Every once in a while, an artist will come along whose work essentially meets your eye, looks at your wounds, and says, I don’t quite know how to heal this, but look, and show you a matching scar.
I know that’s a rather serious way to start a conversation about an hour of stand-up comedy. But Jenny Slate’s new Netflix special, Stage Fright, isn’t necessarily just a killing floor of joke after joke. Instead, Slate, with the help of director and longtime collaborator Gillian Robespierre, has crafted a thoughtful and emotionally complete piece—one that’s screamingly funny, without question, but shot through with moments of rawness, vulnerability, and painful honesty, part-comedy and part-self-reflective documentary.
Stage Fright pulls back the curtain on Slate’s bright, loud, and energetic stage persona to reveal, in glimpses, the person behind that persona—in home videos preserved from Slate’s childhood; in interviews with Slate’s sisters, parents, and grandmothers; in contemplative “talking head” segments in which Slate gets real about her lifelong struggles with anxiety and feelings of low self-worth. Bits from the live comedy show sit side-by-side with down-to-earth explanations of where they came from. At one point, Slate makes jokes about growing up in a haunted house; in a talking head interview, Slate’s father explains the apparition he witnessed in their house when Slate was a child, and apologizes for making her and her sisters feel afraid of their own home by telling them about it at such a young age.
In a way, these more difficult moments can perhaps lessen the hilarity—it’s harder to laugh at jokes you know come from a place of deep pain for the very real person standing in front of you—but it also contextualizes and enriches the humor, provides it with more depth and a new angle. Much like other women-in-recovery comedies, Stage Fright sweeps its way across an emotional spectrum. It draws the joy out of the pain. It defangs sources of hurt for a short while, but turns around and says, it’s still a wolf.
Stage Fright feels like it’s part of a ripple effect, one more in a growing list of comedies centering female trauma and mental health. Much like Fleabag or Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Stage Fright is a swing-for-the-bleachers sort of ambitious venture that hits it home. It’s a carefully balanced piece that manages to be both emotionally resonant and pee-your-pants funny at the same time.
The difference from those other shows is, of course, that Stage Fright is not a work of fiction. Jenny Slate is not a character. Everything in her comedy act comes home to roost in the real world. It can make this comedy in some ways harder to engage with. There’s less separation. When Slate giggles or weeps or screeches, when she emerges out-of-breath and onto the stage or leads the camera thoughtfully through a tour of her childhood bedroom, she’s not acting. It’s still a curated vision, of course, and still a performance, but even when there’s different presentations of truth—comedic or serious—everything in Stage Fright is just that: truth. In an hour and six minutes, Jenny Slate brings the zeitgeist of the female-led traumedy into the real world in gut-wrenching joy.
Slate is not the only comic to tackle serious, less-than-funny topics in a special. Hannah Gadsby tackled the violent repercussions of homophobia in her 2017 special Nanette, and Wanda Sykes’ Not Normal, which came out earlier this year, delivered a scathing critique of modern culture. But Stage Fright is a more personal journey, a masterclass in mood-setting, and feels exceptionally unique in the way it braids its extra footage between sections of the stage act. It’s all at once nostalgic and lonely and heartbreaking and hopeful, and it absolutely sparkles.
Strange as it may seem once you see her on stage, where the bubbly and explosive comic seems right at home, the name of the show comes from the fact that Slate struggles with nearly incapacitating stage fright. In a tearful interview done just before the recorded show, she explains that it’s not about people thinking she’s not funny. She says, “I am, like, presented with this essential question, which is… will they—will they like me? But I don’t earn the love unless I give something beautiful that goes out. So my stage fright comes from a deeper thing.”
It’s this particular moment, perhaps, that whittles down to a fine point what makes Stage Fright special. There’s an open honesty that electrifies the whole performance, and Slate feels committed to her audience—to delivering something worthwhile and beautiful, to earning our respect, love, and admiration. The best thing about it, though, is that she hardly needs to earn anything; she has us right from the start.
Stage Fright was released on October 22, and is available for streaming on Netflix.
Allyson Larcom is a Boston-based writer whose work has appeared in The Satirist and Wellesley College's Counterpoint Magazine. Follow her on twitter @allysonlarcom, or visit her website allysonlarcom.wordpress.com to find more of her writing.