Keeping Your Childlike Enthusiasm Alive with Janet Varney
Janet Varney’s positive and generous attitude might be best exemplified by her Nerdist podcast The JV Club; in it the actress, producer, and writer interviews women in entertainment (and this summer, men) about their experiences growing up and how their formative teenage years influence their work and who they are today. In her often funny and sometimes emotional conversations Varney exudes warmth and an earnest curiosity to understand and share her guest’s stories with her audience.
As a comedic actress Varney has made a variety of guest appearances in shows and movies like Kroll Show, How I Met Your Mother, and Key and Peele, but she might be best known to alt comedy fans for her work on Burning Love, in which she played the disinterested lesbian love interest of Ken Marino’s pompous bachelor.
Varney also founded SF SketchFest with Owen David and Cole Stratton. The festival celebrated its thirteenth year in February with shows at nearly two dozen Bay Area venues.
This summer Varney has appeared on the relationship comedy You’re the Worst and stars in the animated adventure series The Legend of Korra, which released its third season finale online on Friday.
I recently talked with Varney about The JV Club, Korra, SF SketchFest, and interacting with fans.
When I was first getting in touch with you Sketchfest was going on.
Oh my god, that really was you and me trying to get this going a long time ago.
Yeah! It took a few months.
I was just telling someone before Sketchfest started, I remember saying, “Once Sketchfest is over, life really calms down.” And then three months after Sketchfest ended my friend was like, “You know you’re just as busy as you were during the festival? You need to stop telling people it gets quiet at a certain time because it doesn’t.” And I was like, “You know what? You’re absolutely right, my bad, I apologize.”
What kind of things have you been busy with since then?
One of the cool things about SF Sketchfest is that we’ve been doing more year-round events and stuff. We [co-produced] the comedy tent at Outside Lands Festival [earlier this August] in San Francisco in Golden Gate Park. That we did last year as well and the year before. It’s really really fun, and it’s such a great festival. The bands coming through are remarkable. We’re really lucky to have any participation in that.
That’s some extra festival work that goes on even post-Sketchfest proper, and then of course working on The Legend of Korra. As most fans know, the show moved to digital, and there was some concern from viewers that it meant the show was in trouble, but that’s absolutely not the case — we’ve always had HUGE digital numbers and that was determined to be the best place and best way to get the show out to people. We’re hard at work on the 4th season. I’m definitely still busy doing my JV Club podcast which I love on the Nerdist network and I can also be seen on a great new show on FX called You’re the Worst. It’s really funny — it’s one of the writers of Orange is the New Black. It’s just so well-written and there’s a lot of mean spirited stuff but it’s really hilarious. It’s a single camera half hour, I’m so excited to be on the show and be able to work with such a great group of people. That’s been keeping me pretty busy and I’ve been traveling a lot doing conventions and stuff, appearances for Korra and a lot of stuff for The Thrilling Adventure Hour. It’s been busy but I’m really lucky.
How did Sketchfest go this year?
I think it was just another great year with really amazing performances and great audiences. I’m so thrilled that we’re still doing it. The following year will be our 14th so this was the 13th year. All of our branding was “Sketchfest Turns 13,” this sort of idea of an awkward preteen kid being a big comedy nerd hanging out in their bedroom listening to comedy albums, because in many ways, that reflects what David Owen and Cole Stratton — those are my two partners who founded and produce Sketchfest with me — that really represents who we were and in many ways who we feel we still are. It was definitely a success, great to have some of our returning faces, great to do events with people like Alan Arkin who are just heroes to us. It was a blast, it was really fun.
What was your life like in 2002 when you started it, and how is your life different now?
That’s a great question. I don’t think anyone has ever asked me that before. Really worlds apart, very very different. When we started the festival I was living in San Francisco. I believe I was still working as the buyer and merchandise manager for this fancy upscale home furnishings store called Filamento in Pacific Heights. I was in a rock band that had just broken up when someone moved away. Other than doing sketch comedy with a group called Totally False People of whom David Owen, Cole Stratton and I were a part with our fourth member Gabriel Diani, we had really only been doing sketch for a year together when we founded the festival. Sketch was in many ways very new to me. I wasn’t really doing any serious acting or anything, just living life in San Francisco, loving the city, and really just very different. Different career, different location, all that kind of stuff. It’s been a crazy 13 years.
Another project you initiated is The JV Club podcast which you mentioned… Including your nerdy, 13-year-old Sketchfest, I feel like you’re really able to connect with and have an affection for kids of that age and what they’re experiencing at that time. Why did you start the podcast and why did you want to speak to that audience?
That’s a great question and it’s funny because The Legend of Korra ended up being a weird coincidence where I had already been doing the podcast and was getting ready to release the first episode right around the same time that Korra premiered. It was weird because I started the podcast and right after got a job playing a teenage girl on a network for kids. It was just a perfect storm on that one.
There are a number of different reasons for it. On a very surface level, one of the things coming up for me in Los Angeles navigating through the business of show business — which is so exciting and cool and fun in many ways but also really weird and judgmental socially on certain levels and sometimes can get you focusing in on stuff that ultimately isn’t as important value-wise — I was sort of joking around with people saying like, “God, sometimes it feels like I’m in high school: What do you wear? What do you look like? How much do you weigh? What are you good at? What’s your type?” You get pigeonholed, “Oh I play these people, oh I’m in this clique.” Oh but people will be like, “We’ve changed so much since then,” but I’ll be like, have we now?
For me, I also had a rough time when I was a teenager, many of us did, and I just felt like, “”Wow, it would have been really interesting to me as a young person to know that people I look up to were experiencing maybe some of the same stuff that I was going through at the same time but also things that they went through when they were my age and how it worked out in the long run despite those moments that feel like the end of the world.” Everything just culminated. Sometimes when we are creating we really exhaust ourselves trying to come up with something conceptual and it takes a lot of time and a lot of iterations before you get it to where you want it, but this wasn’t like really that. This was one of those things that came really organically and just felt like it was a fit and made sense to me the second I started thinking about doing a podcast. I thought, what would I want to do what do I feel isn’t quite out there in the way I would it to be, as a young person or as an adult? And it took shape really quickly. But I do have such a fondness for teens and a fondness for hearing about what people’s lives were like during that time. I think it’s a really quick window into someone’s personality that informs and just becomes personal so quickly that I just never get tired of talking about it with people.
It seems like the conversations are very rewarding. When you’re speaking directly on the podcast to fans, you really take the time to listen to and respond to their feedback. How important is it to engage with fans of the podcast?
I think it’s really important. It’s something that obviously you have to be careful with in terms of where your time goes and how you manage it or how seriously or personally you take something if it’s not constructive. I do feel like because my podcast is so specific I’ve been really fortunate in that the kind of people it attracts tend to have interests that run with mine. It does touch some deep nerves; I do consider it a comedy-worthy podcast and belongs in the comedy genre because the people I have on are just naturally very funny and they’re not afraid to shy away from that. I’m not doing Diane Sawyer, Barbara Walters type interviews but in a sense I am. I think that when you’re getting personal like that and especially when I’m interested in trying to create a network of support among really bright sensitive people who also have a love of comedy I think that’s a discerning group and I do value their opinions. If I got letters from people that I just didn’t connect with maybe I wouldn’t have that relationship with my fans, but when I get an email from someone, 19 times out of 20 it’s an email that comes from someone I feel like it could have come from someone I’ve known for years. I just have really thoughtful, interesting, introspective, funny, humble, great listeners. Everytime I get an email or a tweet or something it feels like a kindred spirit it reinforces this idea that it’s just as much about the community of people listening to the podcast as it is about me hosting it or whoever happens to be on it.
What has the interaction with Korra fans been like? Has there been much crossover?
I’m lucky to say I think there has been some crossover. I think a lot of Korra fans who enjoy the show have stumbled onto the podcast and become listeners and fans. Some of them joke that it’s hard for them to get used to the idea of Korra’s voice because it’s basically just my voice talking about stuff like listening to Morrissey, but I think there is some nice overlap with the content, and what’s so great about The Legend of Korra and the challenges the characters face on that show is that they’re bigger questions and issues, and I think it’s some of the stuff we happen to explore on the podcast as well.
The difference for me is as the sole creator and administrator of the podcast, I can speak to everything on the ground level, but with the show sometimes there are questions from fans that I’m not just equipped to answer because I didn’t write the show and I would never want to step on toes and misrepresent anything that comes from the brilliant minds of the creators Brian [Konietzko] and Mike [Dante DiMartino] so sometimes I have to defer to them and say I’m sorry. Or if someone has a question or a comment that Nickelodeon doesn’t want me to say anything about because it hasn’t been fully addressed yet, my hands are tied a little bit more on that level, but in terms of going to conventions it’s just the best thing in the world. It’s so fun to meet people face to face who really get a lot out of the show and who have this enthusiasm for cosplay and dressing up as our characters. I really think that’s wonderful. There’s no part of me that’s like, “Why do people do it?” I really get it. It’s a really fun subculture. It’s super legitimate and it’s full of really cool and fun, smart people. It’s a blast to go and get feedback in person like that from fans.
Are there any particular challenges or rewards with Korra for it being a voice role?
I think that ties into what’s so magical about doing voiceover. I don’t particularly love watching myself on camera. It’s difficult. There’s this tricky kind of line to walk with embracing the fact that you’re a human being and you might get annoyed with yourself when you see the choices that you make, sometimes really superficial stuff. But there’s something that, because of that removal with voiceover, there’s an opportunity to see someone who looks nothing like you still be embodied with qualities of yours or the sound of your voice or a funny voice that you’re doing. It’s just magical on a whole different level. I find that hugely rewarding and satisfying. It just tickles me in a way that on-camera acting doesn’t.
And it’s acting; acting is acting. It’s certainly different to be in a booth rather than on set trying to bring something to life when you can’t see what’s happening because it hasn’t even been drawn yet. Is that a challenge? Sure, but it also takes you closer I think to the little kid in all of us who didn’t have fancy costumes and some set to go play on — you’re a kid on a rusty swing set pretending you’re flying on the back of a dragon. I think that having that muscle exercised as an adult is just such a luxury.
That’s a cool way to think about it. Going to another voice-related project, you’ve been performing with The Thrilling Adventure Hour for a while — what’s it been like to play with them?
It’s just amazing. I’ve known the Bens [Acker and Blacker] for several years and been performing with The Thrilling Adventure Hour for a few years now but because they have these just gigantic guest casts and I’ve been gone a lot so I maybe do a show or two a year with them. It’s just such a blast. Everybody who does interviews who talks about being part of that cast says the same thing: It really is a spirit of theater that you don’t necessarily see in the same exact way anywhere else unless you’re doing live shows. That collaborative spirit and the old-time radio elements where you have these serialized characters where you get to follow their adventures over a long period of time and the fan base that that attracts and that sort of enthusiasm on all levels with the performers and the fans — it’s a really specific, great world to be a part of. I just have so much respect for the people that do that show, and it’s been such a pleasure to spend more concentrated time with them by doing some out-of-town shows and being able to make myself available for more shows live in Los Angeles.
You appeared on You’re the Worst which premiered recently. What do you like about the show?
I think it’s hilarious and wonderful. And I’m so happy that critics and viewers alike seem to appreciate the really stellar writing and acting going on in the show. I think it has a lot of the great flawed character development that you see on Orange is the New Black, Stephen Falk being a writer on that show as well and creator of You’re the Worst. And major shoutout to FX which is doing some incredible great original programming. I’m such a fan of so many shows on that network. They back and support not just known performers and show creators but are looking to find new faces in both. I applaud them so much, it’s been such a joy to be part of that family. I feel like the show sort of asks the questions of this particular generation. What does sex mean anymore and what do relationships mean anymore? How much of the sort of liberated attitude that we sometimes take about our relationships and romance is it helping us is? is it hurting us? should we be attaching more or less meaning to those relationships, and what happens when everybody just kind of behaves like a jerk?
You mentioned the sort of high school nature that can be a part of Los Angeles and seeking out sensitive, supportive people within it — how have you built a network within comedy, either as collaborators or friends, and how have you found people you like to work with as people and as comedians?
That’s a great question, and I was just thinking about that as I was driving yesterday. We all get kind of mired in our own bullshit in terms of our day to day “What’s annoying me?” or “What’s hard today?” or whatever, and every once in a while you just have these flashes of “Oh my god, I’m just so lucky. Who cares if I’m sitting in traffic? I’m so lucky.” I was just thinking about that and how incredibly rich my life is, 90% of which is due to the extraordinary people that I’m so lucky to have be in my life if not on a daily basis, in work or who travel and do a bunch of shows but we check in whenever we’re both in the same place at the same time. I can’t say enough how big of an impact that makes on your emotional well-being when you’re surrounded by people that you care about that you work with. I hope that everyone has the opportunity, whatever their work environment may be, to be surrounded by people that they respect and are inspired by.
It’s just one of those things; you’re lucky enough to work on one thing, and sometimes that’s just all it takes — it could be the worst job in the world, a show that no one likes and you meet this one great writer or this extraordinary performer, and if you make that connection — and I don’t mean that in a networky way, I mean it in a really creative way, a personality way, however you think, those relationships do last and can be maintained and can create these opportunities to do wonderful work together. I would list Burning Love as one of those. For almost all if not all of us who worked on that show, that is truly the ultimate representation of what it feels like to feel part of a community where everybody just showed up and laughed at everybody else and thought everybody else was brilliant. There’s no competition there’s no weird feelings, there’s no sense of threat. We were doing it because we wanted to. All the pickups were all after the fact. We got on television without ever knowing we would be on television because we were doing it because it was so freaking fun. The more you have those magnetic experiences the more you want that. You get greedy for it, because it feels like what you think show business is supposed to feel like but does not always feel. You chase those experiences, and when you’re really lucky, everybody gets a chance to appreciate it too. Even if no one ever sees stuff like that, you still have the incredible good fortune of getting to play with people that make you better at what you do.
Image by Gage Skidmore.