New Again: Janeane Garofalo

By
Photography Sofia Coppola

Published July 29, 2015

Fourteen years after the release of comedy cult classic Wet Hot American Summer, the movie is finally getting the reboot it deserves. Netflix enlisted the film’s original star-studded cast (Janeane Garofalo, Bradley Cooper, David Hyde Pierce, Amy Poehler, Jason Schwartzman, Paul Rudd, et al) and writers Michael Showalter and David Wain for Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp. With the addition of contemporary actors like Kristen Wiig and Jon Hamm, we’re hopeful that the new series, which comes out this Friday, July 31, is going to be just as memorable as the original.

In the 2001 slapstick comedy, we watch the last day at Camp Firewood unfold: camp director Beth (played by Garofalo) falls in love with a recluse and bizarre local astrophysics professor (who then somehow manages to teach the table of “kids who stay inside” how to launch homemade rockets),as other camp counselors resolve tensions (sexual and otherwise) between themselves, blatantly disregarding their primary responsibility and letting the campers wreck havoc.

To celebrate the revival, we dug into our archives to bring you this 1996 interview between Phyllis Diller and Janeane Garofalo. At the time, Garofola was the queen of deadpan, occasionally acerbic comedy. She had starred with Winona Ryder in Ben Stiller’s cult coming-of-post-college comedy Reality Bites two years earlier, and was promoting The Truth About Cats And Dogs, in which she played the romantic lead opposite Ben Chaplin. —Evan Siegel

The Marlon Brando of Stand-Up ComedyBy Phyllis Diller

Quick-witted comic and truly awful bike messenger Janeane Garofalo talks with comedy bigwig Phyllis Diller

The current misconception in these sitcom-clogged times is that everyone is funny. But the truth is that everyone is not funny. As Edmund Gwenn, a Hollywood character actor of the 1940s, said to Jack Lemmon, visiting him on his deathbead: “[Dying’s] hard… But not as hard as doing comedy.” Janeane Garofalo, however, is funny—very funny—continuously funny, and, best of all, endearingly funny. Like other comics of the post-variety-show era, she does not “tell jokes,” rather she takes on the world around her. Though she says she’ll always return to stand-up, Garofalo is increasingly turning up in movies, where her self-deprecating deadpan is a tonic. The latest are this month’s updated Cyrano scenario, The Truth About Cats and Dogs, with Uma Thurman, and the upcoming Larger Than Life, which stars Bill Murray. Here she is interviewed by that veteran of the big room Phyllis Diller, a woman for whom the term comic genius was conceived.

PHILLIS DILLER: I’ve got a lot of questions for you, Janeane.

JANEANE GAROFALO: [laughs] I’ve got a lot of answers. Hit me.

DILLER: What did you study in college?

GAROFALO: I was a history major.

DILLER: Boy, have you gone astray.

GAROFALO: Well, I knew I was gonna try and do stand-up anyway, but I had to declare something. They forced me.

DILLER: You were in college just to fool your mother.

GAROFALO: I was basically just an ingrate all the way around.

DILLER: Is it true that you were once a bike messenger?

GAROFALO: I was the worst bike messenger in Boston for about a year.

DILLER: Could you find the addresses?

GAROFALO: I couldn’t find anything. I was not quick. I was not fearless, which are two things you have to be to make any money. But I was in very good shape.

DILLER: My dear, my idea of exercise is a good, brisk sit.

GAROFALO: [laughs] Yeah, a prolonged shampoo. There’s something I wanted to ask you, Phyllis. It probably rarely happens to you, but what do you do when a bad seed gets into one of your shows?

DILLER: You mean three drunks?

GAROFALO: Yeah.

DILLER: Oh, darling, you’d have to make an appointment to heckle me. My timing is so precise that either the audience is laughing or I am talking. Hecklers wait for a pause. They wait for dead air, and there’s no dead air in my act.

GAROFALO: Well, I don’t have joke-jokes per se. I have buzzwords written on this piece of paper in my notebook, or sometimes they’re written on my hand.

DILLER: You’re the Marlon Brando of stand-up comedy. He has things written all over.

GAROFALO: I’m not as extreme as Brando, of course, but I don’t like to memorize whole bits because it feels like I’m regurgitating by rote. One of my favorite stand-ups is Dennis Miller. His material’s so great, and he remembers a solid hour of very cleverly worded stuff without even using a Teleprompter.

DILLER: A lot of people work with energy. For instance, Rita Rudner. She sort of types it out and looks pretty.

GAROFALO: I do neither of those things.

DILLER: Tell me, how tall are you?

GAROFALO: 5’1″

DILLER: And what do you wear onstage?

GAROFALO: Oh, I dress like a lunch lady. I wear completely normal clothes. I have no costumes. Can I ask what year you were born?

DILLER: 1917. There weren’t even paved roads.

GAROFALO: So when did you first get onstage to do stand-up?

DILLER: I started in 1955, when I was 37 years old. And in those days, 37 was just ancient.

GAROFALO: What did you do before?

DILLER: I was terribly busy being pregnant, which was optimum because I had something to bitch about. And all comedy is bitching. If everything goes well, you have no comedy.

GAROFALO: I’m sure it was unbelievably hard getting started then, but now it’s almost impossible because the boom is over. You know how in the ’80s it was comedy, comedy, comedy? There were tons of clubs all over the country. Now it’s over, over, over. There aren’t even any open mikes I can guide people to.

DILLER: Steve Allen says, “If you aren’t a comic by the age of 12, forget it.” Do you feel you were born to do this?

GAROFALO: I don’t know. I would hate to say yes, because that makes me sound horrible.

DILLER: No it doesn’t. I think you have to be a born comic.

GAROFALO: By fifth grade, I knew I wanted to be involved in comedy because I was such a die-hard Woody Allen fan, and I have clear memories of Albert Brooks in The Odd Couple. Then, as I got a bit older, I loved Catherine O’Hara, Andrea Martin, Bill Murray, and Sandra Bernhard.

DILLER: It’s far more difficult to make people laugh than it is to make them cry.

GAROFALO: Oh, absolutely. Although, having said that, these days it seems far too easy to make most of the populace laugh. If you look at some of the comics who are successful, there’s obviously an easily amused audience out there that keeps certain things high in the ratings. I look at these movies and TV shows and wonder, “What is funny here?” I don’t understand.

DILLER: Television’s another reason it’s so hard to get started now as a comic. With 60 channels, you’re spread too thin. Unless you can do some dynamite thing like get caught with a hooker, have a murder in the family, or come back from dope, you know, people will just click, click, click right by. I mean, I didn’t really know Hugh Grant’s name until Divine Brown.

GAROFALO: Actually, I did. The thing that kills me about that was his act of contrition—looking like a hurt puppy on Leno and all that. I really think there’s nothing wrong with one adult paying another consenting adult money for fellatio. He should have said, “If you don’t want to like me anymore, don’t go see my movies. I’m not gonna tell you to live your life, and you can’t tell me how to live mine.”

DILLER: You’re really broad-minded. You know, Tony Randall and I were once doing a variety show together, and the first thing he said to me was something about fellatio. I don’t think I’d ever heard that word before, and I said, “I haven’t read much Shakespeare.”

GAROFALO: [laughs] But getting back to what we were saying about success, I tell you what, I would love to find out what it is like to be super wealthy.

DILLER: Oh god. I used to braid my hair into dollar signs. I thought about it all the time.

GAROFALO: I think about it all the time. And I want to have two or three kids. I want to start having them by the time I’m 35, though.

DILLER: Promise me you’ll breast-feed.

GAROFALO: All right, I will.

DILLER: It raises the IQ. Also, breast-feeding shrinks the uterus back to its original size. If you don’t shrink it back, it’s gonna be like an old purse.

GAROFALO: Well, I plan on trying to have two or three, whether it’s by nature or by adoption, with or without a husband.

DILLER: That’s good, because they’ll be very fortunate children.

GAROFALO: How do you know? How do you know I’m not a psycho?

DILLER: I can tell.

THIS INTERVIEW ORIGINALLY RAN IN THE MAY 1996 ISSUE OF INTERVIEW.

New Again runs every Wednesday. For more, click here.