Meanwhile, Jenny’s two real sisters appear several times throughout the comedy special, as well as her grandmothers and parents. When the footage cuts away from her live show, it brings us to the house Jenny grew up in and the family who shaped her formative years. Through conversations with these close relatives, she relives memories, shares old videos, explores her (haunted!) childhood home, and digs deep into what it means to feel alone. 

During her performance, it’s clear that Slate wants to have fun. She’s laughing at her own jokes, energetically performing physical humor and creating a lively conversation with her audience, rooted in her relatability. In an interview before the show, she reveals, “The thing that I’m the most scared of about tonight is, after all these people getting here and doing all this and helping me, that I will deny myself the moment to have fun.” She’s so scared that she’s become angry at herself, afraid that thinking about it has already manifested it into future existence.

This is her stage fright. It’s an overwhelming fear of not living joyfully in the moment, not earning the audience’s approval and not creating something beautiful. She discusses it as a push-and-pull, an exchange in which she knows she must give the crowd something worth appreciating before she can expect their appreciation. She knows that they will like her, but she also knows that she’s going to have to earn it. 

Jenny’s story is about beginnings. A few times she backtracks on jokes by saying “that’s not how I wanted to start” and remarks once on how it feels to watch an entire theater gasp in surprise after—several minutes into the act—she says “before we begin.” As she continues, we get the feeling that we are delving into the beginning processes of Jenny’s growth, healing and learning as we are shown a glimpse into her private world. When her dad asks if she’s getting to the point where she can comfortably make jokes about her divorce, she responds with, “I’m starting.”

Toward the end of the special, when she has begun discussing heavy personal topics like her divorce, we watch Jenny and her mother have a conversation in a dark room, different than the brightly lit locations used before. She asks her mother why she thinks that Jenny has always been so concerned with love throughout her life. The response she receives is interesting, referencing the home full of antiques that made the Slate family feel so unique. “We have a jukebox that played music from, like, the ’30s,” her mother says, “We’re kind of, I don’t want to say in a time warp, we just have a romantic idea of certain things.”

As the credits roll, the camera follows Jenny around her childhood living room as she happily dances to a song playing on the jukebox. At this point in her life, the concept of romanticism is something she must confront, and “Stage Fright” is a hilarious, heart-warming peek into that journey. In her very first comedy special, Jenny Slate is learning about solitude, abandonment, loneliness and self-worth. And she’s having so much fun.

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