Jenny Slate has had the same nightmare for most of her life. She’s walking down the front steps of her childhood home in Milton, Mass., when she spots a man smirking back at her. He’s in “that Mona Lisa zone,” sporting “a tiny smile,” Slate tells me over the phone. (She was in Chicago, promoting her recently released book of memoir-ish essays, “Little Weirds.”)
“It’s very frightening,” she adds — so much so that Slate, 37, describes this recurring dream, which she stopped having only a decade ago, as her “original fear: Someone staring, and they won’t stop, and they smile like they understand what my eventual demise will be.”
It’s not lost on Slate that her childhood nightmare seems like an early manifestation of one of her later terrors: stage fright.
“It’s a weird dream to have as someone who became a performer and is asking for people to stare at you and full-on laugh,” says Slate, who starred in the 2014 indie drama “Obvious Child” but has become better known for her voice work in TV shows like “Big Mouth” and “Bob’s Burgers” (and, of course, Internet fave “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On”). Slate suspects her dread around being onstage, which she says she didn’t experience until her late 20s, stems from her disdain for inscrutability.
“I hate it when I can’t understand someone’s emotions,” she says. “It’s the withholding that makes me feel frightened.”
Perhaps that’s why her style is the total opposite of withholding. Whether she’s oversharing about her bodily functions or discussing the pain of her breakup with Captain America himself, Chris Evans, shortly after said split (she’s now engaged to artist and writer Ben Shattuck), Slate is willing to lay her emotions bare, to be vulnerable in ways that would scare most. It’s no surprise that she decided the best way to face her stage fright was to film a Netflix stand-up special with that exact name in front of roughly 400 people.
“If you’re like me and you’ve been onstage for almost 15 years and you’ve talked about everything,” she tells me matter-of-factly, “you might as well talk about the stuff that you haven’t talked about yet and hope that it’s funny.”
In her debut comedy special, streaming now, Slate revamped the usual stand-up format by adding some personal flourishes. “Stage Fright” is part live show — in which she delivers jokes about skeletons, turtlenecks, Catholic mass, making love to the moon, football, divorce, and what she would be like if she were a Susan instead of a Jenny (she’d kick down way more doors) — and part documentary. Old home video footage, interviews with her family and scenes of Slate rummaging through her grandmother’s closet are interspersed throughout. She also talks about the titular fear in great detail.
“I’ve tried to get hypnotized for it,” she says in the special, to cure her staged-induced anxiety, but the fright persists. “It ruins my day.” And it ruins her body: “I get like crazy diarrhea.”
Slate manages to perform her stand-up without any signs of gastrointestinal distress, what she doesn’t do in “Stage Fright” is actually get over it. “So, it’s funny,” Slate says as she discusses the press release for her special, which implied that she conquers her fear in a little over an hour. “That sort of confused me, because I was like, ‘No, no, no, no, no, never said that.’” She moves through the fear “in the moment, but it will always cycle back.”
And guess what? That’s just fine. Slate is perfectly okay with being a little afraid. Some anxieties, she says, are actually useful. Like, say, her fear of ghosts. In both her special and book, she recounts growing up in a haunted house full of spirits that her sisters and dad allegedly saw up close. She never got a glimpse of any supernatural beings, but she’s still spooked.
“I think I owe that underscoring of terror quite a bit of gratitude,” she says of her lifelong paranormal paranoia. “I’m glad that I felt those heightened feelings of terror because it made me seek out safety. It also made me understand that within environments and people that you love there can be a duality of darkness and light. So, I’m happy for it. And,” she adds, “I think if I didn’t live in the haunted house I might just be a bit more basic.”
She’s learned that there is a hierarchy to her fears. The good kind push her to grow: “Like my shyness,” she says. She sometimes doubts she’ll be accepted, “so that makes me want to be flexible and open-minded about people so that we can connect. That’s a fear to keep.”
She’s actively working to ditch the bad kind, such as feelings of abandonment and betrayal that bubble up when she’s experiencing her worst bouts of anxiety. “I want them to go away is because they don’t reflect my reality,” she says.
Then there are the weird fears, those she wears like little badges of honor. They include stained upholstery and horses (“They’re scary and they’re too big and I don’t like their feet,” she says of equines).
Slate exposes and interrogates her fears in an effort to get to the truth about who she is. Her ultimate goal is self-actualization, but recently, she says, her dad, Ron, dropped some food for thought.
“He said, ‘Completeness is not a virtue, Jen. It’s really about the process and that if you’re lucky, you’ll be in your process until you die.’”
Part of Slate’s process involves understanding how all the disparate parts of herself — her “little weirds,” as she calls them — come together. She believes fear is a big chunk of her makeup, and sometimes fright and love are interwoven. “It’s like Russian dolls of emotion in that way,” she says. “The fear is within a love within a fear within a love.”
Perhaps one day she’ll even manage to tease out a little love for horses.
“I recently went to a psychic who got everything right, like everything right, but then she was like, ‘You need to get on a horse,’ but like no,” Slate says. Well, “maybe.”