Q&A: Janeane Garofalo Won't Back Down
Janeane Garofalo is first and foremost a comedian. She started her stand-up career while a college student in Rhode Island, going to an open-mic night at a local comedy club in 1985. Since then, she has performed throughout the United States, and she just wrapped up a year-and-a-half-long tour.
Garofalo has hit the talk show circuit over the last several months, speaking out for diplomacy and peace and against the war in Iraq. She's been on Crossfire, Inside Politics, Good Morning America, Fox News Sunday, MSNBC, and CNN. And she voiced one of the anti-war commercials sponsored by Win Without War.
Though she has acted in numerous movies -- The Laramie Project, Dogma, Steal This Movie (the Abbie Hoffman story), Wet Hot American Summer, The Truth About Cats and Dogs, Romy and Michele's High School Reunion, Reality Bites, to name a few -- Garofalo says she's surprised when people connect her to Hollywood.
"It's strange when people refer to me as a Hollywood activist because I don't live there and I don't participate in it," she says. "Have you ever seen me at the Oscars? Have you ever seen me in a gown? Have you ever seen me in a limo?"
She's been on several television and cable programs, including a brief stint on Saturday Night Live, a regular role on The Larry Sanders Show, for which she received an Emmy nomination in 1997, and various comedy specials. She also wrote for comedy shows, and with co-author Ben Stiller, published the 1999 self-help parody Feel This Book.
I catch up with Garofalo at her Manhattan apartment just a few days before the war in Iraq begins. Kid and Dewey, her affectionate mutts, greet me at the door. She's wearing green corduroys with frayed ends, black gym shoes with three white racing stripes, and a pink T-shirt with a faded "wild child" logo. With a sweatband on one wrist and a big black watch on the other, Janeane is ready to talk. We sit down on the floor on top of a beautiful Persian rug covered in dog hair. "You're gonna get total dogface now," she says, as Kid comes up to lick me in the middle of the interview.
Three guitars, a piano, a blue iMac, and a few colorful paintings decorate the rust-colored room. Though she has a framed photo of herself and Bill Clinton nearby, Garofalo mentions that she protested Desert Fox, Clinton's 1998 bombing of Iraq. And she's adamant about the Bush Administration. "There's nothing you could point to in the Bush Administration with pride," she says. "Nothing. There is no way any rational, reasonable person can say that the Bush Administration has been good for America."
She offers me a cigarette, and I accept. We talk about 9/11, and she tells me how surreal it was. Like so many New Yorkers, she volunteered to do her part in the relief effort. "Whoever was in charge of the aid wouldn't allow cigarettes and alcohol down there [at Ground Zero], which is what a lot of the relief workers were asking for. So they had to sneak in people that would volunteer to buy cigarettes and alcohol for them. I know that sounds terrible but c'mon, wouldn't you be asking for cigarettes and alcohol if you were down there?"
Question: Why are you speaking out against this war in Iraq?
Janeane Garofalo: I'm so public about this because I've been asked to do so and because I painfully felt that the anti-war movement was being ignored. So it was a combination of those two things. If I thought the anti-war movement was getting proper coverage in the mainstream media, I would have said no. You don't need actors to make this a mockery.
But as it became abundantly clear that no one was getting on TV talking about this, and when I was specifically approached by the founders of Win Without War and some people at MoveOn.org, I said yes. And I wasn't reluctant about it. I can't stand watching history roll right over us. It's like they're asking you to bend over, put your head in the sand, and put a flag in your ass.
Have you felt a backlash from speaking out?
Garofalo: Ohmigod. It's ridic. I'm not saying that it's just me, it's everybody who's spoken out. The press has wasted America's time, an inordinate amount of time, with celebrity bashing.
First of all, why are you wasting time celebrity bashing? Don't book me. Don't put me on your show. You have a choice. You can book a guest you can respect or you can respect the guest you book.
They love to pretend that if you are in entertainment, that's what defines you and you can't possibly have any knowledge of what's going on in the news. So you have grown adult anchors and media people who are literally acting like twelve year olds, saying, "You shut up. You don't know anything." Literally treating you with the contempt of a schoolyard bully.
You've been on CNN, MSNBC, and Fox speaking out against the war. How has that gone?
Garofalo: On the one hand, it's so bad that it's enjoyable. Some of the anchors or journalists or whatever you want to call them, personalities, have been kind and it's been fine. But for the most part, you just have to defend yourself. You don't get a chance to have a real debate. You don't get a chance to discuss anything. You defend your position, defend your career choice, defend your patriotism, defend your intelligence level, and then no information has been disseminated to people watching the show.
Have you gotten a lot of hate mail?
Garofalo: Oh shit, yeah. I had to change my home phone number. A lot of the hate mail I get is clearly misogynist. I am a proud liberal, feminist woman, and the hate mail I get for those three things is not about me. It's about those signifiers, and about what the right in this country has managed to do to perpetuate anger over what they mean.
Then there is a lot of the hate mail that says actors are too wealthy to understand what's going on. The actors live in Hollywood, all this kind of nonsense. Do they realize how wealthy the Bush family is or the Cheney family? The Ashcrofts? Bill O'Reilly? Tom Brokaw? Do they realize that if you are talking about the Administration now, Bush and Cheney in particular, the life of privilege, wealth, and elitism they have lived? If you are going to talk about somebody not understanding the common man, then look no further than the Beltway.
It is shocking that some people's lives are enriched by this nonsense -- these boycotts and e-mails. They are proving themselves to be fundamentally anti-American and anti-democratic. They are against the First Amendment, so what are they defending? Unless they are trying to build a fascist Administration, unless they are trying to bring the American people to a point that we exist under a totalitarian regime.
What's your opinion on the current state of the mainstream media?
Garofalo: The mainstream media has, in my opinion, been so grossly negligent, so disturbingly devoid of authentic debate, and actual dissemination of information. They are, in theory, the custodians of fact, the watchdogs of government. That's the theory. At a time as important as this, they have absolutely rolled over to the conservative hawkish agenda.
The parents of the troops who die and the parents of Iraqi civilians who die should have the right to slap a lot of these media outlets with a suit of criminal negligence. Military parents would have a legitimate case, especially against Fox and the New York Post for cheerleading this thing the whole way, for waving the flag, and using knee-jerk, sycophantic, pseudo-patriotism as a tool to galvanize public opinion.
That brings us to some of the rightwing pundits who dominate the radio, like Mike Savage, or some of the commentators at Fox -- the Ann Coulters, what have you. I think what they do is they turn their own personal issues -- whether they be racist, homophobic, sexist, xenophobic, or imperialistic -- and they wrap them in the flag and hide them behind Jesus.
Did you have a political awakening?
Garofalo: I've always been interested, I guess, in politics. I've always been interested in American history. I've always been interested in what's going on in my world. I protested Operation Desert Fox. I've always been interested in feminist causes and social justice causes.
How do you react when people say you are brave to speak out?
Garofalo: What's brave about it? There's nothing brave in saying, "Hey, I don't think this is right." There's nothing brave about saying, "I feel we are not functioning under a true democracy, I feel like we are being manipulated." That's not brave, that's common sense. I guess it's brave to go on television. It's certainly brave and sadomasochistic to go on Fox. But my choice is either I can yell at Fox on my couch or I can get in there and voice my opinion.
Do you think it's possible to have a liberal media network?
Garofalo: It is possible. What's not possible is to penetrate the wall of opposition. The myth is it can't work. Phil Donahue was working, but MSNBC took it off for their own rightwing agenda.
A liberal radio network can easily work. What will accompany it, unfortunately, will be an overwhelming opposition to it in the mainstream media and by the punditocrity. Again, a lot of these pundits just sit around on these chat shows and repeat each other. They repeat phrases and words, and the news cannibalizes itself.
What about the rumor that you might be involved in a new liberal radio talk show?
Garofalo: I don't know. I've been talking to Jon Sinton, who is trying to get this going. I am certainly willing to hear him out and go forward if it looks like something with integrity.
Are there any sit-coms in your future?
Garofalo: I don't know. I'm working on one for ABC. It's going to be shot in Vancouver. But it's not a done deal; we're just shooting the pilot. But with all this anti-war stuff, you never know.
Tell me about your involvement in The Laramie Project. In this recent HBO film, you played Catherine Connolly. Who was she?
Garofalo: She was one of the first out professors at the University of Wyoming. She was vocally and proudly out. She also was instrumental in the activism that sprang up in the wake of the Matthew Shepard murder.
Did you enjoy working on the film?
Garofalo: I did. I had a wonderful time. I was only on it for a few days, but it was such a great cast and great project. Everybody wanted to do it.
When we were in Laramie shooting, there was opposition from Laramie citizens who continued to gay bash. And that sort of dangerous activity is not being helped by the current state of our media.
Do you seek out political roles? You also played Anita Hoffman in Steal This Movie.
Garofalo: No, I'm not seeking them out, but I'm always pleased when they come my way. I certainly prefer to do stuff like that, but it's few and far between.
People used to tell me stuff about FBI surveillance and infiltration when I was doing the Abbie Hoffman movie. I interviewed Anita Hoffman, America Hoffman, Tom Hayden, and some of the other people who were involved with the Chicago 8 trial. They would tell me stories, and I would think, "Oh, brother." I thought these guys were exaggerating for effect or had that kind of '60s radical thing going on. There's no way that the FBI is going to attempt to sell them pot, or is going undercover as a doorman in their building. There's no way, I don't buy it. But now that I've seen what John Ashcroft is capable of, I realize, it's true.
Are you expecting a blacklist to come out in Hollywood?
Garofalo: No. Plus the fact that I'm on the Hollywood "rarely works" list, so to blacklist me would be extraordinary. It would be an actual compliment to be blacklisted because I barely work. Actually my career is much more focused on stand-up. I haven't really been involved in acting since 2000.
I don't actively seek out acting work anymore. Not that I wouldn't love to get good parts, but I bowed out of that because it's not worth the rat race. I don't go to the gym. I'm thirty-eight years old. I don't care to invest the time and energy to perfecting my physical appearance so that I'm at least acceptable to play the waitress. It is of no concern to me.
Have you lost work for your anti-war position?
Garofalo: I have. And that's irrelevant to me. I actually lost a potentially lucrative job as the voice for a software company. That's OK. It's no big loss in the big picture. Nobody gives a shit whether I'm the voice of it or not. The more I became involved with the anti-war movement, the more it was clear that they were not going to use me. That's fine. That's their choice.
But the point is I'm not sorry for speaking out for my First Amendment rights. I'm not sorry that I have demanded that my news do its job. I'm not sorry about that. This will potentially be one of the worst chapters in American history that will go on for twenty or thirty years, until democracy, in some fashion, is established.
How did you get started in stand-up comedy?
Garofalo: I started in 1985 when I was in college. I had always been a fan, growing up, of stand-up comedy: George Carlin albums, Cheech and Chong albums, Nichols and May, Mort Sahl.
What do you get out of being a comedian?
Garofalo: I get a lot out of it. It's great to have a voice that people actually pay money to come see. When I bomb it's not great, but especially when I was on tour as the sabers were being rattled, as we were moving closer to Iraq, it was fantastic to get into it with people all across America.
How did the audience respond to your speaking out against the war?
Garofalo: Completely polarized, just like America. Completely polarized. You had some people who were absolutely ecstatic to hear it and some people who walked out, booed, and threw things. It's that emotional.
What's your opinion of political comedy these days?
Garofalo: I think it's fantastic.
Where do you look for it? Where do you go?
Garofalo: The Lower East Side is fantastic. Austin, Texas. Boston. There's great comedy going on in L.A., but not in the comedy clubs per se. Russell Simmons and Def Poetry Jam are fantastic. The Daily Show and The Onion are doing great political comedy.
What's your opinion of Saturday Night Live these days?
Garofalo: It's certainly a very talented cast. But they've been too tame on politics. It's not the cast and writers. I know them, and I know that some of them are upset about it. There's a lot of voices that are not being heard at 30 Rock. Whether it's coming from Lorne Michaels, or NBC, or the parent company of NBC, I don't know. They have tried to do some stuff. They do some stuff that is very intelligent, savvy, hilarious, and really gets the point across. But for the most part, some of the voices of dissent over there have been sat upon.
Do you have plans to tour again?
Garofalo: No. I was on tour for a year and a half. I always do it locally, but I have no plans to travel at this point, in part because nothing's funny to me.
Why is that?
Garofalo: There's been such an assault on democracy here, and the mainstream media is complicit in it. We are living in neo-McCarthy, post-democratic times. Democracy is being criminalized. Democracy is being ignored.
Millions of people around the world were marching for peace before the war actually happened. This was historically unprecedented. And it has been basically ignored and marginalized by the mainstream media. The President has openly said that he doesn't make policy by focus group. First of all, eight million people are not a focus group. And he sure does make policy by focus group, and it's called the Christian right. I never imagined this would be my life.
I never imagined that I would never care about dumb things anymore. I never imagined I'd be a person who could transcend that kind of nonsense. But beyond that, I never imagined I would be penalized for speaking out in favor of social justice. I never thought that anyone who spoke out for peace, and diplomacy, and social justice would be pilloried.
I'm frequently depressed, just have a general malaise. And I don't mean a malaise of indifference, I mean a malaise of sadness and fear. I've always been alarmed by some of the things that the mainstream media does and by what the government does, no matter who's in office, but the broken heart is new.
Elizabeth DiNovella is Culture Editor of The Progressive.