InDepth InterView: Reality Bites? Janeane Garofalo on RUSSIAN TRANSPORT, GENERAL EDUCATION, BAD PARENTS & More!
Today we are talking to a stand-up comedienne celebrated for her caustic wit, erudite political humor and illuminating social observations who has also made a name for herself over the last two decades as an actress by appearing in over 100 feature films and television shows, including recurring roles on the TV series SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, THE Ben Stiller SHOW, THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW and 24, as well as her film resume, ranging from roles in ROMY & MICHELE'S HIGH SCHOOL REUNION to WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER to REALITY BITES, COP LAND, THE CABLE GUY, NOW AND THEN and many more - the one and only Janeane Garofalo. In addition to a twenty-year career retrospective, touching upon many of her most notable big screen and small screen appearances - sharing comments on many of her favorite colleagues and co-stars along the way - Garofalo also opens up about the theatrically attuned work she has previously done - such as HBO's THE LARAMIE PROJECT - and, most importantly, fills us in on the new play she is starring in for The New Group, RUSSIAN TRANSPORT, directed by Scott Elliott. Besides all about RUSSIAN TRANSPORT, her character in it and the political and social issues the new original play bravely tackles, Garofalo shares her enthusiasm for her newfound experiences in the theatre world and her intention of pursuing a theatre career further. Also, she clues us in on her upcoming film projects, BAD PARENTS and GENERAL EDUCATION, and offers her classic views on current politics as only she can, in her own delightfully droll and ingratiatingly idiosyncratic fashion - plus, much, much more!
More information on The New Group's RUSSIAN TRANSPORT, including tickets, is available here. The hit premiere production of the play has just been extended to March 24.
PC: It's so rare for performers to branch out in the way you are by playing this unexpected and tricky and new role in RUSSIAN TRANSPORT.
JG: It's one of the most enjoyable experiences that I have ever had. I am hoping that they ask me to do other things with them because I have really enjoyed this.
PC: Do you have any theatre in your background?
JG: No, I don't really have a theatre background at all. I mean, in junior high I was Peppermint Patty in YOU'RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN. [Laughs.]
PC: That still counts!
JG: So, really, the only stage background that I have is, you know, obviously, stand-up comedy.
PC: Of course - what you are internationally known for.
JG: But, stand-up is a lot different, of course.
PC: Speaking of your stand-up, you were a staple on Comedy Central back in the 90s, as I fondly remember from my childhood. Was it perhaps PREMIUM BLEND on which you appeared?
JG: Yeah, I actually did COMEDY PRODUCT, which you may or may not have seen. PREMIUM BLEND was another Comedy Central show, but that wasn't the one I was the host of.
PC: How have you seen comedy change in the last twenty years? Do you feel like women have transitioned from stand-up into film careers more easily than they did decades before?
JG: Well, not necessarily - I mean, you see people like Jason Sudeikis in movies all the time. But, what's great in what has happened over the years with people like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Kristen Wiig, there has been more of women moving to the forefront, where they had not been much before. It's the same with people of color - if you will - it's just time, you know what I mean? Time has caught up. It's long past time, actually.
PC: You can say that again.
JG: It's usually been dominated by white males, but that has changed as society has changed over the years.
PC: What an illuminating insight. THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW was perhaps the most important comedy on TV in the 1990s given its gigantic influence, would you agree?
JG: Oh, I'll have to tell Garry [Shandling] you said that! [Laughs.] That's very nice, though. Thank you.
PC: It's the truth! The new DVD box set is so comprehensive. Have you seen it yet?
JG: I have not, but I can tell you you are very lucky to have it! I do have bits and pieces of it, but not the whole box set. I do need to get that, though, because it would be nice to have.
PC: Have you gone back and watched any episodes in the intervening years since the show first aired?
JG: Oh, I can't go back and watch anything with me - or at least the scenes with me in it - so, no! [Laughs.]
PC: I've heard that about you - that you can't watch yourself. So, if ROMY & MICHELE is on TV, you won't even watch a little bit of it?
JG: Well, I can watch anything I'm not in - scenes I'm not in. So, you know, there are things I am very fond of like ROMY & MICHELE and WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER, stuff like that. Not only is that stuff funny to me, but I had such a great time doing it, so I like to dip in and remember.
PC: Have you gone back and watched REALITY BITES since it was released?
JG: I have not, but I hear they just showed it at Sundance, which is great.
PC: It's aged very interestingly, I thought, in seeing it again recently.
JG: It's definitely of its time - it's definitely of its time. You know, the MTV stuff and the pay phones - it was at the beginning of cell phones, so there were still pay phones and, even, a rotary phone with a landline! [Laughs.]
PC: In just fifteen years, so much has changed - in so many ways.
JG: Yeah, I know! That also feeds into what you brought up about comedy: what has changed, also, is the medium that comedians can use to get an audience. That opens up and widens the frame for who is seen, you know?
PC: Totally - especially thanks to the internet.
JG: Yeah, you know, Reggie Watts to Mary Lynn Rajskub to Tim & Eric - all these people who wouldn't have had as big an audience without the New Medium that they can use, online and stuff, for stand-up and for getting their comedy out there.
PC: What do you think of my generation and the statement groups like Anonymous have made through internet means?
JG: I think, like with everything, it's both great and then there are also downsides. What's great is that it is - as it is called - the great democratic medium. That's wonderful. There is also citizen journalism that brings you news from around the world that you wouldn't get from mainstream media. For entertainment purposes and pop culture purposes, you are being exposed to people you wouldn't have seen.
JG: The downside is the surveillance society aspect of it, where there is no more privacy. There are things that are posted whether people want them to post them or not. Then, there are a lot of young people who don't realize that this is forever what you put up there, you know what I mean?
PC: The internet never forgets - especially Google.
JG: Some of it is also quite dangerous - people can track you everywhere. I think, especially for young females, it's not the best thing in the world for people to be able to find out where they are at every moment. [Pause.] That's just the old lady in me coming out, probably. [Laughs.]
PC: Not at all. What do you think Twitter?
JG: Well, I don't tweet myself, so anyone looking for me on there will have to wait for further instructions. If I had something to say of value, I would probably utilize it. There were some people pretending to be me twittering, which was a real drag.
PC: I bet!
JG: But, no - I, myself, I don't use the medium. I mean, if it is used for a good purpose - if people are saying things that are funny; if people are sharing information that is culturally valuable - it's good, but, then, though, there is a lot of that culture of snark and cruelty that I think has gotten way out of hand.
PC: Such as?
JG: Just the public flogging that goes on - people picking on people and commenting on everything or bullying people; I really don't like that.
PC: It can get vicious.
JG: Really cruel - it's almost like a sport to them.
PC: The reality shows and the Hollywood machine itself destroys so many individuals since there are so many more "stars" now, it seems.
JG: With very few exceptions. You know, there are some kids who grew up in the public eye that wind up being quite normal - Natalie Portman is one example; Elijah Wood.
PC: Or fellow InDepth InterView participant Scarlett Johansson, for that matter.
JG: Yeah, yeah! They just manage to stay stable - some pursue an education and they are just, you know, fine. But, others - obviously it takes its toll. But, you know, you could say that about a person growing up and living privately - there are kids all over who are not in entertainment but whose lives are falling apart. It's just case-by-case, I guess.
PC: Given your stand-up style is reminiscent of a raconteur…
JG: Ha! A raconteur? Why, thank you!
PC: You were unique in your style when you debuted. You are from the dot com generation, pretty much, wouldn't you say?
JG: Well, to use your example, I was 27 in 1992, so I was even before the dot coms came along. In REALITY BITES, I was playing a 21-year-old, but I was 29. So, the dot com stuff was happening when I was a bit older. Like I said, I think there is good and bad with all of it. I think it is great that we have all of this new stuff and new ways of getting information. Also, I like the idea that young people, especially, can find a community when they are alienated. Back in the old days - or, in my day - if you were a kid who was sort of out of step with the mainstream or your peers, there were not a lot of places to go to find community.
JG: But, now, online, you can! There are people building solid friendships and finding people that they can relate to outside of the classroom, which I think is really good.
PC: What do you think the next decade will hold for us as a society? What are we heading for - more conservatism?
JG: That's always the myth. That myth has been said since the "Reagan Revolution," quote-unquote. That is not true. Society itself has always moved forward. There will always be a loud and angry and annoying right wing that will dominate the narrative, dominate the corporate media and dominate the conversation - and, they will tell you that we are going that way, but, clearly, it's not true. Clearly.
JG: I mean, if conservatives, you know, dominated, we'd still own slaves and I couldn't vote. You know what I mean? [Laughs.]
JG: Homosexuality would still be classified as an aberration; a mental illness. Epileptics would still be accused of being possessed by the devil. You know? [Laughs.]
JG: Obviously, time marches on and society - people - become more progressive. Unfortunately, there will always be this backlash.
JG: Like I said, they are small but they are mighty - they are well-financed and they make it seem like society is a certain way.
PC: Like Rick Santorum.
JG: Like this Rick Santorum nonsense - it's nonsense. He is indulged for some reason, where he should really be laughed out of the conversation. It is not a side to a conversation to talk about a Biblical presidency or that gays should not be allowed to marry or that women should not be allowed reproductive justice. That's not a side to an argument, that is just straight-up, backward, ignorant, anti-civil rights talk, and I don't know why it gets indulged as it does.
PC: Probably because it is easier to accept for some.
JG: Well, it's easier to actually let him spew this nonsense rather than the journalists doing their job.
JG: They seem to not want to do their job - they seem to want to pretend it is journalistic objectivism to allow a person to spew this nonsense in the same way that, before the Civil Rights Act, people were allowed to say on the mainstream media that blacks were inferior and should use a separate entrance - as if that were a side to a political argument.
PC: That is almost unbelievable in this day and age.
JG: Oh, yes! It happened, though.
PC: It wasn't that long ago that that was the case, either.
JG: 1963. 1963.
JG: And, hopefully, one day, people who are younger - people your age and younger - will find it ridiculous that gays were treated the way that they are treated today.
PC: We see it everyday presented as if it is even an issue up for discussion.
JG: It's absurd. It's absurd.
PC: The closet certainly still exists - especially in entertainment, even in the theatre community.
JG: And it's just not right that they should feel that they need to live that way - it's not right. [Pause.] You know, gay rights are human rights.
PC: Without a doubt.
JG: It's civil rights - human rights; there is no other way to discuss it. It's tragic that we are still having these "debates" - if you will - about human rights like that. In 2012! It's absurd. Absurd.
PC: From politics to film: it's your 20th anniversary this year. A project called PASSION is your first credit, I believe. What do you remember about that?
JG: Oh, yeah! PASSION. PASSION was a pilot. With Jane Seymour. It never got picked up.
PC: LATE FOR DINNER?
JG: Oh, LATE FOR DINNER - that one was actually released! I had a few lines in that.
PC: So, that's really your first credit.
JG: Yes. Yes.
PC: TALES OF THE CITY was during that period, too - one of the finest miniseries of all-time.
JG: Yes! TALES OF THE CITY. My memory is that I played a girl with a side ponytail in that. I said, "That will be $11.95, please," I think. [Laughs.]
PC: You filmed LATE FOR DINNER before TALES, then?
JG: I think so. It was right around the same time.
PC: THE Ben Stiller SHOW was right around that time, too. Have you had a chance to see the fantastic new DVD set?
JG: I have it, but I haven't looked at it yet. I can't look at something I am in. [Laughs.]
PC: Have you kept up with the cast from that show? So many talented people were involved.
JG: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah! I actually just saw Ben last week. He lives here now, in New York. So, he's come and seen the play and, actually, we've just hung out, too - just last week. Bob Odenkirk and Bob Cross I still talk to a lot. And, Andy Dick I probably saw last year, but he lives in LA. I live in New York, so I don't get to see some of the people as much as I'd like. I've been friends with David Cross, who was a writer on THE Ben Stiller SHOW and went on to do MR. SHOW, since I was a senior in college. Bob I met in 1990 or 1991. Rob Cohen, one of the writer from the show, I just talked to on the phone a few days ago. So, yeah, I have kept up with a lot of people involved - I've done my best.
PC: David Hyde Pierce is one of the most fantastic interviewees to have done this column, so I wanted to know what it was like working with him on both SATUDAY NIGHT LIVE when you were a cast member and he hosted, and, also, the film you did together?
JG: I love him! He is the best. The best. He was in WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER - what a great guy!
PC: He is the best.
JG: Just great. I haven't seen him in a little while, but he's just great.
PC: There were some fabulous hosts during your year on SNL - John Travolta, George Clooney, Steve Martin, Alec Baldwin.
JG: Yeah, there was. I was only there very briefly, but there really were some great hosts, of course. I don't know if the comedy being done that year was that great, but it was a thrill to be there for the brief amount of time I was there.
PC: Do you have a favorite skit you did while there?
JG: Well, I just have to say that, in my opinion, the comedy was just not what it could have been, so I'm trying to think if I have a favorite sketch. [Pause.] I remember when Alec Baldwin hosted, that was a good show.
PC: Cabin Boy started around then.
JG: Yeah, I think Cabin Boy did start around then, but I can't remember. I was just thrilled to be on SNL with Alec Baldwin!
PC: I bet. Should it continue on indefinitely, do you think?
JG: Oh, it's already one of the longest-running shows.
PC: Do you think SNL is commedia dell'arte or just sketch comedy?
JG: Oh, I don't know - I think it depends; you have to go case-by-case.
PC: DR. KATZ was a truly hilarious show. Do you think it was a ahead of its time?
JG: Yeah, I was on that a couple of times and I think that actually got respect in certain circles right away, but I think more people are discovering it now.
PC: Did you work on any projects that didn't take off that you thought should have had a brighter future?
JG: Well, there have been a couple. There was a pilot that I was disappointed that it didn't go that was myself and Bob Odenkirk and Mark Maron and Rainn Wilson and Paul Greenberg. It was something that I was really looking forward to just because I liked the cast so much, but it didn't get picked up. You know, you are always disappointed that something doesn't go, but, then, there is some stuff that is not good that you're glad it doesn't go - which I won't name because it isn't nice. But, for the most part, the stuff that didn't get picked up I am OK with, but that one was I was disappointed didn't go.
PC: The KIDS IN THE HALL movie you were cut out of, unfortunately, but your deleted scenes live on on YouTube, thankfully.
JG: I know! I was cut out! It hurt me terribly at the time, I remember, but I love them so much. I was just so thrilled they asked me. I am a huge KIDS IN THE HALL fan. The series they did on IFC recently was so good - so good.
PC: Did you have an enjoyable experience on NOW & THEN?
JG: Oh, NOW & THEN! I loved being down in Savannah, Georgia. It is just beautiful and the architecture is just fantastic. It was great. Those girls - Christina Ricci and Thora Birch - were great. It was great to be in Savannah. I remember Demi [Moore] was onset a lot because she was a producer.
PC: How was your experience with a leading role in THE TRUTH ABOUT CATS & DOGS?
JG: It was OK, but I was just nervous - I didn't know what I was doing because I hadn't, you know, had a major part in studio film, so I was very insecure and uncomfortable. So, I should have had more fun, but I was always worried I was going to be fired.
PC: Judd Apatow has become the king of comedy in Hollywood. What was it like being involved with him on THE CABLE GUY?
JG: Absolutely. I had a great time. I was only there for like one day, but I've known Judd for a very long time, even before THE Ben Stiller SHOW. We used to do stand-up together. I think he is really fun to work with. I had a really great time and I had a really fun scene with Jim Carrey and Matthew Broderick.
PC: The beer wench.
JG: Yes! Something like that - the serving wench! [Laughs.]
PC: ROMY & MICHELE'S HIGH SCHOOL REUNION is a near-perfect film - it perfectly establishes and achieves its goals, and it's so fun!
JG: Yeah, I loved it, actually. I had a great, great time - I just enjoyed the hell out of it. And, I got to meet Alan Cumming and Justin Theroux and I already knew Lisa. I got to make some friends on that set and I had a great time.
PC: Frank Vincent did this column and we spoke a lot about COP LAND, which is a true masterpiece. Do you have fond memories of it? Have you seen the new Blu-ray?
JG: No, but I would really like to see that Director's Cut DVD. James Mangold is very good. I really liked that film.
PC: Will there ever be another HALF BAKED, do you think?
JG: Well, I don't know if they would even have me in it because my part is so small, but I am a huge Dave Chappelle fan so I'd be up for it.
PC: What about another WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER someday? There's a rumor going around that it may happen.
JG: Oh, I hope so! But, I don't know if they could get Bradley Cooper and Elizabeth Banks and Amy and everybody, I don't know if they have any free time. Those guys are probably booked into the next century.
PC: That cast has gone on to huge things. How do you look back at the experience? You were one of the biggest names at the cast and most were unknown at the time.
JG: And now I'm not! [Laughs.] I know!
PC: That's hilarious - and untrue.
JG: Seriously, I am thrilled for them, but if I'm being honest it makes me feel like sh*t! [Laughs.]
PC: Too funny. Tell me about working with Moises Kaufman on THE LARAMIE PROJECT for HBO? It's such a sensitively done and beautiful film.
JG: Oh, thank you! Thank you. I was very happy to be asked to do that. I thought it was something really important. I was thrilled to be a part of that.
PC: The film may be more important now than it even was then.
JG: I agree. I agree.
PC: THE TEN is another film you were in that is so enjoyable with a lot of replay value.
JG: I know, but, really, I am barely in it - they didn't get coverage of us, so the angle is us at profile because they didn't have any time to move the camera! [Laughs.] But, yeah, I love the thing in it with Liev Schreiber and getting the fax machines and stuff - that's my favorite.
PC: Liev has actually done this column - what a great guy.
JG: Oh, I am a huge fan of his! Huge. And, it's nice, because he narrates everything in the world! [Laughs.]
PC: You've narrated yourself - BIOGRAPHY, I believe?
JG: Oh, that's right! I did do one or two of those.
PC: So, from film to TV to stage: how did you get involved with RUSSIAN TRANSPORT?
JG: Well, the director, Scott Elliott, gave the script to my agent and I was shocked - shocked!
JG: I thought, "Why?!" I thought it was a mistake! You know, because it was The New Group - I was like, "That's amazing!"
PC: You were a big fan of The New Group's work.
JG: Huge fan. And, also, I was going to be playing a Russian immigrant who also speaks Russian. So, I was like, "Does he really mean me?"
PC: So, you really responded to the script?
JG: I read the script and I loved it - yeah. I just thought, "I can't do this - I wouldn't be good." So, I called Scott Elliott and I said, "I don't think I should do this," and, he said, "Well, all right. Let's just meet for coffee anyway." So, then, we met for coffee, and, by the end of coffee, I was doing it! [Laughs.] I'm eternally grateful.
PC: You went in totally against the idea, but by the end of the meeting you were totally swayed to his side.
JG: Yeah, he just made me believe that I could do it. It really wasn't that I was against it, because I really loved the script, but, I just thought, "I'm gonna suck! I can't do this." And, he just was like, "No. You can. You will. You can." And I did.
PC: You didn't know Scott in any capacity prior to RUSSIAN TRANSPORT then?
JG: No! No. That's what's shocking about it - I didn't know why he got in touch with me! I don't know who couldn't do it so I could, but I am thrilled. Thrilled. I hope I get to work with him again.
PC: What about the role really enticed you?
JG: It wasn't even really anything about the role, it was the play itself!
PC: What element struck you most? What is the play about?
JG: Well, it is an original play, which is nice - especially as opposed to a remake of something.
JG: It is a play about a family where the family came from Russia twenty years ago. The kids, one of them was 3 and the girl who plays my daughter was born here. We have a car service that is failing and we bring my brother over from Russia to help us, financially. I can't tell you any more twists and turns that happen from there because it will give it away.
PC: What was the inspiration for the piece?
JG: Erika Sheffer, who wrote it, it is loosely based on her family who came over, I think, in the 70s from the former Soviet Union. This is her first play. I think she did a wonderful job. You know, it just reads well.
PC: It plays on the page.
JG: Yeah. It's just one of those things where it's unusual to get a script this good - and, I was thrilled! You know, most of the scripts I get are mediocre at best, but this was very, very good.
PC: And at The New Group, no less.
JG: Yeah - again, it was The New Group, who I had been familiar with for years, so I was thinking, "Oh, man! This is amazing to be doing something with them." Then, someone I was doing a film with at the time said, "You've gotta work with Scott Elliott. He is the best director I have ever worked with." And, I said, "OK. Good." And, it turned out to be true!
PC: Wow. How so?
JG: Scott has been the most helpful director and I have learned more from him doing this than in all my years. I wish, now, I could go back and redo every job I've done.
PC: You have over 100 screen credits to your name, you know, so that's saying a lot.
JG: Yeah - that's how much he has taught me! Now I want to go back and redo all of them.
PC: Has the theatre has helped you hone your craft, would you say?
JG: I don't even know if it's even theatre, it's just Scott! His words of wisdom have opened my mind in a way that it was not before and given me a confidence that I did not have before. I regret, bitterly, that I did not have some of these skills that he has given me, years ago, when I could have used them - things like CATS & DOGS where I was just scared because I didn't know what to do.
PC: Saying someone else's words is a whole different challenge as opposed to improvisation, as well - as many of your roles and some of your stand-up unquestionably is. Joan Rivers related that to me when she did this column - do you agree?
JG: That's exactly right. Exactly. I share that same thing. You know, I am not nervous about stand-up, what I am nervous about is saying somebody else's words, doing them justice, getting it right, remembering where my props go; it's all dependant upon each person doing what they need to do each night. That was terrifying to me, initially. It's like, "What if I forget to do this? What if I forget to say this? What is gonna happen?" [Big Laugh.]
PC: It's a lot of pressure - over and over eight times a week. Is it hard to slip into the thick Russian accent every night?
JG: Actually, it isn't, because it was just so fun to learn - the rehearsal process was so good and productive that it all was fun to do. I mean, I was nervous about the Russian and how it would come out, which I am not now. I was like, "I am never going to get that out. That is never gonna come out." I was terrified.
PC: So, the show is now extended to the end of March, correct?
JG: Yes. It got extended to March 24 and I am praying that it is extended again because I want to keep going - I love doing it and I really like my co-workers.
PC: It's so unexpected in a way to hear you speak so ebulliently about this experience - how refreshing. Truthfully, I expected you to say you may have grown a bit weary of the eight-a-week grind given your stand-up persona.
JG: Oh, not at all! I know. Believe me, I would have thought the same thing - saying the same thing every night? But, you find ways to make it fresh each time. But, I, honestly, love it. You know, it's of no benefit to either one of us to lie to you! So… [Laughs.] there's no reason to blow smoke!
PC: Definitely not.
JG: I'm really being sincere. I hope it gets extended again. Or, I would love to work again with Scott and this group of people. I'd love to go right on to another play with Scott.
PC: Let's hope it happens, then! Lastly, I'd love to know about your upcoming film projects.
JG: Well, I have BAD PARENTS - hopefully that title will change, though. And, then, I am in a movie called GENERAL EDUCATION.
PC: This was absolutely fabulous, Janeane. Thank you so very much. All my best on your New York stage debut.
JG: Thank you, Pat. Thank you so much for your time. This was great. Bye bye.
From This Author Pat Cerasaro