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Comedy Thu Jun 07 2012
Janeane Garofalo is a standup icon, and is the primary reason that I was drawn to comedy as an adolescent. Her comedic style and her intellect were, and still are, like very few others I have ever seen. It has been a goal of mine to talk with her about standup for almost twenty years.
On June 13, Garofalo will join Chicago native Kyle Kinane at UP Comedy Club as part of this year's Just For Laughs comedy festival and she was gracious enough to allow me to pick her brain for a few moments. We talked about everything from standup to feminism to Lady Gaga. Here is what she had to say.
You are coming to Chicago soon, for Just For Laughs. How did the pairing with Kyle Kinane happen?
I don't know -- it's luck. When I've worked with him before it's because I like his act. But in Chicago, it's just a lucky break. I think somebody else made that choice... I know I didn't. But I think he's really funny.
You two have a similar commentary/storytelling style.
He's more economical with words than I am.
I feel like every time I've seen you live, you've come out with a giant notebook, set it down, and then gone off the cuff for two hours.
Well, I have things that I want to talk about, I just don't have the discipline to sit down and write it. I only hope that it's going to be cohesive and interesting.
It feels like there are bullet points, which not many people can pull off. It makes it seem very conversational.
I like to have it conversational... I am having a conversation. I like to actually be talking to you. Sometimes when I watch a comic, I can tell that they say the same thing in the same exact way each time. That's not better or worse, it's just a style that doesn't appeal to me very much as a viewer -- I don't have that [ability] in me, where I can sit down, figure the whole thing out, know exactly what I'm going to say and then do it. That feels oppressive to me. I would like for each show to be different... I like to have each show be the only time it's going to be exactly like that. I certainly have said the same things over and over again, but hopefully in different ways...there's a saying in comedy that your style chooses you rather than you choosing it, and in my case that is very true. That just happens to be what happened to me.
You're an '80s/'90s icon, as far as your style is concerned. I can say with certainty that your style shaped a lot of the ways that I thought, and still think, about comedy.
If that's a good thing, then I'm pleased. I've been doing standup since '85, so it's been a long time. Over the years there have been a lot of people who have been very critical of the notebook. I've never understood -- why are there hard and fast rules about how someone does it? Musicians have set lists. I don't know what the difference is. Many years ago, I can remember seeing Richard Lewis with a notebook.
What's in the notebook?
I have so many over the years. I have one right in front of me right now. I pull articles sometimes that interest me. Right now there is some pages from Bitch magazine. I love Bitch magazine. That is an amazingly well written and interesting magazine. Then there's some current events stuff, and then just ideas that I write down; I have written here Ukelele, the singularity is near...I don't even know what I meant a lot of the time. I have "Lady Gaga narrative" written down.
Please tell me your thoughts on Lady Gaga.
OK. I'm not criticizing her. This has nothing to do with her character at all. But sometimes when I see her fans interviewed, and they're so unbelievably emphatic about her. They'll talk about her message of "empowerment" and the interviewer will say, "Like what?" and they'll say, "Believe in yourself!" (laughs) It's a very stale narrative. That may not be Lady Gaga's fault, but I don't know how some of those narratives, that are so stale, can capture the imagination of an entire nation. Also, "You can do anything you want" -- it's not really true, is it? I'm not trying to be a downer, but you can't really do anything you want, can you?
(goes back to reading from her notebook)
I have a thing here about people checking my $20 bills to see if they're counterfeit...I don't know if that's ever happened to you...
With a $20!?
I don't know why that makes me feel like it's personal. Definitely 50s or 100s, but I went to H&M recently to buy an $8 shirt, and I paid with a $20 and she checked the bill. I don't know why I take that personally. Also, if it is counterfeit who cares? It's made it this far, lets keep it moving...and that's my notebook. I'm so sorry it's not more interesting.
All of that, out of context, is pretty interesting. I don't even want to know what it's about.
It wouldn't be funny if I explained it, anyway. Anytime people try and do standup off-stage, it's so not funny.
I agree. I know a lot of people who think it's insane to not rehearse or work off-stage...
I can't rehearse. It makes me feel silly. Also, how would you know? It would be weird. If you're doing it by yourself, you can't tell if it's good or bad. It's all subjective. Plus, I would feel like such a nerd standing here saying my stuff to myself.
Or to three people.
Oh, that would be worse. "Hey friends, sit on my couch and listen to me." And I don't tape myself. I would rather be whacked in the face with a board then listen back to my voice. Again, I don't want to memorize it!
Isn't comedy all in the reaction, anyhow?
Yes. That's not to say that there aren't some pieces that I don't know by heart, especially if I'm totally forgetting what I wanted to say. It could be something that happened years ago, but I will always preface it with, "This did not just happen to me. I apologize." It still makes me feel like the biggest hack... I'm doing the same material, the only difference is that I've apologized for it in advance.
So you don't like reusing your material.
No, but I do. Obviously you have to. If I'm headlining and I have to do an hour or more, there's no way that I have a new thing. But if there's something that's really old and it feels authentic to me, I'll say it and hope that something comes from that deconstruction. But a lot of times, if you're going to deconstruct that way, it's merely boring to the audience.
Plus, there's always that guy in the front row that requests a certain joke.
Or they shout out the end of it. They give away the whole thing!
I tweeted this morning and asked if anyone had a question that they wanted me to ask you and someone direct messaged me with "The flip flop joke!"
(Laughs) Well, summer is here, so I can technically bring the flip flop joke back, because flip flops are out in full force. I will hopefully add something new, or even apologize, but every year I discuss this when the weather is warm...I don't tweet or anything, either.
You have no internet presence.
Nope, I don't.
It's half and half. One reason is that I'm of a generation that didn't really grow up with that technology. I'm not really savvy in that area... it creates an anxiety in me. Also, I don't like being on the grid that much. I suppose if I had something that I really felt I had to tweet, I would do it. I feel like I express myself on stage. I think if I was a younger person, I would be tweeting and online like anyone. I don't even use a computer. I did briefly, but I stopped. I don't have a lot of the outlets, which actually are vitally important to a comics success, so it has hurt me.
Any plans for another tour or show?
Well, I do tons of shows in New York and Brooklyn. I'm doing Bumbershoot in Seattle, then Chicago and then I think I have more dates after that, but I don't have the itinerary yet.
You don't really do national tours anymore, why is that?
There are a few reasons for that. I don't feel like there is that much interest in people coming to see me, and it makes me feel very sad when tickets don't sell. You have to do a lot of self promotion, which makes me terribly uncomfortable. Also, I was just doing a play here in New York for five months, so I was here. Next week I start workshopping another play, so if they find a theater space, that's another reason why I have to stay here.
Are you focusing on theater more right now?
I'm not focused on it, it's just what happens. It's not like I have all kinds of opportunities in film and television... it's not up to me if I work in television, at all. I'm not really one of those fire-in-the-belly performers, where I'm going to make it happen. If people want to cast me they can cast me. If not, I'll do stand up and work in the theater, because that is open to me.
Well, you're still on the radar, so it seems to be working well.
That may be true, I don't know. I do know that there's been a lot of people saying very nice things on Marc Maron's podcast, so I thank Marc Maron for that.
Speaking of other comics, what are your thoughts on what's currently happening in stand-up?
Well, from what I see I like it! Like I said, I'm local lately, and there are a lot of shows here and a lot of stage time to be had and a lot of great comics. Many times there are a lot of people who I've never seen before who are really good, and so young. I think it's great. Also, because those young people use their online presence, there is more and more access to different kinds of comedy and people. I love to see that there's more diversity than when I started. Tons of females, a lot of very confidently out gay people, which was very much not the case in the '80s. I'm always happy about that -- it's really nice to see.
There is sort of a movement in Chicago, and probably other cities, with women in comedy "coming together," and I was wondering what your feelings are about that.
I'm always happy about women in comedy, but it doesn't need to be branded as such. It's just people doing comedy. Like the show "Girls," on HBO, is excellent, and it has nothing to do with the fact that it's written by a female. Girls is a complex, interesting show. It's a great show for anyone. Nobody says, "Hey Entourage, a guy show!" or "What does this mean for males on television?" It bugs me. Saying "womens comedy night" is like saying "black comedy night" or "Jewish comedy night." There's no reason to further ghettoize -- it's just people doing comedy. I'm all for feminism. Feminism means that you believe in gender equality and social justice. I'm happy for people who say that they're proudly feminist. I can't stand when people run away from that. I'm all for being a feminist, and if you want to discuss that on stage, great, but you don't need to have a flier that says 'women's comedy night'. It's just comedy night.
If you had to give one piece of advice to new comics, young comics, artists in general, what would it be?
Two things, don't take any advice unless you know the person and can trust their judgement... including me. If you don't trust my judgement, don't take my advice. But if you are going to take it, and I certainly understand if you don't, there's no need to work so blue. There's no need to swear excessively. (laughs) There's no need to be really sexually explicit and graphic about your sex life. I think that some people think its OK to discuss every single sexual thing, which... discussing sexuality is fine, but how about couching it in a more intellectual way? I know I sound like an old grandma, but you don't need to reinvent the wheel for it to be a good wheel. Find a more interesting way to do it. I find it so uninteresting. Also, some people say fuck constantly, and it undercuts what they're saying. I know we all talk that way, but it's much less interesting to hear it from a microphone on stage than in your personal life. Put a linguistic spring in your step. Get a word a day calendar if you have to.
What makes you laugh?
A lot of stuff. I am a huge fan of almost everything on Adult Swim. They do amazingly good comedy. I love "Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law," "Delocated," "The Young Person's Guide To History" is great. I love Dr. Steve Brule. Dr. Steve Brule is so funny. For your health! John C. Riley makes me laugh.