You might not have heard much about Janeane Garofalo lately, though her name likely rings a bell. That's because the quintessential '90s alt-girl and former movie star says she would much rather be at home spritzing Febreze over her problems than "saying yes to life." But by good fortune, Dallas was treated to a manic stand-up set by the 52 -year-old comedienne at the Granada Theater Monday night.
She cut her teeth in stand-up, but many first met Garofalo as the charmingly awkward Vickie of 1994's Reality Bites, a breakthrough indie film largely viewed to have captured the essence of Generation X's prevailing disaffection. The Truth About Cats and Dogs and The Matchmaker followed, as well as a string of ensemble roles in cult favorites like Dogma and Wet Hot American Summer. More than two decades down the road, it can be difficult to extricate her from a certain era.
Artists of any field become plagued by a similar challenge; many achieve the height of success by defining or becoming an emblematic voice of their generation. From there, as time passes and new generations begin buying tickets, one can either refuse to adapt at the risk of completely alienating new audiences or evolve, risking accusations of "trying too hard" to maintain relevancy. Few, no matter their talent, perfect the particular voodoo spell required to successfully achieve the latter. (RIP Bowie)
Garofalo walks an intriguing tightrope between the two. She claims she had a career -- meaning, the string of mostly well-received movies in the '90s -- but no longer does because, like a forgotten houseplant, she didn't feel like feeding it. It's true, there was a time when Garofalo's face was everywhere, bedecked with signature thick-framed spectacles, a signal of nerdy cool before their popularly was co-opted by mainstream popularity in the late-2000s.
She was an indie comic, experimenting with an absurd form of unpolished alternative comedy at the same time Kurt Cobain eschewed skinny neckties for flannel shirts.
As a grade school kid in the '90s, I knew I was supposed to want to look like Cindy Crawford and Julia Roberts, but Garofalo, with her short stature, dark hair and glasses, looked like me, and that was far more interesting. Her stage presence and persona indicated something incredibly valuable: That women can be neurotic and self-deprecating and pessimistic, but these things, well articulated, can also be wrapped together in an immensely charming package.
In the mid aughts, this former poster child of Gen X angst became deeply maligned by conservative media outlets as a quintessential loud and unthinking liberal for vocalizing resistance to the Iraq War. Splitsider's Justin Gray called it an "unfair marginalization" in 2013 and thoughtfully questioned why other comedians, most notably David Cross, haven't faced backlash for vocalizing political views. Be that as it may, the title of Political Activist now follows her everywhere, whether of her volition remains unclear, and she is more often seen on television as a panelist on Bill Maher's Real Time than comedy specials or sitcoms in syndication. Going into Monday's show, I wondered if ideology would be at the forefront of her set. If so, would it be distracting, even for those who generally share the same views?
Garofalo's views are blatant -- her set was peppered with "Feel the Bern!" like someone might use "um" -- but, onstage she doesn't court controversy so much as occasionally express what seem to be deeply held convictions. If anything, that aligns her with comedy's hottest contemporary tastemakers: Think Amy Schumer's raunch feminism, or Aziz Ansari's salient conversations about cultural diversity. Key and Peele joke with heart-wrenching frankness about American racial tension, and Broad City unflinchingly touches on all of the above. Comedy is political in this day and age, but not all sets are Political Comedy.
In Garofalo's world, that means cobbling together a joking "get off my lawn" stance toward younger generations and, at the same time, excusing Millennial culture as a product of the mess left by Gen X-ers. She began the 90-minute set with a scan of the audience -- "I'm just wondering how young I skew," she joked -- and darted across the stage like a bantamweight fighter pointing out areas in which she "sense[d] some student loan debt."
"I'm not mad at you, I just speak in strident tones," she told the audience.
She disparaged the gluten-free phenomenon as a contemporary hypochondria. "Why can't you have gluten, young people? Why are you so intolerant? It puts a spring in your step and it's the number one component of things tasting good," she joked before waxing wistfully nostalgic on the days before nut allergies ruled school systems.
"There were no allergies in the '70s! Sure, there was the bee sting kid ... you heard tell two towns over, but oh! the peanut butter we had!" she joked, drawing an image of a passerby being arrested for carrying a sandwich within 25 feet of a school. "A gun? That's your constitutional right! But, no tree nuts for you!"
And, she took on, with the "modesty of a Brontë novel," the current propensity toward the "depilatory-ising of hair from maidenheads."
"Both men and women! Going against millions of years of evolution. It's a murder scene. It's like removing your eyebrows, but different."
But, Garofalo's smart enough to avoid turning age into shtick. The lengthy but well-paced set included everything from relationships and child rearing (or, rather, hilarious reasons why a risk-adverse individual would choose not to become a parent) to alcoholism, inadvertent marriages (Garofalo was, unbeknownst to herself, married for 20 years due, in part, to the aforementioned substance abuse) and the bane/savior of modern female existence: Spanx.
In all, she carried to the sold-out crowd an entertaining, urgent set, one that was as informed by the antsy indie queen of the '90s audiences first loved as it was by a seasoned veteran who has "difficulty saying yes to life."