I'm Janet Varney, And This Is How I Work

Janet Varney is best known for — well, it depends on what you like her from. She’s acted in The Legend of Korra, You’re the Worst, and Stan Against Evil, and created the IFC web series Fortune Rookie. She stars in the audio-drama podcast Voyage to the Stars and hosts the chat podcast The JV Club. She is also a founder and director of SF Sketchfest, running the annual live comedy festival since 2001. We talked to Janet about her hyphenate career, how to get six busy actors into a room together, the challenges of running a tiny one-night comedy festival or a giant three-week comedy festival.

LH: So you’re in LA right now. On location or your normal setup?

JV: I’m in my normal setup, my home office. I’m staring out at a cloudy day and feeling worried about the very very cute bird that built a nest in one of my hanging plants, right next to the front door, so that every time one of the dogs or a person comes and passes it, she has to leave her nest and pretend nothing’s happening. [As if] she’s just a random bird from the area, pecking for seed! No one is buying it. I so strongly wish I could communicate to her, no, just stay on the eggs! Please just don’t abandon your babies. That is the number one drama in my life right now.

LH: Poor bird! Let’s talk about your podcasts first — you have two, is that right?

JV: Yeah! I’ve been doing my podcast The JV Club for like seven years now. I’m around 325 episodes at this point. That podcast is me speaking with just lady guests about three quarters of the year, and in the summer I do a “boys of summer” series where I talk to guys. The anchor of the show is talking about their adolescence, but obviously about a million other things as well.

The second podcast I’m on, Voyage to the Stars, is much newer. It’s an improvised space podcast that I do with Steve Berg and Colton Dunn and Felicia Day. That’s us out in space on an alien ship, a ragtag group trying to navigate their way back to Earth after they flipped through a wormhole. I play the ship’s A.I. I’m an alien technology and I have mixed feelings about humans.

LH: I’m learning that fiction podcasts all have drastically different processes for getting made. Do you all record together or remotely?

JV: Definitely together. I don’t know how well I would do an improvised thing [remotely]. I was a [remote] guest on one person’s improvised podcast and bless their hearts, I think they did a great job editing it. But my sense the whole time was my fear of conference call snafus, where everyone’s talking and there’s a lot of “You go ahead!” “No you go ahead!” So I’m very pleased that we’re all in the same room.

There’s a tremendous amount of writing and preparation that goes into it up top. [The show’s creator] Ryan Koppel formats the plot for each episode. I produce the show as well, so I see those things before they go out to the rest of the cast. It’s a very tightly outlined story. There are specific points and pieces of information and a timeline that we’re following, and then we improvise all of the dialogue and add stuff and keep it moving along towards the end goal. So it’s a really rigid way of improvising. But I love it. It’s been fun to find new ways to relax into something improvised, but also be diligent about moving the plot forward.

LH: I love seeing the different points on the spectrum of improvisation. Improvising with a plan, or purely written, or how the Hello From the Magic Tavern guys — I think — are completely winging it.

JV: Yeah! I’ve done their show twice. In one I played a crone who had her own bakery. And there was a crazy one that we did live at Outside Lands, where I played an elf in very poor disguise. They adhere to their overall canon, but other than that, they completely wing it.

Voyage to the Stars at SFSF 2019: Kirsten Vangsness, Felicia Day, Tom Lenk, Janet Varney, Steve Berg, and Colton Dunn (Photo: Tommy Lau)

LH: On Voyage, what’s your role as producer?

JV: I work with Ryan, weighing in on the episode arcs, what the character guest stars are going to be, and who we end up booking. I work with Earwolf to get our studios booked, all that stuff.

I don’t sit in for edits. It’s really well produced and there’s sound effects that go in, and enhancements to the improv that build the texture of the scene, and I don’t have anything to do with that. I get to just enjoy it as a listener when they come out. I’m always excited to hear what they’ve added. Like if Felicia’s like “Oh I can’t believe that’s a talking carrot!” we don’t necessarily make a carrot talk in the moment, but you’ll hear this burble burble burble in the background.

LH: And you make a web series too?

JV: Yes, my little indie short form project that I did with IFC has been submitted for an Emmy. That’s called Fortune Rookie. It’s a mix of Curb and Portlandia. It’s a bunch of people playing jerk versions of themselves, other people playing [fictional] characters. It’s also like very magical-thinking sketch oriented. There’s a peyote trip where tiny paper doll versions of me and another character come to life and have a whole conversation on the Tarot table.

It’s a weird universe in which John Michael Higgins and Michael Hitchcock and Oscar Nunez are part of an adult male boy band. James Roday plays an early nemesis — [he’s] very angry that Janet Varney has quit show business to become a psychic, because he feels like that’s a stolen idea from his show [Psych] in which he plays a fake psychic.

LH: How did you take that show from idea to production? What was the process?

JV: I think this is fairly common in the development and writing world, and in LA particularly, if you’re a hybrid or hyphenate, who does a couple different things rather than just being a writer or director. That’s a theme of the show, how many people in Los Angeles are hustling and and would define themselves as multiple things, because you have to have some flexibility to survive.

I had the idea many years ago after my one and only experience seeing a psychic. I love the idea of psychics. I wish that I felt like they were real! But I can’t say that my experience gave me much faith.

But I became fascinated by this idea of — almost the danger of seeing someone who doesn’t know you, who in all likelihood is not seeing your future, and then tells you something to anticipate. People want that to become truth so much that they create a self-fulfilling prophecy. And how strange that is to put your choices and actions of the future in the hands of somebody that you absolutely don’t know and who doesn’t know you.

I started playing with different iterations of that, wrote a script that was a half-hour single-camera show that I wasn’t even imagining I would be in, and pitched it out. I was approached by a company that specialised in more unscripted stuff, taking it as a sketch hybrid with sort of a Daily Show element, actually interviewing real so-called expert psychics, doing readings as my “self” with the public. So there was this man-on-the-street element to it. And then it ended up with this fanciful alternate reality version that lampooned LA.

We had a bunch of stuff we really wanted to do. Scenarios for Fortune Rookie are so easy to come up with it’s almost gross. There are so many funny wonderful people that I’ve gotten the chance to work with, that it would be so fun to write for. and give them these kind of scenarios and what are their problems what are there. What kind of reading what I do for them? Would it be a palm reading, would be a Tarot card reading, would it be a reading where you scatter animal poop on the ground and read it? There’s so many weird real-life ways of telling futures and fortunes.

My writing partner Brandon Reynolds and our production company Drama 3|4 picked what we thought we could do with our budget, and I asked people that I loved if they would do it, and wrote [characters] for them. That was the first time I wrote for friends, and it was so fun to write! I’ve never had an easier time writing anything.

When we started shooting it, I was giddy. As hard as the work is when you’re acting and producing and writing, it’s very stressful, but it was combated by this ludicrous sense of being high. Which is probably what motherhood is like — I haven’t had kids! — but I think it’s that sense of sleeplessness that has a lot of wonder attached to it. Your body and your brain are like, “We’re going to keep doing this, this is important, I’m going to give you reasons to feel euphoria as well as incredible fatigue!”

Rifftrax show at SFSF 2019: John Hodgman, Bridget Nelson, Janet Varney, Kevin Murphy, Cole Stratton, Paul F Tompkins, Sean Thomason, Trace Beaulieu, Bill Corbett, and Frank Conniff (Photo: Jakub Moser)

LH: So that’s three projects that you’re bringing a guest on each episode. What do you look for when you’re choosing a guest?

JV: That’s a great question. With talking to people about their teenage years, everybody is going to have a great story in them. And it turns out that if you’re talking to people about their teenage years, there’s there’s an opportunity for vulnerability and an honesty and an intimacy. By having so much time between you and that version of you, you gain some perspective.

Maybe you have a sense of humour about it, maybe you feel some compassion. It’s a wonderful way to get to know someone very quickly. So I’ve certainly never run out of people that I would want to see, so the list just keeps growing rather than shrinking with every episode I do.

LH: Are there any ever any challenges to getting a certain guest, or making schedules work?

JV: For sure for sure. One of the cliché things that I can’t seem to avoid is that the first few seconds of an interview is like, “We finally did it! It only took four reschedules because of both of our schedules constantly changing, or you were on a show in Georgia for six months!”

Working on a show like Voyage, it’s hard enough just getting our creator, our studio, and our four principal actors in a room together, and then start juggling guests on top of that. It becomes a bit of a logistical nightmare, but somehow it always works out and stuff gets made.

With Fortune Rookie, Fred Armisen really wanted to do it, and we had scheduled the day and then it turned out that — he’s so great — he was like “Something came up,” and we shuffled some stuff around and made it work, and he was so low-key about this thing that came up, and it turned out that he was hosting Saturday Night Live. So he got on a plane on Friday after he finished shooting with me, and got to New York and did Saturday Night Live the next night. That is a champion friend right there. So you have to be willing to be flexible.

LH: Have you found any specific tricks that help? Has there been any strategy of trying to cluster people and cluster recordings or shoot altogether?

JV: We’ve learned the hard way that it’s always safer to do something on a weekend. With [Voyage co-star] Colton, he’s on a show right now, Superstore, and when they need him he needs to be available. They of course take precedence.

We usually sprinkle in a weekend day within our recording schedule for that kind of catch-all, that there are going to be people who can only do a weekend. The same thing is true when you’re shooting something that’s not like a big union budget, network production. You squeeze in a Sunday morning here and there.

LH: Let’s talk about the S.F. Sketchfest. Can you tell me about your role in co-founding that?

JV: I was living in San Francisco; I moved from Arizona when I was still a college student. I had been bitten by the San Francisco bug when I was about 13. I just couldn’t get it out of my mind. It was a situation of falling in love with a place and then figuring out a way to be there — rather than [moving there for] a school, or following someone, or my family moving there. I was in love with San Francisco as a place and an idea and a life, so I left school in Arizona during my junior year of college, and then worked to establish residency for a year, so I could go to SF State with in-state tuition.

There I met my (now many-years-running) two partners, Cole Stratton and David Owen. We were in a sketch group together with a fourth member, Gabriel Diani — now he’s an independent filmmaker, I’ve done a couple of his movies and he’s a genius. But Gabe took time off to go do a one-man show, and we decided to organise a festival, so that we had more of an opportunity to do a long set of sketch in San Francisco.

There weren’t a lot of venues that allowed for that or were made for that. Comedy clubs are tough if you’re a nerdy sketch comedian who wears costumes and wigs, because there’s usually no backstage. The stages are built for one person with a microphone. So while we were welcomed with open arms by places like the Punch Line and Cobb’s — which certainly didn’t need to do that, we were really lucky to have that — it did pose challenges.

So we approached five other sketch groups that we had met over the course of the year, as we had been out performing sketch together, and said, would you be interested in us looking into a small theatre rental for a month? We could all co-headline, do a variety night where we all perform short sets, and we can market it as a local sketch comedy festival. Maybe the press will be interested and we can grow our audiences, and we’ll have a little home base for a month.

That was our first year, a six-group local sketch fest. We sold out every show but one, because we’d gotten great coverage from the Chronicle. San Francisco, as much as its economy has changed, remains a big proponent for the arts, especially in media coverage.

The second year we moved to a bigger theatre and somehow convinced Fred Willard and his sketch troupe to join in, and the three guys from UCB, Matt, Matt, and Ian. We asked people to submit from all over. Suddenly we were doing a ton more shows and we had a ton more people coming in from out of town.

It’s still just the three of us [programming the festival]. We have an amazing staff that comes on for a very very short period before and during the festival. And this next January will be our 19th, which feels really weird to say.

LH: Now that it’s an established thing, is it a lot easier to find venues with the right space every year, or does that remain challenging?

JV: It’s very challenging, actually. It’s a lot easier to find a place to rent when you have the capital, and we’re fortunate enough to have a fan base now in San Francisco, and we have these wonderful famous people who do the festival over and over. When you’re looking for a 75-seat theatre, you have far fewer choices than [when we’re] looking for one hundred to three hundred seats for this, five hundred for this [bigger performer], and 1400 tickets for such-and-such a level of reunion.

But at the same time there are still a dearth of venues, even in a city like San Francisco. There aren’t a ton that fall within a certain range. So if the theatre is unavailable and it’s a 250-300 seater, it’s not as easy as you might think to find a suitable replacement. There’s cost, or availability, or location, or some places have just a weird dark downstairs area that isn’t going to allow for a big group to hang out between things or to be backstage during a show. Stuff like that.

Every year we have our mainstays and we’re so lucky and happy they’re there. But there is also a lot of shifting in San Francisco. Right now there’s a big to-do because the Punch Line, which has been in the same location for decades, their building was sold, and whatever company bought it was like “This isn’t going to be a comedy club anymore.” People like Dave Chappelle and W. Kamau Bell got incensed to hear that. They did a press conference on the City Hall steps. So they’re really lobbying to keep that iconic spot where it is.

But the economy in San Francisco is bananas right now because of one of many tech booms. This one doesn’t seem to have slowed. So the cost of living has become exorbitant, rents have gone up for businesses. Luckily a lot of tech people like comedy. So we’ve been able to stay in business. But we have definitely watched some of the small businesses that we came up with, that we have respect for and understand the struggle, have had to move or shut down.

Speaking of logistics, the hardest thing for us is wanting to take care of our performers, but it’s a very long festival. It’s three weekends and almost every day in between, we have shows running. We’ll have 200 people in town at once, 25 shows happening on the same night, and getting people around, and to and from the airport, is like its own thing — the transportation festival within the comedy festival. Those things will always be challenging. And then there are other things that take care of themselves now.

LH: Are there any creative solutions you found for transportation?

JV: Lyft came on as a sponsor. That was fantastic, having somebody be able to call their own car, rather than the house of cards that is [managing transportation]. “This person’s supposed to take this person to the airport, but they’re stuck on the bridge.” So having someone say “Here are some credits you can use to take people from show to show at night,” was a lifesaver.

LH: I hadn’t thought about how ride sharing, even without the aspect of the sponsorship, really changes the capacity for some huge event like that, where you’re doing so much transportation at once.

JV: It almost makes up for the immense amount of traffic it’s brought into the city.

Wheels Off with Rhett Miller, SFSF 2019: Rhett Miller and Janet Varney singing (Photo: Jakub Moser)

LH: You’re talking about being a hyphenate talent, and you seem like a person who clearly is trying out a lot of interesting projects. Other than sketch work, which parts came first, were you acting for several years before you got into writing and producing?

JV: I was definitely kind of a theatre kid, but in the most basic public school district sense. I wasn’t part of some private repertory. But by the time I moved to San Francisco I had sort of pragmatised my way out of thinking I would be a performer for a living. But my friends at SF State, Dave, Cole, and Gabe, cajoled me into being in the sketch group that they were forming. And I’m so glad they did. It was really the first time that I had officially done comedy. I loved doing funny plays and stuff like that, but I wasn’t one of those kids that got involved with an improv group in high school. And swiftly thereafter, we founded the festival.

So [producing and performing] were hand-in-hand for me by the time I came down to LA, a couple of years into the festival. I really did think of things from a few different sides, and that served me, to not feel like I was beholden to each and every audition whether it was for a good show or a bad show. I had a confidence, feeling like if this doesn’t work out then I’ll just go back to my regular life. So there were there was always a behind-the-scenes view. And because I was doing sketch, I never stopped writing.

There is maybe more of a write for yourself, scrappy [approach] to comedy, and I feel very lucky that that was my introduction into show business, because there are people who are brilliant actors but they’re just waiting for that phone to ring. And I could not live like that. That would make me go crazy. So for instance, you asked about what I have coming up to shoot on screen... I don’t! I may get cast in something, but I sold a pilot to IFC, so I’ve just been writing that with my partners, writing other stuff and pitching other shows.

It’s [good to have] that flexibility and to be up for anything, and to be up for something that didn’t seem like it was headed your way until suddenly you’re doing it. I helped develop and launch HuffPost Live, which was never something I would have imagined doing. But they came to me and said this is the thing we’re building, and it could be really interesting and special and different.

I said, I don’t have a degree in journalism. They said that’s OK, here’s what you’ll be doing, here’s what you’re going to learn, here’s what you’re going to produce, this is what you’re going to host. That was a weirdly organic experience, even working for this huge company that is owned by an even bigger company, and going into work in a bullpen everyday — which was a very very big departure from my normal life. But I’m so glad I did it. I got such a wealth of experience and lasting friendships, that I would never have had if I didn’t do that for six months.

If I had been on, I don’t know, something that’s had 12 seasons... My friend Kirsten Vangsness has been on Criminal Minds for 15 years, and she is one of those people who can’t sit still creatively. So she does that show but then she takes all her hiatus time to write plays and perform in a theatre company, and she owns a distillery.

And I would like to think that I would be that person if I had been on a show for that long, but I could also see myself never having gotten involved with a bunch of the stuff that I do, being like oh I’ve got a job, and just keeps getting renewed, and it’s great money so why spend the emotional and physical energy to battle to get something else done?

LH: So you must also have to make some hard decisions. Like sometimes you find yourself spread thin and you have to figure out what you going to say no to. Has there been a time you had to turn something down — or a time you did and wish you hadn’t?

JV: I don’t know that there has been. It’s kind of more small stuff. I mean I certainly learned doing HuffPost why that was not something I would be able to sustain. I have too many other things going on that I couldn’t stop doing and wouldn’t stop doing. So that was that was a situation in which I found out very quickly, this is not something that I could continue to do. It didn’t come down to having to make that choice, which was great. I know now what it feels like to cross over and onto the other side of “this is not possible.”

There are definitely auditions that come up that now mean something different to me. Like if something shoots in New York half the year. I just got an audition for a video game that means working in Serbia, and I just can’t do that right now. I have too much stuff that’s tying me to the States and specifically being in town.

There was certainly a time in my career where I would have just been so lucky to have one thing happening. But especially if you are a person who has gotten the thrill of generating your own stuff, and to be in demand — whatever that means, whether it’s that you have a bunch of creative friends who want you to make stuff with them for free, or that directors like working with you, or people like what you write — I’m not speaking of myself, just anybody who’s playing in different fields — it is really hard to say no.

The anxiety is drilled into you when you come into show business, “This could be your last job!” That’s the kind of negative side of it, but the positive side of it is that it just feels great to help other people out. And they do it for you, and do things just for the fun of it. And if you’re lucky enough to do what you love, you want to be able to do it all the time. It’s hard to say no, because things are fun, not just because you’re afraid, you have a fleeting flicker of “Maybe this person won’t hire me next time!”

The idea of being somewhere really far away for an indeterminate period of time is very difficult. And likewise the idea of having just one gig that takes up a tremendous amount of time becomes very scary.

LH: I want to wrap up with some of our standard questions: What is something you are currently reading or really recommend?

JV: Oh my gosh. Currently I’m going through a real Ruth Rendell jag. I love mysteries, I have long been a British mystery nerd, and Ruth Rendell wrote so many books and lived for such a long rich life, that I probably wouldn’t run out for quite some time. I’m currently listening to Asta’s Book, which she wrote under a pen name.

I don’t know why, maybe people were just like “You can’t possibly be putting out this many good books, we hate you for it,” so she started to use the name Barbara Vine. But Asta’s Book takes place in two different time periods. One of the protagonists is a Danish woman living in London in 1910ish. And it’s great. You learn a lot more than you thought you would listening to a mystery.

LH: What is something you are still trying to figure out?

JV: What isn’t? It is a challenge to me to sew together some of the different things I do. I genuinely believe that if someone’s a fan of this thing I’ve done, I bet they would love this other thing. But it’s outside of their fandom. Having done the voice of Korra on The Legend of Korra, that has this astonishing, loyal, wonderful, thoughtful fandom that continues to bring me out to Comic-Con and stuff like that, but a lot of those people are like we watch anime, we watch cartoons, we read graphic novels. We love superheroes.

That’s what we’re into. But at the same time I want to go, but there’s this other thing, this weird podcast, this improvised comedy that doesn’t fit into anything that you’re into right now, but if you listen to it I think you think it was hilarious and great!

Because there are so many different things I enjoy, and they exist in these different spheres, it’s still a challenge to stitch together stuff, to present the things I’m proud of in a package so people can go “Oh, OK!”


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