Friday, May 1, 2009

On the road with Janeane Garofalo

Janeane Garofalo isn't an acquired taste, just a highly specific one. You either enthusiastically like her or, well, you enthusiastically don't. Me, I'm a fan.

I first took note of her work in HBO's "The Larry Sanders Show," the greatest live-action sitcom of all time. "Sanders" was Garry Shandling's acidic, hilarious turn as the neurotic host of a late night talk show. A young Garofalo played Paula, the world-weary segment producer.

In one episode, Paula struggles to book good guests, beginning to fear for her job when she can't land bigger names than George Miller and Ed Begley, Jr. But after she starts dating Larry Sanders' slick Hollywood agent, Stevie Grant (the essential Bob Odenkirk), doors start opening around Hollywood.

"How would you like Jennifer Aniston tomorrow?" asks Stevie.

"Oh my God, that would be great!" Paula exudes. "She's a huge star! I didn't know you represented Jennifer Aniston!"

"Oh, yeah," replies a cocky Stevie. "I've got three of the Friends."

"Which ones?"

"The ones who can act."

I saw Garofalo do standup at Cobb's in San Francisco in the mid-1990s. She performed with human joke machine Dana Gould, later a "Simpsons" writer, and Greg Behrendt, her then-boyfriend who went on to write for "Sex and the City."

Gould and Behrendt poured on the funny and had the crowd roaring, but Garofalo's material was more opinionated and introspective. At first I was disappointed that she wasn't funnier, but I came to realize that that was her style, not so much setup-joke as confessions and anecdotes intended to share a personality and a worldview.

I crossed paths with Janeane at the 2006 HBO U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colorado. One of the marquee events that year was a highly anticipated "Larry Sanders" reunion panel at the St. Regis Hotel. The crowd was primed for a celebratory lovefest, but it never got off the ground.

For reasons unclear to the audience, the panel was constrained and tense, with varying degrees of grudgingly short answers, obvious hard feelings and outright incoherence from Garry Shandling, Rip Torn and Jeffrey Tambor.

Only Garofalo seemed happy to be there, offering relatively lucid and witty answers amid all the awkward silence around her. At one point the famously moody Garofalo cracked, "What are the odds that I would be the upbeat one on this panel?"

The next night's panel on the same stage, however, was a grand slam home run. "Swingers: 10 Years Later" reunited stars Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau and director Doug Liman, who all told charming, uproarious tales of their adventures making the movie that set fire to their careers. Moderator and Rolling Stone reporter David Wild got them to spill some highly entertaining beans.

It was also surprisingly emotional, as Liman had the entire crowd in rapt attention with a moving personal story. His father, a powerful Wall Street attorney, at first resisted his choice of a film career, but once he saw his son's passion for it, saved the day by writing a big check to bail out the then-struggling independent movie. Liman would then get a daily call from his dad, the inadvertent movie producer: "What are we doing today?"

Sadly, his father was soon diagnosed with cancer, and as the filmmaking progressed, so did the disease. Mr. Liman's condition worsened even as the movie gained momentum, becoming the toast of Sundance and selling for a record price. In a poignant denouement, he succumbed to the disease just as it was becoming clear that his son was going to make it in Hollywood. There was not a dry eye in the house as Liman bravely told the tale.

As we walked out, I remarked to my buddy Dave Facchini, "That was everything the Larry Sanders panel last night should have been." From behind me, someone says, mock indignantly, "Hey, what was wrong with the Sanders panel?" 


Janeane Garofalo performs tonight at the Lakeshore Theater at 7:30 and 10. My Flavorpill preview is here.


Martin said...

She was much the same way earlier this year at an appearance at the Upright Citizens Brigade, where she was interviewed on a show called "Inside Joke." I was very impressed with how quick and articulate she was. Thumbs up!

Ben said...

Shows like "Inside Joke" (and, for that matter, venues like the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre) make a powerful case for living in New York City.

Dan said...

I have always loved Janeane Garofalo. And Sarah Silverman.