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Good Things Come in Small Packages
The Satya Interview with Janeane Garofalo

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 Titan.

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.

Meaning what?

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 your awakening?

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 too far.

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. It’s amazing.

How do you think we’ll look back on this period?

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 of this.

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 other.

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?

I was.

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.

“Enlightened.”

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 troops.

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 add?

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.