In comedy, Janeane Garofalo is a living legend. One of the breakout stars of the alt comedy of the 1990s, she went on to an eclectic entertainment career, appearing in movies like Reality Bites and The Truth About Cats & Dogs and TV shows from The Larry Sanders Show to 24, while also becoming one of the most prominent liberal voices with a stint on radio station Air America. But she’s remained devoted stand-up and New York’s alt scene, which is why she was perfect inclusion for A Night at Whiplash. I got the chance to talk to her about UCB, working out material on stage, and why she’s doubtful about making any more specials.
It was so interesting to see you at the Whiplash tapings last year - I’m sure that everyone else on that show was influenced at least somewhat by your style of comedy. Do you see it? I think many people know that you were very influential in the way people started doing comedy.
I actually don’t think so. You’re giving me far too much credit. That’s very kind that you say that, and I have heard that before, but I can’t imagine how or why, since I can bomb as easily as I can do well. It’s never changed over the years, it’s hit or miss with me. And also, I think it’s a style that chooses you rather than you choosing it. I see more people influenced by, in certain ways, Sarah Silverman, Todd Barry, Brian Regan. If there are people influenced by me, I don’t see it when I see them. And I don’t mean that as criticism, I’m giving them all the credit in the world of being who they are. Maybe if anything, people felt that it was okay to bring a notebook and try new stuff more often and not be afraid of tanking, which you will if you do it that [laughs] a lot, but I prefer to do it that way. It keeps it interesting. But I don’t know. I would have to ask you, you’re more objective than me, do you see it?
I think so. Like you say, whether it’s bringing a notebook on stage or just people being more free to take something in a direction they weren’t expecting to - my impression is that, if you traced the root of where that came from, a lot of people give you the credit for making that popular.
Yeah, I don’t know why. I mean, that’s really nice. It’s nice to be known for something. I feel like there was a number of comedians around the time I started who were interested in doing standup that way. This type of thing was going on. And I think I was just in the right place at the right time to be noticed for it at that time. It was just pure timing, but there were other people doing it and doing it much better than me. I think I just got lucky for a brief amount of time in the 90s.
Has your approach to standup changed over the years, or do you still think of it the same way you did 20, 30 years ago?
It’s certainly changed in that I have changed. It would be very sad for me, as a middle-aged woman, to be in the same place I was at at 19. I am far more comfortable on stage, which is just inevitable. It is something that I feel very confident and easy-going about, even when I bomb, which still breaks my heart when I bomb, but it doesn’t make me want to do it any less. So I’m far more comfortable in my own skin on stage than before, and also my material has matured as I’ve matured. I never was one that worked very blue or was hyper sexual, that type of stuff is not right for me, and I’m not real comfortable with it, but I have certainly stopped hiding behind a faux “I’m so over it” facade. I get so embarassed when I see footage of myself as a younger comic, because I’m so nervous, I tried to overcompensate and make it seem like, “Oh, I could give a shit, you know?” [Laughs.] Which, was not me at the time, is not me now, and it makes me cringe. I’m so thankful the survellieance society wasn’t really happening when I was younger, or else I would die. I mean, there is some filmed footage of me before I was comfortable, which I can’t stand. But I feel like my essential approach is the same, because like I said, it chooses you instead of you choosing it. I just have no discipline as a person. I don’t feel like sitting down and really writing it out. I always am jotting down ideas, but they’re never fully fleshed out, and I’ve never been able to get past that, and so clearly it’s not in my nature to get past it. And I’m very chatty, as you can see, I have very long-winded answers for things.
It’s perfect for an interview.
[Laughs.] Very boring on stage, for some people though. Which has been a problem, honestly. My inability to get to a point succinctly and with clarity.
Another thing I noticed at the two Whiplash tapings were that your sets had essentially the same premises, but you went off in totally different directions - they were really different sets. Is that common for you?
Yeah, I like to keep it open. Because sometimes, I’ll do three shows in a night or something, and I may have, as you say, essentially the same bones of what I want to say, but by the third set, it’s very different, because something will strike me. Things can happen, something can happen in the audience, something can happen with you, so I don’t like to ever deny the moment, or deny the reality of what’s going on, or deny the reality of how I’m feeling, or how the audience is feeling.
So, are you trying all these things so that eventually you’ll keep parts and throw out other parts?
Well, that is my hope. That would be ideal, if that’s what I was doing. That’s what I wish I was doing, is paring it down, refining it, getting rid of the extraneous. And every time I think I’ve done it, it winds up growing again. And I’ll forget the seed of it, or I’ll forget where I had it that I liked it just like that, because I don’t tape myself, and I don’t tend to write down right after. I don’t tend to jot it down in that moment when I’m standing there. I always have a notebook, but oddly, when I go on stage, not a pen. A couple times when I was younger, I recorded myself with the old tape recorders as comics used to do – could not bear to listen to it. Could not bear it. So I don’t work that way. It’s mostly just a real distaste for the sound of my own voice, and also I don’t want to refine it too much. I like it to feel, for me and the audience, like we’re just talking. And sometimes I’ll do a joke that feels just too old for me. Meaning, I’ve had it around for a long time, and it’s not having new aspects to it. And it makes me feel really false, and I don’t like it. If it’s not getting better, I don’t know what it’s still doing rattling around in my head.
Are you aiming towards another special?
I would love to. The only problem is this: I could have done 50. It would be my pleasure to do specials constantly. My managers have an idea in their mind of how that needs to go, and there’s red tape involved, and they insist that I record what I’m going to do. I don’t know what I’m gonna do! You know what I mean?
I really like my managers, they’re very nice people, they have a way they like to do things with their other clients, and they also want to make money off of it, which means, there’s thing that have to happen that I don’t agree with. Now I could pay for these specials myself completely, but I don’t work like I used to. Middle-aged ladies who are trying to be actors, you gotta save your money. And I am not the type of comic that is gonna turn a huge profit on these kind of things, so that’s that. Until the system changes with me and my managers, who are very good friends of mine, then no, I will not. Or if I make a lot of money for some reason, if I’m allowed back into mainstream show business and I make some money, then maybe I’ll do it that way. But for right now, I’m too scared so I save all my money.
That’s very wise and responsible.
It is wise. Suze Orman would be happy.
I see you around New York city all the time. Do you tour?
I do, actually. And last year, I was out quite a bit. I do like to go out a lot. It goes in fits and starts, and then there’s, again, ways I like to do it that don’t turn a big profit. I don’t like high tickets prices and two-drink minimums, because I feel like the way I like to do standup, I like to be able to have a real low pressure time with the audience, and they’re not spending that much money. Now, a lot of places want to make a certain amount of profit, so there’s a lot of times where I lose a great deal of money because I’m paying for my travel and I’m paying for the comic who’s with me, for their travel and their hotel, and then I’m still trying to keep the ticket prices real low. So, I actually was losing money. And again, until I start making some money, I can’t keep doing that. So again, I need to find some other way to do it. And also, I can’t stand doing press, and I have no web presence. I am happy with just 10 seats sold, if it means I don’t have to talk to a press person. And again, that’s not how it works. So I’m clearly in the wrong line of work. And I don’t have Twitter followers and I don’t live in that world, to notify people, and it doesn’t bother if me if hardly anyone shows up to the shows. I’m just happy with whoever’s there, but it doesn’t make my managers happy, it doesn’t make the room owners happy. There’s kind of a quid pro quo that makes my life miserable.
So is there anything you want to plug, since you don’t have a web presence to plug stuff elsewhere?
I can’t think of anything at the moment. That also makes me feel, I don’t know why it makes me feel silly plugging stuff. I mean, I have standup shows coming up, but I can’t bear to plug them. You see why my managers are so mad at me all the time? Because it makes no sense. [Laughs.] I have shows coming up, yet I don’t want to tell anyone.