Ambivalent-About-Prime-Time Players

Originally published December 28, 1997, New York Times
By DAVID HANDELMAN

‘I never thought I was funny,” Ben Stiller is saying to Janeane Garofalo. ”You think you’re funny?”

It’s noon on a fall Saturday, and Stiller and Garofalo are discussing the fact that Entertainment Weekly has anointed them Nos. 44 and 39, respectively, of the ”50 Funniest People Alive,” thanks to their work together (”The Ben Stiller Show,” ”Reality Bites”) and apart (he in ”Flirting With Disaster,” she in ”The Larry Sanders Show” and ”The Truth About Cats and Dogs”).

”I’m definitely not funny,” Garofalo says seriously. ”I know what’s not funny, I know what a hack is, and I laugh at all the right things, but you’d never characterize me as a ‘funny person.”’

”I don’t understand those lists,” Stiller says. ”I find it kind of embarrassing to be on it with people like Alan King, who has a whole lifetime of work.” It may also be a little embarrassing to win such mainstream acceptance. If they really don’t think they’re funny, why does Garofalo do stand-up? And why, in 1992, did the two of them decide to work on ”The Ben Stiller Show,” a sketch-comedy series? The show was canceled after only 12 episodes (proof to them that it was funny?) and won a posthumous Emmy for writing (a sign that maybe it wasn’t?).

Their protests aside, Stiller and Garofalo are funny — in a quirky, deadpan, sometimes self-righteous, often self-loathing sort of way. So are many of the friends they struggled along with in the early 90′s. Together, they constitute a clique that represents today’s version of comedy’s smart set. Five years after its demise, ”The Ben Stiller Show” is proving to be the kind of incubator for performers and writers that ”Your Show of Shows” was in the 50′s and ”Saturday Night Live” and ”SCTV” were in the 70′s and 80′s. A third cast member, Andy Dick, is now stealing scenes on the NBC sitcom ”News Radio.” The fourth cast member, Bob Odenkirk, and a writer on the show, David Cross, have their own cultish HBO sketch series, ”Mr. Show With Bob and David.”

” ‘Mr. Show’ — I stand in awe sometimes,” Garofalo says. She’s wearing sweat pants and a leather jacket, Stiller is in a sleek dark polo shirt and jeans and they’re reconvening for the first time in weeks at a Manhattan restaurant. ”Did you see the cop-show musical, when David was singing ‘Y’all Are Brutalizing Me’?” Garofalo says. ”It was unbelievably good.” Cross, playing a white-trash criminal, crooned: ”Can’t a man not drink his beer in silence? Can’t a man not control his bitch with violence?”

The sensibility of this group — who sometimes call themselves the Posse (sarcastically, of course) — is somewhat tricky to define, because they’re all different. Their onstage styles derive directly from what they’re like offstage, whether it’s Garofalo’s eggheady observations about pop culture and her life experiences, Kathy Griffin’s foul-mouthed litany of her own bawdy behavior or Andy Dick’s over-the-edge freakishness. (Dick was recently booted out of a club in La Jolla, Calif., after doing a show in which a man claiming to be his A.A. sponsor came onstage drunk and vomited on him.)

What they share is that they all began their careers determined to avoid the faceless, shticky punch-line stand-up that had dominated the cable-fed comedy boom. And having grown up with TV and come of age with MTV, they’re avid pop-culture consumers — snobs about what they like but often equally mesmerized by what they hate, and able to make fun of both in a way that’s likely to confuse anyone who’s not already a fan. (Ben’s father, the comedian Jerry Stiller, says of his son and his friends: ”I don’t know what they’re talking about! I don’t understand their train of thought.”) They aren’t really even comics, says Beth Lapides, founder of the improvisational Un-Cabaret in Los Angeles, as much as ”writer-performers with funny points of view.” When club owners (and Letterman’s bookers) didn’t get their humor, the clique took to performing in bookstores and coffee shops, for audiences consisting mostly of one another.

”It wasn’t an explosion like punk was in London in 1976,” says Dana Gould, a ”Stiller Show” alum who took part in stand-up shows that Garofalo staged at Big & Tall Books in L.A. ”It was a gradual, subtle, social thing. What we had in common was we all thought Albert Brooks was the funniest person on the planet. We all wanted to become him, to write and direct and act in really harshly funny movies.”

The Posse members haven’t achieved Brooks’s stature yet — only Stiller has directed films (”Reality Bites,” ”The Cable Guy”), and he didn’t write them — but they have been working steadily, in TV shows, rock videos and movies, not all of them comedies. Cross was in ”Men in Black,” Margaret Cho in ”Face/Off,” Garofalo in ”Cop Land.” ”It’s kind of cool,” Stiller says, ”to turn on a TV and see Kathy Griffin in some sitcom” — ”Suddenly Susan,” on which she is a regular — ”being funny, being herself, reaching a lot of people. Or to see Janeane on a billboard on Sunset Boulevard. There’s this feeling like, hey, we’re doing our thing; the people we’ve been working with are getting to become grown-ups.”

But plotting a subversive comedy career is more complicated now than when Brooks had his debut on ”The Steve Allen Show” 30 years ago. With so much comedy around on so many cable channels, it’s much harder to break through doing, say, a brilliant ”Tonight Show” gig, or even a brilliant hour on HBO. Making your mark in movies is no easier. To serve the new global market, Hollywood has shunned most literate, offbeat comedy in favor of broader projects (like the deadly ”Larger Than Life,” in which Garofalo and Bill Murray wrangle an elephant).

It’s a tough time to be scrambling to become a player while trying to be true to yourself. ”Some pretty messy comedy has come about over the years that’s just about making money,” says Garry Shandling, on whose ”Larry Sanders Show” many of the group have appeared, and who is a hero to Posse members for having eschewed bigger network deals for the freedom and autonomy of HBO. ”They represent a love of comedy that is still very pure and spontaneous, that is to a large degree missing today.”

”People would like to think we’re a couple,” Garofalo is saying at the restaurant, ”but we never dated or anything.”

”No,” Stiller agrees tentatively. ”We just –.”

”We made out a few times in the early days,” Garofalo says. Stiller has since beome engaged to the actress Jeanne Tripplehorn. (Intra-Posse dating has had mixed results. After Garofalo and Bob Odenkirk broke up, they did a great episode of ”Larry Sanders” in which their characters had a mutually exploitative fling. But after Mary Lynn Rajskub and David Cross broke up, she stopped appearing on ”Mr. Show.”)

While Stiller and Garofalo are not a couple, they do represent a sort of marriage: of sketch comedy (Stiller) and stand-up (Garofalo); showy bravado and jaded deadpan; perfectionism and winging it; focused ambition and diffuse ambition; testy aloofness and testy congeniality.

Now 33, they first crossed paths in 1990, at 3 A.M. in Canter’s deli in L.A. Garofalo was eating potato pancakes with Dave Rath, a manager of the Improv (now her manager). Stiller was alone, she reminds him: ”You had just come from an unfulfilling tryst with an older woman and were eating coleslaw and raisin bran.”

They recognized each other from their work on MTV. Stiller, the son of Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, was a New York actor who had appeared on the channel doing sketches between videos. Garofalo, a New Jersey-born comic who started in Boston, had done a half-hour of stand-up. They ended up at the cashier, exchanging compliments and phone numbers. Garofalo said, ”We should write together.” They found they had memorized the same sketches from ”SCTV.”

So when Stiller’s MTV work got him his own series on Fox, he hired Garofalo for the cast. Hoping to avoid the poisonous competition he had seen during a brief stint as a cast member and writer on ”Saturday Night Live,” Stiller hired only two other cast members, people he already knew: Odenkirk, with whom he had shared an office at ”S.N.L.,” and Dick, an oddball from the Second City troupe, whom Stiller had cast in a short called ”Elvis Stories.” ”We were completely winging it,” says Judd Apatow, the show’s co-creator, who was 22 at the time and had never worked on a TV series before. ”I would sit in my office and read books on how to have a staff.”

What they didn’t know proved liberating. They did send-ups of Hollywood agents, superstars like Tom Cruise and Bruce Springsteen — even Fox sitcoms. But Stiller knew the show was doomed when he saw the TV Guide ad for its premiere. ”It was a half-page, a little drawing of a dog sniffing a fire hydrant,” he recalls. ”It said, ‘Something smells funny at Fox,’ and then, in small type, ‘The Ben Stiller Show.”’

It’s telling that Stiller and Garofalo both spent abbreviated, frustrating stints at ”Saturday Night Live,” which helped boost Albert Brooks’s career in 1975. Because the show had long since devolved into a regimen of catch phrases (”Isn’t that special!”) and recurring characters who were inevitably turned into bad feature films (”The Coneheads”), it was exactly the kind of institution that the Posse was rebelling against. When Odenkirk was a staff writer there in the late 80′s, he recalls, ”classic rock had just hit radio, and I remember thinking, That defines our situation right now. My generation doesn’t have a voice. We never made a big impact on rock-and-roll, and I certainly don’t consider the stand-up boom to be our contribution to comedy. And ‘S.N.L.,’ which ideally could be a voice to each new generation, now has to satisfy all generations, because they have people watching who are 50.”

Although the Posse members idolize David Letterman and share his cynicism and antiauthoritarianism, they worry about being caught up in the dead-end nihilism that has undermined him. Margaret Cho says there’s ”a jaded hopefulness” beneath their sullenness. ”Even though we present the world-weary facade and have a lot of disregard for many, many things, there’s still an optimism about what we can accomplish.”

Like the characters in ”Reality Bites,” in which Winona Ryder chooses the poetic searcher (Ethan Hawke) over the yuppie stiff (Stiller), the Posse members obsess about the idea of selling out. Stiller says: ”A lot of us got disillusioned with hackdom. I remember when Janeane was starting out, if something killed onstage at the Improv, she would intentionally not do it again. It’s almost like she was going too far the other way, because she didn’t want to be accepted.”

Unlike stand-ups who ditch their mikes as soon as they get sitcoms or movies, Posse members have stuck to their live-performance roots (except Stiller, who didn’t really have any) and are constantly developing new material in tiny rooms at experimental places like Largo in L.A. or the Un-Cabaret. ”It’s not a ‘Let me entertain you’ song and dance,” Lapides says. ”It’s like, ‘I’m here — if you want to come, that’s great.”’

This too-hip-for-the-room edge infuses the book Stiller and Garofalo are writing, currently titled ”Sound Advice for Today’s Young People,” for which Ballantine is paying them more than a million dollars — a lofty sum considering their niche appeal. The two adopt goofy personas, disseminate bad advice and air made-up dirty laundry. This distancing is crucial to their self-image. In her act, Garofalo often speaks disparagingly of ”the bewildered herd” — people who flock to the soulless sequels of blockbuster movies. Her ideal film role is the lead in ”I Shot Andy Warhol.” But maintaining an outsider’s insiderism can be its own kind of dead end. When your reputation is built on being a show-biz renegade, it’s complicated to, say, star in a sweet romantic comedy, as Garofalo did in this fall’s ”The Matchmaker.” (In her act, she has dismissed her biggest hit, ”Cats and Dogs,” as ”not my kind of movie.”)

And when you take a leap into the big time, as Stiller did by directing Jim Carrey in 1996 in ”The Cable Guy,” you risk big-time rejection. That movie, a modest, provocative commentary on TV-bred culture featuring cameos by most of the Posse, was resoundingly panned. Despite earning $60 million, the film effectively killed off black comedy as a studio genre. Stiller says that the experience left him with ”one of those ‘dark nights of the soul’ periods.”

”The challenge is to keep on trying to do our thing,” he continues, ”without letting the commerce of it get in the way. You can say, ‘I’m just going to do my thing, and I don’t care who sees it,’ or you can say, ‘I have an opportunity to maybe try to change the mainstream.’ Hopefully, I want to put out better junk than what they’re putting out.” He gives an uneasy laugh.

Lately, the posse’s expanding careers have made it tough for them to collaborate or hang out together. But a few times a year there’s a joint gig, like this June night, when Garofalo is doing an unadvertised warm-up set for Kathy Griffin at Caroline’s Comedy Club in Times Square. Before show time, Garofalo and Griffin are chatting in the tiny dressing room when Margaret Cho unexpectedly bursts in. The three women emit exaggerated squeals of delight.

Comics who hone their 10 minutes angling for a sitcom, Garofalo says, are ”doing stand-up for all the wrong reasons. That’s why stand-up crashed and burned.”

”I’m the opposite,” Griffin says. ”I tried desperately to get a sitcom so I could do stand-up. Here I get to say what I want, and if I try something new, it’s not going to haunt me.”

”It also gives you a place to vent,” Cho says, ”because acting’s a very frustrating profession in so many ways, especially for women, for us –.”

”For ‘character actor’ women,” Garofalo says.

”The Eve Ardens and Joan Blondells,” Cho says.

Although Griffin is probably the best thing on ”Suddenly Susan,” she basically has a limiting, second-banana role on a second-class show. The one network sitcom that starred a Posse member — Cho’s ”All-American Girl” — watered down her personality until it disappeared. ”I don’t know where our sensibility fits on network TV,” says Dana Gould, who has a regular role on the NBC sitcom ”Working.” ”I’m not sure TV is a fringe medium.”

The Posse’s punk-comedy aspirations are nowhere more evident than in Mary Lynn Rajskub, who replaced Garofalo as the talent booker on ”Larry Sanders” and whom Garofalo recently presented at a New York club. Rajskub (pronounced Rice-cub) stomped onstage with a backpack and a clipboard and delivered a confused lecture about performance-art theory, then announced that she was in the middle of an experiment for which she’d taken Ecstasy. She asked the crowd to just ”act like an audience” and implored a man in the front to stop stacking his head on top of his other heads. It took a full three minutes — an eon in comedy time — but by the time Rajskub gave a pro-anorexia rant (”It’s about being in control!” she said, advising women to ”just lick your food”), the audience was hers. But a very large one may never be. Rajskub hasn’t been able to persuade HBO to give her a half-hour show.

The group’s restlessness is such that even when they’re doing something they love, they’re suspicious. ” ‘News Radio’ is fun — great people,” Dick says, ”but I get bored playing any one thing for more than a week, and it’s been four years.” What he’d really like to do, he says, is ”an alternative, creepy musical, with nudity.” Cross predicts that ”Mr. Show” may last only one more year, even though it’s a big hit (in cable terms) and they’ve done only 20 episodes. ”I don’t ever want to do that ‘bad show,”’ he says. ”I don’t want to feel myself being caught having to do it.”

”I’ve been up since 6:30,” grouses Garofalo.

”I went to bed at 6:30,” counters Stiller.

It’s 1 in the afternoon, and the duo are wrapping up their New York lunch. Garofalo’s leg is jittering, and she keeps looking at her watch. She will soon have to bolt to tape an episode of her friend Andy Kindler’s cable show, ”Pet Shop,” with her three dogs, and is then flying to Toronto to appear in ”Dog Park,” the first film by Bruce McCulloch, of the Canadian comedy troupe the Kids in the Hall. Next, she’s off to San Francisco to serve as host for the taping of Comedy Central’s New Year’s Eve benefit (featuring, among others, Cho and Cross).

Stiller is even more overextended. He just finished playing a writer-turned-heroin-addict, Jerry Stahl, in the low-budget drama ”Permanent Midnight,” in which Garofalo did a cameo. Just before that he played a henchman in a movie called ”Zero Effect,” and he leaves tomorrow to costar in ”Friends and Neighbors,” a dark tale of love and betrayal written and directed by Neil LaBute, who did the art-house hit ”In the Company of Men.” Then he’s appearing in the next movie by the Farrelly brothers, who made the willfully broad ”Dumb and Dumber.” It’s an eclectic, eccentric path, and one that he’s able to navigate more easily because he’s not a household name like Billy Crystal or Robin Williams. But he’s still scrounging; he got ”Permanent Midnight” only after David Duchovny dropped out.

Despite Stiller and Garofalo’s chemistry, their brief scenes together in ”Permanent Midnight” are their first in a movie since 1994′s ”Reality Bites.” Burned by ”The Cable Guy,” Stiller seems unwilling to commit unless a project perfectly suits him, while Garofalo seems so worried her career will end at any minute that she’ll do almost anything to keep working.

And Stiller — who lost 30 pounds to play the addict in ”Permanent Midnight” — seems intent on becoming a serious actor (and director), whereas Garofalo is still peeved at Stiller for forcing her to see an acting coach for ”Reality Bites.” ”I wanted to be able to say I was the person who never took an acting class,” she says. She reminds Stiller that he also echoed the producers’ insistence that she lose weight for her role — to her, another symbol of selling out: ”Between the weight and the acting class, I felt like Frances Farmer. ‘They’re trying to lobotomize me!’ It felt like I was being dragged kicking and screaming to somewhere I didn’t want to be.”

”I just wanted you to look as good as possible,” Stiller says apologetically. After Garofalo leaves, Stiller sticks around to discuss his next career step. He’s harder to get to know than she is — opaque, tortured, prickly. ”I’m not a gregarious person,” he says. ”I’m very moody.” He’s capable of doing some hilarious bits — like the fake male-model-school infomercial that he did for this year’s VH1 Fashion Awards, playing a furrow-browed, drop-dumb model (”Nothing’s more rewarding than having one of my former students come up to me and say,’Derek — me, helped, you did.”’), but he seems uncertain about his future in comedy. ”I have moments when I want to be Jerry Seinfeld,” he says, ”be funny, incredibly wealthy, have the No. 1 show, be a regular guy. But that’s not really who I am. I definitely want to do material that isn’t comedy.” Then he adds, sounding as if he takes advice books seriously after all: ”But I have to accept that the comedy world is part of who I am, and embrace that more. I have respect for comedy, but the parody aspect becomes unfulfilling. You don’t want to have to wait for the real thing to come out so you can make fun of it.”

Trying to transcend the hipper-than-thou sneering, Stiller just signed a development deal with ABC to produce two shows, which he insists won’t be sitcoms or sketch comedy and which he hopes will feature some Posse members. His current dream job, however, is to direct an adaptation that he co-wrote of Budd Schulberg’s seminal, dark Hollywood morality tale, ”What Makes Sammy Run?”

The book tells the story of Sammy Glick, who unscrupulously climbs from copy boy to Hollywood mogul. It’s narrated by Al Manheim, a decent man who is both repulsed by Sammy and obsessed with him. Stiller says he was drawn to the novel because he identifies with the issues it raises about Hollywood’s anti-Semitism and its self-loathing Jews. But ”What Makes Sammy Run?” also confronts his generation’s love-hate relationship with ambition and success. Comparing himself with Sammy and Al, Stiller says: ”I’m probably somewhere in the middle. I mean, everybody who comes out to Hollywood has a certain amount of ambition. It’s just what your moral code is, where you draw the line.” The project has stalled at Warner Brothers because the studio is in disarray and isn’t comfortable with the provocative script, and — true to form — Stiller doesn’t want to change it.

Albert Brooks didn’t realize that he was the Posse’s patron saint, but he’s clearly flattered by their praise. He says he sympathizes with Stiller — he, too, intended to become an actor and felt he got pigeonholed in comedy. But, he adds, Stiller ”is in good shape. He’ll settle down with something he’s happy with. He should direct again.” As for Garofalo, he says: ”She knows how tough it is — that’s her whole act! She’s never going to be part of the mainstream. But she’s always going to be respected, and she’ll be way more happy that way. The so-called mainstream is a very limited stream. It’s mostly for Brad Pitt and Robert Redford.” And although Brooks commiserates with their struggles to remain true to themselves, he says that their worries about ”selling out” may be old-fashioned, pointing out that today’s premier smart stand-up, Chris Rock, ”also does MCI commercials, and no one seems to mind. In 1970, you’d be punished for it.”

”To tell the truth,” Brooks adds, ”I don’t think ‘selling out’ was ever very meaningful to 99.9 percent of the public. I think it’s an ego-based concept, that the world is thinking about you. If most of the world sees anybody on television, they’re impressed.” Nor does he harbor illusions about this generation — or any — staging a comedy revolution. ”If we can smarten things up, we’re only going to do it a little bit. As long as there are humans, and McDonald’s, the Three Stooges will always reign.” He laughs.

Ultimately, Brooks’s advice to his comedy heirs is: ”If you want to keep working, you have to bend. But you don’t have to bend so much that you can’t live with yourself. Look, I’ve seen hard-core fans go through periods of my career where they went, ‘Aw gee, I wish you’d be this again or that again,’ but the fact is, where else are they going to go? I mean, sometimes my favorite restaurant has weird clams — where else am I going to go?”

David Handelman has written for the Magazine about Macaulay Culkin, Christian motorcyclists and Dolce & Gabbana.

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