INTERVIEW : JANEANE GAROFALO

Game-changer Janeane Garofalo has been an unwavering icon of chutzpah and authenticity over the last quarter of a century, with too many TV shows and films to count. If you’re of a certain age, you were not so secretly in love with her after watching her dance to My Sherona and forget the first names of her lovers in Reality Bites. Her outspoken expressions of disdain for war and greed have brought the wrath of many down upon her handsome brow, but she’s been steadfast and true to herself, as any artist should be.

Janeane performs tonight at Ace Hotel New York, at our monthly comedy night Marking Out. We had a chat about feminism, men who live in their mom’s basements, and shelter dogs’ effortless stance on social and political justice.

I found out that your first big break was Showtime declaring you the “Funniest Person in Rhode Island.”

Yes, which is a testament to the lack of talent in Rhode Island at the time, not to my actual funniness. I cannot take credit for that. I have no idea how that happened.

Do you think you still might be the funniest person in Rhode Island?

No, there’s got to be — that would be a sad state of affairs… I mean, I never was actually the funniest person in Rhode Island. But it was crazy because that was actually one of the first times I ever even did standup. That’s just because, I’m assuming, the other people who performed were even less —

Were having a bad day?

Were having a bad day, I guess, because I do not understand how that happened.

I was also reading that one of your earlier onstage elements was that you’d read jokes off of your hand?

Yes, that was purely — not schtick, that was not schtick — that was before I discovered just writing on a piece of paper. It was on my arm, and I would just look at my arm between things. And then I realized, why don’t we just put this on paper, and bring the notebook or the paper onstage.

I don’t know if you still do this, but you used to carry onstage a notebook of articles and observations — is that still true?

I do sometimes if it’s, like, an article I’ve taken out of the paper or a magazine that’s something I want to discuss that evening. I mean, I don’t always have the articles and the notebook, it just depends if it’s something I want to talk about at that time.

I was curious about that actually, because while comedy shouldn’t be, and isn’t, beholden to politics, it’s often one of the most political arts in the US, and you’ve been really political in your work. I was wondering how much you feel not obligated to but inclined to incorporate current issues — I mean, even all the fear around the nuclear plant in Japan — do you feel inspired to incorporate communal dialogue into your routines?

If there’s something I feel like I want to discuss — ‘cause a lot of times I do open it up to the audience. It’s not every night, and sometimes it’s only a small part of it. Like say I’m doing an hour, it can be, depending on the night, a lot or a little and then sometimes not at all. But it’s not about a feeling of “I should” or “I’m obligated to,” it’s just something that feels right to me, personally. And then, you know, when there are people who have a problem with it, I don’t understand that. What are the rules? Why would there be blanket rules over what a comedian does or doesn’t discuss? The same way there are people who have criticized bringing a notebook on stage — it’s no different than a band having a set list, to me. Because I don’t say the same exact thing the same exact way every time — obviously I’ve repeated things, but I try to discuss different things as much as I can, so I have to bring the notes to remember what I wanted to get to. And sometimes I never even get to the notebook.

But if you do have a microphone and you’re talking to a group of people, there should be some sense of responsibility not to waste the time you have. You know, if there is something cultural going on — some socioeconomic thing, some psychosocial thing — that I think bears discussion, I think it’s a great opportunity to do it. And I don’t always do it well because I get caught up in it, I get emotional about it, or when there’s something that’s going on that’s painful, it’s hard to find anything humorous about it, and it seems disrespectful to try and find something humorous about it. So, in that sense, I won’t try and make a joke out of it.

It seems like a delicate balance, pushing that edge where people want to relieve pressure by laughing about something daunting or devastating, but it’s still really sensitive.

Yes, and there are many comics who do it way better than me. They’re much better at it, they do find the way to do it much more economically than I do, verbally, and they’re much funnier at it. I frequently can’t find the way to do it, and then I’ll see somebody like Paton Oswald, who just hits the nail on the head and I’m like “Oh dammit, that’s how I should have approached it!” And it really kills me when I see other people discussing the same topic much more eloquently than me, which happens all the time.

People really appreciate the political bent in your comedy, and I think it’s more than just your style or what you’re saying and a lot more about your presence. You’re considered a feminist performer, and a super awesome lady comedian, from the era of Reality Bites and Riot Grrrl and your anti-war sentiments — that’s really appreciated by people and, interestingly, it’s a lot to do with being yourself. The world of comedy and of TV and film can be so stagey and performative.

Well, I’ll take that as a huge compliment because I consider feminist a compliment. It’s very strange to me when people deny the word feminist — really strange — because what feminist means is that you believe in social justice and gender equality. How can you be not that? You know, unless you’re not that, and then why would say you weren’t out loud? You should just keep that to yourself. But when I hear people say, I’m not a feminist, I do not understand that — I always take it as a compliment. And the word liberal, as well — take it as a huge compliment, because it’s a very good thing to be. The response from the audience, sometimes, is totally split down the middle — people either really like it, or they loooooathe it. For any one person who has enjoyed what I’ve done, there are two people who have loathed it, and wanted to make that clear to me. There seems to be something that really rubs people the wrong way, especially when females are political. It just a double standard, culturally. And it’s very easy to marshall cultural hostility towards women in general, but especially women in the entertainment industry. I mean, really, from my experience, very, very easy to inspire anger and irrational hatred in people if you are female and if you are, even in a small way in the public eye even in a small way, you will get the worst backlash, as opposed to a male actor or a male comic where there’s not nearly the same backlash. I don’t know why it is. It’s unfortunate, I hate it, it breaks my heart. You know, I would rather be well-liked, believe me.

And, speaking to the point about being yourself, I feel like, how else could one be? Now, I know there’s a lot of people who are not authentic, but I think the public responds — seemingly, I know I do when I see it — really positively to somebody who is being themselves. I think that’s why the Chelsea Handler show has taken off — in a sea of inauthenticity on that channel, you have Chelsea Handler and Joel McHale being themselves and people respond really well to that.

How do you feel about Lady Gaga in that respect, as a political female artist — do you find her authentic, inauthentic?

I think of her as an art star. She’s someone I’d like to know, even though I really don’t know much about her work, to be honest. But the reaction is always split. There’s something in our culture which I think is getting worse over the years, this culture of cruelty. This immediate cynical reaction to people, and the internet has allowed them to be crueler, ‘cause you can do hit and run comments with no identity. And it seems like when people try to be themselves, many times it will split, how people react to them. I don’t know why. Especially if they’re trying to speak mostly in the political arena. In half the people, it inspires vitriol. And in half the people, it really engenders great good will. And I don’t know why that is — it’s really more about the person who is cynical — what is it about that person where they become vitriolic? Does that make sense? More about what’s going on with that person.

In the same way that some people have that really cynical or stupid reaction to modern art, you know, where they just scoff at it? There are some times — and I’ve talked about this onstage because it shames me — there are times when I’ve gone to galleries to see outsider art or modern art and I’ve looked at what’s within the frame and just gone, “God, I’m just not…I’m not seeing it.” Or I have this instinct like, “I think I could have done that.” That makes me feel embarrassed that I have that. But, that is the seed of that cynicism, if you amp it up 50 paces. And then that kind of person will go one step further and not just have the inner monologue of “I could have done that (scoff)” but will say nasty things about the artist. So, I guess they’re criticizing what they can’t understand, which I have been guilty of sometimes with outsider art or modern art, but I have the decency to keep it to myself.

Yes, the healthy shame.

Yes, I’m proud that I’m ashamed of myself for having said the phrase in my mind, “I could have done that.”

Thinking again about writing on your arm and bringing a notebook on stage, etc., I’m curious about your creative process, and what a day of work looks like for you. How you gather ideas, if what you present in a routine is extremely premeditated or if a lot of it is impulsive, and what you’re process is around creating work.

My process is almost a sort of a non-process. I just always have in my backpack a notebook, and then if something strikes me I jot it down. But it’s not fully written — I unfortunately suffer from a severe lack of discipline. Severe lack of discipline. And when I get onstage, unfortunately, sometimes that is mightily apparent. I know the seed of what I want to say, and I’m always hoping it’s going to find itself in the moment, onstage, and sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. But my process is sort of…very freeform. I don’t have the discipline of a Mike Birbiglia, or the late George Carlin, or Slovin and Allen, where they sit down and they write and write and write until it’s finished, sort of, and they know exactly how they’re gonna say it, and they know where they’re going when they start speaking of it. And I really admire that because it would probably make things a hell of a lot easier for me onstage. But it just doesn’t happen to be the way I do it, and it never has been. I’ve been doing it for so long, I don’t think that’s gonna change. ‘Cause I started in ‘85, and it still hasn’t evolved — I’m assuming it’s too late now. So, I don’t know why I can’t force myself to be more disciplined, but it’s sort of just the way I do standup. Just kind of free — I don’t know if the word freeform is right.

Free fall, maybe.

Loose, let’s say loose. Keep it loose.

And so, what are things like for you onstage, and has it changed over — what is that? — 26 years?

It’s changed in that I never get nervous anymore. I stopped getting nervous around year 4 of doing it. Sometimes I still experience dread, if I sense, “Uh oh…this is not gonna be good…” I can just tell, and I experience dread, but not nervousness.

Do you ever miss the nervousness?

No, no I don’t miss the nervousness, ‘cause it used to really stop me up, and it used to make me trip over my words and things. So I don’t miss that. Sometimes I miss the newness of it. I miss how exciting it used to be, and also to be so young and pursuing it. I do look back fondly on those years of being 20, 21, 22, living in Boston, trying to hit every open mic, and I would ride my bike mostly — there’s just something — I think I miss, basically, the youth of it. But there was something so exciting about that time. I didn’t know back then about the failure, about criticism — we also didn’t have the kind of internet criticism back then, and everyone’s-a-criticness and culture-of-crueltyness to the degree that we have it, so I didn’t know how badly it could hurt your feelings, back then. And I didn’t know I could fail back then, I was so naïve, I didn’t know that there would be obstacles and it was gonna be hard to do it and hard to become successful at it. I do miss that.

And do you think both having the sort of pure relationship you have with the audience — it sounds like it’s pretty spontaneous for you — and having this dialogue and having it change over the years, AND the development of this awareness of criticism and the hard knocks of your work have changed you on social or relationship levels, with people that you’re actually face to face with?

Yes, it has changed me, I think sort of negatively, in that I’m more shy than I was, I’m more insecure than I was before, I’m more likely to assume people don’t like me than before. I think criticism in general that anyone who goes into a public profession can expect doesn’t mean it’s easy. I didn’t know that some of it could be so vicious. And then what I went through at the height of the Bush era with the death threats and the hate mail and the getting fired — that stuff, when it was at its worst, took its toll on me, in that it just hurts your feelings so much so that — and I can only speak for me — my personality changes from that experience were of being more frightened of criticism, more nervous about people not liking me. It has definitely taken its toll professionally, because when females are professional and not afraid of speaking out when it pertains to social justice issues at the macro and the micro level, you take career hits that guys do not have to sustain. And, to that degree, that has hurt my feelings terribly, and you also lose jobs and income and all that kind of stuff.

And it makes you feel, or it makes me feel, more apprehensive about people’s honesty — you know, there are people you thought you could trust professionally that you find out later were part of the people who fired you, that kind of thing, or who didn’t stand up for you when someone else was saying, “We gotta fire her ‘cause she’s too…whatever.” And it’s not every like it would have mattered — that’s the worst part, it’s like, the general public could give a shit, really. We’re talking about a very concentrated, vocal right wing group who pretends they speak for a lot of people — they really don’t, but networks operate out of fear, or club owners, things like that. So they overreact. But they don’t tend to overreact when it’s men, for some strange reason. And I’m not saying “poor me” at all, and I’m not saying I’m the only person — this has happened to a lot of other female actors and comics. So it’s certainly not new, and it’s not just me. But I have noticed that it has not happened to our male counterparts.

Yeah, there was a really weird video response to an interview with you on YouTube where this guy kept saying, “Stop enabling Janeane Garofalo! She used to be the girl next door, and now she’s been ruined. What have we made of her?! No more enabling!” You’ve probably seen it.

I haven’t seen it, I try to avoid all of it.

Good, the guy is a total whackadoo. He was upset because you have, like, tattoos and opinions.

I’ve had tattoos since I was 18.

Yeah, and who is this guy in his mom’s basement?

Right, and there are lots of those guys and they write a lot of letters and they will seemingly go out of their way to interfere, like to the point where they would call in bomb threats to comedy clubs where I was, they would call my hotels, but like do their best to track me down. All kinds of — set up fake interviews where they would claim they were from one thing and not be. I had to change my phone number three times. They would get my home phone number — I don’t know how — and then post it. All kinds of crazy stuff that was not happening to male comics that were speaking out. But, also, I’m a tax paying citizen first and foremost — I’m not defined by my career — so why is it that some people in some careers can speak without creating a problem? You know, the Pope came out against the war. I don’t recall anyone boycotting the Pope, or writing hate mail. In the same way that Will Ferrell can do Bush impressions in a show on Broadway and have nothing happen, and Tina Fey does a Sarah Palin impression and gets death threats. It’s because of sexism and misogyny.

Right, sort of like, “Bad girl!”

And it’s cultural hostility against women. I don’t know why it is. And that’s what’s changed in me over the years — I didn’t realized it, I didn’t expect that in certain people. You know, I didn’t realize there were those kind of people out there to the degree that there are, and then when you meet them, when you read the letters they send you, when they throw things at you or wait for you outside a club, it changed ME anyway, to feeling kind of sickened by a percentage of the population. But even worse than that is when people you thought were your friends you find out are saying, “Oh she should shut up” — that would hurt as much. I never understood that because they themselves felt comfortable speaking out but when someone else did it it bothered them.

It’s interesting because those crazy dudes in their basements are such a microcosm, they sort of represent what the right wing wants culture to be like, and, similarly, you become a microcosm, a symbol. But it’s really something to be proud of; it’s a sign that you’re pushing a culture past itself and pushing that edge, and that’s so instrumental to cultural change. The fact that people come under fire indicates that we do in fact have a radical culture in the United States. The fact that people “get in trouble” and get chastised is a sign of life. But it also sounds really harsh.

Yes, for me, it is harsh. I don’t know if I’m going to get this adage right, but “You can tell a lot about a person by who their enemies are” — so, I take that to mean that the type of people who dislike me says something very positive about me. It would be a drag if the Fox News types and the Tea Baggers and the basement types LIKED me. That would not be good. That would mean I was doing something wrong. Now, having said that, I still can’t stand it when people don’t like me. But there’s nothing you can do about it.

Well, one individual who’s never going to criticize you or be sexist is your new dog from the shelter.

I know! Yeah, he is the lovinest lovebug in the world, but apparently I can never leave the house again.

What’s his name?

Unsub, which is short for Unknown Subject. Yeah, I probably should have thought more about the name. I never even call him that — I don’t even think he knows that’s his name. The only problem we have at the moment — ‘cause he’s wonderful — is that he does not like to be left alone. So, that’s something we’re working on because there can be a lot of destructive behavior and destruction of things and I’m running out of things for him to destroy at the moment. If, I’m praying, I shutter to think if it doesn’t stop, I really don’t know what we’re going to do about that. But I try to bring him everywhere that I can, but I can’t bring him everywhere, so…

Is he pretty chill when you take him out of the house?

Everything’s fine! Everything’s fine except if you leave him alone. He just doesn’t like it. I’ve tried leaving classical music on.

There are these plug-in things that emit a pheromone that is supposed to relax dogs. All kinds of wing ding stuff to try. And you can bring him to the hotel Monday night.

I’m going to have to!

Has he worked his way into your routine yet?

He has a bit, much to the chagrin of some. But he’ll be there, hanging out with someone in the audience.

We can’t wait to meet him.


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