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.