Janeane Garofalo Talks Comedy, Feminism, and Doc Martens

janeane garofalo in wet hot american summer

Beth is back—Janeane Garofalo will reprise the role for a Wet Hot American Summer Netflix series this year. 

Janeane Garofalo has always been an outspoken feminist. A stand-up comic since 1985, Garofalo—along with fellow future household names like David Cross and Marc Maron—helped define a genre of comedy that swapped out one-liner schtick for thoughtful, wordy references. As “alt-comedy” joined music in the indie-culture takeover of the 1990s, Garofalo’s acerbic wit and baby bangs made her the embodiment of the intellectual slacker dream girl, an identity she brought to memorable roles in cult favorites like The Ben Stiller Show, The Larry Sanders Show, Reality Bites, Romy & Michelle’s High School Reunion, 200 Cigarettes, and Wet Hot American Summer. (Indeed, her Mystery Men character, The Bowler, is to blame for my husband’s wish to have his ashes injected into a bowling ball when he dies.) More recently, you might have caught Garofalo brightening up the small screen as a dog-wedding officiant on Broad City and a hard-charging entertainment lawyer on the scripted Bravo show Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce.

It’s rare to find a Hollywood regular who also vociferously talks politics with both nuance and sincerity. In the 2000s, Garofalo stepped back from acting to host, with fellow comedian Sam Seder, Air America Radio’s Majority Report (see “Janeane Garofalo’s Patriot Act” in Bitch no. 26) and spoke up loudly and often against the Iraq War. It wasn’t always pretty—after one incident of calling out the Tea Party for inherent racism, she was ambushed by Fox News outside a comedy gig—and a still-regular barrage of criticism keeps her off of social media. But it doesn’t keep her from working. You’ll see Garofalo reprise her role as frazzled camp director Beth in a Wet Hot American Summer prequel series that hits Netflix this summer (all together now: WHOOOO!) and she’s all over this weekend’s Bridgetown Comedy Festival in Portland, where she’ll be a guest on LiveWire Radio, part of a Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist 20th-anniversary show, and a draw all on her own. I talked to Garofalo this week about politics, Hollywood, and the greatness of Doc Martens.

janeane garofalo

Janeane Garofalo at the Lincoln Lodge in Chicago in 2012. Photo by Erin Nekervis.

ANDI ZEISLER: So much of the alternative comedy scene you came up in has become mainstream. Or, maybe it’s not that it’s become the mainstream, it’s that the mainstream and the alternative have really blended. So many of the people you came up with—Jon Benjamin and Marc Maron and David Cross—were once considered alternative comedy and are now sort of mainstream. Is it something that you could see happening? 

JANEANE GAROFALO: Well, here’s the thing with the label of quote-unquote alternative comedy. That is something that didn’t start happening until alternative music became the thing. When I was younger, it used to be called indie rock, college rock, then it was called alternative. Then, for whatever reason, comedians who were performing in venues that were sort of outside of standard comedy clubs or maybe didn’t have structured jokes, they were dubbed by a couple of journalists “alternative comedians.” That’s never been something we called ourselves. I guess what you’d call now alternative comedy was coming out of the jazz clubs, strip clubs, all of that. That’s always been there. It’s just that when Nirvana hit [laughs], that word alternative was there. We were labeled alternative only because I think we also aesthetically looked similar to Weezer, you know? It just was this zeitgeisty thing that has stuck for a very long time. But has it become more mainstream? That’s hard to answer. I do feel that in culture in general people are far more willing to reveal authentic stories about themselves, far more willing to talk about their sexuality, sexual preferences, likes and dislikes onstage and off. Clearly, that has become mainstream.

But it’s such an interesting thing, it was a time when it really did seem like an alternative, like things really were different. To me, it was more that it was less schticky.

That’s just the evolution of culture. But you can still find, in any club in this country, the same schticky, jokey comedians that have always been there. That’s just a style of comedy that doesn’t particularly appeal to me, although there are some people who do it very well, so don’t misunderstand me when I say, you know, that’s not the way I do it. Your style chooses you. I just can’t write structured jokes. I don’t have that discipline, I don’t have that talent, and I also don’t feel comfortable saying something if its not actually true. Now, that doesn’t make me this noble purist, it’s just—I’m not going to pretend something happened on the way to the bank today if it didn’t. Now, if something happened on the way to the bank six months ago, and I still want to talk about it, that’s how I will preface it: “This thing happened to me about six months ago.”

It’s important to me as a performer to be as authentically me as I can, so that at each show, each audience member feels as though I’m just talking to them. I try and make each show somehow different in some way. Now, of course when you’re headlining certain things, you’re asked to do an hour or two hours, you can’t have a completely different two hours each night. But what you can do is shift up the order, always leave it open for what may or may not occur within the audience, what may or may not happen to you that day, what may or may not be going on in that moment. I always keep it open. Some comics stay completely focused, do not move the needle at all from their set if they’re doing an hour to two hours and that’s totally understandable. That’s totally fine. That’s the way they do it, that’s the way they feel comfortable doing it. I just am less interested in doing it that way personally. And when you do it that way, it’s hit or miss. You cannot guarantee that you’re gonna knock it out of the park each time. But I prefer that. In the same way I enjoy certain bands and on any given night they’re fantastic or they stink.

So I mentioned on Facebook that I was going to be interviewing you, and what I got from responses from friends was that—

Oh, please don’t tell me anything mean somebody said about me!

No, it was all amazing. One of my friends said, “You know, when I was answering personal ads in the mid-’90s, every ad I answered was from a man seeking a ‘Janeane Garofalo type.’”

That can’t be true.

It’s true! It’s true, and she married one of them.

Oh my goodness! What does that mean, a “Janeane Garofalo type”?

Well, you had a style that, again, it was alternative—it hadn’t been co-opted and sort of marketed.

But it was very prevalent, which I’m sure you know. In certain circles, it was the most mainstream.

It was prevalent, but you were also something that all of a sudden people across America were seeing and it became kind of an archetype. It became Daria, it became Enid Coleslaw, it became Juno.

That’s very nice that you say that, but I feel like I was looking at how others were dressed. I started noticing it in around ‘79, ‘80, a little bit when I would go to New York. And certainly by 1990, the combat boots or tights with shorts or the MAC Russian Red lipstick, the whole thing was so prevalent in many pockets. Now, obviously, that’s even more true. It’s sort of a classic in the same way that there’s preppy looks that have been consistent since ‘60, ‘62. Lilly Pulitzer never goes out of style for certain people, you know what I mean? It’s strange because I feel like I was copying somebody. Now I’m 51 and I still dress the same. Now, that’s not me trying to be a badass, honestly, because there’s nothing worse than a middle-aged person trying to be young. Really it just happens to be a style I like. I’m guessing, from where you work, that you and I are on the same page.

Probably, yes. I still have my Doc Martens.

I do, too. I wear my Doc Martens all the time, they go with anything. They go with skirts, dresses, pants. To me, it’s like, what could be more practical? And [they] look better than heels to me. Heels look corny to me. They’re not practical, they don’t suit me, I can’t walk comfortably, I can’t be myself. 

Our feet will be young ‘cause we’re wearing shoes that were originally intended to be orthopedic. So another friend on Facebook stressed that in Reality Bites, Vicki’s little black book of sex partners had a real impact on her conception of sexuality and what it looked like. A lot of the movie now seems dated. But as a coming-of-age movie, it still resonates.

I assume it does in the way John Hughes still resonates. Certain coming-of-age films have feelings that are timely. 

It’s interesting to me that there’s been this embrace of 1990s culture by current college-age women as a sort of feminist golden age. There was a sense of the time that girl culture meant something, but it was really a small slice of a culture where conservatism was ramping up.

As you know, everything is different in hindsight. Some things are bastardized or shat upon just for the sake of a narrative. But that’s normal, it’s cyclical. History is reexamined, sometimes rewritten. Like the way that in the late ‘80s and early 90s, the 1960s were fetishized for feminism. We could look back to Seneca Falls, but no one seems to want to do that. No one’s like, “Let’s look at Victoria Woodhull, that was the golden age!” There’s so much more complexity—there was no “good old days.” Human nature is what it is, there’s always going to be conflict and violence. But we make progress, despite people’s best efforts. 

Can I ask a question about Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce? I know you’re no longer on it.  

Sure.

From a feminist perspective, it could be interpreted a couple different ways. One reading is that women have so come into their own that they don’t need the traditional framework of marriage. But another reading could be that men are never going to be able to deal with self-sufficient women.

I love the cast and crew of that show, I love Lisa Edelstein, I wish them all the best, but that show wasn’t really my thing. That’s why I’m not on it anymore, I thought it was very Mars and Venus-y, tired tropes. I felt like we could have been doing things a lot more modern and we needn’t mention these gender binaries as much, it’s tired. It’s a show that feels like it was right in 1998 or something. Having said that, I see why people like it. Everything is elevated by Lisa Edelstein. Then there’s other stuff that’s unnecessary. It doesn’t ring true to me. I didn’t relate to any of those [characters]—I think it was a little ostentatious about wealth, with the economy the way it is, and then to have a bunch of people complaining about work when you never show people working. That just bugs me. It’s just not right for me. Having said that, I very much believe in that cast and I very much want success for them. And I very much want Lisa Edelstein to be seen—nobody works harder than Lisa. I’m hoping that in the second season or third season, they work a little harder in the writer’s room. I think they’re beholden to some mainstream nonsense at Bravo. That’s just speculation, but I think what hinders it is NBC/Universal’s structure of how they do shows, which is not particularly modern. 

You were one of the key personalities on Air America. My personal theory is that Air America never got the audience it needed because it messed with the idea that talk radio is right-wing. Like, maybe there can only be one set of people shouting on the radio and those people are already right-wing. I don’t know. 

Well, first of all, we had some shysters who created it and stole the money, the first seed money. I think one of them is still in jail. So right from the get-go, we were compromised. Then we had a series of owners, most of whom were apolitical. [Air America] was just never able to have much reach and be in many markets—but not because there wasn’t an audience out there. It absolutely could have—should have—worked. The good news is that out of it came Al Franken and Rachel Maddow. A lot of great people: Lizz Winstead, Marc Maron. But I also think it’s the nature of people on the left, people who are intellectually curious, to be nicer, to not be shouters. People who are regressive—Republicans, Michelle Bachmann, Pamela Geller—they’re shouters and liars and they’re in it as a blood sport. Luckily, there are some [liberal people] who are willing to do it. But they don’t get as much airtime. Mainstream corporate news will only allow bad behavior on the right. I speculate that’s because the owners of these mainstream corporate news companies tend to be on the right. If you’re on the left, you’re going to be out of your element, dealing with these bullies. 

You’ve been targeted at times, more than a lot of outspoken activist actors and comedians.

Being female has a lot to do with it. Plenty of men have been targeted, but being female means you’re really gonna get it. It takes almost nothing as a female to incite vitriol. If you say you’re sorry, they’ll pile on more, which I didn’t understand at the beginning dealing with these people. Never say sorry if you’re not wrong. If you’re wrong, of course, apologize. But in today’s culture, with the culture of cruelty online, it takes nothing to get shat upon, which is why I try to stay out of it. I am fine with selling fewer tickets to comedy shows, I’m fine with people thinking I fell off the face of the earth, if I don’t have to be on social media. I don’t have a thick skin. Stuff doesn’t roll off me. During Iraq, that was a very traumatic period—all the death threats, the criticism, the mockery, had a very significant, negative effect on me. It’s painful to be criticized, misunderstood, and lied about. I still get heckled occasionally and it hurts me. Even if I don’t like the person who just heckled me! I have a need to be understood, as we all do.

I’ve seen it stated fairly plainly where people say, “It’s a shame that Janeane Garofalo’s politics have overshadowed—”  

Don’t finish! Don’t finish!

—like there was ever a time that comedy didn’t involve politics! 

Well, during the war in Iraq, people would walk out constantly if I mentioned it. Which would sometimes happened to Patton Oswalt and others, too, but not nearly to the degree as the females. Having said that, I cannot stand when people bring up, “What’s it like to be a female comedian?” I can’t have one more person ask for an interview about females in comedy. It’s so tired. The gender binary I’m discussing is, it doesn’t matter what you do for a living, it doesn’t matter who you are, there is a low-level hum of misogyny that rears its ugly head.

You’ve been really transparent about what’s required of women in Hollywood to remain hirable. 

There’s some men, too. Say they’re a Ryan Reynolds type, it’s required they stay fit. But for females in mainstream entertainment—and by the way, it’s an elected choice to go into that, so it’s hard to complain about it—for females in general, there’s a double standard about looks and age and weight. There are some people who can transcend that—Melissa McCarthy, she’ll be the token one. But it has changed some. There is more leeway than there was before. With more channels and more media outlets comes the ability of more people to work than when there were only three channels. But there are still rules for mainstream films, music, and TV. That’s the nature of it, that the ladies be attractive, young. The men have more leeway, they can look many ways. If you want to see middle-aged women and older: British television. They’re very good about people looking many different ways.

I’m wondering about what you think about cosmetic interventions being framed as empowering.

That’s the sign of the times. It’s just inevitable, as people live longer. It’s not empowering, but there is something to be said about feeling good about the way you look. That’s fine. I’ve had Botox and that’s fine. I’m waiting for the Logan’s Run laser, you know? The laser that went over people—I will do that. I’m serious. I will not frame it as empowering. I would rather look better to myself than worse. I will never be a person who really gives a shit that much. I don’t dress very nicely. But I wouldn’t mind, as I get older, not looking at certain reminders of being 51.

But is there a difference between being honest and matter-of-fact about it, as you’re doing, and this emerging culture of consumer feminism where these things are framed as empowering because it’s a choice?

I don’t think it’s emerging. I think that’s been there since Jayne Mansfield and before. Now, granted, that was a much different era, but there has been a long history of nonsense talk. What’s empowering about some artists is they own their own companies and they have their own record labels. That’s empowering. But there is no denying that pandering to the “male gaze” isn’t empowering. There’s also no denying that people feel good about themselves when other people feel attracted to them. That’s just pure human condition stuff. That’s biology. But don’t misunderstand what you’re doing. And also, whenever there are people who are reticent to call themselves a feminist, they’re a fuckin’ idiot. So what you’re saying is you don’t believe in gender equality and civil rights? It’s just human rights. When a person in the year 2015 says something like, “But I don’t hate men!”—you are a fucking idiot. There is no wiggle room on that.

Do you feel like your own feminism has changed over the years?

I don’t think so. If [it has], I don’t know about it. I think for a while when I was younger, I would say, “I’m a humanist,” because I thought that was more inclusive, but I wasn’t ducking feminism. In the early ‘70s—I think people forget how progressive a time it was. In elementary school and junior high for me, there was environmental consciousness, feminist consciousness, a push for diversity. That was great. It gave young girls and women the ability to very clearly state that they were feminists. The pendulum started swinging back with all the Reagan bullshit, all the Jerry Falwell nonsense, and all the lies told about Jimmy Carter and McGovern. There’s been a concerted effort since ‘73 to turn back time. When I was in college, there was a Reagan revolution on my campus. It sucked. I went to a conservative university, Providence College in Rhode Island. The Reagan revolution, a lot of kids responded really well to that. Ann Coulter and her ilk were in college around that time and they were becoming known as douchebags then, urging people to rip apart anti-apartheid villages, to out gay people. I wouldn’t care if their nonsense and shenanigans only affected them, but we all get swept up in it. 

Catch Janeane Garofalo at the Bridgetown Comedy Festival this weekend.

by Andi Zeisler
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Andi Zeisler is the cofounder of Bitch Media and the author of We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement. You can find her on Twitter.

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2 Comments Have Been Posted

Doc Martins

I seriously regret not keeping my old, worn-in doc martins. i tried new ones a few years ago, but they hurt my grown-up feet so much, i couldn't handle them. also, janeane garofalo has been a fantastic role model for me, as i reached adulthood in the 90's, and as i continue to age into genuine womanhood. i actually feel kind of bad for making my comment on this article about shoes...so cliche! but those new docs really fucking hurt my feet! i mostly stick to the chinese mary jane slippers these days.

Interesting comment on her

Interesting comment on her exit from Girlfriends Guide. I couldn't agree more. Everyone talks about how Lisa Edelstein shines and it's true, she is the highlight of the show. The rest of the cast is mediocre, the writing is juvenile and second-rate, the storylines are ridiculous and it is difficult to relate to the characters and their problems. I'm still shocked it got renewed but as others have said, Bravo put too much PR into this to fail. I doubt Season 2 will be any better. I heard Lisa Edelstein will be co-writing an episode. Unfortunately it won't save the entire season.

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