June 26, 2014
Guests: Jenny Slate & Gillian Robespierre
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The new romantic comedy "Obvious Child" stars my guest, Jenny Slate, as a 27-year-old standup comic who still doesn't quite think of herself as an adult. After getting drunk and sleeping with a guy she just met, she finds out she's pregnant and decides to have an abortion - not your typical rom-com plot twist. The movie was written and directed by Gillian Robespierre who is also with us. It's her first feature-length film.
Jenny Slate is a stand-up comic as well as an actress. She's a former cast member of "Saturday Night Live." She has recurring roles on Comedy Central's "Kroll Show," NBC's "Parks And Recreation," Fox's "Bob's Burgers" and the new FX series "Married." She voiced the animated shorts "Marcel The Shell With Shoes On," which she co-wrote with her husband and adapted into a best-selling children's book.
Let's start with a scene from early on in "Obvious Child." Slate's character, Donna, does stand-up at a bar in Brooklyn at night. But she's just found out that her day job is about to end. The book store where she's worked for the past five years is closing. To make matters worse, her boyfriend just dumped her. After this double dose of bad news, she visits her mother, a university professor played by Polly Draper. They talk over dinner.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "OBVIOUS CHILD)
POLLY DRAPER: (As Nancy Stern) You know, an ex-student of mine started a temp agency. They specialize in placing people in the entertainment world.
JENNY SLATE: (As Donna Stern) Can you pass the duck sauce?
DRAPER: (As Nancy Stern) You're about to lose your income, you don't seem the least bit concerned.
SLATE: (As Donna Stern) I'm terrified mom. Believe me, I very much am. (Laughing) But I'm not going to work for one of your business school students.
DRAPER: (As Nancy Stern) You're almost 30 years old. You still don't know how to do your taxes.
SLATE: (As Donna Stern) I'm a couple of years away from 30, and nobody knows how to do their taxes.
DRAPER: (As Nancy Stern) Have you spoken to your agent about booking any commercial work?
SLATE: (As Donna Stern) You know, I haven't because recently she put her entire body into her oven.
DRAPER: (As Nancy Stern, groaning) You're never serious.
SLATE: (As Donna Stern) I will use TurboTax this year, OK?
DRAPER: (As Nancy Stern) Hand me the plate.
SLATE: (As Donna Stern) Well, I don't know if you've noticed, but I'm in kind of an emotional crisis right now.
DRAPER: (As Nancy Stern) I know you're going through some pain right now. But you're always going to be going through something.
SLATE: (As Donna Stern) I haven't borrowed money from you in months, and I just did that commercial for the organic douche, which is going to be a real boon to my image.
DRAPER: (As Nancy Stern) Well, I'm glad you did the douche job. The douche paid well.
SLATE: (As Donna Stern) Definitely stop saying douche.
DRAPER: (As Nancy Stern) There are other things in your life you could afford to be a little more selective about - your next beau, for example. I will never forget that brunch, when he told us his SAT scores (laughing).
SLATE: (As Donna Stern) Mom, really, a lot of people aren't good test takers.
DRAPER: (As Nancy Stern) You were. And now you waste that 780 verbal on telling jokes about having diarrhea in your pants.
GROSS: That's a scene from "Obvious Child." Gillian Robespierre, Jenny Slate, welcome to FRESH AIR.
GILLIAN ROBESPIERRE: Hi, thank you.
SLATE: Thank you, Terry. Thanks for having us.
GROSS: Why did you want to make abortion a central part of this character's story?
ROBESPIERRE: Well, you know, this started as a short film in 2009 that I created with my friends Anna Bean and Karen Maine, and it starred Jenny. And we really just wanted to combine a lot of things that we felt our culture was suppressing. One is a strong, empowered, funny female lead, and one idea that I feel like has been sort of swept under the - the carpet is a realistic abortion that is done safely and with a lot of thought put into it and, you know, has a happy ending in the end.
GROSS: And, Jenny, you were obviously comfortable with all of this in a way.
SLATE: Yeah, oh, certainly. I was excited by it. I think it's important for us to say that this is - this is just one woman's experience. And we're not saying, you know, like - if you get pregnant at 27, you must have an abortion, and this is how it's got to go down. You know, there are a lot of films and - where the woman has the baby and deals with it in her own way.
I don't think of the abortion that Donna decides to get as part of her personality or, like, the most important thing that has ever happened to her. I think it turns out being a clear, thoughtful choice that she makes, you know, in her adulthood. But in general, I was really excited because the character is at once really gentle and very bold and - and sweet, but also can be rather bawdy at times. And so I was just very excited and invigorated by what seemed to me to be a modern story.
GROSS: The character that is at the center of the movie, Donna, is at a transitional point in her life. She's 27, but she doesn't yet think of herself as, like, a real adult. She's a comic, but she doesn't yet know if she'll get much further than the kind of bar that she performs in. She wants to be in a relationship, but her boyfriend's just dumped her. How close does that part of your life seem to you, where you felt like you were in this transitional phase, not a kid anymore, but not fully an adult in a fully formed adult life yet?
SLATE: You know, that used to be a big part of my own stand-up. And I - I was just recently saying - I don't say things like that in my stand-up anymore. I used to talk a lot about - I sort of say the same things over and over again or explore the same areas in my childhood and my formative years and my sexuality.
But it used to be, in my 20s and especially in my early 20s, feeling like an imposter adult. I think I really felt that way when I graduated from college, especially coming from - basically like an incredibly structured lifestyle and environment for my entire life and then being just spit out into in New York and really scared. But, yeah, I don't think I feel that way anymore. But I definitely relate to Donna's experience there, for sure, and it's not an easy one.
GROSS: And you're - what? - 32 now.
SLATE: I'm 32, yeah.
ROBESPIERRE: I'm 35, and I don't think by any means I've learned everything I'm supposed to have learned yet. And I'm constantly growing, but there's something that happened when I hit the 30s where my confidence changed and my voice changed because I wasn't scared anymore about where I was supposed to be, who I was supposed to be. And it wasn't like the day my birthday hit, and then it all snapped into place. It was just like this subtle growth spurt that happened from 30 to 35 that sort of formed my own opinions of myself and sort of blocking out the outside voices. And I don't think Donna has - has done that yet. And she does it in the movie where she starts off, you know, kind of meek. And we slowly watch her become more active and less passive in her life in the 83 minutes.
GROSS: Gillian, when you say your voice changed when you were in your 30s, do you mean, like, your writer's voice or literarily your voice?
ROBESPIERRE: My testicles dropped.
ROBESPIERRE: I think that it was both. It's not just the voice on the page, even though, you know, we started this movie and I was in my 20s. I was Donna's age. And so it definitely was a combination of my writing voice but also my voice - not as a creator. It was being at a job that, you know, I went to every day. And for seven years, I was very mature about showing up to work on time and - and doing my work and then working on this movie on nights and weekends. And I think that the 25-year-old me would've - sort of shunned that and thought that was not cool, that I should just, you know, be writing all the time.
GROSS: Gillian, did you write the part of Donna for Jenny?
ROBESPIERRE: Oh, yes.
GROSS: You were already friends?
ROBESPIERRE: We met in 2009 while we were making the short. My collaborators, Karen Maine and Anna Bean, and I were looking to cast the role of Donna. And we had not found her yet. So we did what any, like, 25-year-old would do on a Wednesday night, which is go see free comedy. And there Jenny was on stage. She was co-hosting this show called "Big Terrific," which was in the back of a record store in Williamsburg, and she was co-hosting an evening with Gabe Liedman and Max Silvestri. And...
GROSS: And Gabe Liedman's in your movie.
ROBESPIERRE: And Gabe pops up five years later in "Obvious Child" the feature. And she was just articulating everything that we were thinking in our heads and have been talking about, you know, around our kitchen table or at bars about our bodies. And like, you know, we all looked at each other and we just had to ask Jenny to be in our movie 'cause Donna had the same sort of voice. And - and we needed somebody who had dramatic range and also comic timing. And up there, in her confessional-style, storytelling comedy, I saw the range in the 10 minutes that Jenny was performing. So we had a friend in common, sent her the script. A couple of days later, we were in my apartment drinking beers and smoking cigarettes out the window...
SLATE: Depending on whose mom's listening.
ROBESPIERRE: And, yeah. When I sat down to write the feature, it was 100 percent for Jenny.
GROSS: My guests art Gillian Robespierre, the writer and director of "Obvious Child," and Jenny Slate, the film's star. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Gillian Robespierre, the writer and director of the new romantic comedy "Obvious Child" and Jenny Slate, the star of the film. Slate plays Donna, a 27-year-old stand-up comic whose career hasn't gone any further than the bar in Brooklyn where she performs her confessional monologues. After spending the night with a guy she just met, she discovers she's pregnant and decides to have an abortion. In this scene, she's performing at the bar. You'll hear her stumble a bit when she sees the guy she slept with walk into the room.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "OBVIOUS CHILD")
SLATE: (As Donna Stern) You guys like my singing voice? I just burped into this because I'm an adult woman. I do like being an adult woman. I've always wanted to be that. I like - I've always wanted to have just, like, a bra and a blouse and a schedule, like, where I could just be in my house and be like, oh my God, I'm running late - You know? I've always wanted to be able to be on the car phone and be like, OK, Susan, will do. What? OK - all right - talk soon. And then just hang up and not worry about, you know, like, why the bathroom smells in a weird way. But I'm not here to talk about car phones. I came here tonight on a very different mission, and that is to say to you that - sorry - which is to say to you that I am pregnant. Oh. Oh. OK - all right - testing the waters. I dropped that one down. The second thing that I would like to say right now out loud, and I'm going to say it out loud right now - out loud right now, I'm fine. Everything's fine. I'm just rolling around with this out loud right now - is that I am going to have an abortion. OK. OK. Keep breathing - Tomorrow, which is Valentine's Day. So we'll start from there.
GROSS: Like the character Jenny Slate portrays, Slate does standup comedy that is frank and autobiographical. Slate has done a lot of comedy about sexuality and body issues. Gillian Robespierre wrote the part of Donna for Slate after hearing a performance in which Slate talked about discovering sexual feelings as a child. We talked about that in the interview. That part was really funny, but it was also a little too explicit for broadcast. We will have it for you as an extra online. I'll tell you where to find it at the end of the interview. This next part of our conversation refers to the section we couldn't broadcast in which Slate discussed doing standup comedy about her early sexual feelings.
That really takes, I think, guts to stand on stage and talk about that, especially when people don't know who you are yet. And maybe it's easier when people don't know who you are, but it's not like you already have a repetition you can fall back on. And I think...
GROSS: ...Until recently, people were really not used to hearing that kind of discussion from women comics onstage. Men, you know, there's a long history of men talking about sexual things on stage.
SLATE: Yeah well, you know, this is the way that I speak to my friends. And I always noticed that I felt this sort of zing of excitement and a connection with people. And I felt my identity kind of shining when I would speak about my family and growing up because it did shape who I am as a woman. And it's my way of introducing myself and sort of laying out all of my imperfections and the little doodads that hang off of my personality that I want to protect, but I'm also maybe a little bit unsure of if they'll be accepted.
So I think socially I knew that it worked for me. And then when I graduated from college, Gabe Liedman and I started to be a stand-up duo and we got on stage together. So that was wonderful for me because we really talked about each other. So first it was him and I discussing me, and then we would discuss him. And so it started that way and I could tell that it worked.
And, I don't know, I never was scared. I was more scared of not being able to perform. And I think - you know, I learned a lot about myself when I started doing standup and grew through my twenties, but I just felt like I was working from my nature and it felt really good. And I was in the alternative comedy scene, I wasn't like in clubs and stuff so that also helped.
GROSS: In the very opening minute of the movie when your character is on stage, she's telling jokes about her vagina and her underwear. Gillian, why did you want to start the movie there? Just like - start it right there?
ROBESPIERRE: Yeah, well, we always knew we wanted to start on Donna's comedy. And in the editing room, we sort of crafted together different options for which jokes you could start on. And we finally landed Casey Brooks, myself, and my producer Elisabeth Holm had many, many discussions about it and we just went for it because we wanted to set the tone. And Donna's tone was somebody who's unapologetically herself on and off stage. And it just felt like a strong joke to start on. Instead of inching towards it, we wanted to just put it as the rollout - the first one. And I'm really glad we did that 'cause I think it's like - there's no time getting to know Donna. We know Donna after 30 seconds.
GROSS: Now you're younger than I am. When I was growing up, the word vagina was just - it was just like a scary word - like it's a word that you didn't say. You know?
And that's changed a lot, I'm glad to say. Did you grow up with any of that like - you don't say that word, that's a scary - you don't talk about it, you don't say it?
SLATE: Not at all, my mom said vagina all the time. We - drew me a diagram of, you know, my lady parts. And I believe she laminated it after 'cause everything was laminated in my house. My bus pass - I grew up in the city, so she would laminate my bus passes and she would laminate my diagrams of, you know, like, this is your ovaries, this is your uterus and fallopian tubes. I wish I saved it.
But vagina was nothing shameful in my house. And I do remember one conversation where when I was little, I would only just wear a t-shirt around the house. You know, I had my underwear, obviously. But there was that conversation as a little girl at a certain point, I think maybe it was like fourth grade or fifth grade where it's like, Gilly, you have to wear shorts now, because I would just sit Indian style, vagina out, watching TV. And that conversation, I think, scared me 'cause that's when I realized that I was ready to understand that that meant wearing shorts and pants around the house.
GROSS: So while we're talking about bodies, another thing about the comedy in the movie - and the movie we're talking about, by the way, if you're just joining us is "Obvious Child." And my guests are the writer and director of the film, Gillian Robespierre and the star of the film, Jenny Slate who plays a comic.
So part of the comedy, Jenny, that your character does in the movie has to do with farting.
GROSS: And again, a long history of men who have done jokes about that, not so much women. And I think, you know, that's one of those odd places where there's really been like a double standard, where like men joke about it all the time and, you know, perform it even - you know, do it in a performative way. But for a woman, I think it's just considered this like horrible embarrassment. So Jenny, do you talk about - have you talked about that in your own stand-up? And then Gillian, I'll ask you about, you know, writing it into the movie.
SLATE: Certainly I do talk about my stomach and, you know, all of the different problems that it has. And I think I'm particularly good at making fart noises and I can do a lot of different ones. And actually, I'm on a cartoon on Fox called "Bob's Burgers" and they let me make my own fart noises for that character. That's just a point of pride.
SLATE: But - yeah, thank you. Thank you so much. Dream come true right now to be able to say that. But, you know, I always thought that farts were funny and I always thought that they were mine to talk about because they came out of my body, or I heard them in life coming out of other people's bodies, so they're part of my experience. And my grandmother used to say, I don't like that word, fart. She didn't want us - I was told not - she didn't want us to say it at Shabbat and stuff. I never thought of it as something that a woman or a girl wouldn't talk about. And I think I was aware when I started doing stand-up - especially on my own that, yeah, I'm getting up on stage and I'm a woman and I dress in sort of a typically feminine fashion, you know? I like to wear dresses and skirts. And the attitude that I have is, I'm so excited to introduce myself to you, and I want to be wearing what I would wear to a date or a dinner party. And I guess when I'm up there, maybe I'm imagining a world where my nature is celebrated and my gender is just part of it? And, you know, I talk about farts. It never seemed like a big thing.
GROSS: Gillian, do you want to talk about...
ROBESPIERRE: Yeah, farts are funny. I feel like when I finally saw Jenny on stage in 2009, I was really excited. She was talking about her body in a way that didn't seem too far off of - you know, from how I spoke. I just don't go on stage and like, I'm not a stand - up. But she was speaking exactly how I feel like every woman in the audience speaks to their friends. And I have always been sort of obsessed with scatological humor, with my digestive tract or tracts. And I think that farts are funny and I think talking about it is not raunchy. I think it's actually quite confessional and vulnerable and makes you a little empathetic too. So I think there's a combination when you talk about what goes in and out of your body that makes it not just really laugh out loud funny, but also something that other people can connect you with.
GROSS: Gillian Robespierre and Jenny Slate will talk more about their new romantic comedy, "Obvious Child" in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Gillian Robespierre, the director of the new romantic comedy, "Obvious Child." And Jenny Slate, the film's star. Slate plays a stand-up comic who does autobiographical, very personal material in her act. Robespierre wrote the part for Slate. Slate is a comic as well as an actress. She's a former "Saturday Night Live" cast member and has recurring roles in "Parks and Recreation," "Kroll Show," "Bob's Burgers" and the new FX series, "Married." So another thing about the comedy in the movie "Obvious child," there's, you know, at least one scene where Jenny - your character - is doing stand-up and the person - the character's stand up is very autobiographical. And the character - the person that she's talking about is in the audience. Like at the beginning of the movie, she's talking about her boyfriend who's in the club and is listening to what she's saying. You've probably experienced that - since your comedy is autobiographical - that you're talking about somebody who's there. Has that ever come back to haunt you? That you've said something that you thought was funny but actually maybe ended up hurting the feelings of the person you were talking about?
SLATE: I think I'm pretty careful, actually. I just recently went on the "Jimmy Kimmel Show" and, you know, I have a lot of stand-up about my dad and that he slept in a nightgown for a lot of my childhood, which is really funny and adorable. And I called him before and I was like, you know, Dad, I'm really thinking about talking about this. Is that OK? And he said oh, yeah, you know, you need to do whatever you want to do. But my parents have only seen me do stand-up like two times and both times they were there I did not speak about them because I didn't want to hurt their feelings or make them feel targeted. I think I'm really careful to make sure not to hurt people's feelings. I don't talk about my husband in a way that would ever embarrass him. I'm very aware of those boundaries, whereas Donna isn't. But sometimes I think that I'm very aware of them because I am a middle child and I am very talkative and gregarious and sometimes I walk away from - a lot of time I walk away from situations and say, like, man, I just talked for that entire time and it was because I was excited but I didn't let anybody else talk. And that really embarrasses me. And so I think when I'm on stage, I am aware of - OK, you're asking all these people to look at you and you love it. And they know that you love it and you need it, so make sure that you're giving them something useful and that it's not masturbatory - even if you're talking about masturbation. And I think I'm just really aware of those boundaries. I would never want to hurt anyone's feelings, including my own.
GROSS: So Jenny, I have a couple of questions for you about your career as a performer. A lot of our listeners will remember you from your brief stay on "Saturday Night Live." You were there for one season. And this is a kind of famous story, like your first night on "Saturday Night Live," you're doing a sketch and you accidentally say an expletive - an expletive that there was supposed to be, like, the clean version of. What was the word you were allowed to say on the air?
SLATE: I was supposed to say frick. And I said something else.
GROSS: Right. How did you end up - like, can you take us through what happened? Is it too painful to ask you to do that?
SLATE: No. In fact, it's not painful at all. If I can be honest, I've just talked about it so much and the only thing that I feel, you know, that, like, kind of tugs at me is just - it's just that I don't want the people that I really like and respect from "Saturday Night Live" to think that four years later, when I'm, like, you know, on four TV shows and have this movie coming out and I'm a New York Times best-selling author, that I'm talking about this 'cause somehow I think it's, like, the most important thing about myself. Like, but I do understand why people ask it. I don't mean to be disrespectful at all. I just, you know, that's my honest feeling about it and I would at least like to say that before I - but I don't mind talking about it. I just think I've never said that before part until recently about why I would hope, you know, that soon I can stop, like, talking about it. But hopefully our movie will be successful enough that people will say, like, oh, you're the girl from the - that thing. But anyway...
ROBESPIERRE: The abortion rom-com.
SLATE: The abortion rom-com. But yeah, it was my childhood dream to be on "Saturday Night Live" and to be a movie actress. It was really weird for me to make such a giant mistake on my first episode. And in general, I've been, like, you know, really good in school and don't like to make a lot of mistakes and was just, like, terrified that that happened. And it was really embarrassing and I felt like I really let myself down. And I didn't like it in that moment, but everyone was very nice to me and I think the "Saturday Night Live" that I wanted to be on was maybe the one from, like, the '70s or something. I don't think I was well-suited for the show. I don't know. I think socially everybody was nice. I think I'm happier out of it, being free and being able to do many different things and being able to take risks.
GROSS: What was the first door that opened for you after "Saturday Night Live?"
SLATE: Well, really what happened was that my husband and I created "Marcel the Shell With Shoes On." My husband's name is Dean Fleischer-Camp and he created the little character of Marcel, who's a shell and has one eye and two shoes, and he has a little voice that he talks in - sounds like this. And we made this YouTube thing. It wasn't meant to be on YouTube - it was just for our friend's art show - but we put it on and it got millions and millions of views - I think we're at, like, 22 million now. So that was the first thing that happened, was that even though I was fired and I was embarrassed by that and I think, you know, I got fired, like, by reading it on, like, Deadline Hollywood, which was just, like, really high school. You know, and just like, oh, my god - you're embarrassed, like, boom, you're just there. But the resounding response to Marcel was we like this and it seemed like a lot of people online liked my creative efforts and it helped me get back up and feel that there's many ways that I can be creative.
So there was that and then really the most important thing that happened to me that year creatively with that my friend Nick Kroll, who has his show called the "Kroll Show" which is on Comedy Central, asked me to be in his pilot. And that was really huge for me because, you know, he's one of the funniest people I've ever met. I didn't actually know him that well at the time and had a fear of being shunned - maybe by other comedians because I had gotten fired, which never happened. That was just coming from me, you know. In fact, most of the negative things that I experienced came for my own being hard on myself which is - you can only learn from that type of self-abuse. But he asked me to be on the show and it brought my confidence back to be included, especially with somebody who I respect so much. So that was a huge turning point for me, just personally having someone say I have a thing with my name on it, I would like you to be in it, you're not embarrassing.
GROSS: So I read, Jenny, that there is a period when you developed stage fright and you went to a hypnotist?
SLATE: Yeah, I did.
GROSS: How did you suddenly developed stage fright? I would have assumed that it was something that you either had or didn't as opposed to getting it after not having it.
SLATE: I know. I never thought I would get stage fright. I love talking and I love performing. I am hungry for it all the time. But I think I got it after "SNL," for the exact reason, you know, it must be hard to get up without a reputation that you can fall back on. I actually experienced the opposite of that, which is it's usually nice to get up there as a stranger. I realized that I didn't like getting up there as somebody who's thing that most people maybe knew was that I said a swear. You know, and honestly I don't even care about that. Like, I just felt that, you know, that it was kind of high school-y and I felt irritated and mad and I felt like all this stuff is being put on me because I'm the girl that said this swear. And in a way, Donna goes through that too. She's like all this stuff is happening to me - I'm dumped, I'm fired, - you know, so I really get that. And I got up on stage thinking that maybe people wouldn't like me to be there. And that just broke my heart and made me act weird. And I got terrible stage fright. I just couldn't remember how to speak to people anymore. I would have a list, you know, I never write my stand-up out. It's just bullet points and the bullet points are, like, they were just boring. There was nothing. And my husband always told me, like, you're bombing, its fine. You're just not enjoying yourself. And you're not trusting anybody.
And that's what the sad thing is, is that you're not trusting yourself or anyone else and he said that it made him really sad to see me. I tried to just stop, you know, I was just was like I'm not going to do this anymore. I can't handle it. And my husband was like you can cut yourself down in many ways but I just can't abide by this. It's too much in your nature to be sharing and be gregarious to let it go to waste or go away out of fear. And I had some friends that went to this hypnotist to stop smoking and I kind of love things that seem magical. And I liked that it was in Santa Monica and I kind of had to go, you know, near the ocean to get my brain washed out or whatever. So I went there and I went on a Thursday and I got hypnotized and whether or not it is real, Saturday I had a show and it was the best show I had in two years and my stage fright went away.
GROSS: Were you aware of being hypnotized?
SLATE: You know, yeah, the whole time I was like oh man, this is so expensive. This is so annoying. I'm not hypnotized. This guy is so weird. I hate his chair. It smells like cats in here. But I can't see a cat. I hate this. This is so annoying. This is so gross. I hate this chair. Why is this chair so gross? I was just like I do not like this. This is such a scam. And then, he was like and when I count to five, you will be awake, you will be blah, blah, blah. And I was like oh, my God. And I realized - I don't know how long - but in my head I had just been walking around in my grandmother's basement, just repetitively, like in my mind with my eyes closed.
I had just been walking around in my grandmother's basement which was something that I loved because they had like a full bar down there and they had a bathroom that had wallpaper with, like, martini glasses and people swimming in the glasses. And I don't know. It's where we had our seders and my grandfather had his trains down there. It was just a nice - I don't know - I was just - I picked a nice place that I loved that I was walking around in and it definitely worked. Yeah. It was real. I went back to try to stop my sleep eating. But I really muscled through that - didn't work.
GROSS: Unfortunately, we're out of time. We'll have to save the sleep eating for another edition of FRESH AIR. I want to thank you both so much for joining us. And before you both go, Gillian I just wanted to know - Robespierre - we know that word I think from the French Revolution?
ROBESPIERRE: Yeah. Maximilian Robespierre was a politician during the reign of terror.
GROSS: Yeah. So where do you get your name from?
ROBESPIERRE: No one will tell me. No one's confirmed. There's three answers. One is that we are direct descendants. One is that somebody on Ellis Island was very funny and knew a lot about history and played a joke on my ancestors. Or my dad changed it on the eve of his bar mitzvah. No confirmation yet on either of those being the correct answer.
GROSS: Are you from a French background?
ROBESPIERRE: No. I don't think so.
ROBESPIERRE: A lot of Russians in my family from the hills of Russia.
GROSS: Then we can probably scratch the direct descendants idea.
ROBESPIERRE: I think so.
SLATE: At least your name on Ellis Island wasn't Slatkovich like mine was.
GROSS: Was it that?
ROBESPIERRE: S, L, U, T...
SLATE: S, L, A, T.
ROBESPIERRE: Oh, OK.
SLATE: Yeah. That's why it, you know, got shortened to Slate. It was Slatkovich. Slatkovich. I mean, come on.
ROBESPIERRE: It's beautiful.
SLATE: Yeah. It would've been hard in high school. It was already hard in high school.
GROSS: Would it have been hard on stage. Do you think you would have kept your name or gone with a stage name?
SLATE: Oh, I don't know. I never thought about - yeah. I'd probably have kept it. I just - I want to keep the stuff about myself that is from my family.
SLATE: I like them.(Laughing)
ROBESPIERRE: Yeah. Me too. (Laughing)
GROSS: Well, thank you both so much for talking with us. Jenny Slate, Gillian Robespierre, thank you.
SLATE: Thank you.
ROBESPIERRE: Thanks, Terry.
GROSS: Jenny Slate stars in the new romantic comedy, "Obvious Child." Gillian Robespierre wrote and directed the film. There's a funny and very interesting part of the interview in which we discuss how Slate has performed autobiographical material in her stand-up act about discovering sexual urges as a child. But this part was too explicit for broadcast so we have it as an extra on SoundCloud. That's at soundcloud.com/freshair. Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews Lana Del Rey's new album. This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review of Lana Del Rey's new album "Ultraviolence," which debuted last week at number one on the Billboard 200 album chart. Del Rey has been a controversial figure, as critics debate the extent of her vocal talent versus her talent for publicity. And she recently caused a stir when she gave an interview in which she said, quote, "I wish I was dead already" and drew criticism from, among others, Kurt Cobain's daughter, Frances Bean. Ken says Del Rey is continuing a time-honored pop tradition of developing a public persona that challenges fans to decide what's real and what's not.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WEST COAST")
LANA DEL REY: (Singing) Down on the West Coast, they got a saying. If you're not drinking, then you're not playing. But you've got the music, you've got the music in you, don't you? Down on the West Coast...
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: As an album, "Ultraviolence" is one long, languid mood piece. If you can't adjust to its wavelength, it's likely to seem ponderous. But let the music work on you, and its slow-motion emoting can be thrilling, sometimes funny, sometimes chilling. Collaborating on many cuts here with producer Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys, Lana Del Rey performs with the kind of tremulous intensity that only masquerades as vulnerability.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ULTRAVIOLENCE")
DEL REY: (Singing) He used to call me DN. That stood for Deadly Nightshade. 'Cause I was filled with poison, but blessed with beauty and rage. Jim told me that he hit me, and it felt like a kiss. Jim brought me back, reminded me of when we were kids. This is ultraviolence. Ultraviolence. Ultraviolence. Ultraviolence. I can hear sirens, sirens.
TUCKER: Where to start with the provocations within that, the title song of "Ultraviolence"? For Del Rey to sing in the first verse that she is, quote, "filled with poison, but blessed with beauty and rage," well, she must be a bratty, egomaniac, must she not? To use that title, a phrase cribbed from Anthony Burgess' "A Clockwork Orange," to stuff the song with a quotation from the old Gerry Goffin, Carole King song "He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss)." Oh, my. She's not condoning violence, is she?
Del Rey, in her late 20s, has a firm grasp on pop history. She makes knowing references to '50s beat poetry and the '70s music of Lou Reed in another song "Brooklyn Baby." And on "Money Power Glory," she throws all the accusations her critics have leveled against her right back at them.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MONEY POWER GLORY")
DEL REY: (Singing) You say that you want to go to a land that's far away. How are we supposed to get there with the way that we're living today? You talk lots about God, freedom comes from the call. But that's not what this bitch wants. Not what I want at all. I want money, power and glory. I want money, and all your power and all your glory. Hallelujah.
TUCKER: The music on this album, the instruments and arrangements used, could have appeared during almost at any period of rock music since it began. She amusingly referred to her sound as narco-swing in a New York Times interview. The singer's frequently multi-tracked vocals sometimes turn her into her own one-person girl group. She knows perfectly well what she's doing when she titles one song "Slept My Way Up To The Top," and I changed the first word there to avoid using the real title's four-letter one. Never mind the interviews in which she claims ignorance of, or disinterest in, feminism. She's faking you out again. In the music and in her videos, Del Rey toys with old notions of attractive young women using charms other than talent to achieve success. By owning these accusations rather than refuting them, she gets to critique not just the critique of her own skills, but also the sexist prejudice that can trail female transgressors in any pop art form.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CRUEL WORLD")
DEL REY: (Singing) Shared my body and my mind with you. That's all over now. Did what I had to do, 'cause you're so far past me now. Shared my body and my life with you, that's way over now. There's not more I can do, you're so famous now. Got your bible, got your gun. And you like to party and have fun. And I like my candy and your women.
TUCKER: Lana Del Rey is sharp-witted, aiming to take her place among her predecessors. She is Morrissey with a better pout. She's Katy Perry with the blues. She's the daughter "Twin Peak's" Laura Palmer never lived to have. Del Rey dares you to believe that she's all trouble and impure pleasure, even as she crafts music so darkly inviting, it enters you like a knife between your ribs.
GROSS: Rock critic Ken Tucker reviewed Lana Del Rey's new album "Ultraviolence." Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews a new novel about how James Joyce's "Ulysses" was published and banned. This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. The new book called "The Most Dangerous Book" by Kevin Birmingham is about James Joyce's 1922 novel "Ulysses" and the censorship battles that surrounded its publication. The novel is set on June 16, 1904 - a day the hero of the novel, Leopold Bloom, spends walking all over Dublin. Maureen Corrigan has a review.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN: There are many heroes in the tale of how James Joyce's masterpiece, "Ulysses" - which was banned for over 10 years throughout the English-speaking world - finally won its long battle to be legally published, sold and read. Kevin Birmingham tells that extraordinary story in his new book about "Ulysses" called "The Most Dangerous Book."
As I said, there are many heroes in it, but James Joyce, himself, isn't one of them. Narcissistic, manipulative, mean and dissolute - Joyce was a handful from the time he was a teenager. Here's an example - when Joyce was just 20, an intermediary arranged a meeting for him with W.B. Yeats, whom Joyce had publicly criticized as a sentimental sellout.
Nonetheless, Yeats was gracious throughout their meeting - even offering to read the younger man's poetry. Joyce eventually stood up to leave and, in a parting shot, asked Yeats how old he was. Yeats said he was 36, and Joyce replied we have met too late. You are too old for me to have any affect on you.
Arrogant, artsy undergraduates who think they're geniuses are a dime a dozen. Joyce, however, was that rarest of creatures - the snot who thinks he's a genius who really is a genius. And in fact, goes on to write a novel that may well be the most important novel ever written in English.
"Ulysses" sparked a revolution because it left nothing out. For the single day it chronicles of Leopold Bloom's wanderings around Dublin, we hear, among a thousand other things, about his daydreams, his erections, his newspaper reading and the quality of his bowel movements. "Ulysses" also bombards us with different narrative styles and voices. Most famously, that of Bloom's wife, Molly, whose words about intercourse from a woman's point of view are now celebrated as one of literature's great soliloquies.
Birmingham's book about "Ulysses" is also expansive. As you'd expect, it chronicles Joyce's decades long writing process, his private life with this common-law wife, Nora Barnacle, and the extremes of the critical reception "Ulysses" received. When it was first published in book form in 1922, by Sylvia Beach, the owner of the legendary English-language book shop in Paris, Shakespeare and Company, the novel was hailed, in some reviews, as the work of a half-demented man of genius. In the course of reading "Ulysses," Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary that she was amused, stimulated, charmed, at first, and then puzzled, bored, irritated and disillusioned as by a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples.
Beyond the standard expectations of literary history, however, Birmingham works in crucial information about, for instance, the role of the U.S. Post Office in enforcing censorship and the grotesque medical treatments Joyce endured for his painful eye inflammations. Birmingham's book is a rich treasury, despite the fact that, occasionally, he's too clearly pleased with the snaky suppleness of his own sentences and the shock value of his big reveal - that Joyce's chronic eye troubles were caused by syphilis.
Certainly that diagnosis is a contribution to Joycean biographical scholarship, but I wasn't as surprised by it as I was meant to be. Given the youthful Joyce's loose lifestyle and his poverty, it's amazing he survived at all to write "Ulysses," let alone "Finnegans Wake." To me, the more meaningful revelations in "The Most Dangerous Book" are the subtler ones. For example, Birmingham vividly traces how a network of courageous, literary women - the aforementioned Sylvia Beach, as well as Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, who serialized parts of "Ulysses" in their magazine, "The Little Review," risked jail time to help Joyce realize his masterpiece. In a landmark federal obscenity trial in 1933, "Ulysses" was deemed to be literature by a patrician federal judge named John Woolsey, who was repelled by the gross excesses of Joyce's novel but also unexpectedly moved by passages like Molly Bloom's soliloquy.
Since then, generations of readers have been amazed, inspired, turned off and turned on by "Ulysses." Birmingham helps his own readers see how an enlightened society came to the realization that the only fitting response to a work of art like "Ulysses" is, to quote Molly Bloom, "yes."
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "The Most Dangerous Book" by Kevin Birmingham. I'm Terry Gross.
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