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Although she once described herself as an “underachiever” and “straight-C student” with typical self-deprecation, Janeane Garofalo is almost better known these days for making ambitious political arguments than for cracking jokes. Garofalo’s conversion from sarcastic slacker to impassioned activist began during the George W. Bush administration, when she slowly drifted away from her stand-up career and movie roles to become a host on the recently shuttered liberal radio station Air America. Since then, Garofalo has become a ubiquitous presence on political debate shows ranging from Countdown With Keith Olbermann to the notably less welcoming Fox And Friends, and her unapologetic remarks—specifically her assertion last year that Tea Party protestors are “racist rednecks”—have made her a favorite target of right-wing hate. But Garofalo hasn’t entirely abandoned entertainment for punditry: In the past few years, she’s turned up in popular fare like Ratatouille and 24 while still performing stand-up regularly, with her latest comedy special (and first in more than a decade) If You Will debuting Saturday, June 26, on pay-cable channel EPIX. Before the show’s première, The A.V. Club called Garofalo ostensibly to talk about comedy—although, as with her career of late, politics ended up dominating the conversation.
The A.V. Club: This is your first new stand-up special since 1997. Do you ever watch your old specials?
Janeane Garofalo: I do not. [Laughs.] Not only do I not watch the old ones because I don’t want to, but I was supposed to look at this one for editing purposes, and I made it through about 35 seconds and decided I would rather be hit in the face with a board repeatedly than listen to me, the sound of my voice, and see me do stand-up. That’s not a comment on the content. It’s a comment on how I don’t know how anybody does that. I’ve seen other comics, with great pleasure, watching their own specials, and I don’t know how or why they do it.
AVC: Like who?
JG: I can’t say, because it will sound terrible. [Laughs.] I don’t know if you’ve been to [New York’s] Comix comedy club, but there’s a TV in there. And I’ve seen sometimes when I’ve been working with some comics, their special happens to be airing on Comedy Central or something that weekend, and they’ll turn it on in the green room, and even say to the other people standing around, “Shhhh! Look! Look!” I find that amazing, that people would do that. So that’s a longwinded answer to your question. No, I do not watch my old specials.
AVC: To prepare for this interview, I re-watched what was my—and I think a lot of people’s—introduction to you, the 15th Annual Young Comedians Special hosted by Dana Carvey.
JG: Oh my God, yeah. With Judd Apatow and Ray Romano.
AVC: And Andy Kindler.
JG: Right! And Bill Bellamy, Nick DiPaolo.
AVC: It was your first real comedy special. What do you remember about doing it?
JG: I remember I honestly enjoyed it, and also I remember it was the first time I ever had my eyebrows tweezed. The makeup guy—who was also the Larry Sanders makeup man—accidentally tweezed a chunk of hairs from the middle of my eyebrow. And so we had to draw in a fake—on one side—eyebrow, because there was a gap. I also remember not being pleased with the set they wanted. You know, they go through your material, or you do material for them, and they pick out like five or 10 minutes of what they would like to see. That would not have been my choice. I do remember feeling constrained by that at the time.
AVC: Your performance there was different than most others you’ve done. It seemed like you had everything memorized, for instance.
JG: [Laughs.] Yes, they really insisted on knowing exactly what you were going to say and how you were going to say it, which makes me uncomfortable.
AVC: Another noticeable difference between your earlier specials and If You Will is that you actually appear more animated now—you’re quicker with your jokes and asides, and you move around more. Were you so aloof back then because it was the ’90s and everyone was aloof?
JG: No, no, no. [Laughs.] It was not a cultural statement. It was literally terror. I was terrified of being on television—and also I overcompensated, I’m sure, because I know I did this in my personal life too at the time, when I was younger. To combat social awkwardness, I would just act like I couldn’t be bothered—that kind of aloof persona or aloof demeanor. It’s so off-putting. I so regret that, but I’m sure that’s what I was doing, because it just seems like what I would do, and I really do regret it. Also, as I’ve gotten older and more mature, I’ve become much more comfortable in my own skin. After 25 years of doing stand-up, that’s reflected onstage. I would say just in general, in life, I’m more willing to be animated as a person, and so obviously onstage as well.
AVC: You’ve often talked about how you used to drink a lot to get up the courage to perform. How much does the fact that you quit drinking have to do with the difference in your demeanor?
JG: I should also say, in general, I just drank a lot. I shouldn’t characterize it as “to get the courage to perform.” It was just an in-general nighttime activity. It definitely made it easier when I started doing stand-up. It was just much simpler to do a couple of shots. It made my nerves go away, for the most part. It just was something I sort of relied on for about the first four years. In college, my shot was the kamikaze. I don’t even know if they still have those.
AVC: They still have those.
JG: [Laughs.] I haven’t heard someone order one in the last few years. I didn’t know if people were still doing that.
AVC: You haven’t been going to the right bars.
JG: I haven’t been going to the right bars, clearly, or hanging out with the right people. For some reason, it’s got to be kamikaze shots, because that was what I drank the first time I ever went onstage. So I just sort of stuck with that, even though they tasted like shit. And then I didn’t realize I didn’t need to until about four years later. Now, that doesn’t mean I didn’t drink. But I didn’t have that like, “I have to do two kamikaze shots. I have to.” That also was a part of just overcompensating. It was stupid, just stupid. I really am embarrassed by that.
AVC: How do you deal with situations like what happened at last year’s Latitude Festival while staying sober? [After a poor reception from the audience, Garofalo left the stage 10 minutes into her set. —ed.]
JG: It’s terrible! It’s honestly mortifying. It’s just personal failure. I’ve no one but myself to blame. There is no way around that. I failed, and it wouldn’t have helped to be drinking. Or maybe it actually would have, if I drank beforehand. I might have been like, “Oh, I can do this.” I might have had false confidence. But it certainly wouldn’t have helped afterward if I had bombed like that. It would have made it worse. I would have been very much into a shame-spiral depression. But I am mortified by the Latitude Festival, and as I say, the worst part of it is that it’s 100 percent my fault. And I am very sorry about it, and I wish that did not happen. I wish that I had had the confidence to do it, and been more mature, and powered through my sense of dread.
Having said that, there’s no reason to be doing comedy during the day in a hot tent. I don’t know why anyone thinks it’s a good idea, but festival after festival keeps doing it. I did see some of the other comedians struggling. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but I psyched myself out to an unbelievable degree before I even stepped onstage, and then I just f—I’m sorry, I almost swore—and then I just really tagged it from there.
AVC: You know, you can swear in this interview.
JG: [Laughs.] I know I can, I forgot. I was going to say, I just really fucking dropped the ball. That was what I was going to say.
AVC: You’ve been doing stand-up since the ’80s. Do all the hours you’ve logged make it any easier—
JG: Nope! [Laughs.] Nope! I knew what you were going to say even before you said it. No. It is just as painful to me when I do poorly. If the fault is all mine, that’s what’s painful. If it’s a situation where no one could have succeeded, I don’t feel as bad. Or if the audience is responding very well to comedians that are hacks, and I don’t do well, I don’t feel as bad, because I feel like their taste is different than mine. They’re laughing at somebody I would never laugh at, so that makes it okay, because obviously our tastes are not in the same place. And comedy is subjective, so I feel like maybe the failure wasn’t all mine. I don’t think they ever would have really enjoyed me. So sometimes that’s a little easier, but not much.
But then when it’s totally me, or if I get heckled and it’s cruel, I don’t have a good comeback. I don’t respond well to it. I swear to God, I would prefer to be well-liked. I don’t enjoy sparring with the audience. It devastates me. When people say something very simple and direct like, “You suck!”—that old chestnut. That will kill me, because it confirms my worst fears, like, “Oh, that person is probably right. I really do. I’m not good at this.” And so it really bothers me. It never has gotten easier. And unfortunately, I am not one of those comics where it’s guaranteed that I hit it out of the park every time. You know, I am not completely reliable. It’s always different, and it’s a complete crapshoot whether I’m going to do well.
AVC: You gave an interview several years back, deep in the heart of the Bush administration, where you said that the reason that you didn’t do stand-up as much then was that you didn’t find anything funny anymore. So can we assume that you’re ready to laugh again?
JG: Yeah, there was so much stuff that broke my heart during the Bush years that I honestly could not do stand-up without going down one of those tangents and getting very strident. But also I was working at Air America five nights a week, so it was very difficult to do stand-up, because I wasn’t leaving Air America until 11 p.m. So there was that. Now, granted, there are still as many heartbreaking things going on. There are so many things in the Obama administration to be sick over that certainly didn’t change. And also our media, if it’s possible, seems to be getting even worse. The alleged news media. And then there are the teabag racists adding insult to injury. But I don’t have that same heartbreak anymore, because it’s not fresh heartbreak anymore. It’s like I’m used to it. I’m sure we all are just used to it.
I have to say I was surprised how disappointing the Obama administration has turned out to be. That did take me by surprise. I am more used to it now. But that started with the stolen election of 2000—that that could happen, and that it could be so easily dismissed by the media. That was the beginning of it, where I started feeling like, “Holy shit. I feel sick. It’s hard to find what’s funny about this, what’s funny to talk about.” Plus I’m not a good political comedian. Lewis Black is good at it. I don’t really have funny things to say about politics. I wish I did, but I don’t.
AVC: Do you feel like you’ve become better known for the non-funny things you say about politics than for your comedy?
JG: I don’t know. I don’t know how well known, really, I am at all at this point. And I’m not saying that as a “poor me” thing. I’m just saying, you know, I have no web presence, and I don’t know that there’s many people who really do know me that much anymore. I think for a brief time during the Team America: World Police era, when that movie came out, I guess I was known more for it, because they made a puppet of me and blew its head off. That’s the most famous I’ve ever been, by the way—that I would be in the company of George Clooney’s puppet. They gave me far too much credit, celebrity-wise. So I was a bit flattered by that. At that time, I think I was more known for that than anything. But now I don’t know if I’m really known for anything.
AVC: You did spend last year as a very visible target of right-wing hate because of that comment you made about teabaggers.
JG: But I don’t know if it’s on anybody’s mind. It’s on the teabagger-type mind, but I don’t know if it’s on normal people’s minds. Does that make sense? The teabagger thing and the right-wing thing—they pick easy targets, and a female in the entertainment industry is low-hanging fruit. It’s very easy to mock and marginalize people in general who are in the entertainment industry, for some reason. But then definitely there’s the double standard and the misogyny that goes through it as well. They’ve got no problem with Will Ferrell or Alec Baldwin or Viggo Mortensen, but they tend to take issue when a female says something. It’s just an easier person to bully. And they just love making mountains out of molehills. It’s just a fact. If you don’t recognize the racist element in the teabag movement, you’re either dishonest, or you’ve never seen the teabag movement, or heard of it, or been acquainted with it in any way.
AVC: You’ve also been called out by name and invited to tea parties by people like Deroy Murdock and other African-Americans within the Tea Party—people who probably don’t know you from anything else—ostensibly just so they can prove to you that there are minorities involved, so therefore they aren’t racists.
JG: But not really. They’ve put that out on their side. They have never really invited me. They claim that they have, but they really haven’t. And having said that, I would never go. They will always say, “I invited so and so, and she declined,” when they’ve never gotten in touch with me. [Laughs.] But then also, a lot of the things they say I say, I’ve never said. They just make things up whole cloth. There’s a fake Facebook me. There’s a fake me Twittering. Sometimes, when it was at the height of right-wing nonsense picking on me, there would be a fake me writing letters to the editor. Just totally not even something I’ve ever said, that will then become part of the echo chamber. But they also pretend they’ve asked me lots of things they’ve never asked me.
AVC: I’m glad you mentioned that fake Twitter account. I was wondering if you were aware of that.
JG: I am aware of it. There’s unfortunately nothing I can do about it.
AVC: Well, you could get your own verified Twitter account, just to get your name back.
JG: I would, but why would I do that?
AVC: Just to take it away from this guy, I guess. He has like 6,000 followers.
JG: I don’t even know why somebody’s Twittering as me. I don’t understand it, and I wish that it would stop. But there’s nothing that can be done. It’s so terrible.
AVC: And there are some blogs that have actually quoted from it as though it’s a quote from you.
JG: Oh God! Would you do me a huge favor, and in this article please reiterate that that is not me?
AVC: Sure, although I think it’s pretty obvious when you look at it that it’s just a guy using it to promote his own Internet radio station—like it’ll say something about teabaggers, then “Oh, and I really love this radio station!”
JG: [Laughs.] I didn’t know that. That is so awful. Where is his account and stuff?
AVC: It’s just “Janeane Garofal” without the “o” at the end.
JG: Ah! Janeane Garofal! That’s so weird that somebody would do that.
AVC: Well, that’s what happens when you don’t have a web presence.
JG: I guess so! But please, like I said, if you could do me that huge favor and make it clear that that’s not me.
AVC: You mention in your special—and there’s been footage of folks like Fox News’ Griff Jenkins doing this—that after the teabagger comment, people would ambush you with video cameras after your shows. Does that kind of thing still happen?
JG: Yeah, occasionally. Not as much as it used to. It used to happen quite a bit. Now it’s just every so often, and there’s a lot of people that call in and pretend when I’m doing a radio interview. Like, say I’m doing stand-up in Baltimore or something, and the club sets up different press things that you do to promote the show, like a few morning-radio shows, what have you. There will be ambushes on that, where it’ll be a right-wing show, but they’ll pretend that it’s not, or they pretend that they want to talk about the stand-up show. But they don’t. They do a gotcha thing. Like I said, it’s just low-hanging fruit. If they were serious about their politics or had any integrity at all, they wouldn’t give a shit at all about me. But since it’s just blood sport for them, and since they don’t really care about issues, they do pranks on me. Or sometimes I’ll go to a town, and they’ll cancel my hotel reservations. They’ll find out where I’m staying and cancel it, or prank phone call the room.
AVC: Or send you a bunch of pizzas you didn’t order?
JG: It’s never been pizzas. That would be good. No, just calling and hanging up, or when I check in, they say, “Oh, Miss Garofalo, we were told you canceled.” It’s just kind of something that happens a lot, and like I said, it just shows me that they’re not serious about it. Because why would you spend time on that if you were truly interested in honest policy or the effect politics has on society?
AVC: Last year, Lou Dobbs accused you of being hypocritical for encouraging people to protest during Bush’s administration, but then dismissing the Tea Party protests. How would you say the situations are different?
JG: First of all, Lou Dobbs is ridiculous. Secondly, there was plenty to protest for the Bush administration. Protesting the color of a man’s skin is not a worthy protest. That’s what the teabaggers are about. The first Tea Party protest was scheduled for Inauguration Day. So what were they upset about? Which part of the job he was doing before he even did it were they upset about? Secondly, if they claim to be upset with government corruption, government takeover, crazy spending, where were they from 2000 to 2008? Right? And why weren’t they protesting the stolen elections?
And Lou Dobbs is a very anti-immigrant guy. His credibility is nil as far as I’m concerned. Like I said, I would never join the Tea Partiers, because I don’t have a problem with the color of Obama’s skin. I don’t have a problem with immigrants. You know what I mean? I do have genuine problems with policy and government corruption. Sure I do. And I speak very candidly about that, regardless of who’s in office. But since the Tea Partiers are ridiculous, why would I urge anyone to participate with them?
AVC: One more: While you were in the thick of protesting the Iraq War, you were quoted as saying “a lot of people who like to wrap themselves in the flag, hide behind Jesus, and be aggressive—some of those people are not intellectual powerhouses. So that’s why they cleave into very us-vs.-them, black-and-white visions of the world.” Do you not think calling all teabaggers “racist rednecks” encourages its own us-vs.-them mentality?
JG: Well, I would say two things to that. First of all, “redneck” is a state of mind, not a person. So the “racist redneck” thing is a state of mind, not a geographical location. So I don’t mean to imply that it’s just Southerners. And if you don’t recognize the racist underpinnings and the emotional reactive response you’re getting from these teabaggers because we have a black president, then you are either being dishonest, or you’ve never seen the teabaggers. And also, like I said, if they were so concerned with this stuff, then the year 2000 starting with the stolen election would have been a great time to present themselves. That’s A.
Secondly, when I talk about people wrapping themselves in the flag and hiding behind Jesus—that’s an anti-intellectual thing to do in the political process, because legally, allegedly we have a separation between church and state. That’s a legal precedent that’s never observed. When people are trying to do something that’s not in your best interest, they will wrap it in the flag and hide behind Jesus, which is a corrupt thing to do. I’ve got no problem with religion if you’re going to use it for the good, like Gandhi or Martin Luther King. But that’s rarely the case when it comes to politics. It’s usually used as a con. It’s just not an intellectual thing to do. I’m not saying that the person is stupid. I’m just saying that in the political process, how is it relevant? How is it relevant to what goes on in the halls of government to bring up questions of religion? Like the flag-burning nonsense the people used to divert attention from something. Or even when Obama just did the British Petroleum speech, and he did the Fisherman’s Prayer. How in the world is that relevant to anything that anybody needs to know or hear about this corporate corruption? Or about what can be done about it, or how this happened? What would be more important to know is why does Ken Salazar still have his job? I don’t need to know about this prayer. [Laughs.]
It’s an anti-intellectual pursuit, and it’s usually used as a way to pander to people to divert their attention. I don’t know how else to answer you besides saying the teabaggers—do I know every single one of them? No. Can I see that there’s a lot of racist bullshit going on? Absolutely. Would it have been welcome to see more of these “anti-government” types around after the stolen election? It would have been good to see it. I wouldn’t have liked to see them with their immigrant-bashing and their stupid signs.
But let me ask you a question also: What makes you think—and I ask this in general, or of anybody who asks this question—what makes you think the teabag movement isn't racist?
AVC: It’s not that I totally disagree with you, but I suppose the presence of minorities in their videos and such is their way of showing that they aren’t racist.
JG: And I would say those people suffer from Stockholm syndrome. [Laughs.]
AVC: And I do worry that characterizing the entire movement as racist is dismissive enough to make it one of those “us-vs.-them” situations that you were so against before—in a way that it almost hinders the argument.
JG: I don’t think it does. I think what hinders the argument is when people are afraid of hurting the feelings of racists and people who are genuinely—some of them—out of their minds. They demand to see Obama’s birth certificate. They claim that he wants to kill our grandparents with his health care. They want to be able to carry their guns into every public place. Why do we need to coddle these people? And in this case, I guess it is an “us-vs.-them,” in that I don’t see how people who demand to see his birth certificate, and people who don’t want health care, and who come armed to town-hall meetings—there is a distinct difference between that kind of citizen and another kind of citizen. It is technically us-vs.-them. [Laughs.] And actually, they would probably be proud as punch to say that. They seem to love to have an enemy. They love the idea of fighting against some system.
I think what actually isn’t helpful is that so few people seem to be willing to really discuss this. I don’t know why in this country we coddle corporate criminals, war criminals, and racists. People walk on eggshells around them, and yet they will say a word like “liberal” as if it’s pejorative. Or somebody who wants unions or reproductive justice, they will treat them like there’s something wrong with that person. Does that make sense? People seem to be more frightened of upsetting a war criminal or a racist and more willing to disparage a very nice guy like Dennis Kucinich. Does that make sense? They seem to feel fine picking on him for some reason, but then it’s, “Oh God, don’t say anything about Glenn Beck.” Or about somebody who speaks at the Tea Party conference and says veiled racist things. They don’t really want to come out and point a finger at that guy, but they’re willing to make all kinds of jokes and cavalier comments about somebody like Dennis Kucinich or Harry Reid. I don’t understand why that is. But anyway, could I be any more more long-winded?
AVC: When we talked to you several years ago, you said you wanted to stop acting and start directing. Is that still an ambition of yours?
JG: It was, and then I changed my mind. I thought, “No, I’d like to stick with acting.” The directing thing, to do it well, I think you have to have a hell of a lot more discipline than I do, or be a lot more willing to really take charge of whole large group of people than I feel comfortable doing—because a director really has to run everything, and be very confident in their ability to do so. And I don’t feel like I have that kind of confidence, where I could just say to everybody, “You just do this, and it’s going to be fine. And I’m going to tell you where to stand and what to do, and you’re going to do it my way, and it’s going to work out fine.” I feel like I don’t have that kind of confidence.
AVC: And yet the acting roles you’ve taken lately—like with 24 and that John Wells medical-drama pilot where you played a nurse who’s described as “the backbone of the organization”—are all very take-charge people. You used to embody this sort of slacker, sarcastic outsider, but lately it seems you have moved on to being a person of authority, at least in front of the camera.
JG: I think the parts I was offered when I was younger, where I was asked to play that kind of slacker person, that was just because people would go, “Oh, she has dyed black hair.” I guess that’s how they thought I looked. I played a couple of those roles, and then unfortunately you get pigeonholed really fast, and then you just keep getting asked to do that. And now it would be weird at the age of 46 for me to play a slacker. It would look like I was nuts. And so now, unfortunately, as a middle-aged lady, the only other things I tend to get an opportunity to do is [Adopts low TV-announcer voice] district attorney or doctor.
Again, it’s sort of a physical thing. You get pigeonholed by what you sort of look like. And I don’t mean this in a self-deprecating way. I’m grateful for any opportunity to act. But I think that if you’re not classically attractive or mainstream attractive, especially as you get older, there’s only like three jobs that people think you do. Like, “police officer who may be gay.” District attorney is a big one. Lawyer. Doctor. Like I said, I’m just grateful when anyone offers me a job. It’s like, “Okay. I’ll do it.” FBI agent is one, too, when you get older. When you’re kind of an older lady hard-ass, FBI tends to happen. It’s just because I’d like to work rather than not work, so I’m just happy if somebody wants me to do anything.
AVC: In real life, too, you’ve graduated to that role. There’ s a whole younger generation now that’s been raised on and inspired by your comedy. Do you get that sense that you’ve become an elder statesman? Do you recognize your own impact?
JG: I definitely get the sense that I’m an elder statesman, but I don’t know if there’s an impact—and I’m not saying that in a naïve way. I don’t know. I think anybody who’s been doing it for 25 years is going to be considered an elder statesman. But I don’t know if I’ve impacted anyone. It’s not like I would see anyone and be like, “Oh yes, that person looks like maybe I had an impact on them.” I don’t think I did. I don’t think I ever was that well known, to have an impact. And I haven’t seen comics that I go, “Oh, yes! That person is terribly unprepared, with their notebook, and going off on 50 tangents. There you are. That’s me.”