“Speaking Freely” show recorded Feb. 28, 2002, in Aspen, Colo.
Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely,” a weekly conversation about free speech and the arts. I’m Ken Paulson. We’re joined today by a talented and topical comic and actress, Janeane Garofalo. Welcome.
Janeane Garofalo: Thank you. I’m talented and topical. That’s wonderful.
Paulson: Well, you know. If you prefer another bio —
Garofalo: No, no, no, that’s fine. I like alliteration in an intro. Talented, topical, terrific. Tanned.
Paulson: What’s the best description we should have? I mean, if we’d gone through your people, what would we have said about you?
Garofalo: My, my people?
Paulson: Yeah, your people.
Garofalo: Um, what would they have said about me? They would use different letters for their alliteration. They’d say persnickety, passive-aggressive, punctual, and, and pernicious.
Paulson: OK, we’ll look forward to all of that. I think you are the first guest on “Speaking Freely” who has also done “Space Ghost.”
Garofalo: I am. I, I mean, I wouldn’t know that, but I just was watching the “Space Ghost” marathon last night, and I did my “Space Ghost” so long ago, it’s never even in the reruns.
Paulson: You know, I was struck by seeing that you seem to do things just because it looks like fun.
Garofalo: Well, yeah, there’s a lot of — you know, a lot of that. I, I do things that I want to do, but then again, don’t misunderstand. I don’t get tons of offers to do things, so it’s not like I’m passing up doing the next, um, Nicole Kidman vehicle so that I can do “Space Ghost,” you know what I mean? Like, it’s, it’s, it’s —
Paulson: Which would be a tough call.
Garofalo: I’m offered a lot of fun things, but it’s not like I make hard decisions every day.
Paulson: I understand that David Letterman was an early inspiration for you.
Garofalo: Yes, when “The Letterman Show” came on when I was in high school, I was motivated to set my sights on a career in comedy. I thought I wanted to be a comedy writer. I wanted to write for “The Letterman Show.” I was so impressed with the show and his sense of humor and sensibilities, I, I — as SCTV was also at that time. I would have watched SCTV and David Letterman and be very impressed with their sense of humor, and that’s how I got interested in the medium of stand-up comedy, was being inspired by David Letterman.
Paulson: Well, in the intro, as being topical — I mean, that’s very much a part of what Letterman does, is humor from that day.
Paulson: And, of course, we had a chance to see you recently on stage, and, and you’re really doing material from today or from last week, from headlines.
Paulson: Is that an orientation that, that you’ve always had?
Garofalo: Yeah, I do — you know, obviously, you know, when I do venues around the country, I do anywhere between an hour and an hour and a half, so I can’t have everything be new, and I have to have some sense of discipline and, and order to my stand-up. But I try to incorporate as many new things as I can all the time. It’s always an evolving stand-up set, you know what I mean? That’s why I bring notes out on stage, which I’ve — you know, some people find unprofessional or seemingly ill-prepared. But, you know, I’m not doing the same exact set the same exact way every single time I go onstage, so nothing is committed to memory in that sense.
Paulson: You know, you do political humor, and there aren’t a lot of people doing that. A lot of jokes about sex and relationships and so on. A minority of people doing really topical stuff, and why is that?
Garofalo: Well, you know, I actually do — I certainly do my share of relationship stuff and, you know, airplane stuff, but I also am a, a follower of politics, you know. I watch all the shows that the mainstream media has to offer me. You know, I watch “Hardball” and Tim Russert and “The Beltway Boys” and “Crossfire” and Bill O’Reilly and his supposed “No-Spin Zone.” Let me just say right now, “Bill O’Reilly, no. You spin harder than anybody I’ve ever seen.” I just have to say that. And if Bill can hear that, he needs to know that everybody is onto him. He spins, through voice inflection and body language, harder than anyone. But — and then I seek out alternative news through “Buzzflash” and salon.com and things of that nature and “BBC World News” and stuff. Um, so I’m very interested and excited by politics, but I’m endlessly frustrated by disinformation and half-truths and, and spin. So I, I talk about that a lot in my stand-up. Now, the reason that I think less people do it, even though a lot of comics do it, is, it is met with stony silence by a lot of your average, mainstream audience, especially the further out you get from urban areas and more into suburban; no offense to, you know, the suburbs. I grew up in the suburbs, and I like it, but, um, people tend to resist political commentary or commentary that questions the status quo. A lot of people don’t want to know the worst about their government. They don’t wanna, they don’t wanna hear your cynicism. And now, in these neo-McCarthyesque times that we’re living in — life during wartime — as Ari Fleischer said, “Americans have to watch what they say and do,” in that very scary manner of his. You know, patriotism always — is always present, but it becomes uber-patriotism in life during wartime. And it is “the last refuge of a scoundrel,” to borrow a famous quote. And it is, tends to be — uber-patriotism tends to be a refuge for bullies, quasi-non-intellectuals, people that love to have bumper stickers like “kick their ass; take their gas.” And if you are a stand-up comedian that is more liberal in your views — and being a liberal is not a dirty word, like being a feminist is not a dirty word, and I’m tired of mainstream media painting people who are feminist and liberal as somehow wacky or nutty or angry or bitter — and that also the mainstream comedy audience takes its cue from the media, you know — in the way that Ralph Nader is marginalized and neutralized by the mainstream media, in the way that Ralph Nader and his Greens and Winona Laduke are made to look a little off. Because they want true change and true democracy, the mainstream media seeks to marginalize them. And that’s why the comedy — average comedy audience listens — you know; they listen to the mainstream media. They listen to when Ari Fleischer says, “Loose lips sink ships,” if you will, you know? And so it’s harder for a comic to win over their audience or to get the audience to listen if they’re not just being a quote-unquote “team player.” You know, I’ve got a lot of things to say about my government, because I care, because I am patriotic, you know what I mean? George Carlin is very patriotic. That’s why he’s so mad. You know what I mean? Bill Hicks, when he was alive, had a lot to say because he cares about what the government does in his name. Now, the government makes decisions on your and my behalf constantly. They do not let us in on 90% of it, and then they will ask you to sacrifice your children and grandchildren to pick up the pieces and clean up the mess, which is what they’re doing right now. I’m sure there was a lot of intelligence that was ignored or warned — or forewarnings to the distaste that 90% of the globe has for American foreign policy. And if there wasn’t so many people that were afraid to speak in the mainstream media or weren’t so neutralized or weren’t just lackeys of, you know, spin, maybe we would be more informed. You know, the, the average American is not — is not well-educated, as a rule, if they’re in the public school system, and certainly not well-educated as pertains to their news. So how can you expect them to listen to a stand-up comic who they see as being a nasty naysayer, unpatriotic person, you know?
Paulson: You know, comics —
Garofalo: Was that enough words for you? Could you shut up so I can get a word in edgewise? For crying out loud. Gosh.
Paulson: You feel better now?
Paulson: All right, good.
Garofalo: You’re just talking so much.
Paulson: This is a show about listening, is what it is. The, ah — and yet you’ve probably, throughout your career, made fun of Reagan and Clinton and Bush the first —
Garofalo: See, but it’s not making fun of, do you know what I mean? Like, that’s the error there’s been. I’m not blindly making fun of, like — “Reagan’s got a neck like a turkey. Barbara Bush looks like the Quaker Oat man.” You know what I mean? Like, that’s nonsense. I’m not gonna attack anyone for the way they look. If I’ve got something to say about politics, I’ve got something to say about what I perceive to be the dissemination of disinformation or what feels like lies to me or clearly taking advantage of the American public. As I said last night, every time a politician says, “The American people are not stupid,” they’re mocking us. You know, they’re banking on our ignorance and apathy. And again, I say we’re like ignorance; people are like, “What do you mean?” What I mean by ignorance is, you’re not given the information. You’re not privy to the information. I’m not calling you stupid, you know?
Garofalo: But politicians sure bank on your stupidity. They bank on your apathy. That’s how political careers are built.
Paulson: What you say is certainly not a salute to the chief executive.
Garofalo: It’s certainly not a salute, but I also am very diplomatic when I say, “I am not building up the Democrats. I’m not tearing down the Republicans.”
Paulson: Now, did you do that framing before the war on terrorism? I mean, you’re not at all apologetic, but you sort of say, “I’m not liberal. I’m not Democrat. I’m not —” you know?
Garofalo: I’m liberal. I’m a liberal.
Paulson: But, but you said a — it’s not apologetic, but you are telling them, “Oh, don’t applaud that.”
Garofalo: Right, because that, that implies that I’m being sanctimonious or soapboxing it. I am not on a soapbox. And when people applaud, um, it’s, it’s just as annoy — it’s sort of as annoying as when a politician gives a speech and he drops in the appropriate amount of buzzwords, and — you know, President Bush says “Wanted dead or alive” and “Evildoers,” and there’s applause. So I don’t want applause. Do you know what I mean?
Garofalo: Like, it’s irritating to me.
Paulson: You make your money by making people laugh.
Garofalo: Mm-hmm. Well, hopefully.
Paulson: All right, so why go to political humor when it’s tough to make people laugh?
Garofalo: Well, because sometimes you hope that it’s — it does strike a chord and that people do think it’s funny. And sometimes you hope that people go, “Oh, I didn’t think of that,” you know? “That’s — yeah, I didn’t think of that. You know, when — you know, the so-and-so was spinning the Enron thing, I didn’t think about that, that that just makes no sense.” Or, you know, “I didn’t —“ you know, Michael Moore is good at it. Michael Moore is very good about being very funny and pointing out some very serious things that you should be aware of. You know, you should know that the Bin Laden family funded George W. Bush’s first oil endeavor. You should know that, and he somehow makes that funny. I don’t know how he does it. You know, I do grapple with that. I don’t always make it amusing. But I think it’s every person’s responsibility when they have a microphone and the ear of so many people to — yes, you’re a comic; make them laugh. That’s what they paid their money to see. But also edify in some way. Don’t keep lowering the bar culturally. The bar is low enough in our — you know, it’s Howard Stern low. It’s very low. And so I, I don’t want to participate in that, in the de-intellectualization of our citizenry, you know?
Paulson: The book you wrote with Ben Stiller, Feel This Book, which is largely kind of a parody of self-help books, also had nuggets like this: “Being popular and well-liked is not in your best interest, taking into account the public’s regrettable lack of taste; it is incumbent upon you not to fit in.”
Garofalo: I don’t remember writing that, but I’m certain that I did.
Paulson: Is that — it also kind of drives your career, doesn’t it? You’re not, you’re not doing the predictable.
Garofalo: Well, see, here’s the thing, though. Thank you for saying that I’m not doing something predictable, because I take it as a compliment, but true radicals probably see me as the biggest, like, sellout. Like, “Oh, my God, that’s why she’s on the show,” you know, “because she’s the most palatable radical.” Do you know what I’m saying?
Garofalo: And, really, what is so radical about me? Because I’m fat, you know what I mean, like, and I’m trying to be in TV? Like, you know what I mean? Like, or I, I, I have corduroys and sneakers on when I went to the Emmys, you know what I mean? Like that makes me a radical. And true radicals and true activists and true people that are out there in the trenches, as they say, probably see me as, like, “That is so infuriating that you’re holding her up as some kind of left-of-center mouthpiece,” you know? But I think that it is incumbent upon people in the, in the public eye to try and sometimes say something of value, say something, you know what I mean? Like, I point to morning radio and the Q-Zoos of this country that is just buzzers, bombs, and bells for three hours every morning, and nothing of value is ever said, and yet it reaches a great many ears on a, on a regular basis. And it is a shame that, you know, the four or five corporations that own every radio station that we listen to, basically, have this Q-Zoo template that they use —
Garofalo: — which is basically — it seems to me like — it’s like — what is that, Soma, in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World? Like, this mind drug that keeps you dumb?
Garofalo: You know what I mean? Like, you know, it seems like Q-Zoo or Morning Zoo or morning drive radio is designed to keep you dumb. I, I mean, I can’t explain it, but they have, like, two yelling deejays that, you know, as Woody Allen says, “Deaden the sensibilities of this great democracy.”
Paulson: But you turn on cable television; you have two people yelling at each other in 30 seconds or less.
Paulson: They’re not looking for any middle position. What is it, though — you know, you sort of talk about the big companies that shove this down our throats, but what does it say about the American public that they buy it? That the — you do a riff on the Grammys and about how the music’s shoved down their throats and mediocre talents prevail. Whose fault is that?
Garofalo: It is, it is — it’s a, it’s a combination of faults. You know, what came first, the chicken or the egg? The mediocrity or the desire for the mediocrity? I would say if you spoon-feed mediocrity to young people constantly, they think that they want mediocrity. But, you know, there is a huge, huge, huge market for good music out there. A huge market, and they’re buying indie rock, and they’re buying, you know, classical, all kinds of things. I just happen to prefer indie rock, you know, myself, and quote-unquote “alternative music,” whatever that means. I am not a fan of Backstreet, ‘NSync, Creed, Janet, Britney, ah, Nelly Furtado. You know, I do like Outkast. You know, Jay-Z. It’s all of this stuff that corporations have chosen that will be the next big thing. They ram it down your throat, on these playlists that are disseminated through every radio station. And then at the Grammys, they act like you are — they have the nerve to say “the best of the best” at the Grammys. What they should say is, “This is the offerings that you are allowed to have. This is what we give you. We’ll throw a few veterans in there. We’ll give you Dylan and U2 every year just to let you know that we’re, you know, keeping the baby boomers in mind, ’cause we want them to watch the show.” But it’s nonsense. You know, it’s nonsense, the P. Diddy stuff and, and like I said, you know, Britney. This corporate music that they don’t even perform live and they don’t write themselves or whatever the hell else is going on, um, it isn’t — I don’t think that that’s what people want. They just think they do because that’s all that they get constantly, constantly, constantly. And then these artists align themselves with Coca-Cola and Pepsi and Taco Bell and on and on and on. But if you give people good music, I bet you they’d buy it, you know what I mean? If they were offered interesting, complex lyrics and interesting, varied music and real-live vocals and people that can actually sing live, and when they perform, they don’t need pyrotechnics and dancers and distractions, I bet you they’d love it. Now, the average record buyer for Backstreet, et al., is seven, so it’s not like they got tired of listening to Kurt Cobain. Do you know what I’m saying? And they didn’t — they weren’t listening to “Screaming Trees” and “Alice in Chains” and going, “Mmmyyyeeegh. Mommy, I’m tired of ‘Alice in Chains’ and the ‘Seattle Sound.’ Give me boy-band corporate pabulum.” You know, a seven-year-old did not turn away from indie rock. This was a niche that was created because money was to be made. And the whole Britney thing, it’s just nonsense. You know, it’s nonsense, and it, again, lowers the bar taste-wise. Most people are just indoctrinated into modes of thinking. You know, you ask most people, “Why are you Catholic?” “I don’t know — my dad was; my mom was. That’s why, and I’ve been raised in the Catholic Church. I happen to have been born in a suburb here where we’re Catholic, and my grandparents were before me.” “Why do you listen to Creed?” “I don’t know. That’s what’s on my radio station.” “Why do you wear, um, why do you wear thong underwear and low, low pants even though it’s dreadfully uncomfortable?” “I don’t know. Britney does. So that’s what I see; that’s what I do.” Older people, why do you, why do you vote Republican? Or Democrat? When there’s clearly really no difference between the parties? There really is no difference between the parties, you know? They, they pay lip service to some differences here and there, but when you vote vehemently Democrat or Republican, you are broadcasting — to me, anyway — that you’re not doing your homework. You know what I mean? Like, you — when — like last night, when I did stand-up, and as soon as I mentioned George W. Bush, some arms got folded. Some heads lean-backed with the old, “OK, don’t say — this is Bush country.” What does that mean? What does that mean? You — I want you to tell me why you’re a dyed-in-the-wool Republican or a Democrat, because there’s no discernable difference. Most people only do things because it’s habit. Everything’s a habit. Your patriotism could be habitual. Your religion is habitual. Your desire to marry and have children is habitual, all of these things. So, when you do stand-up, you run the risk of meeting a lot of the resistance of habit, if that makes — if that’s a phrase I can use; I just don’t know if that makes sense. But you are — when you speak of politics or anything that is questioning the status quo, you hit a wall of habit. “OK, I’m a Republican, and I’m Catholic.” “Why?” “Because my parents were.” “Why?” “Because their parents were.” “But why?” “I don’t know, and if you make me answer that question, I dislike you.” You know what I mean? Like, there’s a — nobody wants to be, nobody wants to be challenged on their beliefs, and they don’t want to think about it. They’ve got children to raise and bills to pay, and they don’t need your stand-up comedy nonsense or as the famous — the “liberal” media. What does that mean? It doesn’t look very liberal to me. You know what I mean? I’m, I’m reading The New York Times and the International Herald-Tribune, just like you. Where’s the liberal part of it? Do you know what I mean? Where’s the real news, and where’s the, the information? And I watched “Headline News” all day yesterday, and I must have been told 50,000 times what was in the Grammys goody bag. Is that news? Is that my news today? That’s my news — and Paula Yates, is she insane? She drowned her five children. Burn the witch. We dislike it intensely when women do anything in the news that is against their children. Now, were, were it the husband who did it, we would not be having this trial in the news any longer, because it would have been a nasty man who did something. But if it’s a woman, how dare she? Burn the witch. Let’s kill her, that type of scenario. That’s my news. Gary Condit, Paula Yates, the Grammys. And even though you say this show will be airing a year from now, it’ll probably be Paula Yates, Gary Condit, the Grammys, and Enron. No, they’ll probably find a way to ignore Enron by then, but — You know, it’s just non-news. It’s not news.
Paulson: I want to ask you one final question about one of your less-well-known movies. You’ve had a good career in film and television, “Steal This Movie” was not a huge box-office success.
Garofalo: No, it was not.
Paulson: And you play Anita Hoffman —
Paulson: — the wife of Abbie. And you were quoted at the time as saying that “This is a film I’m doing in part because I’m liberal. You’re not going to see me in ‘The Charlton Heston Story’.”
Paulson: Was that a good experience, and did you get to know Anita?
Garofalo: I did; I did get to know Anita a little bit. She passed away shortly after I met her. She was very wonderful. I got to do — I, I’m not really an actor who tends to do roles that require a lot of research, back story, interviews, things of that nature. This was a movie that did. I was very pleased to do a lot of reading, research, interviews, meeting of people at the time, you know, who were significant in her life, meeting Anita a number of times, talking to her, meeting Abbie Hoffman’s children, friends of Abbie Hoffman, former Yippies, and meeting Tom Hayden and this, that, and the other, reading many memoirs and books. So I was very pleased to do it and very pleased to do that film. It was not a, it was not a big box-office success. You know, in fact, most people, when I was making the Abbie Hoffman movie, they were like, “Who is she?” Honestly, it was very — it’s disheartening, but that’s, that’s the way it is, you know? Like I said, if most of your news revolves around the Grammy’s goody bag and the number one best-selling book is Chicken Soup for the Soul and people read the National Enquirer, there’s not a lot of people that are going to know that Abbie Hoffman was not, in fact, a woman who, you know, that I was playing. But, um, it was a very wonderful experience, to do that. I had a wonderful time. Vince D’Onofrio is an excellent actor and an excellent person. And all the people involved with the movie are just wonderful people, and it was a real labor of love. And the director was a wonderful man who was a friend of Abbie’s and Anita’s and very passionate. And it was just a real pleasure to do the — you know, Tom Hayden came to the set and gave a speech, and it was just great.
Paulson: I have to ask you: last night, you did a truncated version of your stand-up, 30 minutes. And you made a point, near the end of that, of saying, “You know, I’m concerned about what people think of me after 30.”
Paulson: “After an hour, they tend to like me. This show is 30.”
Paulson: What would people see in the next half hour?
Garofalo: I don’t know. I’m sure that there’s people who would, who would see this and find me to be off-putting and aggressive and, and spinning as much as I accuse other people of spinning. And clearly, I’ve got my prejudices and my biases. You know, that’s the thing that Bill O’Reilly will never understand. You got your own biases that are built-in spin. And I wish to God he would have me on my show so I could say, “Bill, you’re doing it right now. You’re spinning right now.” But, ah, I think that a lot of people just find me to be off-putting and aggressive. And then because we are a culture that — we’re — we demand our women to be, um, attractive in a very mainstream way, that is another thing that they are like — in a lot of reviews of my shows and a lot of reviews about me, people find it necessary to comment on my physical appearance, which they never do for male comics, never. It would never, ever happen. They would never say, “I just saw Bill Maher last night, and looks like he’s gained some weight” or blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, you know? This, that, and the other. But I’ve gotten, “Janeane Garofalo, looking like an unmade bed.” And then one person put something like — in an interview, that said, “Let’s hope her New Year’s Resolution entails joining a gym.” Because our culture objectifies women and is dreadfully unfair to women on every level, I would say that there’d be a number of people who are watching it — I bring it up only because there will be people out there watching it who will have comments on my physical appearance and also my strong opinions, and somehow the two will equal unlikability. Do you know what I mean? Whereas if you were addressing, right now, another male comic, that would never enter into it. Like, “Boy, that — I found that guy unattractive.” I get frequently accused of just rolling out of bed, not being clean. Someone wrote a letter to Conan asking that I take a shower next time I come on. And, um, um —
Paulson: And Joan Rivers attacked you.
Garofalo: Well, she attacks everybody. Joan Rivers is a “prickly pear,” as they say. Joan Rivers and Melissa Rivers and that other lady, that, that guy that criticizes people with her, they are an odd trio of — I don’t mind people making jokes about stuff like that. I’m a comic. I got — It’s gotta be clever, though. You gotta use your brain a little bit. They have some incredibly unfunny, unintelligent comments to make on that show. Like I said, I’ve got no problem with anyone making fun of me, but you gotta use your brain a little bit. Like, that — you can’t just oink, which is what Joan Rivers has done to images of my — of me. She’ll just oink at the screen. You know, let’s get creative. Like, I’ve had, I’ve had “Mad TV” make fun of the way I look, and very funny. Like, they had a Bill Clinton character referring to me, thinking I was a guy. Like, Alex Borstein, who does an amazing impression of me which I think is hilarious, and Bill Clinton — we were doing “Politically Incorrect” in the sketch. And he kept saying, “You be quiet, fella,” like that, like he was — now, that’s very funny, and I really loved it. And I think that that’s great. It was creative, and it was funny, and — but when Joan Rivers makes fun of people — not just me. I take issue with the fact that she makes fun of everybody. It’s, it’s not just me. I’m not — I don’t care, you know? But when she oinks at me and Camryn Manheim and Rosie O’Donnell and all these other wonderful women, she really feeds into the sexism of our culture.
Paulson: Thank you for joining us today.
Garofalo: As long as I could get my own nasty comments in. That’s what this is all about.
Paulson: That’s great. That’s great. We still think you’re topical and talented.
Garofalo: Topical, talented, and terrific.
Paulson: Oh, great.
Paulson: Thanks for being here.
Garofalo: Thanks for having me.
Tags: Speaking Freely