There are few sounds more cathartic in this world than Jenny Slate’s scream. Throughout the actress and comedian’s new Netflix special ‘Stage Fright’, the noise soothes aloe vera on a burn, punctuating moments of ridiculousness perfectly. Peppered not quite as often as the comedian’s infectious laugh is through the hour-long film, her screams of anguish are the punchline to the joke and arrive at just the right moment to relinquish tension. As the name suggests, the overarching theme of the film is how Slate has dealt in her life with frustrations that are very personal to her, and so the screaming persists.
The concept of stage fright might appear a little cliché for a performer to tackle. As a revelation intended to establish intimacy, it comes across as quite sterile. Who amongst us has not been at the mercy of nerves at some point? Jenny Slate: Nervous Farter would have been far more impactful. But title aside, this film goes where not many comedy specials dare to; the family home, the setting of many formulative experiences that equip a person with the (at least initial) material, drive and manner needed to succeed in comedy. Slate is unafraid to take the jokes right back to the source. Over the course of an hour, a set in front of a live audience is interwoven with documentary footage of starring family members and guided tours of poignant rooms in their houses, splicing together her comedy material with its inspiration. This format is particularly effective in the first 30 minutes of the film, where after Slate impersonates her grandmothers’ distinctive ways of answering the phone in her set the two women are introduced on film. They clearly dote on Jenny, and just like the rest of her family are happy to join in the laughs. It’s very charming to watch them all interact, and because of this a formula that could get bogged down and way too heavy for a Netflix special is kept upbeat amongst pensive moments on her past, future and the impact of the people there to see both.
To those that are familiar with her work, Stage Fright is a welcome opportunity to see more of a talent that is usually found in ensemble casts full of comedic heavyweights. Slate moves nimbly from the impressions that have made her voice one of the most in-demand in Hollywood (Big Mouth, Zootopia, Bob’s Burgers) to the outlandish silliness she brought to shows like Parks and Recreation and Kroll Show. While the film is at times a character study, unpicking the notions of self Slate raises on stage with broader context, this should not deter those who weren’t aware of her before. Her unique perspective on the world spins quickly on an axel of wonder to despair, as highlighted in observations around the haunted house she grew up in; essential viewing for hysterical laughter and an ode to the fears of childhood.
While initially, she approaches topics with the satirical whimsy of the over-achieving child that we get to know through the documentary side of things when Slate cuts to the chase it is grounding. Her dissection of the title issue, her stage fright, it is apparent how much effort has to be applied to filter her anxieties into the amiable goofiness it transpires as. “I don’t earn the love unless I give something beautiful that goes out,” she says of her pre-show rationale. She calls her performance an exchange, and worries if there is an imbalance, she “will deny [herself] the moment to have fun.” This comes as a stark juxtaposition to the person who appears to open the show, a sleek, joyful figure enjoying wiggling to Robyn’s ‘Missing U’ for longer than the sound manager anticipated. In Stage Fight, Slate gives us an accomplished performer riddled with tension, at once pushing and pulling to be seen through the lens of her family, her audience and herself.