The Life And Times of Marcel The Shell and Jenny Slate

by shannon carlin

Last year, comedian Jenny Slate and director Dean Fleischer-Camp introduced us to the adorable Marcel The Shell with Shoes On and gave us a little insight into the life of an average mollusk. We learned that lentils make good hats, strands of hair can be used for basically everything and that it isn’t so easy being a little shell.

Things sure have changed since the last time we heard from our favorite shell in pink sneaks though. First of all, he’s released his first book called Marcel the Shell with Shoes On: Things About Me. He’s also in talks to get his own TV show. But most importantly, Marcel’s got a new video. He finally got that dog he wanted so much and he’s trying out a few new nicknames. Best of all, we finally figure out why we might want to start smiling as much as he does. Gotta say, his answer is pretty convincing.

Watch Marcel’s newest video below and read Anna Bean’s interview with Ms. Slate featured in our recent issue with another very funny lady, Mindy Kaling, on the cover.

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In the summer of 2010, comedian, writer, and actor Jenny Slate had a feeling she might not be rehired for a second season on Saturday Night Live. From her work on “Pageant Talk” and “New Doorbells” to the hilarious “Just let her stay home and lez” sketch starring host Betty White, Slate had written and acted in some of the show’s best moments of the year. Nonetheless, her suspicions were eventually confirmed, and it was a blow for Slate (and her fans). “I didn’t want that to be a death sentence for me,” says the 29-year-old, sitting on the back porch of her Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, home. “So instead, I made a character that I could live with. The voice came first. It was a little voice, and I felt really little at the time—really teeny-tiny—but so full of words.” 

 Collaborating with her fiancé, director Dean Fleischer-Camp, Jenny lent that voice to a friendly seashell sporting pink sneakers and created a stop-motion short about the little guy’s life called Marcel the Shell With Shoes On. Though the video is just over three minutes long, its charming aesthetic and idiosyncratic humor garnered millions of Internet views and even attracted critical attention from Sundance, the AFI, and the New York International Children’s Film Festival. Now Slate and Fleischer-Camp have landed Marcel a two-book deal with Penguin (the first book comes out November 1) and are developing the premise into a TV show. “[Marcel] is my hero; he saved my life,” says Slate. “I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t let myself create it.” 

 Full of rich, photo-realistic oil paintings by artist Amy Lind, the first book, Marcel the Shell With Shoes On: Things About Me, is described by Slate as “a day in the life.” And although it’s billed as a children’s picture book—with a downloadable audio portion so you can hear Marcel read aloud—much like the short, it will please readers big and small. This broad appeal may stem from the fact that anyone who has ever felt little in a great big world can connect with Marcel, who confides in his audience with adorable revelations like, “Guess what I wear as a hat? A lentil!” And as he putters around his human-size house, vignettes like the one where he frets over “the mess”—actually a single leaf with teensy bites taken out of it amid some miniature plates, which prompts Marcel to stammer, “I invited some friends from upstate to come and eat salad, so that’s just how it looks right now”—are sly reminders that sometimes we all make mountains out of mole hills. In many ways, Marcel mirrors Slate’s vulnerability and strength. “Marcel’s very daring,” she explains. “He does take risks because he says things to try to entertain people. And he also takes risks because he says things that are kind of boring. Like, why would you even care that he had friends over from upstate? Marcel is just himself, and it’s really encouraging to know that so many people relate to that.” 

Slate grew up alongside two sisters in a Jewish family in Milton, MA, and says that she loved comedy from an early age. Whether it was the TV shows she watched, the children’s books she read, or the skits she performed at summer camp, she says she was always chasing after what made her laugh. “I found something funny in almost anything I saw and in almost anyone I met,” she says. “There was funny everywhere, and I knew that that was me—that’s my nest, that’s the egg that I came from.” Doing voices became a way for Slate to express herself in the somewhat stifling suburban world where she came of age, and this talent is something she utilizes in her comedy today. “I want to be in the city surrounded by a billion voices and people. And I think doing a lot of voices is a crazy, psychotic way for me to be other people,” she says. “There are so many I can do, and I like that I keep it up, but I’m not like Robin Williams.”

Slate first got into the comedy scene by joining an improv group at Columbia University but says that she really just wanted to become “a lady actress,” with emphasis on the lady. “I wanted boobs and a bra and a bush forever,” she says. “I was so pissed as a six-year-old that I had a child’s body—not because I wanted to have sex; I just wanted to be a woman. And I love being a woman. I love my bras, I love my tampons—I literally just love being a woman.”

Early in her career, Slate took a creative gamble when she agreed to star in a short film called Obvious Child that I wrote with Karen Maine and Gillian Robespierre. In the 2009 movie, her character Donna gets brutally dumped, has a fun one-night stand, and then wants to get an abortion when the condom fails. Despite what Hollywood would deem controversial subject matter, Slate was totally game and made the character indelibly her own. “Donna is like so many women I know,” she says. “She’s a young lady who’s a freelancer, trying to put her own voice out there and have serious relationships and have sex. A lot of times in movies or in books, when a normal, likable person has to have an abortion, it becomes this huge thing: How will it define her? How is she going to make this decision? How are people going to react to it? But I don’t think that’s what the experience is like for most people.” That said, Slate adds, “People have abortions, and it’s not simple. The situation is not just ‘Should I or shouldn’t I?’ There’s a whole life surrounding everything all the time. I like putting that out there.” 

In the more mainstream world of SNL and the other TV shows she’s appeared in since, like Brothers and Bored to Death—where she got to smooch Jason Schwartzman as his love interest Stella—Slate says portraying women in an honest light remains very important to her. “No matter what the part is, I feel like I take special care to not do anything that’s gratuitous or that feeds into stereotypes about women,” she says. For example, when she was recently cast in the live-action role of “a mysterious jungle woman” for the Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chip-Wrecked movie (out in December), she was given a costume that she calls a “straight-up Survivor meets Temptation Island” getup. And she recalls thinking at first, “This is a weird sort of outfit for a kids’ movie, although if you watch Hannah Montana, they’re all wearing bikinis as pants—fine.” But Slate says she decided not to cave in to the sexy-island-lady cliché with her portrayal, despite what her costume implied. “Instead I thought, I’m just gonna play this however I imagine it, so when kids watch it, they’ll think, ‘What kind of lady is this? I’ve never seen a lady like this before,’” she says. “I feel that one of my responsibilities as an actress is basically to show that women can be many different things. There aren’t just four different types of women.” 

Frustrated with what she calls the “separate-but-equal thing” that goes on in the entertainment world, Slate also wishes that contemporary comedy wasn’t still so rigidly gendered. “Women are superstrong,” she explains. “When people were like, ‘Guys, go out and support Bridesmaids!’ I wanted to say, “They don’t need your support. Kristen Wiig is a genius. You need her support.’”

Slate gets plenty of support herself from the enthusiastic crowd that gathers every week in the back of the Lovin’ Cup Cafe in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to see her do comedy with her “platonic life partner,” Gabe Liedman, in a show they host called Big Terrific with fellow comedian Max Silvestri. The duo’s routine often features their “Bestie x Bestie” video series, and in a recent episode in which the pair asks each other, “What is wrong with your body?” Slate complains, “I suffer from gastro-storms, a lot of inner wind, and precipitation. Cloudy with a Chance of Huge Meatballs—rated R.” She delights in all things scatological, especially when she thinks these kinds of jokes are rubbing the male establishment the wrong way. “I think guys really need to get over their thing that women don’t poop,” she says. “Grow up. Everyone shits. Just close the book.” 

Aside from her Marcel projects, Slate will be popping up in pop culture a lot more over the next few months, with her role in Chip-Wrecked, a vocal performance in the animated Dr. Seuss film The Lorax, a role in a Reese Witherspoon movie called This Means War, and a part in the HBO series Girls, created by Lena Dunham—whom Slate calls “one of the most impressive people I have ever met in my life in every way”—all on the horizon. But during her precious downtime, Slate may be found watching The Golden Girls. “It’s one of the most progressive shows that has ever been on TV,” she says. “Can you imagine someone pitching that show now? ‘It’s about post-menopausal old ladies who wear giant tents as clothes. They all lost their husbands and they live together, but they’re super–sexually active, and they talk about sex and they need sex. And one of them’s a slut and one of them’s an idiot, and they’re just hilarious. And they’re disgusting. And they’re all alone—there’s no men.’” 

Clearly, SNL was just one opportunity for Slate to share her talents with the world, not the beginning or the end of her career. Now on the verge of a whole new venture, recalling the day when she came home from lunch to find that Fleischer -Camp had assembled the pieces to make Marcel’s body still fills her with wonder. There the little shell with shoes on stood “all by himself on the kitchen table,” she says. “And that was the point where I thought, There’s just so much else.”


Photos by Liudi Hara



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