Jenny Slate on ‘Obvious Child’ Director Gillian Robespierre: ‘We Connect Over a Love of Fart Humor, But Also Because We’re Pretty Sensitive Ladies’

Jenny Slate and director Gillian Robespierre at the "Obvious Child" New York screening
Andrew Toth/Getty Images

The camaraderie between Jenny Slate and director Gillian Robespierre was evident on Sunday when the pair debuted A24’s “Obvious Child” at New York’s Sunshine Landmark. The film, based on a 2009 short, tells the story of a young comedian who becomes unexpectedly pregnant and is awaiting an appointment for an abortion. The film also marks a star turn for Slate, a stand-up comedienne whose credits include her short “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On” and TV roles on “Kroll Show,” “Parks and Recreation” and “Bored to Death.”

At the Bar Nana reception following the screening, Slate reflected on her uniquely warm working relationship with Robespierre, which began when the director first witnessed her stand-up act at Big Terrific, a weekly comedy show that Slate once hosted in Brooklyn.

“When we rehearsed the short I went to her house and we had beers and we smoked cigarettes out the window and I was just, like, this is really homemade in a way that feels good to me,” said Slate, adding that Gabe Liedman, her comedy partner and co-star in the film, described the two as birds of a feather. “I think we just grew to really trust each other through the process and I don’t think that I could have ever felt as safe to do the job I did without her.”

While the short film was written prior to Slate’s being cast, Robespierre created the feature with the actress very much in her mind. “I wrote it for Jenny this time which was really fun to be able to try and crawl into her brain because it’s really funny in there,” she explained. “She’s super talented and I knew she could do the things that she was up for.”

After the decision was made to have Slate’s character Donna be a comedian — a change that occurred between the short and the feature — it was inevitable that the film’s stand-up scenes would mirror Slate’s own brand of humor. “We share the same style and I was very willing to loan my style to the film because that’s the only way I know how to do stand-up,” she said. “It’s like dancing or running, it’s how I know how to do that one thing so that’s how I do it.”

“Obvious Child” has been billed as an “abortion comedy” but broaching the topic in a way that was frank, yet considered, was a priority for Robespierre. “We crafted her so she wouldn’t be glib. I think that was our first choice and the second choice was to make a movie that an abortion told in this very straight-forward way, where it wasn’t about the decision-making process but yet she was still thoughtful about it,” she said.

For Slate, whose new series “Married” will begin airing this summer on FX, it was natural that humor would be incorporated into the story even, and perhaps especially, when delving into complicated topics. “We wanted to be thoughtful. There’s a difference, we didn’t want to treat it too gingerly because it’s not so fragile that it will break. But we also didn’t want to be glib or flip,” she said. “That’s not what we’re about. We wanted to show this one story. Not every person’s story but this one story that we hadn’t seen and I think that story for us also involved a very funny woman.”

As Slate explains, her natural chemistry with Robespierre allowed them to sense what the story needed. “You can tell when you’re trying to be gross or shocking just for that value, for shock value, and then that’s no good. That’s not our style. I think Gillian and I connect over a love of fart humor but also because we’re both pretty sensitive ladies.”