Before we start, let me say that I know there are many that will take issue with Janeane Garofalo’s inclusion in this series and understandably so. She is, after all, one of the architects of the so-called “alternative comedy” movement and despite a lower profile compared to her 1990s heyday, still commands quite a bit of respect from the comedy community and continues to perform throughout the country as well as appear in film and television.
However, there are those within the comedy community who, to this day, take issue with Garofalo’s reliance on notes on stage, not to mention the many people who abandoned her idiosyncratic style of comedy during her foray into the realm of political activism during the George W. Bush administration. Sprinkle in a healthy dose of lazy sexism and you have a comedian who, despite being instrumental in practically re-inventing the form of standup comedy, receives little of the accolades that she deserves.
Watching this old clip from what looks to be the early 1990s, we see many quirks and mannerisms that were new to standup comedy at the time. An attitude that seems aloof on stage as well as a naked honesty about how the act is going as she runs through her bits, breaking down the wall between performer and audience member in a way that is vulnerable as well as courageous. Garofalo playfully chides the audience for laughing at a bit; claiming that the applause break she receives “broke off my pacing…I am not used to any kind of positive reinforcement.” Later, after she flubs a joke, Garofalo admits that she messed it up, making a nervous little jump onstage.
All in all, it is an absolutely charming performance, though Garofalo lacks the kind of discipline we generally associate with standup comics on television. However, this performance represents a new way of approaching comedy the sprung from the alternative comedy scene of the late 1980s and early 1990s in Los Angeles and New York City. It was an approach that was personal and casual, inspired by the punk rock and indie musicians of that time. Garofalo was part of a scene of young comedians who put that DIY ethos into practice setting up comedy shows outside of the mainstream club system, eschewing mannered performances in an effort to take comedy to a place that provided more verisimilitude than ever before.
During this time, Garofalo also embarked on a successful acting career. She appeared in the influential 1990s comedy shows The Larry Sanders Show and The Ben Stiller Show, which ultimately led to a stand out role in the Gen-X film, Reality Bites, and she proved that she could carry a film in The Truth About Cats and Dogs. She’s proved that she can be a charming and irresistible screen presence, but also showed that she could do drama as well, appearing in 24 as well as Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior (which she awesomely disowns on Todd Barry’s podcast).
However, it was during the early 2000s that mass audiences cooled on Garofalo, mostly due to the way she was often portrayed in conservative media as being a kind of left wing harpy as she became more vocal about her opposition to the direction the country was moving in at that time. It is unsettling that of all the Hollywood liberals that were vocal about the war in Iraq how much the right wing media outlets like Fox News concentrated on Garofalo. It speaks to a certain intolerance on the right towards women who are outspoken and critical of conservative ideology. Even as recently as 2009, long after Garofalo’s pinnacle of celebrity, Fox News sent a reporter to ambush her at a comedy show for calling the majority of Tea Party members racist.
This is simply puzzling. While David Cross, a similarly vocal alt comedian with about the same level of celebrity, has been way more vocal and inflammatory in his critiques of right wing ideology, places like Fox News have never confronted him as voraciously as they do Janeane Garofalo. In Todd Barry’s podcast, Garofalo also states that conservative men hassle her pretty regularly because, as a waifish woman standing at just over 5 feet, they can.
This speaks to a certain amount of sexism inherent in Fox News’ portrayal of Garofalo as a “bitter liberal”, twisting her words and actions to promote the conservative idea that if you are a woman who does not have children and a husband to take care of you then you will end up “bitter” and “angry.” I believe this image of her has taken root in many comedy fans, as it is not uncommon to find reviews of her standup shows, such as this one from the Toronto based comedy website third-beat.com, that admit to attending her shows with some trepidation not knowing what to expect. Will they get the shrill, preachy caricature painted by Fox News or the loveable alt comic from the 1990s?
The answer, as anyone who has caught her act recently knows is decidedly the latter. Not only is Garofalo not quite the preachy liberal that audience members expect, she has only gotten better as a standup in recent years. Garofalo admits to a certain amount of aloofness onstage early in her career, but attributes it mostly to stage fright. As a performer today, Garofalo is more animated, quicker, and tosses out absurd asides while barreling through bits.
Janeane Garofalo’s comedy is not polished or perfect. This is something that is appealing about her as a performer; there is a sense of danger in her performances that is vital to an electrifying comedy show. She goes on tangents that don’t seem to lead anywhere then hits on a moment that’s cathartic for the audience. I’ve had the chance to see her perform a couple of times in New York City and must say Janeane Garofalo is great at finding that moment.
Far from being cold and angry, Garofalo seems warm, friendly, and vital in her special, If You Will. The show aired on Epix in 2010 and Garofalo was typically game to skewer everything in her path, yet the subject she returned to the most was herself. This image of her as political activist has become so ingrained in the 21st century version of Garofalo that it is easy to forget she is one of the great self deprecating comedians.
It’s a shame that Janeane Garofalo’s politics have overshadowed her standup. Not only was she instrumental in creating a comedy scene that was not dependent on the rigid expectations of mainstream clubs, creating an atmosphere for comics to take chances, but she also helped redefine what standup comedy could be. She’s always spoken honestly and intelligently and exposes her heart to the audience in a way that is funny and true. In many of the recent articles written about Janeane Garofalo, they asked, “where has she been?” and the answer is she has been out on stage, making audiences laugh and think with spot-on social commentary and intimate confessions. She has been there, some people just stopped looking.