Janet Varney Interview: ‘The Legend of Korra,’ Chest Size and Working at Pottery Barn
In the business of show, Janet Varney has a career that nearly any young hopeful could and would wish for. Her talents shined from sketch comedy to acting to podcasting, and now even voice acting. She is currently the voice of Korra on Nickelodeon’s ‘The Legend of Korra’ and hosts her own podcast on the Nerdist network titled ‘The JV Club.’
Janet’s love for comedy is something she’s carried with her her entire life. Before she began appearing in shows such as ‘Entourage,’ ‘Hot in Cleveland,’ ‘Bones’ and ‘Psych,’ as well as co-hosting the now defunct TBS series ‘Dinner and A Movie,’ she co-founded a festival located in San Francisco titled SF Sketchfest back in 2002. Over the past 11 years, the SF Sketchfest has grown to be "the thing to go to" in the comedy world and has developed into a largely known and immensely well-respected comedy festival that attracts the likes of too many comedians to name.
Janet recently spoke to us about how she began her career in show business, how the SF Sketchfest affected her and what she feels about the successes she’s been fortunate enough to encounter.
You’ve been in movies, you’ve been on TV and you have your own podcast. Among all of that you also seem to have this separate career in comedy. Was comedy the goal?
It wasn’t necessarily my goal, though I was certainly obsessed with comedy. My role models were comedians, but for some reason I just never thought that that would be me. I thought, if anything, that I’d be just an actor. Then the acting thing left and by the time I was 18 I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to do that. So I kind of came back around to acting after thinking that I’d have a completely different career. And it just kind of led back here. I was kind of dragged down here by my representation. [laughs] I was very happy living in San Francisco. I loved that city and had loved what I had been doing for work up until that point.
At first, the comedy group that I ended up performing in for fun had to cajole and coax me into joining. I really don’t feel like I’d have a career if it weren’t for Gabriel Diani, Cole Stratton and David Owen, two of whom are my Sketchfest partners. They really believed in me and encouraged me. I just didn’t trust myself in that way until I had that sort of family of sketch performers. So we got into the Aspen comedy festival and that’s where I met my manager and lawyer. They must have sensed something because sure enough after getting one job I was hooked and moved down.
So what were you doing in San Francisco?
The way that I paid my dues had nothing to do with performing. It was in retail. This is so silly and so embarrassing, but I would get the Pottery Barn catalogue in Arizona where I was going to school and be like, “This is so beautiful! This is the world that I want to live in. I want my house to look like this!” So I had already known that I was going to move to San Francisco because I had visited there when I was 13 and fell in love with it. So imagine my joy when I found out that Pottery Barn is based in San Francisco.
When I got there, I marched up to the closest Pottery Barn to my apartment and filled out an application to be a seasonal sales associate, which was like a gift-wrapper in the back. I did that and then they promoted me a couple of times, then to the manager. Then I worked in the corporate offices and got recruited by an interior designer to work as a project manager at their firm. Then I left to be a buyer for this upscale furniture boutique in San Francisco. So I was living in that world and then got into the production side of commercial photography. But I was also in a band too. Then my band broke up and at the same time these guys who I went to college with asked me if I wanted to be in the sketch group. So that filled the hole while I was doing what I was with my life.
Wow. So you actually had a whole different life before this.
I did! I know. But I still love that stuff so much. It’d be so cool to be so successful where I could open up a shop someday.
So what made you all start the SF Sketchfest then?
That was something that came out of us trying to find places to perform in San Francisco. We were doing sets at comedy clubs like The Punchline, which had very tiny stages. So we looked into renting a theater space to do our full-hour sketch show but it was just so prohibitively expensive so we reached out to some other sketch groups we knew and said we want to be able to perform our full length set at a real theater and were wondering if they wanted to split that month with us. We could all pair up too and give each other a chance to perform with the other group and cross-contaminate our audiences and such. So we said we’ll call it a festival. They all said let’s do it.
It’s grown so much since then.
It really has. It’s grown into this sort of large fairly prestigious super fun, Indy comedy festival.
Now it’s "the thing" to go to. How long is it?
It runs usually three weekends and then all those nights in between as well. We only have a couple of dark nights. There’s always pretty much something going on, even during the week.
And how many venues are you now using?
At least 11. Maybe more now.
When you first started the festival it was mainly sketch. However, now you have standup, improv, sketch, tributes, etc.
Yeah, we have panels and films, music. We have everything we can think of. It’s just an opportunity to get to do what we love doing and to bring our heroes to San Francisco. It’s definitely a situation where we accidentally created our dream job.
Absolutely. That’s amazing.
Yeah! We get to pay tribute to our heroes. We also get to scout and find new talent from all over that we find exciting and think they have something to offer. Everybody kind of wins because people love coming to San Francisco; it’s a lovely city with fantastic audiences, and the audiences love the opportunity to see these rare shows and events. It feels like we’re getting away with something because it's like it’s too good to be true. But it’s also very hard work, really hard. But we could never be more excited about it every year.
So it’s been running 11 years -- 12 this coming January. Are there favorite moments you can remember? Maybe where you realized it’s really a special thing?
Yes. But those moments for me usually entail crying so get ready.
I think the general answer is that happens every year. Every year there are shows where I pinch myself, but I think two or three of the biggest for me were early on when we had Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy from ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000’ on. We sold that show out. The guys were so adorable and charming and got a standing ovation instantly when they finished. It happened so fast and everyone was so excited. We all had tears in our eyes where we thought, "We did this!" That hit us really hard.
Then for me, another big one where I was a mess; we did a tribute to Bud Cort and showed ‘Harold and Maude’ at the Castro Theater. I was obsessed with ‘Harold And Maude.’ I loved it. I loved Cat Stevens. I loved the story. It was my favorite movie for decades. And to be able to lead an onstage conversation with Bud Cort and then to have him get a standing ovation, then to walk with him and stand at the back of the theater and watch those first few moments of ‘Harold and Maude.’ At that moment I burst into tears. I feel like it was loud too. I literally had to excuse myself [laughs], but I was so overcome with emotions. Just to have that come full circle in such a way was amazing. That movie had gotten me through so many tough times in high school. To be in that place with one of the stars, it was one of the greatest moments in my life.
Switching gears, you are also on ‘The Legend of Korra,’ which is doing fantastic. What made you interested in doing it?
I’ve been wanting to do voiceovers since I moved here. I really think that is super old-timey magical. I think that’s so cool to hear your voice coming out of somebody else. It affords you the opportunity to enjoy your own work in a much less painful way. A lot of people can watch themselves perform, but I can’t stand it.
It’s something I have to overcome when I watch something I’m in. ‘Burning Love’ is a perfect example. It’s a genius show and I absolutely love it. I could watch it over and over again for everyone else’s performance. But with ‘Korra,' I can just sit back and enjoy the plot and what’s going on and separate from it in such a wonderful way. I feel like I have a different perspective of how amazing it is because I’m not looking at it through the lens of, "Ugh, I have to watch myself. Grumble, grumble." I just think it's an amazing show.
When you record the show, is the cast together?
We record it together whenever possible. There’s almost always someone there. It can’t always be us all because of our schedules. Sometimes David Faustino’s not there. Sometimes I’m not. JK Simmons is one of the busiest men in show business, so we’re really lucky when we get him in the room at the same time. But by and large we’re recording as an ensemble. And that is tremendously important. I’m so grateful for Nickelodeon. They know there’s something special that happens when you act with someone.
We’d imagine it’d be difficult going at it alone.
It can be. I love the benefit of hearing the scenes I’m not in with other people. It’s nice to be surrounded by more talented people. I think that’s the improv mindset. Surround yourself with people who are more talented than you and you’ll get better.
With not having to watch yourself in voice acting, have you grown to enjoy that more than actual acting?
It depends on the day you ask me. If you were to ask me on a day where I felt I hadn’t gotten a role because my boobs weren’t big enough [laughs], which I don’t think I’ve had that specific experience, but you know. If I’m feeling sensitive about the on-camera business I do feel voice is better. But you caught me at a time where I just shot things on camera that I’m so proud of.
Actually, speaking of your voice, you have your own podcast, the JV Club. What made you want to start a podcast?
Well, I think I had wanted to do it for a while. I was with Chris Hardwick for some time and I was definitely at his side, if you will, when he was creating the Nerdist, which is now an empire. I’m so happy for him and was inspired by him. He was doing his podcast and said I should do one. He said I had an interesting point of view. I wasn’t onboard with the idea. One of the problems I suffered from was what you said earlier in the beginning, I do a lot of different things. It was almost like what’s my perspective going to be? It can be daunting at times. I never necessarily thought it would be a podcast with women. I’m not that kind of girl really. But I started thinking maybe there isn’t anything with a girl host and girl guest. It doesn’t have to be about women and our periods. It was like it wasn’t being done and there was my answer. It was different.
I enjoy it and the fans so much. It’s completely changed my life. Between that and ‘Korra,’ the landscape of my life is so much richer. The work I’m doing now I get more out of it emotionally, intellectually and creatively than ever before. Sketchfest was the first time I had experienced that but I never knew that I could have that year round.
It’s always nice to hear somebody actually enjoy what they do. So with the podcast, do you find yourself being more closely connected with your fans?
I do think that. I want people to feel better in their skin then they do before they listen to a podcast, whatever that means. I don’t mean to say that I’m Oprah. I just think that intimacy with a fan gets to exist on a different level when it is so personal. I couldn’t love that more.
That intimacy is crazily unique. It helps people realize they’re not alone.
I couldn’t agree with that more. It’s a kind of an extraordinary phenomenon. It really is worlds-apart different than old school Hollywood, which I absolutely respect. But it is different. What I hope is with the accessibility of celebrity through things like podcasts, Twitter and stuff, maybe it helps people get a chance to connect with reality better in showing that we’re all the same. I’m not saying I’m a celebrity at all -- but I mean anybody you can see on TV or in movies -- if it can help you see we’re all the same, I can’t help but think that that’s somehow good.
It gives everybody the reality that we’re all just people.
With everything you’re doing, are you working on anything new?
One of the things I’m really excited about is this show with Neil Patrick Harris for the Nerdist channel.
We were hoping you’d mention that.
Yeah! It’s how he dreams in puppets. We’re writing sketches right now. It’s so much fun to write for him and for Henson Puppets. That’s another pinch me moment. It’s so good to have those moments when you’re working hard and feeling vulnerable. It’s great to take a step back and realize this is a dream come true.