Beauty, brains and razor sharp wit — Janet Varney has it all! If you aren’t familiar with her name, you may very well recognize her face and the laughs she has brought you weekly from her long-running stint as co-host of TBS’ ‘Dinner and a Movie’. Don’t be confused, she is no one trick pony. Actually, she is one of the hardest working people in show business —a gifted actress and improvisational artist. Her years of hard work are paying off as she finds herself gaining a huge following and attention from the industry with her enormous talents as the host of innovative podcast, ‘The JV Club,’ and as the voice of the titular character on Nickelodeon’s wildly popular animated series, ‘Avatar: The Legend of Korra’. Not one to rest on her laurels, Janet is the also co-creator and co-producer of one of the largest and most successful comedy festivals in the country, SF Sketchfest: The San Francisco Comedy Festival, which will hold its 12th annual event in January 2013. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Janet Varney to discuss her journey into the entertainment industry, her influences, her wide range of captivating projects and what the future holds for her in the months to come!
We want to give everyone a little background on you. Where did you grow up and what got you started on your journey in the entertainment industry?
I grew up in Tucson, Arizona. I guess I had always performed as a kid. I mean, I didn’t do much outside of school but I was in all of the school plays. I was in a shoddy production of “Snow White” when I was in the first grade, which involved me wearing a clothed brown wig from under which my white bangs stuck out. [laughs] So, I had kinda always done stuff but I kinda took a break from acting and performing when i was in my late teens and early 20s in San Francisco. When I first got there, I was really just focused on being in that city, loving the city and finding a way to afford being there — that became my real focus and priority. I was sorta living in the real world for a while and not doing anything like that. Around that time, some buddies of mine cajoled me into being in a comedy group with them and that is when it sorta started edging me back toward that world.
Was there a certain moment or catalyst that made you decide to pursue a job in the entertainment industry as a career?
Truthfully, I was pulled down to Los Angeles, doing a bit of kicking and screaming. Our comedy group was doing sketch shows in San Francisco and somebody heard about us and came up from the Aspen Comedy Festival. They invited us to perform there. When we went, I met a bunch of agents, managers, attorneys and people who go to Aspen to find new talent. They convinced me to come down to LA for pilot season. I was pretty reluctant to do that. I kept saying, “Listen guys. I am never going to want to live in Los Angeles. Never!” Cut to three weeks later, during which I had been couch surfing, and I was like, “I am totally moving down here!” [laughs] I guess once you are presented with the opportunity to do what you love to do for a living, it is very magnetic!
Who are some of the influences, in your early years and even today, who helped shape the performer you have become?
I guess I didn’t necessarily think of myself as a comedian then. I didn’t do any sort of improv, sketch or anything like that whatsoever until I was in my 20s. I was more doing straight acting but I was a cut up in class. [laughs] What are we in the 1950s? [laughs] I didn’t want to be a standup comedian or anything like that. The people that I was most obsessed with growing up — I definitely love Jodie Foster! I thought she was super cool from all of the Disney movies I had seen her in and then she was in even more cool movies that were strange, wonderful and weird when I was a teenager, as I was into strange, wonderful and weird stuff! Like a lot of people, I guess, I grew up loving her through her career. I mean, I didn’t shoot a president for her! [laughs] Steve Martin, I was also in love with and obsessed with when everybody else was in love with Kirk Cameron and Michael J. Fox. [laughs] Seriously! Everybody was reading “Tiger Beat” and putting pictures of Ricky Schroeder up on their wall and I had an entire wall in my bedroom dedicated to Steve Martin! That is sort of telling, but I didn’t necessarily think about it as something I was into as a profession at the time, I just thought I was going to marry Steve Martin. [laughs] My dad and I were both completely obsessed with watching “The Muppet Show.” He went from watching “Sesame Street” with me and doing all of the voices to us sitting down and watching “The Muppet Show” together. I credit Jim Henson with contributing to a huge part of shaping my imagination and my humor. My dad is also a huge Mel Brooks fan. I can tell you I have probably watched “Young Frankenstein” about 300 times since the time I was a kid because you can keep watching that stuff over and over and over again! Not to say that you can’t do that now but it is taken to the extreme when you are a child.
A lot of people are going to recognize you from being on “Dinner and A Movie” on TBS. How did you get involved with that project originally?
That was one of the first things I got when I moved here. What was cool about the way it was posed to me was, “Hey, the people at TBS are looking for new, funny women!” What I didn’t know at the time was the woman who was hosting the show at the time was leaving. Without being specific about what they were doing, they were discussing who might be someone could fill those shoes. It was cool because I didn’t necessarily have to audition for anything. It was more of a sit down where I got to more organically be myself. That translated, eventually, into a screen test. What was cool about “Dinner and A Movie” was that they shot it at a culinary school, so that Claude and Paul, the pre-existing hosts, could actually be cooking and talking to the camera, just like we do on the show. I showed up and there were a few other girls there and we all took turns going into this cooking facility with the camera on us, making stuff with the chef, making jokes and improvising! It was so much fun and a really fun way to get a job! When I got it, I was completely blown away because I was already a fan, as it had already been on for so many years. I had watched it loyally when I lived in San Francisco. To suddenly be a part of that and to be in the same room with the guys that I already felt like I knew was a total joy! I had that job for seven years and I truly loved every single day of it! Absolutely loved it!
That is really cool. As a fan of the show, I was always curious to know how much came from improvisation. It had a great flow.
Yeah! We would always write jokes in advance about the movies just to make sure we had something. You always want to go in armed and ready, so that you feel you were in a good enough position where you can improvise but that is not the only thing you have. I think some of the best improvisation on shows like that comes out of knowing you have something in your back pocket, if you need it. That kinda gives you the freedom to play around more.
Another super cool project you have been a part of recently is doing great voice work for “Avatar: The Legend of Korra.” How did you land the role and what intrigued you about the project?
I have always wanted to do cartoon voices! I think that is just a little piece of magic in show business! I think the idea of getting to see someone else with your voice is one of the coolest things there is! It is definitely something I had wanted to do and I was chasing after, just in the sense that I had a voiceover agent. My poor voiceover agent! They probably got so tired of me asking, “What’s going on! Are there any cartoons out there that I can go audition for?!” [laughs] They would get me auditions and it takes a while. I had done a couple of projects that didn’t go forward into series but this one, when I had auditioned for it, had already been picked up. Obviously, I really wanted the part but as happens a lot in this business, you tell yourself you don’t want it that much because you don’t want to be disappointed if it doesn’t happen. I tried not to care but I desperately cared! [laughs] Again, I went through an odd audition process again. I had gone in and the first time I went in I didn’t audition for the creators and the next couple of times I went in I did. They did kind of a mix and match from those auditions because they were trying to find a vibe for the three main characters — my character, Bolin and Mako. Bolin is played by P.J. Bryne and Mako is played by David Faustino. So yeah, I got the part and the dream began! It has been really, really exciting and is the coolest job I have ever had!
I imagine voiceover is approached somewhat differently than straight acting. What has been the biggest challenge for you on this project?
It is definitely different to not be on camera and know that you still need to do a lot of acting, especially with a cartoon job like that, because it is very physical, the things Korra does with her powers and physicality. It is so important to hang on to that even if you are just standing in front of a microphone. I tend to be really physically active even when I am in a soundbooth because I don’t really know how to get those sounds otherwise. It is a little bit goofy! I guess that is the biggest challenge but it is a challenge that I enjoy! I have said this before but this is the most acting work I have ever done! There are so many episodes, the series is so rich and so much happens! There is emotional stuff, action and Korra can be impatient or warm or thrilled or making fun of something. The show is really well written and she is a well developed character which I have only Mike DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, the creators of the show, to thank! They have given me this incredible opportunity to do some really serious acting, which in the comedy world, I don’t always get to do.
How did you take on preparing for this series. Were you familiar with the original series beforehand?
I love the series, both the original one and the one I am lucky to be a part of. They do such a great job of telling great, timeless stories and I love that it appeals to both adults and children. When you can make art and work speak to that wide a range of ages, cultures and genders, I feel like that is really something to be proud of. Again, I am so lucky to be a part of it because there is a lot of great programming out there but, to me with all due respect to everything that is out there, this project feels really special.
I think you are totally right. It has great stories and the artwork is fantastic!
Oh yeah, it is gorgeously rendered! The animation is so beautiful! People are probably tired of hearing me say this, because I always do, but the first time I saw any footage of it at all, I just wept! I thought, “Oh my gosh! I can’t believe I have anything to do with this! It is so gorgeous! Please don’t let me ruin it! Please don’t let me ruin it! Please don’t let me ruin it!” [laughs]
No worries there. You know it is a good sign when you look at footage from Comic Con and people are dressed up as your character, right?!
Yeah! I am going to be at Comic Con in a couple of weeks and I am seriously excited! I can’t wait to see what people are going to be wearing. I have already been sent some pictures of people dressed up as other characters from the series and I cannot wait to see them in person! I love the fans! I also love that it means enough to people that they want to celebrate it in that very specific way!
You have a very cool project called The JV Club on the Nerdist Network.
Yeah! My podcast!
What can you tell us about the podcast and how it came about?
I had wanted to do a podcast for a while. A lot of my comedian friends already had podcasts. Sometimes, and I wish this weren’t true about women in comedy, you self doubt yourself and talk yourself into this idea of, “There is so much great stuff out there. What am I going to bring to the table or offer up that is special or unique enough that anyone would want to pay attention to it?” I don’t mean to be negative! It is a really silly, self-poisoning thing that people do to themselves sometimes. I held off doing it for a while because I was talking to myself in that way, like, “Oh, what am I going to do?” It really felt important to me and I held on to the idea. I started shaping a specific idea that, for me, felt like it was something which didn’t already exist. That was really exciting to me. I also tried to pay attention to who I really am and what I am like as a person because it has taken me a long time to learn a lesson that some people learn very quickly. That lesson is that you should just be yourself, play to your strengths, know what makes you happy and what you enjoy doing. If you are going to be generating something that is going to be entirely yours and oversee each aspect, why not make it something you enjoy? I know that sounds like such a no-brainer but we tend to overcomplicate things sometimes! [laughs] You can’t say, “I don’t play video games but people seem to be really into video games. Maybe I should do a thing on video games!” No! If you are not a huge fan of video games, let somebody else do that! For me, I am not someone I would think of as a girl’s girl. In fact, I probably had more guy friends than girlfriends when I was growing up. As I have gotten older and existing in the business of show business, I feel that it is tremendously heartening and tremendously important for women to support each other. Sometimes there is this competition that gets bred out of the business that feels like it is unhealthy and unnecessary. In addition to having all of those feelings, I also realized there are so few podcast hosts that are female that were cool, funny, silly and not afraid to be serious while still being able to live in that comedy, nerdy world. So that is what I decided I was going to do!
On my podcast, I just interview women. My listenership is 50% men and 50% women, so it’s not like it only appeals to women. I talk to women about what their adolescence was like and it can be taken very literally by young women who want the encouragement to know it gets better and to know that a lot of the people they look up to or watch on television had really tumultuous teenager-hoods. Many were unhappy or bullied or were unhappy, thus were bullying others. I think it puts a really human face on the whole high school experience. Again, you could take it literally in that way but those conversations spin out into so many conversations about other things that it is not just about that by any stretch of the imagination! It has been really wonderful and the timing of the podcast and “The Legend of Korra” launching around the same time was not intentional but has been life changing. I love the podcast! I just want to do the podcast all day long when I am not doing “Korra” because it feels so good! I would encourage anyone reading this interview — it feels really good when you make something that is yours and has your voice. I don’t just mean literally but figuratively! It makes you feel like you have put a piece of yourself out into the world in a very personal way. It is scary and exhilarating! Everybody should try some version of what that means to you. I don’t like just spouting advice but it is a lovely experience!
As listeners, we are spoiled when it comes to podcasts. It is great to be able to just click and download. We don’t think a lot about the hard work that goes into each show. Clearly, it is a labor of love on your part. What can you tell us about what goes into it and how long it takes to bring them to life?
I am very lucky because I am part of the Nerdist Network, so I have a podcast producer. I do all the recording myself and I definitely research the women I am interviewing beforehand. I do all the recording with the gear, so it is just me in a room, I don’t have an audio assistant or anything like that. I do sometimes do edits, if I need to edit for time or if there is a sound issue or anything like that. I would like to make everyone feel guilty like I put all the time in the world into it! [laughs] Certainly, the process of writing the descriptions, booking the guests, setting the time aside and being really thoughtful about who you have and what you will be talking about — all of that does take a lot of time. We are very fortunate that the world of podcasting is a pretty elemental process and computers have made it very easy for us to record something via audio instead of on camera. It is a little more simplistic and easier for guests, who don’t necessarily have to dress up and put on a bunch of makeup and all that kinda stuff! There are some real pluses to what I do, even though it is time consuming and, to your point, is a labor of love.
You have such a diverse career from television to voice acting to podcasting. Is there something else you are still eager to tackle in the future? A bucket list item, so to speak.
I guess the only other thing left is Space Camp! Producing the festival, San Francisco Sketchfest, was an absolute joy. I love music and I wish I played more music. I used to play a lot of music and was in a band where I sang. I miss that piece of my life but I don’t have a lot of time for it right now. I guess, I hope that it comes back around somehow.
What other projects should we be on the lookout for from you in both the short and long term?
Right now, another thing that is airing online is a series called “Burning Love.” It is a spoof on “The Bachelor.” It has been so successful that it is officially the most successful web series in the history of the Internet! It has millions and millions and millions of views. You can watch it on www.burninglove.com. I think we are at episode eight at this point. Obviously, you can go to the site and watch them all whenever you want and the rest of the episodes release once a week. It is produced by Ben Stiller’s company and he is in it and Christine Taylor is in it. It is an extraordinary cast and it was created by Ken Marino and Erica Oyama. Kristen Bell is in it, Michael Ian Black, Malin Akerman, Jennifer Aniston — it is really an extraordinarily wonderful and talented group of people and I have been so incredibly lucky to be a cast member on that show!
There is another project I am working on for the Nerdist Channel, which stars Neil Patrick Harris. We are doing it with Henson Alternative. It is the alternative leg of their company and we are working with puppets! It is a show about Neil and how when he falls asleep he dreams in puppets. That will be coming out in late fall and we can’t wait! We are in the process of writing it right now!
That is awesome, Janet! Especially since you were into the Henson stuff growing up!
Oh yeah! [sings] It is a dreeeeeeaaaaaaaammmm coooooommme trrrruuuuuuueeeee! [laughs] I can’t believe it when I am sitting across a desk from Brian Henson, the child in me, all the way up through the adult in me is silently shrieking with excitement! It’s really, really, really cool!
What is the best piece of advice someone gave you along the way in your career you can share with others?
I have received really, really great advice from a lot of different people. Certainly, my representatives, who I have been with have been incredibly supportive. They are such good cheerleaders and their wisdom from being in the business way longer than I have has been invaluable. But I think, the best advice I have gotten has been from Chris Hardwick. Very early on, when I had just moved to Los Angeles, he made very sure to tell me not to compare my career to the career of others because it doesn’t do any good. That is true no matter what walk of life you are in. It is really good advice because I think we live in a world where it is really easy for us to look at what someone else has and say, “Why don’t I have that? What am I doing wrong? When can I get that?” I think it is good to have ambitions and like I said, that is not just in show business but in your regular life. it is great to have ambitions but it doesn’t do a lot of good to stay in that place where you are wondering why you don’t have what someone else has. That energy can be spent better someplace else.
The other thing that Chris told me that I was already doing, and something we would tell each other, is, “Make your own stuff!” And, “Make stuff that you can be proud of!” He is way further along in that than I am and he has been in the business a lot longer. It is inspiring, looking at what he has been able to achieve by just being authentic and honest with his voice and what he wants to put out into the world. He has created a huge business out of it. That is evidence right there that if you believe in something and you know your voice is special, and your voice is special because everyones is, you can turn it into your dreams!
Where is the best place for people to catch up with you online, learn more and follow all your adventures?
It is pretty easy to find me at www.janetvarney.com. I try to stay on top of updating everything that is going on! [laughs] You can also find my podcast on iTunes, it’s The JV Club, as you mentioned. You can listen to that and get all sorts of information on The Nerdist Network. There is a Facebook page for it as well, so if you Google “The JV Club” there are a bunch of different options for it!
It has been awesome talking with you today, Janet! I am sure we will be talking again soon and we look forward to spreading the word on all you have going on!
Awesome, Jason! I really appreciate it! Have a great day! Thank you!