What Happened to Me

Looking through the café, I didn’t recognize her at first. I didn’t expect the tattoos on her forearms and the Joan Jett haircut, or the well-worn T-shirt and jeans. 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 her ability to eloquently run circles around political opponents have raised her visibility. Her sharp wit and courage have been a gust of fresh air.

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 bullies 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.

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 intellectual curiosity and tolerance, and 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 archconservative. It permeated my home and the way my brother and sister and I 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, and 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.

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. You met 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. If you’re someone who 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 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.

I now get as many scripts sent to my house as I did when I was much more popular. I’ve also got two offers to write a book, offers for a radio show . . .

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 opened at number one. Michael Moore went back on the best seller list after speaking against the war; the Dixie Chicks went back up to number one.

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 Web site devoted to celebrity-bashing. I made sure that guy from The West Wing was very uncomfortable with hate e-mails.”

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 in which 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 it 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 are just so many opportunities to be exposed to wonderful people and so many ways to get involved.

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.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Don’t believe the hype. There is no Hollywood blacklist. You will be rewarded 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.

Excerpted from the May 2003 issue of Satya, a monthly magazine focusing on vegetarianism, environmentalism, animal advocacy, and social justice, distributed free in New York City. Now in its seventh year, Satya (meaning “peace”) is committed to continuing the legacy of Mohandas Gandhi by “increasing dialogue among activists from diverse backgrounds” and encouraging readers to integrate compassion into their daily lives. Subscriptions: $20/yr. (12 issues) From Stealth Technologies Inc., 539 1st St., Brooklyn, NY 11215; www.satyamag.com

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.