A Witty Comeback

Janeane Garofalo has appeared in nearly 40 movies, but she's hardly seen any of them. Compliment her for her affecting, little-seen work as a bipolar loner in the film Sweethearts (which she sardonically calls "The Straight-to-Video Sweethearts"), and she'll be appreciative, but she'll also sound like she has no opinion on the subject.

There are several reasons Garofalo treats her film canon with the kind of distaste most of us would reserve for a director's cut of Glitter. One, she's fundamentally uncomfortable viewing her own image on the big screen. Two, by avoiding her own movies, she doesn't have to lie at press junkets about how great they are. But the biggest explanation might be that she never really wanted to be a film actress.

From the moment Garofalo first stepped onstage as a Providence College student in 1985, her only goal was to make it as a standup comedian. She stumbled into an acting career in 1992, when her friend Ben Stiller enlisted her for The Ben Stiller Show, which led to roles on HBO's The Larry Sanders Show and the 1994 film Reality Bites. But she still sees herself as a standup who acts, not an actor who does standup.

A devoted indie-rock fan, Garofalo has helped to bring an alternative aesthetic to standup: avoiding hoary one-liners in favor of a more natural spoken-word approach, incorporating new material on the fly and challenging audiences with sometimes harsh social commentary.

Much as she's always loved doing standup, though, it felt profoundly irrelevant to her in the immediate aftermath of September 11.

"One of the jobs that you'd feel like the biggest dork returning to is standup comedy," she says during a break in her tour schedule. "So I just felt somewhat embarrassed and shy about returning to it. But now more than ever, it's important to hear voices of social critics, if you will, now that time has passed. Because there are a lot of people that don't agree with all the conservative agenda being rammed through under the guise of patriotism. I think it's important for comedians like George Carlin to be heard, more than ever."

Garofalo's film career has followed an eccentric path, reaching a commercial peak in 1996 with the female Cyrano tale The Truth About Cats & Dogs, in which she played a character type she's resisted rehashing. Her subsequent choices have tended to reflect her own fixations, from the summer-camp comedy Wet Hot American Summer to the Abbie Hoffman biopic Steal This Movie ("I begged to be in that," she says).

But film is a collaborative medium in which a character actor like Garofalo has little control over the final product. That's why standup will always be her preferred form of expression. It's also the form where she must be seen to be fully appreciated.