Juggling is a learned skill. When people master the art, it’s, well, masterful. Some juggle bean bags. Some juggle bowling pins. And there are a few adventurous ones who juggle chainsaws. The most impressive version of balls in the air, however, comes in the form of career juggling, and actress/comedian Janet Varney does it better than most. As the star of “Stan Against Evil” on IFC and “You’re the Worst” on FXX, as well as the host of the Nerdist podcast “The JV Club” and the co-founder and creative director of SF Sketchfest: The San Francisco Comedy Festival, she gives new meaning to the concept of working hard and takes nothing in her professional life for granted.
We recently sat down with Varney to discuss trunk varieties, finding balance in her busy schedule, and enjoying the cosplay diversity of comic conventions.
Varney: Are we in a trunk together?
TrunkSpace: Not physically, but we are in the essence of being in a truck.
Varney: Okay. Is it the essence of a car truck, or the essence of an old Chinese steamer ship trunk? Those are your only two options.
TrunkSpace: Definitely old timey steamer ship where you could open it and find anything imaginable inside.
Varney: Oh, fantastic. Let me get some mustache wax and we’ll get to work.
TrunkSpace: (Laughter) You do so much both inside the industry with film and television, and then just on the outside with the comedy festival and “The JV Club.” How do you manage your time and the individual projects to make them all work in unison?
Varney: Boy, that’s a fantastic question. It is a question that I think I find myself asking myself, almost as much as other people ask me. It’s tough. I think it’s one of those examples as any kind of parent would tell you or somebody who is a firefighter and works 48 straight hours with very little sleep, anything that feels like it’s a little bit out of the box, or out of the trunk if you will, from the basic 9 to 5. From the outside it looks like, “How are you doing that?” But it’s just evidence of human adaptability. I think that every time I go back to Tucson, Arizona. I’m like, “Who decided that this was a safe place to settle?” I just can’t imagine looking around the desert and living there for one summer before air conditioning, fans, coolers, before anything was invented at all, and saying, “I think we can do this. I think we got this.”
TrunkSpace: It’s like the first person who tried crab. Who looked at one and said, “I bet that’s delicious!”
Varney: I just said that! I just said that when I was eating crab! From what it looks like, and what it looks like when it’s raw to where it goes and how delicious it is…
I understand that we’re apes, but we’re not that different from the dog who’s like, “Maybe I’ll sample this piece of shit.”
That feels very sort of Gary Larson, Far Side-ish. Like some series of cartoons that just show the guy who tried the thing, the caveman who tried the thing that, in fact, did kill him. All the people who have sacrificed themselves by making epic fail decisions before there was an internet.
That’s a long way around of saying, “I’m just used to it.” It doesn’t mean it’s good for me all the time. I feel very lazy a lot of the time, which is to say I don’t necessarily just sit around all the time, but I know that I kind of wish I were sitting around all the time. There are definitely things that I put off, that I procrastinate over. It doesn’t matter how much or how little I have going on, I’ll just find a way to not do something until the last minute. It’s like you really wanna find that sweet spot of busyness. There’s a certain level of busyness where your energy is up, you’re not being totally sapped, and so it feels like you’re kind of on top of everything and you have this momentum. You don’t even wanna procrastinate, because it feels great to get stuff done and you’re working on what you love.
What a rare moment to find, but once you feel it, you kind of go, “Well, maybe I’ll just keep reaching towards whatever that thing is. And then, is this too much? Okay, now I feel overwhelmed and I just wanna have a nervous breakdown. Now I feel a little bit like I have only one thing to work on, and now I’ve come to hate that one thing, because it’s taking up too much of my time.”
TrunkSpace: There was a time where you would not see someone starring in multiple shows for multiple networks, but that is not the case anymore. The way that the industry has changed seems to have allowed for creative people to juggle more as well.
Varney: Yeah, it definitely has, especially in a business where you’re conditioned to be afraid to say no, which isn’t a good thing. There’s something very empowering about making the right decision for yourself and taking care of yourself, even if that means saying, “This project isn’t right for me.” Or, “I can’t juggle one more plate, I have to think about my family.” Or whatever the reason is. Again, that’s that balance we’re talking about striking.
In this business, because there is so much that’s up in the air and so much that’s out of our control, it does feel, I think, good and exciting to have the capability to be doing different things, because then your eggs aren’t all in one basket. Your heart isn’t shattered when the one show that you’re doing goes away, and you sort of look around with this existential conundrum going, “What is my purpose again?”
TrunkSpace: There was a time when a television show needed millions upon millions of viewers to be considered a success. Now a show is allowed to find an audience and grow, which is nice to see and it must help take the pressure off of everyone involved?
Varney: I couldn’t agree more. I’ve never liked anything that mainstream, so I can’t imagine creating or being a part of something that mainstream. Never say never, but I always like the stuff that makes it fun to go to places like Comic-Con. Not San Diego Comic-Con, where everything is huge and corporatey, but these smaller cons where people are cosplaying as things you’ve never seen before, and that’s okay. And they’re happy to tell you about this weird, random, Japanese Anime that they love and that you’ve never seen. And that makes me so happy, that there’s room for people with all kinds of different tastes to get a feel of what they like.
TrunkSpace: “Stan Against Evil” is set to return in November. From an acting standpoint, what’s the best part about returning to a series after a long hiatus?
Varney: What’s funny is we all kind of had the same experience, which is it felt like so much time had passed. I think it’s kind of like going back to school. It feels like all of these things happened in your life and that all this time has passed, and then you get on the set and it feels like, “Oh, I was just here. Did I ever leave?”
What a joy to see that crew again. It’s just such a great group of people. There are things that we learned about how to function in the short period of time that we have to shoot the show. And Dana Gould had the experience of writing a bunch of stuff with the writers without having seen the set or knowing what Georgia was going to be like, precisely, in the middle of the night in the swamps in July, and maybe regretted a couple of the decisions that he made. (Laughter)
TrunkSpace: (Laughter) Sounds cozy!
Varney: (Laughter) So he went in to coming up with season 2 ideas armed with a lot more information, a lot more on-the-ground information, and I think that’s reflected in season 2 and what happened during the production. I’m so lucky now that I look back at the stuff that I’ve done over the… I guess I’ve been doing this for 12 years maybe, something like that. And it’s not that I wasn’t proud of things I worked on in the beginning. I was, but there was just sort of a universal wash of delight and surprise that I was working at all. And I did love “Dinner & a Movie.” I loved Claud and Paul. And that shot in Atlanta, so I got to love that city over the seven years that I did that show.
But for some reason, in the last four or five years, there has been a different shift to feeling like I had just gotten even more lucky, and I’ve had more ongoing, long-term jobs that have just been real pinch-me moments of, “Why am I getting to work on this?”
I feel so incredibly lucky to get to work with Dana and John C. McGinley and that extraordinary group of people. I just don’t think I’ve taken any of it for granted. I have many, many flaws, but taking the work for granted, I think is not one of them.
TrunkSpace: You had mentioned that as a viewer you like shows that are not in the mainstream. The thing about “Stan Against Evil” is that tonally it’s a difficult one to find a balance with for a lot of shows, the horror/comedy mix. But your show does it so well. Did you guys have to do some massaging to find that tone and get into groove?
Varney: I think it’s Dana, as a show. He’s such a fan of old-school horror, zombie, Roger Corman, Elvira, and just everything from “Planet of the Apes.” He’s just such a nerd for that stuff, and has been his whole life. And then, you take his enthusiasm for that, that he’s had his whole life, and you take his enthusiasm for comedy that he’s been cultivating, and obviously had a lot of experience working on with “The Simpsons” and as a stand-up over the years and I just think that stuff was all cooking in his brain just as he was walking around being a human being in life. So when it came time for him to actually do the show, I feel like he just really, really knew the tone. And I think he did a tremendous job of communicating that really early on. And he loves to say this and I always get really embarrassed and now here I am saying it myself, but I guess it turns out he wrote the part of Evie for me. He wrote it with me in mind. I still can’t believe that. That’s outrageous to me.
So I was obviously on the same page with him from the beginning, and then as IFC and Dana were in search of their Stan, having John C. just get it and get it so quickly was paramount. It was so exciting for everybody to be locking in this amazing group of people who just got it from the get go. Because, again, we have such a little amount of time to shoot it, that was just imperative. Everybody had to kind of be on board for the tone from the beginning. And it does kind of feel like serendipity, it feels like, “Well how did that work out?” Thank God it did.
TrunkSpace: Do you feel like playing Evie has helped break any preconceived notions within the industry about you as a performer?
Varney: Gosh, I hope so. I don’t know that I can identify a specific situation where I would have gone in for something and had someone say, “By the way, I wouldn’t have brought you in for this if it weren’t for your role as Evie on ‘Stan Against Evil.'” I think, for me, if you think about the work you’re leaving behind, that and “The Legend of Korra” are the two things that have maybe shown my range the most. And that’s a tremendous gift.
That’s another thing where very few of us feel like we have the luxury of sniping about thinking we only ever get to play one thing. But typecasting is totally real, and it’s not even something that I can get mad about. That’s just how we are. As a producer, I know that I think of people in a certain way based on the work I’ve seen them do. And it doesn’t mean that I’m not open to seeing them do something else, but we’re creatures who like to put things in boxes because we take in a tremendous amount of stimuli. So I totally get that someone would look at me and go, “No, I don’t see Janet Varney auditioning as the lead surgeon on this procedural. She does this, this, and this.”
Maybe it’s just that I don’t feel like I’m not getting to stretch. With that said, to your point, it’s been great to have these roles that maybe dig a little deeper. And the same is true with “You’re the Worst,” to be honest with you. As outrageous as that character is, she is deeply wounded, and so there is definitely stuff going on inside that I think informs even how over-the-top she is and forms something human about it. And I think that’s what’s so great about that show, is that for all of these characters basically being some version of the worst, they really are arguably each one the worst, because they’re all different and peculiar at how awful they are. There’s something so vulnerable about all of them. And to me, that’s what makes you wanna come back to it, even with all the train wrecks, because you still root for the characters.
Season 4 of “You’re the Worst” premieres September 6 on FXX.
Season 2 of “Stan Against Evil” premieres November 1 on IFC.
You can listen to The JV Club here.