Stand-up comedy may revolve around telling jokes, but not every comic need stick to the letter of that script. Sometimes the spirit counts for just as much. Janeane Garofalo has long explained that she doesn’t exactly write jokes so much as talk to audiences about life in a way that happens to be funny. Even she’s not entirely sure what to call it. In her newest stand-up special on Seeso, If I May, she warns the audience, “Am I a stand-up? I don’t know. I am reticent to call myself that.” Garofalo recounts a young man who approached her after one set and told her, “I enjoyed your talk.” If anything, that seems to be closer to the experience.
However Garofalo delivers her content—whether it’s carefully crafted writing that she’s honed over many shows, or whether she’s riffing on ideas that she keeps on a page nearby onstage—the most important thing is whether or not it works. Her appearance on HBO Comedy Half-Hour in 1995 did. The thoughts connected or at least progressed in her off-the-cuff way. With If I May that’s less certain.
The way Garofalo starts off her special is refreshing, breaking down the pacing that most comedians jump to establish by calling attention to what she’s wearing and how she’s not thrilled with it. Pointing out her bell bottom jeans (and the many inches she had to cut off the bottom so they didn’t drag across the floor) as well as the eyeliner she had to use to cover up her widening hair part, Garofalo spends an extended beat breaking herself down. It’s done with the kind of empowering self-deprecation that made her a beloved comic and actress in the first place, and it’s off-script enough to set the special’s tone.
But from there the structure continues to devolve. Seeso touted the show as being “tangent filled” and Garofalo herself warns in the opening moments that she likes to go down rabbit trails. While it’s impressive to watch how one observation can build off into the kind of Inception-like joke that involves another six or so diverse observations that somehow make it back to her original point, it all feels a bit too scattered. And at times even Garofalo appears aware of that problem.
Garofalo shines whether she’s attributing asinine quotes to Guy Fieri or discussing false equivalency in the media, and were she able to build out these thoughts into more developed rhythms (especially the latter) the special would feel closer to a succinct set. Instead, she chooses to discuss having finally seen The Hunger Games, admitting she’s late to the game and charging forward anyway with an extended rant about how much she can’t stand the character Primrose Everdeen (Katniss’ sister, if you’re following along). Older movies aren’t off-topic for comics (John Mulaney has a hilarious bit about Home Alone in his early work), but coming as it does in an overly long special, it feels unnecessary and waters down her other, stronger moments.
If I May is overly long, and Garofalo’s extended and twisted tangents make those extra minutes felt. “Thank you so much for sticking that out, for staying as long as you did,” she says at the end. It’s a meandering road, to be sure, but coming from Garofalo fans will likely enjoy watching her special as a chance to hear her opinions on all manner of contemporary topics. Everyone else might lose focus after a while.
Amanda Wicks is a freelance journalist specializing in comedy and music. Follow her on Twitter @aawicks.