Things Come in Small Packages
The Satya Interview with Janeane
Looking through the café, I didn’t recognize
her at first. I didn’t expect the tattoos on her forearms and
Joan Jett haircut, or the well-worn T-shirt and jeans, and ankles crossed
beneath her chair. She looked like a student—nose in a book, wielding
a highlighter to mark important passages.
Most people are familiar with actress and comedian Janeane Garofalo
from The Truth About Cats and Dogs (1996), in which she plays a radio
talk-show host who falls in love with a guy who, because they haven’t
met face-to-face, comes to believe she looks like Uma Thurman. Garofalo
is also known for her self-deprecating stand-up comedy shows.
Lately, Garofalo has been making waves in a whole different
ballpark. Her outspoken stance against the U.S. war on Iraq has made
her a target of criticism, ridicule, and even hatred. Her willingness
to put herself in the line of fire on right-wing media outlets and eloquently
run circles around her opponents has gained her enormous support. Last
month, actor Tim Robbins commented, “it is pretty embarrassing
to live in a country where a five-foot-one comedian has more guts than
most politicians.” Towering over six feet, Robbins may see it
that way. But for the rest of us beleaguered souls, her sharp wit and
courage is a gust of fresh air in a media that presents a bizarre right-wing
point of view as news, making her something of a feisty, opinionated
Catherine Clyne sat down with Garofalo
to talk about her political views and some of the adventures she has
had with the media.
You are known mostly as a comedian and actress.
What inspired you to become politically active and why do you think
it’s important to be so?
I think what happened to me (and a lot of people) is, when you discover
punk rock or “alternative” music in your youth, you become
exposed to another kind of culture, perspective, and much more interesting
people than your Top 40-listening friends—as nice as they may
be. For me, that happened when I heard quasi-punk, British and Irish
music my senior year of high school in 1982. I was so disinterested
in being social at that time. Plus, I’m five-foot-one and weighed
160 pounds, so I didn’t even have to try not to be social.
When I got to college, it was more of the same: 160-pound exile. But
luckily, I was near Boston, which at that time, was an amazing music
and comedy city with a lot of really interesting and diverse people.
I wound up meeting incredibly intelligent, strong women, and started
getting more introduced to feminism, which is not a dirty word by the
way; and neither is liberal.
I despise the way the bulls and thugs have redefined those words—like
they’re four-letter words. Feminism means you believe in gender
equality and social justice, so it’s pretty telling when people
are reviled by that word. What’s going on in our culture right
now seems to be a right-wing take-over. They’re the minority,
but since they’re the squeakiest wheels, they happen to be dominating
the media to some degree. Having said that, a lot of it (like Fox News
and the New York Post) really isn’t news. Most people who can
think for themselves see it for what it is—trying to mobilize
already arch-conservatives and the easily manipulated.
Unfortunately, enough people absorb it and that lowers the bar for everybody.
Just as the tide raises all ships, when the tide goes down, then the
ships all go down.
Liberal and feminism are something to be proud of. I learned that when
I moved to Boston and became surrounded by open-minded, liberal, feminist,
gay, creative, articulate people—from all walks of life—who
happen to share one thing—intellectual curiosity and tolerance,
who want to learn about the world and about other people.
It seems Boston had quite an impact. Had you
been exposed to these ideas before?
I was influenced primarily by my father who, while being a very very
nice guy and a great parent, was a fanatical arch-conservative. It permeated
my home and the way my brother and sister and me think. But I always
knew something was missing; something just didn’t feel right.
I felt, “Well, how can we always be right? How is it that America
is always on the side of the good?” I couldn’t understand.
Now he’s older—with age comes wisdom. He’s changed
his stance on abortion and joined the Sierra Club.
There’s nothing wrong with being conservative or Republican. I
feel sort of sympathetic to legitimate conservatives because some of
the people who’ve hijacked the conservative movement are not conservative
or necessarily Republican, but are sociopathic and closet racists, closet
sexists, closet homophobes.
It’s similar to liberals who are afraid to call themselves that
because so-called conservatives have made it a dirty word.
That’s the thing. I’ve never been afraid to say I’m
a feminist and a liberal. It just makes me want to say it more. I’m
always upset by women who are afraid to say they’re feminist,
it’s very alarming... It’s like saying, okay before we start
anything I have to say that I’m not African-American, when you’re
African-American; or when you’re a Jew and you say you’re
not a Jew.
What are some of the bands that influenced
It wasn’t so much the bands but the people at the shows. I would
go see The Replacements, The Jam, The Pixies, Throwing Muses, Billy
Bragg, the Flat Duo Jets, R.E.M., U2 (at that time those bands weren’t
that big), Wire Train, Teardrop Explodes, all of these kinds of bands.
You meet different kinds of people at the shows, not only punks and
goths, but feminists, vegans, and activists of every stripe.
There’s a big difference between a lot of those “alternative”
bands and a lot of the popular mainstream music, which is just supposed
to appeal to the most number of people, so it’s incredibly banal,
overproduced and lyrically unchallenging. If you’re someone that
cares about lyrical content, melody, and diversity in your music, it
probably also extends to your political views.
Have you felt any heat from Hollywood because
of your outspokenness?
What people need to know is there is no Hollywood “black list.”
There was one in McCarthy times and I know we’re reliving neo-McCarthyism
now, but there’s only one way to get yourself blacklisted in Hollywood:
get old and get fat. Nobody gives a shit what your politics are. There
is no bad publicity in entertainment—all people in entertainment
understand is, your name has been mentioned a lot.
Secondly, there’s a myth going around that I was fired from ABC.
Actually, the controversy kicked my show into action. Not only am I
going into production in four weeks, I now get as many scripts sent
to my house as I did when I was much more popular, when The Truth About
Cats and Dogs was released. I am a moderately successful character actor,
but now apparently I’m very famous [laughs], thanks to all the
hubbub—I’m not kidding. They have recreated me as a famous
person when I wasn’t. I’ve also got two offers to write
a book, offers for a radio show…
Also, apparently, the book that I wrote with Ben Stiller a few years
ago, sales spiked because so many are buying it to burn it. They don’t
understand how much money we make. I mean, Go ahead—burn my book.
Kevin Smith will tell you this. His movie Dogma probably wouldn’t
have done anything, but the religious right decided to picket the theaters
opening night; and the publicity got it open at number one. Michael
Moore is now back on the bestseller list; ticket sales for Bowling for
Columbine went back up; the Dixie Chicks went back up to number one.
I think that people witnessing the burning of Dixie Chicks CDs and posters
started changing things—they pushed too far. And with this administration,
I think that if we go into Syria, people will think that’s going
What about Bill Maher? His show Politically
Incorrect was cancelled by ABC because of a comment he made about 9/11.
Bill Maher fell upward. He went from a network to a highly successful
HBO show where he can do much better work than he was doing. He’s
now free for an hour—no commercial breaks, nobody to boycott it.
Politically and culturally, do you really expect
things to shift?
You can’t sustain propaganda and a shitty economy. You can certainly
get away with it in the aftermath of domestic terror. I think they’ve
manipulated the hell out of 9/11, and will try to at the Republican
convention. They will cynically use the twisted metal of the wreckage
as a Teflon shield to manipulate emotions and attract all the pseudo-patriots
they can find. Let them do it. Because, you know, they are really making
a mockery of it. They are using and abusing the memories of the people
and the families who suffered. Like “Peaceful Tomorrows”—9/11
families for peace—they’re pissed off. They really don’t
appreciate being manipulated, used. And the mainstream media don’t
seem to have any time to talk to them, or Veterans Against the War or
[other groups] against war. They only have time for the actors—they’d
rather bash celebrities to marginalize the movement, make it look foolish.
Unless there’s some kind of shady goings-on, I think that a Democrat
can win handily in the 2004 presidential election. Look at February
15th—that kind of passion, that many people—people who have
never been political in their lives before. Believe me, they’re
not voting Republican in 2004; and the unions, the unemployed, and the
veterans aren’t voting Republican. I think at no other time in
history could a guy like [former Vermont Governor Howard] Dean win.
How do you think we’ll look back on this
People are going to look back on this the way we do with McCarthyism,
Japanese internment, witch-burning. A lot of us will say, “I did
my part.” I did the best I could to defend the Bill of Rights
and the Constitution; to fight for social justice, true patriotism,
and political awareness. Then you can ask some of these other people,
“What did you do, Grandma and Grandpa?” “Well, I created
a website devoted to celebrity-bashing. I made sure that that guy from
The West Wing was very uncomfortable with hate emails.” Oh wow!
That’s what you chose to do?
Part of me finds it very funny—give them enough rope and they’ll
hang themselves. They do really look silly to the majority of Americans,
and the rest of the world looks at those guys the way that we look at
the Klan—kind of laugh at them but also sort of alarmed.
You sound so optimistic. But I’ve read
a couple of interviews where you said you were losing sleep over all
I was losing sleep, initially—it’s never heartening to be
confronted with ignorance and cruelty. I don’t feel that way anymore
because of all the positive feedback I’ve received. It’s
been great to take some of the hate mail and read them on stage and
the audience is in hysterics. It’s all changed so much. I was
so bummed, so down, but now I really look forward to getting more involved—in
elections and attending more panel discussions. There’s just so
many opportunities to be exposed to wonderful people and so many ways
to get involved.
What do you think is going to be the galvanizing
message? Before, it was anti-war and everyone could agree on that. It
seems to be more effective when there’s just one message, rather
than several—globalization, the environment, this, that and the
It’s going to be anti-war—this doesn’t stop in Iraq.
I think it can be anti-preemptive strike, anti-Bush doctrine, anti-empire,
anti-neoimperialism, it’s all the same thing. This is a war without
boundaries. The alleged war on terrorism is the fig leaf for the larger
objectives: redrawing the Middle East, making sure the U.S. is the only
power. I went through my bad period and after the wave of nausea passed,
realized this is happening, this awakening, enlightenment. What you’ll
see now is another counterculture, but now it’s going to be bigger.
It’s happening all over the country. This “DIY activism”
that can and will change our culture.
You’re a vegetarian, right?
You were. So you’ve changed?
I’ve changed. I don’t eat meat as a rule; the amount of
meat I eat is negligible. I never did growing up. But I have to admit,
I am a sucker for very crisp bacon in a sandwich or on its own. I was
a vegetarian from 1983 to 2001, when I quit drinking—I’m
sober now—and smoking. I allowed myself bacon. I said, “You
know what, if you’re giving up alcohol and cigarettes, you are
allowed to have bacon.” The number of times I’ve had bacon
since 2001 is about four, five maybe. I did eat it on the Jimmy Kimmel
Live show and got bombarded by emails. Some of these people thought
I was vegan; like I seemed like a person who’s vegan.
An “enlightened” vegan.
So what would be the follow-up question to that? “You’re
vegan, right?” And I say, “No, I eat bacon.”
No, I was going to ask if there are any ethical
reasons why or why not?
I don’t want to eat animals. I don’t morally judge others
who do. I just don’t like it for me. I don’t like the idea
that we eat animals.
You know, I’ve talked with Ted Nugent about it—believe it
or not. I actually like him very much. He is a true First Amendment
rights guy, a real patriot. He does not agree with the anti-war protesters
but will fight for their right to do it. We did a radio show together
and the people who called in are painfully stupid and angry. Nugent’s
whole thing was, “Don’t you understand? That’s what
a patriot does, question their government.” He believes that once
you make the commitment, you must see it through, you must support the
If you cannot sustain two concepts in your mind at one time, you’re
very dumb. And if you are pretending that you can’t and you’re
just using it as a bully tactic, then you’re just an asshole.
When [Nugent] was talking about eating meat, I had to give it up for
him. He was so respectful of me that I couldn’t bear to say, “Oh,
you shouldn’t eat meat.” He made such a convincing case,
he kills and eats things, he doesn’t hunt for sport. He doesn’t
go grocery shopping, he grows his own food, organically, he cooks and…
But you have to admit he can be extremely obnoxious.
On television shows, he’ll eat meat right in front of animal rights
guests just to provoke them.
He’s like a bad boy rabble-rouser. But when you meet him, he’s
not an asshole at all, there’s a real thoughtful person there.
Is there anything else you’d like to
Don’t believe the hype. There is no Hollywood blacklist; just
because the press runs with it, doesn’t mean it’s true.
Make sure you go Democrat because it’s that important this time.
The administration relies on the dim bulbs. They’re sitting around
saying: Thank God the public school systems are so poor, that we’re
not turning out a nation of Mensa members. Because political careers
depend on ignorance. Careers are broken when people get wise. And you
will be rewarded a thousand-fold if you speak out. It really does happen.
At first my agent was like, don’t! Now he’s like, keep it
up! For a 38 year-old woman to get a resurgence like this in the business,
you don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.