A Lot of Chatter
Things change, but Janeane Garofalo still loves to stand up on a stage and talk
You can hardly accuse Janeane Garofolo of having a one-note career. Film roles running the gamut from Reality Bites and Romy and Michele's High School Reunion to Cop Land and The Laramie Project. TV roles ranging from The Larry Sanders Show to The West Wing, Fox's 24 to BBC's Ideal. Sketch comedy (The Ben Stiller Show, Saturday Night Live), voice work (Ratatouille, King of the Hill), theatre (Russian Transport), radio host (Air America), TV correspondent (Michael Moore's TV Nation). But through it all, this versatile performer has maintained one constant: stand-up. She dreamed of a life in comedy as a teen in Madison, N.J., memorizing comedy albums by George Carlin and Cheech and Chong and staying up past her bedtime to watch David Letterman on The Tonight Show. When her family moved to Houston, she started seeing stand-up live at the Comedy Workshop, the club that launched Bill Hicks and Sam Kinison, and, after making the leap to stand-up herself, she made it her first comedic home. In the early Nineties, she was a founding force in Los Angeles' alternative comedy scene. And she continues to deliver her incisive, brainy, hilarious commentary onstage today, as evident from her gig anchoring a midnight show with Brian Posehn for the second Moontower Comedy & Oddity Festival.
Austin Chronicle: Is stand-up any different for you from when you started?
Janeane Garofalo: I should hope so. I was 19! Good God, that would be horrible. My style, which is really no style because I have no discipline, has certainly changed as I have: what I'm interested in, what I talk about. I certainly am different in that I am very comfortable onstage, which wasn't always the case when I first started. It changes, you know, as anyone does. Hopefully you're always a work-in-progress. I have never mastered the art of joke-writing. I also am incapable – I think pathologically incapable – of getting to a point economically and succinctly, as you can tell right now by how long it takes me to answer one of your questions. So that's pretty much what it's like onstage. It's a lot of chatter.
AC: Do you bring topics onstage? You don't strike me as the kind of comic who has the studied set list that's the same every night for every crowd in every city.
JG: Right. I always bring notes onstage and a set list of things I would like to get to. It doesn't always work out that way. I certainly have repeated jokes, but I try and make every show its own thing and let it breathe and keep it open for whatever may happen and will happen. And that's not me bragging about "Aren't I something?" That's just a combination of lack of discipline and, for good or for ill, how I've always done it. When I was younger, I thought that the way to do it was: Have a set thing that you say, and say it again and again and again. But it just wasn't right for me to do it that way. Like I said, I've repeated things, but I always try to find a new way into them or out of them. There are bits that I retired, but then I see a new thing, and I go back into my notebooks, and I redo it. I have almost all the notebooks I've had since the Eighties.
AC: Wow. What a great library to pull from.
JG: It can be quite humiliating. I certainly don't pull from a lot of the early stuff ever ever. I have on occasion looked back at some of the notebooks – and they're not just comedy notebooks, they're like diaries or short essays or automatic writing, whatever – and it's terribly humiliating. And my penmanship has regressed, as has my spelling. I still write everything out longhand, and since I don't have a spell-check, I frequently have a little pocket dictionary, 'cause I don't know how many things are spelled, which embarrasses me terribly.
AC: Well, future biographers and comedy scholars who will refer to these notebooks once you donate them ...
JG: ... to the Smithsonian, where they will reside between Archie Bunker's chair and Fonzie's jacket? That's exactly where they're going.
AC: They will be grateful that you took the extra time to write things out.
JG: You give me too much credit, sir. [Laughs] I can't imagine any interest in them. Even if Storage Wars got my notebooks, whoever lost a bet would have to take my notebooks. Plus, I don't think anyone could read them. I write very tiny, like a graphophile does. They look like the crazy writing of a graphophile. I think that's the word, right? Somebody who just keeps writing writing writing writing writing. It's teeny-tiny like that.
AC: I think of you as being so plugged into current events. Does what's happening in the world affect how your set will start on any given night?
JG: Yeah, definitely. I'm not a political comic per se, although for some reason some have called me that. I don't deserve the title. I'm not like Jamie Kilstein or Bill Maher, people who are genuinely political comics. I occasionally discuss current events and politics, and it certainly informs lots of things, because it's not a separate segment of your life. It's part of your life, whether it be the Voting Rights Act being argued before the Supreme Court or LGBT civil rights being argued in front of the Supreme Court. These are things that interest me and concern me, and they certainly come into it at some point, even if it's not at the beginning [of the set]. It would be very hard to ignore life as it unfolds around you, so it does factor in.
AC: I also mean things other than politics. I read a review of one of your recent shows that said you started by talking about Downton Abbey.
JG: Oh, yes, I did. You better believe I did! I'm still getting over Lady Sybil and Matthew Crawley at the moment. Struggling.
AC: See, I'm only halfway through Season 3.
JG: Yes, I know. That's another thing I talk about: You people refuse to watch this stuff when it's on. I can't live that way. I have to discuss it when it's on.
AC: That's the kind of thing I mean. The last episode of Season 3 airs, and you want to go onstage and talk about it.
JG: And you see people holding their ears, going, "No no no! I'm only on ...." I can't live like that. I don't like to live with the phone attached to me. I also like silence a great deal. And I like to read quietly. And I don't mean to sound like a dick, but I like to read quietly, and I like to use actual books, as opposed to Kindles or iPads or whatever. And when I watch my television – when I should: when it's on, sir, my Downton Abbey – I watch it on an actual TV set.
AC: Which is going into the Smithsonian also.
JG: Yes, along with the actual chair I sit in. n
Janeane Garofalo appears Friday, April 26, 11:55pm, at the Paramount Theatre, 713 Congress. For more information, visit www.moontowercomedyfestival.com.