Talking to Jenny Slate About Her Web Series ‘Catherine’ and the ‘Marcel the Shell’ Movie
While most professional comedians keep busy by involving themselves in many different projects, it seems like Jenny Slate has a lot going on even compared to her most diligent peers. In addition to recurring roles on Parks and Recreation, House of Lies, and Kroll Show, Slate is writing the new Looney Tunes movie for Warner Brothers and, as she reveals in the following interview, co-writing an independent movie based on her hit viral video, “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On.” On top of all of that, she has a new web series, Catherine, which debuted on the YouTube comedy channel JASH last month. Slate stars in Catherine as the title character and also co-writes the series with her husband, Dean Fleischer-Camp, who directs. Three new episodes of Catherine are set to debut today, and I had the chance to talk to Slate about the series, why she’s turning Marcel the Shell into a movie, and the sitcom pilot she starred in with Kristen Schaal and June Diane Raphael that ABC bafflingly didn’t pick up.
So how’d you end up working with JASH?
I think my husband Dean had a meeting with Daniel Kellison. He had directed for Sarah Silverman, and they just asked us to come in and meet with them. We heard that they were looking for maybe some unconventional ideas, and that’s always exciting. So yeah, we went in and met with Daniel one day a couple months ago. It was very easy. That’s what it was.
Where did the idea for the web series come from?
It was a perfect storm of a lot of different things that we had been watching on TV. I was super stoned at my house, and Dean and I were talking about the idea of “what is normal and what is neutral.” Not trying to be being boring and not trying to not be funny, but what is exactly straight down the middle? What is it when you’re not trying to do anything? You’re not trying to be boring; you’re not necessarily trying to be funny. You’re just existing somewhere in the middle. I started to act out this scene that you see in episode one of Catherine. It made us laugh really hard, so we started to write down more. We never thought that anybody would pay us to make them, but I’m really glad that they did [Laughs].
It has to be a unique writing process, writing something with such a specific tone.
It’s hard because the smallest details will make one of us say to the other one, “You’re pushing it too much.” Like, the way that Catherine hangs up the phone, we’ll be really specific about it. I’ll say something, and he will be like, “No, that’s too vague.” We’re always trying to stay in that zone, and it’s really hard. It’s really hard to act in that zone, as well, because as a comedian, it’s obviously my instinct to try to make every living thing smile into my face so that I feel happy [Laughs].
Do you have to get other actors to tone down their performances to fit into that specific world?
You know, that’s not really my area. That’s Dean, but he has such a calm confidence on set that I never saw him say to anybody, “You’re doing too much” and making them feel bad or something because obviously, I think that’s the worst thing you can say to a comedian is to tell them that they’re doing too much. I mean, most of us do do too much, but to me, I always take it really personally because I feel like someone is saying, “You’re trying too hard.” But you know, that’s how it goes, and I never once saw Dean do that. He just keeps a pretty calm control. He was really focused on the look of Catherine and put it together. I wrote it with him, but on the days of the shoot, I felt mostly just like an actress.
Did you guys have any inspirations for the tone? Were there other shows you looked to in terms of capturing this neutral tone?
Yeah, we really, really like the look of shows like Mr. Bean or Keeping Up Appearances, two really British shows. And a lot of people have mentioned to us now that Catherine kind of looks like instructional videos, but I think we just wanted it to have a fairly neutral tone. When we watch Mr. Bean or Keeping Up Appearances, something about the camera and the colors… I don’t know what it is. I would never know how to put it together, but Dean knew exactly what to do. But it’s also still that thing of not trying to push it, you know, like not having the weird little computer. It’s hard to gather the props and set dressing in that way, but I feel like he did it very well.
It almost feels like Twin Peaks to me in a certain way tonally.
Yeah. Well, you know what? I was also watching a lot of Twin Peaks at the time. I’m kind of reluctant [to mention it] because it’s not a Lynch spoof. To us, we were really motivated by wanting to do a new kind of thing, but at the time, I was watching a lot of Twin Peaks. It’s just so eerie, but sometimes it’s so funny and sometimes it’s really, really scary and it all exists in that one world. Yeah, I’m sure that was really in the front of my mind.
In terms of generating ideas when you write, how is working solo different from working with Dean or working with Gabe Liedman?
It’s a lot more loud and explosive working with Dean and Gabe. Gabe and I have been friends and have been a comedy duo since we were 18 years old, so with us, it’s just part of a conversation that’s already going on. It’s very rare that we have to switch gears. We met each other as creative partners basically, so it’s just really, really fun and easy. It’s always easiest for me when I work with a partner because I have my doubts fall away because I can see in their face whether or not I’m entertaining them or whether or not I’m making that connection. And when I’m working by myself, it’s just more of a — I wouldn’t even say “subdued” — it’s just like a peaceful, slow dance towards the end.
Do you guys have any future plans for Marcel the Shell?
Yeah, we’ve been trying to make it into a TV show and had a few different ways we could have gone with it, but every time there was someone who wanted to do it, the conversation became a lot about merchandising and who would have the rights to the character. Dean and I didn’t want to give up our creative rights. We didn’t think we should have to because there are millions of people online who like it just as it is and we certainly didn’t want to go the Angry Birds route and have Marcel all over the place. Not that I’m saying it would have been like that, but it can get out of control and Marcel, I think, is very cute. People want to play that up, and that’s really not my favorite part about him at all.
So, we were doing that, and there were a lot of nice people who were interested, but there was just one day where Dean and I — I don’t know which one of us said it first but — one of us just said, “This really bums me out. I’m really uncomfortable. We did this for fun, and it’s not fun anymore, and everybody scares us.” They were trying to make us some sort of offer here, and we just decided to step back. I think what we really want to do and what we are going to do now is to independently fund a feature of Marcel. That’s really what we wanted to do in the first place, and I think we just never thought that we could do it because everybody was saying TV to us and I think we thought we should be obedient and do that, but it really turned out to not be right. So, now we’ll make a movie.
Have you guys started writing that yet?
The process of Marcel is not really heavily written, but we’re working on the plotline. It’s just how it goes. It’s really heavily improvised.
Are you allowed to say what TV networks you were in negotiations with?
Oh no, I have no interest in doing that. [Laughs] I have no interest in making anyone into the bad guy when that is not at all what it was. It just wasn’t the right fit for me and Dean, and everybody that we met with genuinely loved Marcel. Everyone is nice, but then it’s also show business, and sometimes, show business isn’t, like, right. Sometimes, show business doesn’t feel right, and then you have to step back and wait until the right business arrangement can be made.
You mentioned the cute side of Marcel isn’t your favorite part of the character. What is?
Well, I think it’s easy to look at Marcel and say that he’s small and cute and that he has a little voice. I totally get that, and I agree with it. His casual honesty, I guess, is what I like.
How did filming the pilot for ABC’s Pulling go?
Oh, it was so much fun. I loved it. I loved the script and where it ended up. Obviously, the writers are really smart and the director, Jason Moore, is very, very talented, but what was really special for me was getting to work with Kristen [Schaal] and June [Diane Raphael]. It’s a show about three people in their 30s who are trying to make their lives work, and it’s nice that they cast three women who are actually in their 30s [and] who are real. That was really exciting to me to work with two other female comedians that have very strong and very clearly developed voices.
To me, it felt like it had a real true heart, like we were really going in there every day and everybody just had a great attitude. When you make a pilot, you never know what will happen to it. I feel like I always have to exist somewhere in the middle. Like, I don’t want to say, “Yeah, for sure! It’ll change or lives” or “No, the industry is dark.” I can’t do either one of those things because neither one of those things are true.
For me, when we left, it was like, ‘Well, this might be the only time we do this, but I leave with the knowledge that this was one of my favorite things that I’ve ever done and I’m really proud of my work.’ I’ve known Kristen for many, many years, but I never really got to work with her and she is an angel. She is the nicest person, and same with June. They’re people that we circulate and we see each other at shows or parties, but to get to know both of them… June is incredibly talented. She’s so pretty and together and good at her job and she’s so funny. Being around her and Kristen feels like I got into a popular group or something. They’re really cool sweet women. We had a lovely time.
Is there still talk of bringing it to another network?
I don’t know. That would be great, and I just haven’t really been chasing after that info because I’m not sure that that’s a healthy thing for me to do. I hope so. That would be very great.
Yeah, I was pretty disappointed to hear it didn’t get picked up by ABC. It seems like such a funny group.
Yeah, it’s pretty sad. It doesn’t really make sense to me, but I don’t really know what goes on. I don’t know how to run a network; I don’t know what they need. I know what I need as a woman and a consumer, but I don’t need what everyone else needs. I know for sure when we wrapped up the pilot — and I haven’t even seen it — I walked away from it thinking, ‘This is really good. I hope they take a chance on it.’
Were you a fan of Parks and Rec before you were cast on the show?
Yeah, yeah, I’ve always been a fan of the show. I think it’s incredibly funny and fast and it has the thing that I always hope comedy will have, which is a sweet heart. And I think it’s got real heart.
What was your experience like on the show?
It was a total dream. Joe Mande came up with the character idea and called me and said, “Would you come in and play this character?” I said, “Obviously, I will.” I’d worked with Ben [Schwartz] before because I do House of Lies with him. It felt like doing a fun skit at camp or something. I go there, they put me in this ridiculous costume, and I play this crazy blown-out character, and then I get to be around the cast members, who are all people I truly admire. It was a real pleasure for me.
Can you talk a little about the Looney Tunes movie that you’re writing?
I don’t know what I’m allowed to say about it, but I will say that I love writing it and I love the research that I did for it, which is basically watch one million cartoons and categorize all the characters. It’s a really, really fun world to be in. It’s just an instant, really fast, punchy fun world, and the people that I work with at Warner Brothers and at [production companies] Heyday and KatzSmith are so nice to me. I’ve never written a movie before, and there are a lot of questions I have to ask that I feel are very stupid. They actually had to give me the new version of Final Draft, and I had to like buy a new computer. They seem to just put faith in my ideas and because they’ve always been supportive of me as a creative person, writing this has been a real pleasure and I’m proud that they let me do it. I love it, and I like the story that I’ve written a lot. You know, we’ll see. I don’t know. There might be somebody else there writing one that’s better, but I like the one that I’m writing. So, that’s all I can say. What else can I do except for like the shit that I’m doing and try to not be an asshole?
Photo credit: Ben Trivett