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Saturday Night’s Children: Janeane Garofalo (1994-1995)

Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 36 years. In our column Saturday Night’s Children, we present the history, talent, and best sketches of one SNL cast member each week for your viewing, learning, and laughing pleasure.

With almost 30 years of comedy under her belt, it’s surprising that Janeane Garofalo has retained every last bit of her raw-natured cynicism. A self-proclaimed super-liberal sober vegetarian asexual atheist activist, Garofalo has brought her outspoken energy to everything from her stand-up routine to her gig as a political radio cohost to her numerous roles in film and television. Her six months on SNL may be more of a hiccup than a highlight on an otherwise lengthy and eclectic resume, but since societal injustices are so intrinsic to Garofalo’s persona, her tense struggle on the show was surely just fuel for the alt comedy queen fire.

Garofalo was born in Newton, New Jersey. She grew up in a conservative family — her father was, unsurprisingly, an Exxon executive, and she moved several times while growing up, spending time in California, Ontario, and Texas. While studying history at Providence College, she was voted “Funniest Person in Rhode Island” in a Showtime comedy talent contest. Her stand-up career began in the 1980s and she quickly became a staple in the burgeoning alternative comedy scene that came to popularity in the post-grunge age of Nirvana and MTV. Garofalo got her first big break when she joined the cast of The Ben Stiller Show alongside Bob Odenkirk, David Cross, and Andy Dick in 1992, a role she obtained after meeting Stiller by chance in Los Angeles two years prior. Thanks to her connections on Stiller’s show, she also landed the role of Paula on The Larry Sanders Show, which she appeared on from 1992 until after SNL in 1997. A year after the cancellation of The Ben Stiller Show in 1993, Garofalo joined the cast of SNL as a repertory player after the departure of Melanie Hutsell, Rob Schneider, Sarah Silverman, Julia Sweeney, and Phil Hartman, joining newcomers Chris Elliot and Laura Kightlinger as the season replacements.

Whether due to the domination of Farley/Sandler or feeding off her own negative impressions of the boys’ club atmosphere, Garofalo was mostly relegated to supporting roles playing wife/mother/girlfriend types during her half-year stint on the show. She had no recurring characters but portrayed a handful of celebrities like Hillary Clinton, Martha Stewart, Pamela Anderson, Susan Sarandon, Madonna, and Jodie Foster as Nell, and she also starred in a few commercial parodies like “Human Headache Test” and “Bathroom Monkey” (“Now my bathroom’s monkey clean and monkey fresh!”) Even while still a cast member, Garofalo was pretty vocal about feeling as if she were wasting her time on SNL: “It’s almost like hazing,” she said in a New York Magazine interview conducted while she was still at the show. “Fraternity hazing. It’s hard. It takes its toll on you. But I think you come out much better in the end. If nothing else, this experience has just toughened me up.”

Garofalo left SNL after the February 25th episode just five months after her hiring. She continued her role on The Larry Sanders Show until 1997 — earning two Emmy nominations along the way — and went on to become an in-demand actor in a slew of TV shows (NewsRadio, Seinfeld, Strangers with Candy, Felicity, Mr. Show, Stella, and most recently Delocated) and film cult comedy film classics like Reality Bites, Half Baked (as the “creative smoker”), Dogma, and Wet Hot American Summer. She also voiced characters for Freak Show, Aqua Unit Patrol Squad 1, and King of the Hill and turned to television dramas with roles in The West Wing, 24, and Criminal Minds. In radio she’s cohosted The Majority Report on Air America from 2004-2006, and in the literary world she cowrote the 2000 classic Feel This Book: An Essential Guide to Self-Empowerment, Spiritual Supremacy, and Sexual Satisfaction with Ben Stiller. (You can also check out all Garofalo’s almost-projects in Bradford’s Lost Roles column here.)

Perhaps the quintessential alt-comic/activist hybrid, Garofalo continues to tour and has three upcoming projects in the works (For Better or for Worse and General Education are set for a 2013 release, and Bad Parents hits theaters this year) and is set to guest star in Hulu’s upcoming comedy mockumentary Paul the Male Matchmaker. She’s still tough and isn’t afraid to quote the first lady of femininism Eleanor Roosevelt when talking about her brief SNL experience, saying in Live from New York: “‘No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.’ I gave my consent freely.” A hazing boys’ club experience it may have been, but Garofalo’s story is a reminder that every new SNL cast member has to fight to reach dominance and staying power on the show, whether they already have high-profile TV experience or not — but also that an unhappy stint on the show can sometimes lead to a much more successful post-SNL career.

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