She tells the story early in her new special If You Will, and it's hard not to wince while hearing it. "No offense," the Starbuck's barista said to her, "but you look like Janeane Garofalo!" But that's not the bad part ("None taken?" she replies). The scorcher is the follow-up question: "What ever happened to her?"
It's a bugger of a question, but not entirely out of left field--and not because Garofalo has been inactive for the last decade or so. It's just that, in the late 1990s, she was so ubiquitous, such a go-to "Gen-X" supporting player, such a (purposefully or not) cultural archetype that, for mainstream America, she did seem to sort of fall off the face of the earth. For a good long while, hipster chicks wanted to be her, and artsy guys wanted a girlfriend like her (I was one of, I'm sure, scores of men who fancied themselves unique for finding her hotter than Uma in The Truth About Cats & Dogs, FROM THE VERY BEGINNING).
But as she focused on films and television and later radio, her stand-up comedy took a backseat; amazingly, her last solo stand-up special was clear back in 1997. Aside from her supporting roles on 24 and The West Wing, she spent much of the last decade operating a little under the radar, as a political activist and talk show host (for the now-defunct Air America network), and though she kept working as a stand-up, it was mostly in small clubs.
So the point is, it's good to have her back; as in that 1997 special (and the wonderful HBO Comedy Half-Hour that preceded it), her act is literate, fast-paced, and charmingly free-form. Her reference notebook was the cornerstone of her earlier act; for this show, taped in Seattle for the Epix cable network (where it originally aired in June), she uses an ornate music stand and a big artist's tablet, which becomes a subtly effective comic tool.
For the comic, who is (shockingly) 45 years old, the material is written from the viewpoint of a person who is a little older and (maybe) a little wiser, but just as cynical and self-deprecating. She's downright curmudgeonly in her disinterest in the web and her computer illiteracy (even after playing a tech-head on 24); she perfectly sums up the feelings of a certain-aged segment of the population (and I'm including myself in this group) when saying, of Lady Gaga, "I don't have anything negative to say about her, other than I have no idea... what's going on."
She occasionally ventures into matters of philosophical import, like religion or politics, but many will be surprised (and some right-leaning viewers might be relieved) to hear that she doesn't even graze politics until around the halfway mark, and then only for a brief (and, frankly, funny) follow-up to her rather controversial comments on the racial politics of the Tea Party movement. But for most of the special, the target is herself: her fading celebrity, her health, her alcoholism, her overeating, her dogs, and her long-time relationship (and self-proclaimed celibacy).
Not all of the bits hit; some of the odder riffs (like her section on CSI, or the extended piece on Natalie Portman) are more peculiar than genuinely funny. But she's a disarmingly transparent comic, charmingly disorganized (more than once, she indicates a subject that she'll return to with the instructions to "put a pin in that") and perfectly willing to provide her own running commentary on the set ("I didn't mean to waste your time with that," she tells the audience at one point; "That's beneath us," she says at another). And it's a very smart hour or so; she remains esoteric in her vocabulary and skilled at turning a phrase, and those are qualities too rare among even the best of our current comedians.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic image is bright and sharp; black levels are full (always important in these in-concert shows), and skin tones are rich and natural. Color saturation is impressive (her bright pink top really pops against the dark backdrop) and details are clean--even her tattoos are easy to read. The moody black and white photography at the beginning and end is also nicely rendered.
All right, HBO, this is how it's done. You do a 5.1 surround mix for stand-up specials, with the comic in the center channel (nice and clean here), and audience reactions in the surrounds, so as to immerse the viewer and to make them feel like they're in the audience. It's not rocket science; just do it like this.
Two short bonus features are also included. The first, "Janeane on Pets" (6:00) is pretty good; it begins with Janeane hanging out in her apartment, talking about pets, and then morphs into a scripted (and funny) little bit of absurdity. Less successful is "Congressman's Dream" (5:13), in which fictional "Congressman Richard Martin" demands that she has him on as a guest for her radio show, even though it's now off the air; the bit has potential, but it peters out just as it's getting going and is ultimately little more than a throwaway.
Janeane Garofalo has become a more divisive figure over the last decade or so, which might steer some away from If You Will. That's a shame, not only because the political content is so minimal (frankly, this viewer wouldn't have minded a bit more of it), but because hers is such a unique and refreshing comic voice. There are a few trouble spots in the show, but overall, it's an enjoyable and frequently funny hour from a true original.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.