Janeane Garofalo in Seattle

Janeane Garofalo Stares Into the Gaping Maw

Q: So, how do the diminishing options impact the choices that you make in the work that you do?

A: Oh, it’s painful. Well, first of all, it hurts my feelings terribly. I know I’m not supposed to take it personally, but it feels personal. It’s really affected my confidence and really affected my sense of place. And almost made me feel like, this is going to sound so simplistic, in high school when you’re the odd-man out. It has that same feeling. And I have to fight the impulse to give into that. But it honestly does make me feel very left out, very sorry for myself, I’m ashamed to say. Sometimes it makes me feel hopeless, and then sometimes it makes me feel like, again, that’s the business you chose. You’ve just got to keep going, keep going, because you know I don’t have any other marketable skills. It’s not like I could go get another job at this point. Luckily, I was fiscally prudent in the ’90s, so I’m financially comfortable. I don’t take things that I absolutely would be, like, “I am going to hold my nose and do this.” I don’t do that. But there have been things where I’ve been, “this part wouldn’t be my first choice, but you know what? It’s really nice when the alarm goes off and you’ve got some place to be. It feels really good to go to work.” And it almost immediately cheers me up. If I’m down, if I’m going to work, even if I don’t like the job, I’m happy. My options are very limited acting-wise. Until they’re not, you know? Who knows. I was just watching Carrie Fisher’s Wishful Drinking, and she quoted her grandmother saying, “A fly is as likely to land on pie as shit.” And since I’m both pie and shit, I think the odds are pretty good a fly will land on me at some point and then I’ll get a break, and you know, because I do feel equal parts pie and shit.

Q: You sound pretty clear-eyed, even though this obviously takes a real emotional toll on you. Does it impact your identity as an artist?

A: Well, actually, I don’t consider myself an artist.

Q: What do you consider yourself?

A: A person–  I’m a comic and an actor. I don’t feel I’ve achieved the level of quality to call myself an artist. Hopefully one day, but I don’t believe I am an artist. And sometimes I think people use the term a little too readily. Sometimes on stage I have achieved moments where I’m very proud of what I’ve done or something I’ve improvised and it’s worked out really well and I’m very, very pleased. Acting-wise, I don’t feel like I’ve yet been given a role that truly, truly makes me dig deep. There’s been some roles that are more challenging than others, but for the most part, I am fairly limited, even when I was successful, in what I was able to do because of, sort of, my looks. Again, that’s going to sound like I’m being self-deprecating but that’s just the nature of this beast. Because I was never particularly classically attractive, I was never given the opportunity to play a wide variety of roles. And I feel like now that I’m older, my skills, I think, have gotten much, much better as an actor. Also, I’m sober now. And when you get older, you don’t get all hung up in like, “Oh, who’s that guy?

Q: So as your skills deepen –

A: The opportunities have lessened. Absolutely. Yeah, it’s a real drag. And it leads to a lot of inner frustration of my desire to show what I am capable of now, and my regret at squandering opportunities when I was younger because I was more concerned with having sex and getting drunk.

Q: Is that a major regret?

A: Really regret that. Really regret that. There’s nothing I can do about it. You know, if I could turn back time, I would have gotten sober much earlier, and I would have stayed away from just trying to sleep with lots of people. That really hurt, just because I was so heady with it, because I had been such a non-entity as a teen and in college. And even in my early ’20s, I was just absolutely never noticed and never part of things. Ultra-late bloomer. Ultra, ultra late bloomer. So all the things I was doing in my mid-’20s to my mid- to late ’30s is what a normal teen to ’20s does. So I was just heady with, “Oh my God, I’m in the mix and I feel like I’m popular and people are at least pretending to be attracted to me. This is amazing, I’ve never experienced anything like this.” So my career, which I should have been 100% focused on, I was 70% focused on. Because I couldn’t get over that I was popular. And it almost feels, in a strange way, correct that I’m not popular now. Do you know what I mean? I mean, I always have standup comedy, thank God. I don’t know what a lot of performers do who don’t have that other thing. And I am always quite satisfied to do standup because it fulfills me, I love to do it. I like to say my own words, I like to not be directed, you know what I mean? I don’t have to have wardrobe, hair and makeup, I don’t have editing. It’s just a great fun thing. But the frustration comes because I don’t have control over my acting career. I just don’t. It’s not up to me. There’s many, many gatekeepers who stand in the way for many actors. The majority, I would say, of the unions, are not in control of their own destiny in that sense. And a lot of times what happens is a lot of us in the union, we just take work that doesn’t creatively fulfill us just for the sake of working. And it’s as emotionally deadening as any other line of work, whether it be factory work or any other line of work that is soul-numbing.

Q: I want to ask you about how your approach to standup has changed over the last 20, 25 years. Do you have methods, rituals, routines? Favorite sources of material? Has any of that shifted significantly over time?

A: Well, actually, you know, there’s a saying that your style chooses you, you don’t choose it, and I would say in my case, that’s absolutely true. I have, if anything, an anti-style, anti-ritual. And that’s not me trying to be a badass, that’s just the way it is. I have a very specific way I approach standup, and in the very beginning, when I was 19, I approached it more methodically because I didn’t know who I was yet on stage. So, I actually wasn’t completely myself. I would write jokes down and try and tell jokes. That’s not my strong suit. I’m not a joke writer. I’m more of a person who’s telling a story or improvising a little bit with an idea. I always go on stage with notes or a notebook or a piece of scrap paper that stuff is on, but I don’t exactly know what I’m going to say. Now granted, I have had jokes that I have told on a number of times, but I have notebooks and notebooks filled with plenty of things I’ve only said one time ever. Then there’s things I’ve said many times and for some reason, I can’t let it go even though I’d like to, but it’s not done yet. I never know for sure what I’m going to say and that is super hit or miss. You are absolutely risking bombing all the time, and that’s just the way it is for me. As a viewer, I don’t like to see comics who are almost robotic in their presentation, and you can tell they say the same thing the same way night after night after night. That just doesn’t appeal to me even though there are some comics who are great who do that. George Carlin, actually. Having said how much I respect and love the late George Carlin, and I do, he was a guy that was actually a little more methodical than I like. But it’s because he chose his words so very carefully and he wanted it down pat. That’s just not my thing. I’d like each audience to feel like it’s the first time we’re discussing this, whether it is or not. That’s just the way I am on stage, much to the chagrin, a lot of times, of audiences. There are some people that respond really well to that. And some audiences that respond very poorly to that free-for-all type of attitude.

Q: Have you gotten better at it?

A: No. I am better now at being very at ease on stage. Very, very comfortable in my own skin on stage. I’m absolutely myself. That’s much better. What has been worse is since my confidence has taken hits as I’ve gotten older, as you know, as I feel quote, unquote less popular or left out, it will sometimes or a lot of times affect my confidence as I go on stage. And also, I always talk about on stage what is real and is happening. Exactly what’s happening. And again, much to the chagrin of the audience, what the fuck do they care if I’m feeling left out? You know what I mean? But sometimes, oddly, the more specific you are, the more universal it is. And there will be people that will come up to you afterwards and say, “God, I feel the same way.” Or, “I can’t believe you admitted that on stage.”

Q: People know that’s what they’re getting when they go to a Janeane Garofalo show, right?

A: I guess some do and some don’t. And you know, also over the years there’s a whole generation of people who don’t know who the hell Janeane Garofalo is. You know, why would they? Because I’ve been sort of out of the loop for about ten years. That’s a generation or two of young people that enjoy comedy. So for a lot of young people in the audience now, they don’t know who I am. Or they maybe have a vague recollection of that name. So they don’t know what they’re getting. And some react well, like I said, and some are like, “You’re not funny.” And they are not shy about saying that. And boy, that devastates me. I’m not doing a character, you know what I mean? I can’t go “Oh, okay, they thought that character sucked.” No, they’re saying “you suck.” And because I not only am a narcissist but I’m consumed with self-loathing, it’s almost like that heckle is the straw that broke the camel’s back. I think, “oh, they’re right.” And then I talk about that on stage.

Q: So how do you cope? How do you find a compartment for all of that so that you can just go on?

A: Because I have no options. I don’t have any other job. I have to because I don’t have any other skills. And then at the same time, I love it. I love doing standup. I mean, I really do. Sometimes it hurts so much it’ll keep me up at night. But then a couple of days will pass, and I’ll go, “I’d really like to do standup again.” And then you’ll have a great set, and you’re like, “Yeah, this is great.” So it’s day by day. There’s some days where I feel like I can’t wait to do it, and some days I feel like oh, well that guy heckled me, I’m scared to be disliked. It’s really silly. I mean, at my age, you would think I’d be more grown up about it but–

Q: I don’t think that’s how it works.

A: Well, in my case, apparently not.

Q: Do you think that comedy has changed and a younger generation wants something else?

A: No, actually I would say the opposite is true. Over the years what has happened, and this is wonderful for comedy, and this started happening probably in the early ’90s, is a whole different type of comedy started happening outside of comedy clubs. And it probably harkens back to what was going on in the ’60s, where there were standup comics performing in venues that were not comedy clubs, doing comedy that was much more of an amalgam of spoken word meets standup comedy. And that’s another phrase people hate, spoken word, but I don’t know what else to say. Storytelling meets standup comedy? And that has grown and grown, and it’s actually only been helped by the alternative mediums, online, things of that nature. Podcasts, cable, proliferating cable channels. There is such a great audience out there for non-traditional standup where people are just talking. So over the years it’s actually gotten better for the type of comic who doesn’t do straight standup. It’s a very, very good time for comedy that is not what you consider kind of standard.

Q: Outside of your work life, what’s your experience of growing older been like?

A: Actually, it’s been okay. Sometimes the sidebar of physical ailments have sucked. You know, I’ve got a bad back, I get more tired. The years of smoking filterless cigarettes are really taking their toll on me. I mean the aging process itself is a bummer. I don’t love looking in the mirror sometimes and going, “Oh, what’s that?” You know, I feel, very frequently, just straight up unattractive. You know what I mean? I mean, I never thought I was great looking, but at least, you know, youth is great. And there’s nothing wrong with being middle-aged. That is fine. I am not ashamed at all. I will tell everybody I’m 47, I don’t give a shit. It’s my pleasure to say how old I am. That’s not my problem. What is my problem is my no libido, bad back, bum ankle. I broke a tooth eating granola a couple of months ago. And it makes me feel old and asexual and really unattractive. That process of growing old in the very basic sense of actual deterioration of the self sucks. Then there’s also the fact that I am so much older than some of the kids in the audience now that I’m compelled to discuss that as well. And there’s things we are not going to meet on, meaning the minds. References, experiences. I don’t think I want to do standup at colleges anymore, and not because it’s a problem other than I am literally old enough to have birthed every single kid in that audience. There are big gaps in our experiences and things we’re going to want to talk about. I’m almost too old now to do certain venues.

Q: So are you targeting older audiences?

A: Oh, definitely.

Q: Do they go out to see comedy?

A: No, there are definitely older people going out, they don’t tend to go out Sunday through Thursday though. Sunday through Thursday in the venues that I like to work in, that are not comedy clubs proper, that’s a young audience. In New York, San Francisco, Austin, Boston. The youth market, if you will, of comedy lovers, and there are comedy lovers and they go see comedy not on Fridays and Saturdays because they’re doing some other things, seeing a band or what have you, they come out Sunday nights through Thursday and they go to venues that are off the beaten path. And I love them, they’re great. But they are way younger than me, and there’ll be times where I’m speaking of something or discussing something, they can’t possibly relate to.

Filed under: Interviews Tagged: , , , , ,


  1. Basil Anderman
    Posted April 2, 2011 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

    What came thru most clearly and impactfully was how the issue of survival drove her life and behavior.

  2. Robin Kremen
    Posted April 15, 2011 at 1:55 am | Permalink

    She was so honest, and the challenges she has faced regarding her craft and being both a strong, unconventional woman, and a political activist, was so moving. I admire her integrity greatly.

  3. yules
    Posted April 15, 2011 at 11:02 pm | Permalink

    so refreshing to hear anyone talk sans bullshit, let alone janeane talk sans bullshit. thanks to you both. the world is not fair and it’s good to have perspective on relative unfairness, as jg obviously does.

One Trackback

  1. By Middle Mojo « HHD Blog on April 15, 2011 at 4:12 pm

    [...] and honesty in her interviews with the likes of Richard Thompson, Professor Howard Gardner and Janeane Garofalo. You can also track Joan’s earnest attempts to learn guitar and write some songs. Pretty [...]

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