"It's interesting that some people compartmentalize their politics because politics to me is just life. It's decisions you make about the environment, about your children's public schools, about the street cleaning, you know what I mean, from civic to national. I don't know how to compartmentalize. And also, a large part of my comedy as I've gotten older has been social critique about politics, media, entertainment. To me it's all the same thing."
– Janeane Garofalo
Guy MacPherson: Has your relationship with the press changed since you came over to the dark side and became a radio host on Air America?
Janeane Garofalo: No, no. My relationship is still the same. My relationship with everything has changed as I get older. You know, I'm going to be 42, so certainly my relationship with everything, including the press, is different than when I started doing standup when I was 19.
GM: How so?
JG: At first, with everything I was being sarcastic and it took me a few years to realize it doesn't translate when you're being sarcastic or ironic. Or self-deprecating for humour. It doesn't come out right. And then I realized, when I got to be middle-aged and I got more involved in political activism, I realized that the press is woefully, woefully inadequate when it comes to giving the readers context or history or true balance. They give what they call balance or objectivity to truth and a lie. As for balance as it pertains to the truth and then the investigative journalist's findings, which either supports the truth that the interviewer is telling them, or – and I'm not articulating that correctly – or points out that what the interviewee is saying is propagandistic.
GM: Are you talking about only political journalists or all across the board?
GM: You must see it in entertainment journalism, as well.
JG: Entertainment journalism I don't know because I don't know the people they're interviewing.
JG: I don't know that what the entertainment journalist is saying is propagandistic or true about Tom Cruise. I don't know him. I do know that they like to go for sensationalistic stuff and I do know that they sometimes miss sarcasm and irony as well. But the entertainment journalist tends to be more friendly to the interviewee, where the political journalist starts from the point of origin of antagonism.
GM: How did you work around it when you were interviewing people on the radio?
JG: Well, when I interviewed people on the radio, the difference was you're sitting there facing them. It's much easier and nicer. You could get more in-depth sitting face to face on the radio. And the listener's hearing things as they happen instead of people's words being twisted.
GM: So there's no editing going on.
GM: You're a political activist. Is it difficult to separate that from your comedy?
JG: No, no. It's interesting that some people compartmentalize their politics because politics to me is just life. It's decisions you make about the environment, about your children's public schools, about the street cleaning, you know what I mean, from civic to national. I don't know how to compartmentalize. And also, a large part of my comedy as I've gotten older has been social critique about politics, media, entertainment. To me it's all the same thing.
GM: So you're a political comedian--
JG: I don't know if I'm a political comedian. I'm just saying I don't separate.
GM: I spoke to Tommy Smothers and he was saying that after his series was cancelled, he stopped being funny for three years and he realized that it was because he was taking his politics too seriously. He had to step back a bit to get his sense of humour back.
JG: Well, I actually have to take it seriously because it's serious stuff. There are funny aspects of politics, of course. I was listening to Martin Short this morning on NPR and he was saying there's nothing funnier than Dick Cheney defending his lies. And Karl Rove lying to your face. He said that's where Nathan Thurm is based on. The character of Nathan Thurm is based on Nixon, but now his Nathan Thurm has progressed over the years, and it's based on, like, Rove and Cheney. That's funny. But what they do is not funny. It's not funny, you know, civil liberties being eroded, torture, dissension, illegal invasion and occupation. It is serious. There are offsets of politics that are hilarious because it's just absurd. But the policies, the Bush policies of torture and the right wing fundamentalist Republican policies of racism and misogyny and dishonesty are not funny.
GM: And your job when you're on stage is to find the funny within the not funny.
JG: Right, right. Yes, absolutely. There's the funny parts, but then also, you know, every comedian's style is different and it's an offshoot of their personality. Many comedians, myself included, take some time to talk, also. Like, if I go on a tangent, I'll even ask the audience, "Does that bother you?" if something's more serious, but then it finds its way back, hopefully. But you cannot separate yourself – or I cannot – from, you know, when you find out on the news this morning again – if we're dealing with today – more investigations have uncovered that the Bush administration pretends terrorist threats when George Bush's popularity needs a boost. So they push the envelope and they'll raise the terror alert. Based on nothing. And that's ridiculous. And the funny part is the people who respond to it. Like, when his popularity spikes at a terror alert, that person is funny to me. But what Bush is doing is not funny to me.
GM: Isn't it kind of like shooting fish in a barrel, though, because these guys are so crazy?
JG: Well, it is shooting fish in a barrel but what isn't shooting fish in a barrel because a lot of the audience doesn't understand how corrupt political journalism can be. And the White House press corps, how subservient they can be. I can tell stories about when I did my time as a pundit on MSNBC, CNN, ABC, NBC. The behind-the-scenes stories are funny about what goes on behind the scenes at network news. So I can tell stories like that people can either find funny or interesting, hopefully.
GM: Do you think it's corruption by the media or laziness?
JG: A combination. It's John and Jane Q. Public workaday laziness. We all suffer from it. You know, you want to leave at 5 for drinks rather than really investigate that piece on something. I get that. But their particular business is so important and when they screw up or are lazy it has major ramifications on the day-to-day life. It's the public airwaves, in theory, and therefore their licenses should be revoked because of the propaganda. Now, I realize that the media has never functioned independently from the Big Bang on, or the first printing press. They were
immediately used as instruments of propaganda. That's human nature. From Hearst to [unintelligible] to Rupert Murdoch to corporate people like the late Ken Lay, who would have fake experts go on the news and testify on behalf of his staff, and stuff like that.
GM: Your standup has changed over the years. What was it like at the beginning? You've become more political, obviously.
JG: In the beginning it was all the things that concerned a 19-year-old junior in college.
GM: Which were?
JG: I don't even remember. At the time it was about being a 19-year-old female who was overweight and drank too much and had a casual attitude towards academics or who had a healthy distaste and cynicism for the fraternities structure on campuses. You know, that kind of stuff. But I also had, definitely, even from the beginning, problems with Ronald Reagan and the religious right and Jerry Falwell. My father is a conservative Christian Republican so I've always had commentary on that.
GM: Does he like your work?
JG: He just likes me. He doesn't like my work but he likes me (laughs).
GM: You must have some good discussions.
JG: We get along very, very well, actually. He used to be on the radio show regularly as Carmine the Conservative.
GM: Is it more difficult or less doing standup once you've transcended the art form, as you have, to general celebrityhood?
JG: I've never really been that famous or anything. Celebrity, I feel like, is a word reserved for very famous people. I'm not particularly well-known or particularly recognizable.
GM: But you have certain comics, like a lot of those coming to the festival, like Brian Posehn, for example, who are really well-known within the comedy community.
GM: But you ask most people on the street and they're going to know who you are.
JG: I don't know if that's true. I think you're giving me too much credit. I don't know, honestly. Maybe in the '90s that was true. I don't know if that's still true. And I'm not saying that in a self-deprecating way; I'm just being pragmatic with me. I don't know. Definitely I have more name recognition than some comedians and far less than others.
GM: True. But you don't find a difference performing from when you were less known?
GM: All right. Did you write on Letterman?
JG: No, no.
GM: You didn't?
JG: No. It was the first job that I wanted. I wanted to be a writer for David Letterman but I never got that job.
GM: So there's misinformation on the internet. You're shattering my world! Can you believe it?
JG: Oh, man, misinformation is the name of the game. You can't believe what people ask me about myself that they've read on-line.
GM: Oh, man, now I don't know what to think anymore.
JG: Almost everything is wrong that I've read about myself, from where I was born to where I went to school, I mean, everything that could be wrong.
GM: Well then correct me as we go along and maybe I can be part of fixing this problem.
GM: I saw you at Bumbershoot a few years ago. You worked from a big notebook. Do you still?
JG: Yes, I still do. Actually, sometimes a notebook and sometimes just note paper, sometimes just scribbled notes. I just like to have it there to know what I want to get to and then also because I don't like to do the exact same set. Not that I have new material every five minutes, it's just that I don't want to do it the same. Because sometimes when you're on tour, sometimes you have two shows a night, sometimes you have three, I don't want to do it exactly the same. Just for my own peace of mind. It just sounds fresher for the audience.
GM: You must guard this notebook with your life.
JG: Oh no, actually nobody can read my handwriting and it doesn't make sense. It's just buzz words and chicken scratch. It wouldn't make any sense if you read it. It's not a long form narrative that's very readable.
GM: So your show is not that prepared?
JG: I know what I want to get to. I do prepare my notes. And I do prepare bullet points of 'I would like to hit this, this, and this', but I would also leave myself open to any sudden occurrence or if somebody in the audience says something or if something happens or if I hear something right before I go on stage.
GM: So every show's going to be different.
JG: And that's why I bomb as frequently as I do.
GM: (laughs) Do you still bomb?
JG: Oh shit yeah! Yeah, yeah, yeah.
GM: And how do you take that?
JG: It depends on the night. Sometimes I take it very hard and sometimes it means nothing.
GM: And what are the factors involved?
JG: If I like the audience and they seem to have good taste. Like, if the comedians on before me are very good and went over very well, and then I bomb, I take it hard. Because I know that the audience was good and I wasn't. If the audience sucks and they were laughing at a hack, like if there was a really shitty comic on before me and they were laughing at him or her, and then I don't do well, that's fine.
GM: This festival includes a lot of friends of yours. I mentioned Posehn, but there's also David Cross, Marc Maron, Jon Benjamin... Is the lineup something you look at when you decide where you're going to play?
JG: Oh yeah, definitely. I reeeally wanted to be there this year because of the comedians that were involved. Absolutely. I love to see them and work with them. It's definitely a deciding factor. Like, if you told me there's a show, do you want to do it, and it's the Blue Collar Comedy Tour--
GM: Or Carrot Top.
JG: Carrot Top's actually a very nice guy and I have never seen his act so I don't know why he's the go-to.... So I can't sign off on that. And it's not that the gentlemen in the Blue Collar Comedy Tour are not decent people. I don't know. But it's just not my taste and I know the audience isn't going to dig me.
GM: How often do you get to see these guys you like to work with who are going to be here?
JG: Well, David I see all the time. We do a cartoon together called Freak Show that he and Jon Benjamin wrote. Jon Benjamin and David live very close to my apartment so I see them all the time. Marc Maron I used to see a lot at Air America. And Brian Posehn I see intermittently. Patton I see. Zach Galifianakis I talk to on the phone a lot.
GM: So it'll be like old home week for you.
GM: Just a big hang.
JG: Yes, hopefully.
GM: You're described as an alternative comic. Would you go along with that?
JG: No. I have no idea... That's a construct that does nothing but irritate people. I think 'alternative comedian' came out in the '90s when alternative music became something to call non-mainstream music. I guess the most famous example would be Nirvana, Soundgarden, Hole, Liz Phair. At the time it was called alternative. It used to be called college or indie back in the day. It was called college rock. When REM was considered college rock. And U2, for that matter, back then. Then alternative became the moniker. And then, for whatever reason – I think the timing – there were a lot of articles down in Los Angeles about comedians, myself included, that were doing shows in alternative venues to comedy clubs. We'd do shows in rock clubs, coffee houses, book stores, bars. And it just stuck, the name 'alternative'. And then over the years it served to be an object of derision and mockery by certain other comedians. I don't know why, but they say 'alternative' with derision.
GM: 'Alternative to funny.'
JG: Yeah, they'd say, "What it means is they can't write a joke." And it was nothing that the comedians themselves ever called themselves.
GM: Do you assign different names to different styles of comedy?
JG: Yes, I do in that there are some people that are more monologists, some people that are more absurdist, some people that are old-school, some people that are straight-up hacks to me, some people that work blue. Do you know what I mean? There are labels but they're just labels in my mind. But I'm not derisive about it, it's just that there are different styles of comedy. Sometimes if people ask me, "Oh, I want to go see comedy. What's this guy or girl like?" And I'll say, "Well, he or she is more of a monologist, or he or she is more of a prop comic, or more musical." Stuff like that.
GM: What would you assign yourself?
JG: I would say a cross of spoken word... See, that's another thing that's just an object of derision when people say 'spoken word'. But what I consider spoken word is sort of long-form storytelling. I have some long-form storytelling mixed in with jokes. So I don't know what you'd call it but I do know that for many people it's not funny.
GM: Well, you could say that about any comedian.
JG: Right. That's true.
GM: And to many people it is funny.
JG: Hopefully, yes.
GM: You often hear that most people get conservative as they get older. Are you fighting this?
JG: No, no, no, no. People don't know what 'conservative' means anymore because the right wing machine has bastardized what it means. What conservative traditionally meant in the truest sense, both politically and personally, was a person who was probably more cautious or traditional, who believed in a strong separation, politically, of church and state, had strong issues on environmentalism, and believed that, again, God did not belong in the boardroom or the bedroom. Now, of course, as we know politically, that has no sway with today's contemporary conservatives. None at all. A conservative person, personally in their social life as they get older, would be a person who is less likely to stay up all night drinking and having sex with multiple partners and dancing on table tops and taking business risks and going over the Niagara Falls in a barrel at the drop of a hat. Personally for me, I've changed a great deal as I've gotten older, as hopefully everyone has, but that's mostly because I quit drinking.
GM: So you are more conservative!
JG: So my life is quieter just because I'm not drunk all the time. But I'm not more conservative as a person. In fact, I'm probably much more radical than I ever was in college.
GM: Because you're more aware.
JG: Much more aware. My consciousness is much higher. I'm much more open-minded than I was in college.
GM: You're still a vocal feminist, right?
JG: Right. But feminism just means you believe in gender equality and social justice. And why people say they're not a feminist, I have no idea unless they don't know what it means. I would assume a great many of us believe in gender equality and social justice. That's what feminism is. So yes, if that makes me a feminist, absolutely, 100 percent liberal feminist.
GM: It's a semantics thing. Everyone has to agree on what the term means first.
JG: What the term does mean is gender equality and social justice for all. That's the meaning. And I don't know why anyone would say, "I am not a feminist" unless you are ardently against gender equality and social justice.
GM: That's right. "We don't want to be paid as much."
JG: Yeah, exactly! Yeah, I don't know. I don't know what that means. Like I said, the right wing machine over the last 30 to 40 years in America has been quite successful at conning people into thinking against their own better interest. They have conned people into thinking feminism and liberalism are nasty things. Feminism and liberalism are the reason we have a progressive contemporary society. Without those two things, we'd still be living in a sort of Upstairs/Downstairs under a monarchy.
GM: It's funny how they've swayed the mainstream media in the States. Up here, I don't think 'liberal' is a bad word.
JG: It's a very good thing to be. It should be. The mainstream media... You know what? Bullying is bullying. And very few of us can transcend our high school mentality about bullying. Lots of us give into the bully. Including adults in the media. And over 30 years a lot of time, energy and money has been spent bullying the media that they're moving to the right.
GM: How do you feel about the way women are treated in comedy?
JG: Oh fine. Yeah. When I first started it was more annoying. Back in 1985 there was a myth that you couldn't have two women back-to-back because they'd lose the audience and if you booked a woman headliner in a club one week you had to wait a month. I don't think that still exists. I mean, it's the year 2006, for Christ sake, I would hope not. So as far as I know it's fine. I don't know, I guess you'd have to ask somebody who's just starting now.
GM: You still hear from some people, male and female, either "She's funny for a woman" or "women just aren't funny".
JG: Right. Well, that would just be their particular problem. Those people that say that are labouring under a falsehood. But I'm sure they, you know, labour under many other falsehoods besides that one.
GM: Still, standup today is still largely a male game. Is that just because women aren't interested in pursuing it as much?
JG: I don't know. I really don't know because here in New York, or when I'm in San Francisco, I see tons of women doing it. I see basically as many women here in New York on the scene as men, so I don't know.
GM: I watched Dick Cavett last night interviewing Mel Brooks and I was wondering if you have an appreciation of the old-school comic as well?
JG: Oh sure. My God, I love Albert Brooks, although I'm not sure if you'd call that old school. I love Albert Brooks, Mel Brooks, Ernie Kovacs. I love Danny Kaye, Red Buttons. I love old comedy movies like The Awful Truth and His Girl Friday. And I love George Carlin – again I don't know if that's considered old school. I love the Compass Players, I love Nichols & May, I love Cheech & Chong. I mean, all this stuff from the '50s and '60s and '70s I love. I don't know how old school you mean.
GM: Yeah, all that. As opposed to just the contemporaries, the hipsters on the scene. Were there any one or two comics who inspired you to be a comedian?
JG: George Carlin. My brother had all his albums in the '70s. Occupation Fool and all that. Cheech & Chong's early comedy albums I loved. Nichols & May. My dad had Nichols & May albums. Then, as I got older, got into Albert Brooks's comedy albums. And Steve Martin's.
GM: Comedy Minus One! Did you perform it?
JG: In the mirror, yes! "Georgie Jessel!" Yes, I did. I had A Star is Bought on tape. It's just great. So stuff like that. But I would say Nichols & May as much as anything.
GM: They were largely improv.
GM: Did you ever do any improv?
JG: Yes. I'm not as good as they are at improv. I have done it before; I'm not very comfortable doing it. But I like to improvise when I'm acting. But I don't feel comfortable in the setting, like, at the Groundlings or Upright Citizen's Brigade Theater doing improv sketches.
GM: It's a completely different thing from standup.
JG: Right. I just don't have the chops for it.