Sometimes, if you want to be the Internet’s next big thing, it helps to think small. By this point, it’s well known that the web is a cute-ocracy, where many of the medium’s most popular videos involve baby animals. It was into this adorable jungle that comedian Jenny Slate and her filmmaker boyfriend (now fiancé) Dean Fleischer-Camp unleashed their creation, Marcel the Shell, in August of 2010. Made out of a tiny shell, a single craft store googly-eye, a pair of pink and white plastic shoes and voiced by Slate, Marcel starred in a beautifully-shot video in which he offered a tour of his living environment. He wore a lentil as a hat and enjoyed hang-gliding on a Dorito. It was, without question, the cutest thing to grace the Internet that month.
Before long, Marcel was a hit. This month, Slate and Fleischer-Camp have released Marcel the Shell With Shoes On: Things About Me, a delightful picture book that offers a tour through Marcel’s favorite minuscule objects and activities.
Though the couple was flooded with offers after releasing their video, Slate says that no idea excited them the way a children’s book did. “Dean and I didn’t have any interest in making an adult humor book,” says Slate. “When we realized kids liked Marcel too, the only thing keeping it fresh for us was to take on this the challenge of making a good children’s book that wasn’t too saccharine. Marcel has an unnamed nostalgia and a bit of meanness to him, and we realized quickly that he could be a classic character.”
The book is just the beginning. Slate says that the couple is also developing a TV show, which would be an expanded version of the web short. “Our hope is that it will be like The Muppet Show, a place where our comedian friends can come and play around in a world full of shells.”
Slate has many comedian friends to call on. Before voicing Marcel, she started out in the New York stand-up and improv community. Success on that circuit led to a role on HBO’s Bored to Death and a cast member gig on Saturday Night Live. Landing on SNL is a young comedian’s dream, but for Slate it was a bittersweet experience; she only lasted one year and may be best known for a gaffe from her very first episode in which she let an expletive slip. It was in the wake of her dismissal from the show that Slate began to make her own projects, one of which was Marcel.
“I felt a little smushed down,” Slate says. “I felt that I should just sit down and do something creative for the sake of being creative. I had a little heartbreak after the show, and I don’t wear grumpiness well. So Marcel was something I did to make myself happy. It came from a place of strength. He is this little guy who is proud of who he is, and I wanted to say in a loving way, there is nothing wrong with me.”
After Slate started playing around with the character, she and Fleischer-Camp headed to a toy store, where Marcel’s look was born. “We went together to buy little objects [that] would make the physicality of this disembodied voice,” she says. “I’m just the voice, you know? What I’m really in awe of is Dean’s process in creating the character design, how he really built his body and gave him his style. To me, Marcel is perfectly engineered, with his eye and his posture.”
Now that the book is out, Slate and Fleischer-Camp are promoting it with a cross-country tour aimed at bookstore story-times. “If there was a word that could describe ‘Excited times 100,’ that’s how I feel,” says Slate about the tour. “I’ve always wanted to be a children’s author. I am elated. As a kid I loved it when authors would come to school and share their books. One of my friends made me a dress with little Marcels all over it, and I like the idea of going into each reading with high heels and a purse and lipstick. I want kids to see that yes, I am a human lady, and this is something you can do. You don’t have to be a kooky weirdo in a cape. You don’t have to be a weird art lady who lives in the woods. It can be fun to be a grown-up.”
Now that the Marcel phenomenon has exploded, Slate is looking forward to being herself again (“I’d like to do some more programming as an adult lady”) and putting the SNL speedbump behind her. “Even when I was on the show, I had the self-awareness that I was a bit of an oddball and [might] not stay,” she says. “And when I didn’t, at first it felt like everyone was going on vacation without me. But you have to let it go and let it float downstream. Now I have a very strong sense of freedom. Without [that] space to let my imagination go, there may never have been a Marcel.”
Rachel Syme writes about entertainment for TIME. In past lives, she has been NPR’s Books Editor and Culture Editor of The Daily Beast. She is currently at work on a biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Hollywood years. Find her on Twitter at @rachsyme. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page, on Twitter at @TIME and on TIME’s Tumblr.