Janeane Garofalo: Liberally speaking

By | March 25, 2008 at 4:35 pm | No comments | Features | Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

janeanenew250.jpgFor more than two decades, comedian Janeane Garofalo has made us think as much as she has made us laugh. Thankfully, 2008 will see our favorite funny socio-political critic film a new stand-up DVD and continue touring the nation’s finer comedy friendly venues: she’s at Comix in New York April 4 and 5. Funny Janeane will return to serious Janeane as well, when she begins work on the new season of Fox’s hit 24.

Throughout her nearly 23 years in the entertainment industry, Janeane Garofalo has become many things to many people of varied ages.

For some, she’s been the occasional bright spot in some of the most popular network shows: Mad About You, Two and a Half Men, King of Queens, Law & Order. For others, she was a sound, ultra liberal social critic as the co-host of The Majority Report on Air America.

Still others know her as the consummate supporting actress in twisted indie-like dramadies like Clay Pigeons and Permanent Midnight or as the star or co-star of more mainstream flicks like The Truth About Cats and Dogs and The Matchmaker.

And now, the 43-year-old New Jersey native is as relevant as ever: She has 15 episodes of The West Wing on her resume, she voiced Colette in last year’s $206 million-grossing Ratatouille and is a current cast member on Fox’s hit show, 24, where she plays systems analyst Janis Gold.

Throughout her career, however, she’s never abandoned her first love: stand-up comedy. For all that Janeane is, for most of us reading this, she will always be one of our favorite stand-up comedians. She’ll prove it April 4-5 as she performs live at Comix in New York City.

Punchline Magazine recently chatted with Janeane. We hit on the current climate of stand-up comedy, the 2008 presidential race, why she’s still apologizing to a fan 10 years later and much more.

I was flipping through my channels recently and found you in a movie called Girl’s Best Friend on Lifetime. There’s a scene where you tie up a dog outside a rest stop and speed away without him. I had to stop watching. That must have been hard for you film since you’re an animal lover. You have two dogs, right?
I have three. Yeah, I didn’t like that.

I’m not sure what’s wrong with me, but that was too much for me to handle.
It was too much for me as well. I’m with you on that one. Hopefully most people felt the way you felt about that. I shudder to think about the people who would be pleased at that.

I assume you end up with the dog at the end of the movie.
Yes, I end up taking the dog as my own and not returning it to my mother’s house.

Do you end up with the guy as well?
Yes, I end up with the boyfriend I broke up with.

Great. So now I don’t have to watch the rest of it. Anyway, for the last five years or so, It seems stand-up has gone through a resurgence in popularity. Why is that?
I think that’s due to the use of the Internet. Comedy experienced a boom in the ’60s in jazz clubs. And then it sort of fell out and it had a resurgence in the mid ’80s through the mid ’90s; cable probably had a lot to do with that.

And now there’s a resurgence because of the Internet and YouTube. Comedians are releasing things online and through DVD as well. I think whenever there are new mediums to be used and comics use them, it gives it a boost.

You’ve been doing stand-up for more than two decades and it seems your comedy is more relevant now than it was years ago.
I don’t know how relevant I am. I started doing it in ’85. I never stopped doing it. But I have not been as computer savvy as many of my peers. I’m a bit of a Luddite so I haven’t taken advantage of that medium which I probably really should. But I don’t even use a computer myself.

Right. But do you think that makes your comedy itself less relevant?
Well, no. I just think there are a lot of people who don’t know who I am– not that they’re supposed to. I think there’s a lot of younger comedy enthusiasts who probably aren’t very much aware of me. And I haven’t used the avenues to reach out to them in the way that, say, Dane Cook has. He’s created an entire enormous online community. And there are people like Patton Oswalt and Zach Galifianakis who have really used it to their advantage as well. I’m very much out of the loop when it comes to that.

Why is that?
Just my lack of techno savvy.

You know you could hire people do those things for you.
No, I know. It’s just that I haven’t done it. I am doing a stand-up special in the Spring that will be available on DVD. I’m not sure exactly the date we’re taping it. Hopefully it’ll be good. And hopefully people will want to see it. It’s being taped in Seattle. It’ll be contingent on my 24 schedule. Because of the writers’ strike, we were off but we start up again April 22.

I also have someone who’s starting a website for me. There’s a number of fake websites that I have nothing to do with. They purport to be mine but they are not.

Do you think the contemporary comedy scene is in a good place?
It’s been pretty consistent. There’s always stand-up that’s less to my taste and stand-up that’s more to my taste like Patton and Zach. There’s always going to be great comics like that. Then there’s going to be more successful comedians where I don’t understand their popularity. Dane Cook is an example of that. I sort of don’t understand where all the enthusiasm for his material comes from. But there’s always been people like that: hugely popular, but it just doesn’t appeal to my taste.

Comedy is pretty subjective that way. But I think comedy is always in a good and a bad place. I just think that’s the nature of any entertainment. There’s always going to be entertainment that’s popular and good and then there’s always going to be entertainment that’s popular and mediocre at best.

If you liken comedy to music, there’s always going to be mainstream pop comedy, like Dane Cook. Hopefully when people are exposed to that, those who would have otherwise never cared about stand-up, start doing so and then begin to explore comedy more deeply.
Yeah, it’s more mass appeal and more digestible than Zach or Patton and because of that, those fans are going to have less passion than the passion that Patton and Zach inspire. Like I said, I think it’s more about the community Dane Cook created using the avenues available to him.

Why do you do stand-up comedy?
I started doing it while I was still in college because I was such a fan. Since childhood, I would listen to my older brothers’ comedy albums. They had George Carlin albums and Cheech and Chong albums. We also had in the house some Bob and Ray and Nichols and May albums. So my interest in it just sort of became a logical step toward doing it’s not because I thought I was so good at it. I just liked it so much and I wanted to be around it so I just thought I would like to make a career out of it. So I started doing it my junior year in college and just never stopped.

So I did an open mic in Rhode Island while I was in Providence College. And there was a club called Periwinkle’s in downtown Providence. And then I would drive into Boston for other open mics. I moved to Boston after graduating and then moved to Houston and kept doing it there. And then around ’92 I moved to Los Angeles.

I always thought you were a Jersey girl. When does Jersey come into play?
I was born in New Jersey. And I lived in both New Jersey and Houston growing up. I was back and forth because my dad worked for Exxon.

Was there a lull in doing stand-up after you did that first open mic? Or was it the type of thing where you just needed to immediately keep doing it?
I was doing open mics for years. And then slowly I started getting more paying gigs maybe three or so years into it. And by the time I was 27 I was able to quit my day job because I got hired to do the Ben Stiller Show and the Larry Sanders Show. So that helped, not only my recognition as a stand-up but I was also freed up to do more road work because I didn’t have a day job anymore.

What was your day job at the time?
There were all different ones. That year I was doing some temp work. But before that, I did some messenger work and I sold shoes– just the usual day job stuff.

A lot of people respect stand-up but if you start comparing it to other forms of live entertainment, it’s still like the redheaded stepchild of the entertainment industry.
Yeah, it is. It goes through phases. In certain times it’s a viable night out. Like,’Let’s go see a band or let’s go see stand-up. Or go to a movie.’ And then at times you wouldn’t think of it as part of your options as something to do in the evening. I think that it ebbs and flows.

Then there are comics like Patton and Zach and Michael Showalter and Eugene Mirman who have started doing shows in venues that are not comedy clubs per se.

But even when comedy is at that stage where it is a viable option, I still feel like it’s never at the level of other entertainment options. Why is that?
I’m not sure. I’m sure to some people it is viable option. There are a lot of people who when they find out David Cross is in town, it’s as big a deal to them as their favorite band. And then there are some people who just don’t put it in the same category.

Then there’s the problem of the high price of comedy tickets. Sometimes it’s not an easy thing for a young person to pay 30 bucks to see a stand-up they like. They’re more likely to pay 30 bucks, if they have it, to go see a band.

You’ve mentioned comics like Zach, Patton and David Cross. The term ‘alternative comedy’ is used a lot when people describe those guys. Whether the term is misused or overused, I feel if there is such a thing as alt comedy, you were at the start of it.
Well, that’s just because I’m older than them. The term ‘alternative’ just means alternative to a comedy club proper. It doesn’t necessarily always mean that the material is alternative or indie. But people like Demetri Martin and Patton– they’re definitely more cerebral.

They’re not as well suited for a mainstream audience as a more mainstream comedian is. Your average Saturday night crowd at a chain comedy club is probably not going to appreciate Demetri as much as he deserves to be appreciated. But it is a sort of overused phrase that inspires bitterness in certain other comics. I don’t know why but a lot of times it’s used sarcastically to mock a comedian.

As a comedy veteran, do you find you still have stand-up comedy goals or is it all coasting from here on out?
I would definitely love to do another HBO special. I would love to achieve a more rigorous success as a stand-up. It would be a dream to be the type of comic who whenever you come through town there’s a lot of people who say, ‘Oh wow, let’s go see that.’ I hope that doesn’t sound terribly arrogant. I would love to inspire enthusiasm in groups of people while touring.

You don’t feel like you do that now?
Well, sometimes. It just depends. It can be really hit or miss. Sometimes I’ll do a tour and it sells really well and then sometimes not very well.

That reminds me of something I had read about you a while ago. You met a girl once that had tattooed an image of you on her body.
Some years ago there was a girl who tattooed a picture of me on her arm, a picture of me kicking my foot in the air. It was a picture that was taken at the screening for Clay Pigeons. I always regret that I didn’t react properly. I was so stunned by it when she showed me that I think I offended her, which I regret a lot.

I was shocked that anyone would put me on their arm. I didn’t understand it. And so I hope she didn’t interpret my shock as a negative thing. I don’t know why anyone would have me tattooed on their body. That’s shocking in and of itself. I wish I had reacted differently to her. I have a feeling she felt badly. I was stunned into silence when I saw it. So hopefully if she reads this, she’ll accept my apology that I didn’t embrace it more when I saw it.

I think the best way to remedy this, is for us to find her and for you to tattoo her on your body.
I suppose so. There’s very little room left on my arms. This was many years ago at Luna Park in Los Angeles outside the bathroom. This was probably a decade ago. Perhaps now she’s had the tattoo changed by now.

Maybe it’s Kathy Griffin now.
It could be. I just hope I didn’t offend her.

How many tattoos do you have now?
I have about 15.

About 15? You haven’t counted them?
Well, some of them have melded and changed over the years. Some are different than they used to be.

You’ve been very politically vocal. You had said that you’re going to vote for whoever gets the Democratic nomination. Have your feelings gotten more specific?
No, I’ll take any Democrat who believes in science. That’s fine with me. Hillary or Obama is fine with me. Edwards would’ve been fine. Kucinich too.

I like Kucinich.
Yeah, he’s great.

I guess he’s too bizarre for most people.
He’s not bizarre. It’s just that the press marginalizes and mock him. The press is as responsible as anything for destroying the political process and the way we get info about the political process. The mainstream conservative media is destroying the ability for anyone to follow the elections in any kind of substantive way.

It’s interesting to hear you say that since it seems the popular belief is that the media maintains a huge liberal bias.
That’s a false argument. That’s a lie that’s been perpetuated and swallowed unfortunately by a lot of people for the last 30 years. It’s a trick perpetrated by the conservative element in our society to make us think that there is a liberal bias in the media. But there’s no evidence to support that.

The mainstream media is conservative if anything. And beyond that, it’s just shitty. But the liberal media hoax has been a very successful one. If there was a liberal bias, that would be a good thing. If there was a liberal bias, A: we wouldn’t be in Iraq, B: unions would have much more support in the workplace and C: we wouldn’t have the ridiculous concept that America isn’t ready for a female or a person of color to be president. It’s an offensive question. But our mainstream corporate, conservatively biased media sells us war and racism and hierarchy and sundry other institutional falsehoods. That’s just sort of what they do.

So then why is it so important for conservatives to spread that myth?
To bully people into becoming even more conservative. The more people who are bullied by the Right Wing machine, it causes the press to bend over backwards and to kiss more conservative ass. It’s just like the myth about walking under a ladder. People will avoid walking under a ladder even though there’s no evidence that walking under a ladder is bad luck.

Are you doing a lot of political material onstage these days?
It’s like half and half. There’s political stuff and then there’s just silly stuff. It changes any given day. I’m not saying I have all new material on any given day. I sort of just decide what I’m going to say as I go through my notes that day. So there could be a lot of politics or hardly any. It changes from night to night.

For tickets to Janeane’s New York appearances, check out comixny.com.

About the Author

Dylan P. Gadino

Dylan is the founder and editor in chief of Laughspin. He launched Punchline Magazine in 2005 (which became Laughspin in the summer of 2011) with childhood friend Bill Bergmann. Dylan lives in northern New Jersey with his wife and two sons. He hopes the Shire is real.