Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

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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  • Just One Thing

    "Super-liberal"? "Aetheist"? What do these things even mean? "Super", as a prefix, would seem to mean a qualitative transition, in which case we would be talking about not a liberal at all but a revolutionary, or at the very leat, a radical. Otherwise, we're still talking about just a liberal.

    And an "aetheist," I can only assume, is an artist who has matched a superior aesthetics with his/her atheistic perspective.

    • http://twitter.com/petegaines petejayhawk

      @Just One Thing That's more than one thing.

  • Megh Wright

    It's neither! It's called a typo. Thanks!

  • Just One Thing

    Oh yeah, David Cross only had a _tiny_ role in one episode of The Ben Stiller Show, in the P.J. O'Pootertoot's sketch. He hardly "starred" alongside Garofalo.

    • Megh Wright

      @Just One Thing You're keeping me in check today, man! But to be fair, I didn't say he "starred" with her, just that they were both in the cast.

  • Just One Thing

    Arggh! My browser or something won't let me edit…But anyway, I remembered that David Cross was also in a Metallica video on the Ben Stiller Show.

    Great post, though! Sorry for the somewhat negative comments.

    • Megh Wright

      @Just One Thing haha no it's okay, I'd rather know I actually typed the word "aetheist" than catch onto it after it's too late. :)

  • Sean Doyle@twitter

    She also appeared this side of the water in BBC's ideal in a supporting role in last years season.

  • B Westof@twitter

    For some reason I remember her being more famous when she agreed to go on SNL. Maybe I had just been watching her stand-up comedy for a long time.

    • P Bu

      @B Westof@twitter I feel the same way. I did not watch her two big pre-SNL roles (Ben Stiller Show and Larry Sanders) at the time, but I know that I knew who she was and regarded her as something of a big name when she went to SNL. I know that some of her movie work (Reality Bites, for example) preceded her stint on SNL, but I’m pretty sure that I would not have regarded her as a big name just based on being the fourth lead in a movie that I barely remembered even at the time. I remember that she did a promo that—I think—use to run on Comedy Central a lot back then. If I recall correctly, she was talking to kids in some sort of library setting about seeing evil in the heart of every woman who told her that she had to read The Bridges of Madison County (“it’s the BEST book”) or in every fratguy who ever held his beer aloft and yelled. I wonder if that’s how I knew her because I was oblivious to much of what she had done up to that point.

  • Alan Lopez@twitter

    I've always liked JG, but I find her "asexualness" pretty strange. As George Michael once said, sex is natural and fun — why would anyone willingly be "asexual," unless they're a nun or super repressed?
    On a side note, calling JG "asexual" is probably a stretch, though I do recall her talking about how she doesn't have sex that often, as if it was a chore. Weird.

    • Elle@twitter

      @Alan Lopez@twitter Why is her "asexualness" strange? Exercise is natural and fun, but many people hate it.

      In any case, sexuality is a spectrum, not defined by a rigid set of boundaries as you seem to believe.

    • Big Penis McGee

      who the fuck would want to have sex with that thing??????

  • uncleezno

    Saw her doing standup once. She was late, and had all her jokes written down on neon index cards. She literally flipped from card to card, looking for a joke to do.

    She sucked.

    • WeevilWobble

      @uncleezno The card/notebook thing is part of her schtick. They aren't really jokes but articles she saw, quotes stuff like that. She doesn't memorize a joke telling act. Not saying that means she didn't suck, though!

  • LaughingSkullLounge

    I've always really liked Garofalo. she has her own thing going on.

  • dschubba

    "if she's realized total equality isn't always as fun as it seems, that alone makes her otherwise tainted SNL experience worthwhile."

    Yeah! Take that, feminism!