08/01/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT
JANEANE GAROFALO, WHO PLAYS PAULA, THE SUPER-EFFICIENT, slightly crazed talent-booker on HBO's Larry Sanders Show, seems to have an eerie real-life talent for booking bad luck. Take last Jan. 14—please. Shortly after midnight, as Garofalo, 29, was coming home to her Hollywood apartment, she was approached by two gun-wielding teenagers who demanded the knapsack off her back, with her wallet, journal and address book inside. The muggers—still at large—got away with $200 in cash. Then her brand-new Geo Prism was stolen from a parking space right in front of her apartment, never to be seen again. Both incidents left her shaken. The next day, the L.A. earthquake struck. Although Garofalo's studio sustained only minimal damage, the same could not be said for her nerves. "Everything I own fell down," she recalls, "and it made me realize everything could fall down at any moment."
Her fear—which aptly sums up her philosophy of life—was nearly prophetic. After the quake, Garofalo sought temporary refuge in the nearby home of her close friend, fellow actress and comedian Laura Milligan. Both women were inside—but unhurt—when a passing car, apparently unable to negotiate a bend in the road, crashed into Milligan's house.
You'd think Garofalo, like Li'l Abner's accursed Joe Btfsplk, was living under a perpetual black cloud. In fact if you delete the natural and unnatural disasters, this has been one of the best years of her life. Her surreal hard-luck streak ended shortly after the quake, when the movie Reality Bites premiered, and the cherubic Garofalo won raves for her plummy role as Winona Ryder's free-spirited roommate. This summer, in her third season on Sanders, a newly blonde Garofalo ("I liked the way it looked so fake," she explains with characteristic quirkiness) is getting meatier plot lines. Still, she'll be letting her golden tresses fade back to brown by season's end, since that's the way the producers of Bye Bye Love, starring Mad About You's Paul Reiser, want Garofalo to look in the upcoming big-screen comedy. (She'll play Randy Quaid's psycho girlfriend.) And this fall, Garofalo will move to New York City to join the cast of Saturday Night Live.
Her career ascent, however, has hardly inflated Garofalo's self-image. Not even those great notices she got in Bites? Big deal. "I only remember the bad reviews," says Garofalo. "I watched the movie, and all I was saying was, 'You're so fat! You're so fake!' I was cringing."
"Janeane," says her friend and Bites director Ben Stiller, "isn't someone who is very self-congratulatory, to put it mildly."
Garofalo first developed that self-deprecatory streak as a teenager. The youngest of three children of Carmine Garofalo, an Exxon executive, and his wife, Joan, a homemaker, Janeane (pronounced Jan-EEN) enjoyed what she calls a "very normal, very nice" upbringing in Madison, N.J., until, before her senior year of high school, her father was transferred to Houston. Garofalo suddenly found herself among strangers at James E. Taylor High School. "I had no friends and I thought I was so fat," she says. "I went through this pit of despair. All I did was eat and sleep, eat and sleep." But the new kid in school also flashed a sardonic sense of humor that earned her a niche as class clown.
At Providence College, where she was a history major, Garofalo was inspired by the example of her stand-up comedy idols Paula Poundstone and Bill Hicks to enter a cable-TV contest seeking the funniest person in Rhode Island. At that point she might have been the shiest, but she forced herself to go onstage. She won handily. After that, she says, "I didn't want to get married. I didn't want to have kids. I just wanted to be a stand-up comic."
After graduating in 1986, Garofalo went to Boston, where she worked as a bicycle messenger by day and pedaled around the comedy-club circuit by night. In 1990 she moved to Los Angeles, where an up-and-coming Stiller cast Garofalo in his 1992 Fox series The Ben Stiller Show. "We hooked up on the same cynical level," he recalls. "We both had a lot of SCTV-watching in our backgrounds." One of the guests on the show's pilot episode was Garry Shandling, who was then preparing Sanders. "I called our casting director right after I met her," he says, "and said we had to get her. I'm just a huge fan."
He's not the only one. Although Garofalo isn't seeing anyone now, she says she has a lot of male admirers—most of them "Trekkie and science-fiction guys. They like me," she surmises, "because I don't intimidate them." (Garofalo, a fan of alternate rock music, prefers guys like those in the band Weezer. "They dress like they're hip, but they aren't just trying to be hip," she says of their baggy-pants-and-untucked-shirts look.)
Asking her out for a date, though, could be daunting. "I can't even plan for the weekend," says the eternal pessimist. "An earthquake could hit tonight and ruin everything."
MICHAEL A. LIPTON
CRAIG TOMASHOFF in Los Angeles