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Janeane Garofalo speaks her mind on patriotism, stand-up comedy and working for the money

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Read my words: Janeane Garofalo is not an asshole. OK, so maybe she sounds like one on occasion, but she really isn't. The 37-year-old stand-up comedian and character actor simply speaks her mind -- well, simply and bluntly -- and while some people might appreciate her attitude as a refreshing alternative to typical Hollywood hucksterism, just as many others are likely to be put off by it.

It's one reason Garofalo says she doesn't like doing interviews.

"Any time I read something I've said, it's no wonder people think I'm this bitter, angry person, because I always come off like some kind of an asshole," she laments during a recent telephone interview from Aspen, CO. "Print interviews are particularly dicey, because there can be a big difference between the way I say something, the way a writer chooses to interpret it, and the way a reader puts it all into context. I always shudder to think how what I'm saying is going to read in print."

CL:What are you doing in Aspen?

Janeane Garofalo: I'm here for the Aspen Comedy Festival. I'm doing some of my stand-up, and I'm participating in a tribute-slash-retrospective for (the late comedian) Bill Hicks, but I've got another stand-up date in Boulder tomorrow night, so I'm going to miss one of the things that makes this year's festival so special -- a free-speech roundtable discussion moderated by Chris Matthews (Hardball), with comics like George Carlin and Dick Gregory and the Smothers brothers, people who lived through the turbulent 60s, talking about the effects of this new ultra-patriotic atmosphere on stand-up comedy today.

Well, since you won't be there to discuss that with them, perhaps you can share some of your thoughts with me.

You know, the wave of patriotism itself affects everybody, because everybody was profoundly moved by what happened on September 11. It's only John and Jane Q. Public, the mainstream, kneejerk, reactionary audience members, who have a problem with someone like George Carlin questioning the status quo. That's always been the way it is, whether we're talking about the 60s or right now. Sometimes it's heightened or lessened, but what's really difficult is when you have an artist like Carlin questioning Kenneth Lay and still having people booing him because he's perceived as un-American. That's a problem. It's because he does love his country that he has some of these questions, you know what I mean? It's the people who are complacent and who don't have any problems with our domestic or foreign policies or whatever who tend to be the uber-patriots.

Why is it important for you to maintain your career as a stand-up comic, when I'm assuming you could probably have an easier time of it -- not to mention make a lot more money -- simply doing movies?

I've been doing stand-up consistently since 1985, almost every single weekend, but I can always do both because I'm more of a character actor, so my time on the movie set is actually quite minimal. Moviemaking is more of a director's medium. It's not an actor's medium. It's not particularly fulfilling for me to spend most of my day sitting around in a trailer. If you're someone who's the star of the picture and in every scene, or if you're really famous and have a lot of control, then I'm sure it is a very time-consuming and collaborative effort. If you're someone like, say, Michelle Pfeiffer, then it's probably very creatively fulfilling. With my stand-up, on the other hand, I write it myself and I perform it the way I like to. There's no editing, no hair or make-up or wardrobe. The fact is, I started doing stand-up at 20, and I didn't start acting until I was something like 27 or 28, but people don't seem to respect the medium of stand-up comedy. They always seem to think acting is this holy grail and that stand-up is the bastard stepchild, the way you get to acting, as if once you get there, of course you'd never think about doing stand-up again.

A lot of actors say they specifically look for obstacles and challenges in their work. What do you look for?

Yeah, that would be wonderful if I had those options. Gosh, I'd really like to play the part of the mentally challenged quadriplegic opposite Tom Hanks -- give me my Oscar, dammit! -- but that's just not an option for me, you know? There are about 10 actors in Hollywood who get to work whenever they want to, and I'm not one of them. I don't have the luxury of picking and choosing like that. In the world of independent film, I've had the opportunity to play challenging characters, but in the real world of independent film -- as opposed to the sort of independent films a big company like Miramax pretends to make -- they're movies nobody ever saw because they never got any major distribution. They're films like Minus Man and Steal This Movie and The Independent. I mean, this movie was made for under $1 million. It's a truly independent movie, financed and shot and edited without any sort of distribution deal in place ahead of time. Now, Jerry Stiller and I are making the rounds city by city, at a snail's pace, talking to people at a very grass-roots level to get the word out. It's not like we're on the David Letterman show with a big studio machine behind us.

You've made a number of mainstream, commercial studio projects, too. The Truth About Cats and Dogs and Mystery Men come to mind. What are those experiences like?

Mainstream, commercial filmmaking just isn't all that exciting. It's a job, really. It's where your paycheck comes from. Most actors aren't thinking to themselves, "Boy, this Jerry Bruckheimer script is fucking brilliant!" They're thinking, "How much is he paying me?" I mean, that's why you do a Jerry Bruckheimer film. It's not because there's such an awesome script.

I can't tell you how refreshing it is to hear someone actually admit they might do something just for the money.

Oh, my God. It's shocking, isn't it? Look, I wouldn't do something just for the money where I got anally penetrated on a pool table or anything like that. And it's not like I'm taking the money and throwing it in the street, or buying fine furs and sports cars with it. I try putting it back into helping other people do good work by supporting a lot of different independent film projects. But take a movie like Mystery Men. Sure, you want it to be good. You show up and do the best you can, because you have a certain pride and integrity in your work. But you can't tell me you're not also thinking, "They're paying me what? You better believe I'll play the Bowler!" *

Janeane Garofolo is in the film Big Trouble, opening this week in Charlotte. See Film Clips for a review.

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