Thursday, June 20, 2024

Horoscopes, Avatars, And COVID Era Comedy: A Chat With Janet Varney

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As we were thinking of ideas for Korra Week, we knew we wanted something really special to come out on the day that Legend of Korra dropped on Netflix. And I (humbly) think we have something that fits the bill. After overcoming technology and a few scheduling issues, I was able to sit down with Janet Varney, the voice of Korra herself, for a chat about the show’s return to Netflix as well as her more recent work and, naturally, how she’s dealing with COVID-19.

Dan: It’s been five, almost six years since the show ended, but the fandom is still going strong. You could be mistaken for thinking the show ended yesterday, as strong as the fandom is.

Janet: Yeah.

DA: What do you think about the show that gives it that kind of level of staying power and in people’s minds like, especially for fans?

JV: I think can say the same thing about The Last Airbender and in some ways that inspires a different kind of fandom. I think a lot of people grew up on that show and then came into the Legend of Korra, maybe a little bit older, and came into a show that was kind of pulling fewer punches. Which isn’t to say that the first series wasn’t incredibly deep and tackled all kinds of really adult themes, I think, really gentle and wonderful ways and in some cases, not so gentle ways. But obviously, Korra kind of came in full steam ahead, right? I mean, it really just sort of landed and then things were just off and running.

Korra and Asami holding hands as they enter the spirit portal
Image via Nickelodeon

Mike [DiMartino] and Brian [Konietzko], to my understanding, always knew they wanted to do a tighter series of episodes per book, they wanted to do four books, but they really wanted to be this sort of tight story, almost the way British shows have started to develop. We see more and more now, especially with cable. They just wanted to drive it through and have it really be an action-packed show and I think they really did that.  But those themes are so universal.  There’s a corporate term that I didn’t know was a thing, but of course, it is in the lexicon of the entertainment world, this “co-viewing” thing, right? Where parents and their kids can watch something together. And oftentimes we think of that as like, the Pixar movies and stuff like that, but I think this very comfortably falls into that category. I think that’s one of the reasons that it sustains even if it’s not, you know, actively on the air because there’s an ever-refreshing wave of kids who are maturing into being old enough to watch some of the scarier stuff and tougher stuff about Korra. But also, there are people who are coming home for the quarantine and saying “I want to watch this thing again, because it gives me a lot of comfort and hope and here’s my parents, or here’s my older brother.” So, I think it’s still one of those shows that gets shared and is kind of, I hope, a perennial,  everlasting show.

DA: I mean, Avatar: The Last Airbender, went up on Netflix,  was it a month or two ago, I forget, and, and it exploded back. Being one of those kids who grew up with it and then was in college when Korra debuted, so I was that exact person seeing it kind of rise back up and seeing new people react to things. I’m seeing people on Twitter reacting like, “Oh my gosh, the prison stuff with Zuko is hilarious” or “Oh my gosh, I just watched the Iroh episode and I’m sobbing.” I think it’s going to be exciting to see and people do the same thing with Korra.

JV:  It is really exciting, and it’s been interesting, too.  I’m not super present online in terms of, you know, fan groups and stuff like that because I think people need to feel free to say however they feel about the shows, and these are shows that inspire a tremendous amount of kind of passion and I totally respect that. So, I tend to say “that’s absolutely your realm.” I don’t want to get in there and interrupt the conversations that are happening. But it’ll be interesting because there are so many hardcore fans who’ve watched the show already four times since it debuted. And I remember when I was a teenager, when I was passionate about something, I really did have that kind of feeling of “I liked it before you.”Like I did have a little bit of that, right? Yeah, there was a sense of “this belongs to just me” or, “this belongs to this” with a core group of fans who were so loyal and so devoted and so passionate about it. It’s funny you bring that up about Avatar and yeah, that resurgence and the people reacting for the first time because I do wonder if there’s a little bit of chatter like that. “Oh my gosh, some of these people are seeing this for the first time? What!?”

DA: Yeah, yeah, I’ve been seeing people make jokes about this for like a decade–

JV: Exactly.

DA:  -and now people are just reacting to it but part of it is why are you only now watching this? What took you so long?

JV: I know, well in Avatar had you know, Korra’s like the way…the show is a she, I guess you call ships she? Show-she, the way she was made available and the way there was that sort of like, confusing period where it seemed like it made sense to have it online. From what I understand, that was where this tremendous amount of downloads was happening and where it seemed like people were watching. So then it shifted off the air but then, to unbeknownst Nickelodeon, everyone was like, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, where is it? What’s happening? What am I doing? And it’s just been around less time, right? There probably will be a ton of people who were like, “Oh, yeah I heard about this, but I just never got around to seeing it and hopefully it will have some sort of impact the way Avatar has. And it really feels like this is a good time to be looking at some of the issues that are explored in shows like The Last Airbender and Korra.

DA: To that point, the show ended back in 2014. It was a very different time period, different sort of political climate. And even at the time, Korra herself was revolutionary for who she was, and the show did so much work with topical issues.  But do you think the show, and especially Korra herself,  will hit a bit differently in 2020 than it did in 2014.

JV: I think there’s a few things that I love about Korra that I think, I hope, will be helpful as people are kind of processing everything that’s going on. One of the things that I think is so powerful and this is true of again, The Last Airbender, about the show that Mike and Brian created and the wonderful writers and animators and musicians and choreographers behind all of it, (I was such a small part of it from my perspective), are these villains. Villains that, you know, you understand them and you understand kind of how they got to where they are and it’s not always a simple right or wrong, and nor is it impossible to understand why people find themselves going down the road to where they’re drawn to those characters, right?

DA: Yeah.

The cover art for Turf Wars
Dark Horse Comics

JV: And so I think that’s really important, especially right now, as we feel so in many ways divided. It’s easy to speak for the United States because that’s where I am and that’s where most of the politics are sort of screaming at us all the time. But even just in the world at large, it feels like such a precarious and divisive time and there’s such a lack of communication and a sense of “us and them.” I hope that despite the fact that Korra has to go in and battle all of these things, that there’s a real sense of like “Oh, we all are who we are because of where we came from.” I don’t know, I’m sort of hoping that will foster some conversation about understanding where people are coming from as a starting point for finding some kind of bridge.

DA: Yeah and I know Korra’s also really popular because she’s also fully willing to jump in and beat people up. That she, that’s also very powerful, I think right now.

JV: Catharsis.

DA: So, though you’ve never really left Korra since the show ended, you recently kind of “returned” to voicing Korra, when you did the live reads of the Turf Wars comic. What was it like to work with Seycchelle [Gabrielle] and Team Avatar again? You know, kind of “getting the band back together”, even if it’s just sort of an online thing.

JV: Oh, it was wonderful. I mean, it was just wonderful. I had done it with Dark Horse Comics at a couple of Comic Cons because there was this wonderful fandom that had the desire to see the stories continue. Happily, Mike and the gang love that storytelling and are huge comic and graphic novels fans. So, making that happen, I think was so exciting, and it was really, really fun to bring them to life a little bit just in those rooms. And I just felt like I a lot of people during the quarantine, the lockdown; when all of that fear, all of that stress began, we always kind of look around to go, ‘what are the things I can do?’ Obviously we can all do monetary donations or certain donations of our time and, and all of that is super important and was stuff I was doing as well, but there was a kind of question of, how do we make people feel less alone? What can I do to hopefully give someone something like bright and exciting to look forward to that maybe you wouldn’t even have happened? Or this bad stuff not happening?

DA: Yeah.

JV: Because things like that, for me, felt so precious when everything felt like there’s only a downside to all of this. So we started with Seychelle, I didn’t want to like hurl something at Nickelodeon and  Dark Horse when everyone was also scrambling to figure out how to just stay afloat or do business or see who can show up for work in some way. So we thought we could just do some of the stuff where it’s mostly Asami and Korra and we could just make sound effects like you would see in the comic…but maybe that’ll put a smile on people’s faces and so we did it. And, from a selfish perspective, and I’m not proud of the selfish side of it, but the flow of just positive, wonderful, sweet, grateful comments from fans who said it was important to them, especially those in the LGBTQ+, community who felt like they wanted to experience the relationship between Korra and Asami in a more visceral way. I felt like well, if that’ll if they’ll put some smiles on some faces, that would be awfully fun. And then we did the second time and, hopefully, we’ll be able to maybe do more. As you know, from when you were just trying to remember when Avatar came on, it’s like time has lost all meaning and it’s like, did we just do that? Did we do it three months ago? What is a month? How many days is a month? Like it’s all sort of in the abstract now. But it was really fun, and it was emotional too.  Anybody who’s followed anything I do, as just myself, know that I’m a pretty emotionally available person and so I was unabashedly very sentimental about the chance to do it.

Dan: Kind of on that same note, when it comes to engaging online engaging with people online, you opened up your Instagram to cosplayers and fans who are missing out on COVID. How’s that been for you? I know you’ve had some really good posts and stuff; people have been sending some really cool cosplays.

Janet is no stranger to cosplay

JV: It came up when San Diego Comic-Con started to roll out its online programming or they were teasing out stuff they were going to be doing in the week following. I did feel this sense of longing from people online, who would email me or contact me in some way just to acknowledge that they weren’t going to be going to any cons even though it was something they look forward to every year. I felt that keen kind of absence myself, and I thought, ah well, you know. Again, it’s this sort of like, what can I do? And I thought maybe it would be fun to do some cosplay stuff, but put a little stamp of what’s happening in the moment on it to try to continue the conversation about it being totally okay to wear a mask. It’s not about anything other than being a person who’s looking out for other people. You can still have fun with it and be tough and strong and silly and all those things and know that it’s okay.

DA: I want to sort of shift gears a little bit and I want to talk a bit about some of the other work that you do. You’ve recently been a regular on Your Daily Horoscope on Quibi and you’ve been on Fortune Rookie for a little while so I was wondering if you had any interest in the more “woo woo” or esoteric things in life or whether that was just a happy accident?

JV: I love that question. Yeah, I absolutely loved that question. I love that you put those things together. What I love about Your Daily Horoscope is that it’s just right up my alley in that it is relentlessly making fun of the idea of a horoscope and of the way we have the capacity to utterly shift our behavior based on a single sentence from a stranger.

DA: Yeah.

JV: Which is very much what I love and what I was inspired by in terms of psychics, astrology, and all of that with Fortune Rookie. I think a lot of us are kind of have this duality, right. Which is, I don’t believe, I don’t believe it all. but I’ve loved to be wrong. I think it’d be so magical and wonderful if the way the planets aligned had some true, true effect on the energy of the world. I love the idea of all of that stuff.  So, I don’t feel like I’m a cynic in the sense that I’m like rolling my eyes. I think it’s lovely, but I don’t believe that. I don’t have any reason to really believe it.

But at the same time what’s been fun and what’s been so funny about, about watching them because we roll out 12 every day–one for each sign. And they’re these really funny two-minute cartoons that often tied in with one another. At the same time, you know, if you are watching something and the little message, the bubble pops up and, and says “you’re feeling this “and “you should do this” like sometimes is just happens to be true. And it’s kind of helpful.

Janet's tarot card from Fortune Rookie
“I don’t feel like I’m a cynic”

JV: It’s sort of, it’s like if that’s a tool that, that works for you, that helps you turn inward and work on yourself or work on your relationships with other people, great, like more power to you, you know what I mean?

Dan: Yeah.

JV: But having said that, I probably wouldn’t if it was like… here was one that I watched the other day that it was so funny, I think it was like one of Taurus’s, but the horoscope itself was like, “You can’t keep a secret, but why should you? Tell everyone!” And I was like “What!? That’s terrible advice!”

DA: Yeah, when it just tells you something about yourself, that’s fine. But yeah, when it gives bad advice, that’s different.

JV: If you recognize something that’s useful. Cool. But also, like, I think this also happens is, you know, what I recognize that’s useful is like, definitely not my horoscope sign. I have that moment where I go, oh, it’s so true. It’s dead-on. But then I think, wait, that’s Libra. Oh, I’m an Aquarius. Oh, I guess I think I might’ve just disproven the whole…oh, okay, never mind.

DA: Yeah, that’s why they do the charts like that. They incorporate as many different ones as you can so that all of them apply to you in different ways. You can, that way they’re never wrong.

JV: Oh, my gosh.  It’s so true. Like, I’ve had my chart done. It was a gift to me, from someone and I did love it. I loved it. It didn’t do anything big, I recognized all of it. Like, I could just take what I want, and if this other thing doesn’t feel right, fine. And now I have this whole map of why my personality is the way it is. And I’m sure if you had done my chart and it had been everything totally different, I would have been like, yes, this is me. Have you ever had anything like that done?

DA: Yeah, I’ve done my chart before. And yeah, you do it and you say, oh, this is totally me. But then they’re like let me do it again. And then, oh, wait no, this is also totally me.

JV: Yeah, I know. Wait, okay. So, what’s your sign? What is your main sign? And then what’s your like sun and what’s your moon or what’s your rising and what’s your moon, right? I guess, whatever you’re like.

DA: I mainly, I’m an Aries.

JV: Okay.

DA: And then If I remember correctly, I don’t have it in front of me. I think, I’m a Sagittarius sun and I think a Leo moon, but I don’t not perfectly remember the moon one, but I know I’m a Sagittarius sun.

The animated cast of Your Daily Horoscope
In Your Daily Horoscope, Janet voices Cancer the Crab, Gemini The Twins, and Leo the Chief Communications Officer

JV: Gotcha.

DA: All kinds of weird.

JV: I’m like okay, what are we? Yeah, what is that? Those seem like very strong signs from again, with zero information.

DA: Yeah.

JV: These teams are pretty strong.

DA: I got to think like I read Aries signs and like half the Aries signs, you’re just, you’re a big asshole to everybody. And you’re cool that you do that. And I’m like, I don’t want that!

JV: Yeah. Well, now that’s where your rising comes in. See, this is how we explain it because your rising sign is your–Kind of the behavior the world actually sees. So you, like, love to party, and your moon is like, you’re secretly a leader, but it’s the bad side of that. So, it’s like, you think everyone’s doing it wrong, but you’re not taking over?

DA: It’s a weird, weird combination of signs, especially when you get those strong signs in the moon and you’re trying to figure out how you do that. I don’t, I’m not an expert at it.  I know people who are really into it. They can really explain every possible thing, and tell me what’s in what house and who, and how Mercury’s in Gatorade and all that. And, I’m like, okay.

JV: Did you say “Mercury’s in Gatorade”? Because that’s the best thing ever I’ve heard.

DA: I can’t claim that joke. I’ve heard that joke somewhere else.

Janet: Oh, that’s really good. My three are basically the thing that makes horoscopes seem true because mine is like, I’m an Aquarius. So oh, she’s quirky. She’s unique. She’s, you know, she’ll do it her own way. And then the rising sign is Leo. So, it’s like, you come off as a performer. And then the moon is Virgo, which is like, and you’re a control freak. So I’m a good poster child for like, clearly, this is real because look, that works perfectly. Just check[s] every box.

Dan: And at least it’s an accident with the stars. You know, when we have someone who’s like reading your palm, for instance, they get you. And they’re like, oh, look at this here, I bet you’re a performer. I bet you like to tell jokes. You’re like yes, yes, thank you for reading my Wikipedia.

Janet: Exactly. Oh my god. Yeah. I never get tired of that stuff.

Dan: Yeah, so speaking of, so I wanted to…I don’t mean to focus too heavily on COVID, but-

Janet: That’s okay, we’re all in it.

Dan: One thing I’m curious about is, when it comes to entertainers right now, especially people doing a lot of live work, is how they’re dealing with COVID. I know you’re pretty heavily involved in the California sketch comedy and improv scene. I wonder how it’s been affected by things or what you’ve seen trying to get through?

Janet Varney performing on stage
Janet frequently performs with Theme Park Improv, alongside other comedians like Rachel Dratch

JV: It’s been really tough. I think that the toughest thing has been how your heart hurts for people who, you know, make their money from live events. And that goes for music too. There’s a wonderful venue that is run by two pals of mine, whom I’ve known for many, many years long before they were running it, Dynasty Typewriter. It’s this great golden theater that everybody just kind of fell in love with when they started, they fixed it all up and it’s this really welcoming, great place to perform comedy. And you know, they’re not, they’re just two people with a lease. If people aren’t buying tickets to shows, what do they do? So, I’ve been really heartened to see them think outside the box and really get creative about the different stuff that they can still offer. They’ve been streaming some live stuff. They’ve been offering some kind of classes they’ve been on. They’ll just kind of offer really kooky stuff. I want to say they even offered a tarot reading. So, that really comes out buttons that ties out right back into what we’re saying.

But there are other places like The Largo, another venue that can’t be cheap to just have sit empty. Conan O’Brien started shooting his stuff from there. So it’s been both hard and upsetting, especially to see some of the comedy schools trying to figure how to stay afloat and run online classes and stuff. People are coming up with solutions, but you know, in San Francisco where I produce a comedy festival, there are venues that are very much in danger of closing. Because now we’re talking San Francisco rents and there’s really very little buffer between going out of business and staying in business. So, it’s been hard, and I’ve been really impressed with the ways in which people are figuring stuff out. But I also still recognize that everybody needs help and that you know, it’s one piece of a nation that is really hurting. I hope we’ll get the support it needs as we kind of try to muddle our way through this.

DA: Do you know if you’re going to be moving your festival online or? Or is that even doable?

JV: I mean, that’s a very astute question right now. We’re just kind of focusing on doing some stuff that we haven’t ever done before to try to help and to give back as well to some San Francisco comedians and venues. We opened up our archive, which has always just been an archive kind of for us or for sizzle reels or to help big names know what we’re about. But we were able to get permission from people to make some of those older videos available to rent. And some of them are really special, you know, there, these kinds of one-off flight, these people have never done a show together and they never have since. There’s stuff like that as far as what journey looks like. I mean, we’re kind of just putting one foot in front of the other. We were very lucky because it hit right after we finished our 2020 festival.

“I hope we’ll get the support it needs as we kind of try to muddle our way through this.”

Really, really lucky, you know? Looking at stuff like SXSW, my stomach just hurt for them when they had to cancel. So last minute. So right now we’re kind of starting to figure out what we’re going to do for this upcoming year. And we’re definitely in a holding pattern. But we haven’t made any official decisions as to like what the shape and size, if any, you know, it’ll be. I mean, it doesn’t seem like having 300 shows in a bunch of packed theaters with people breathing on each other is likely anytime soon.

DA: Hopefully less scary, but kind of similar. With your podcast, with The JV Club. Which as you said, you’ve been, which you mentioned you’ve been hosting for eight years now.

JV: Yes, indeed.

DA: Moved about a year or two to the Max Fun Network, I believe.

JV: Yeah.

DA: Do you think that you have a different mindset about The JV Club and your hosting of it and what it kind of represents for people or what it can do for people now that they rely on online stuff for a lot of the entertainment?

JV Club logo
Image via Max Fun Network

JV: Well, I’m such a proponent of podcasts. I just love, love podcasts because I am very bad at sitting still in one place. I like to sort of be buzzing around. I think for me, that is kind of an anxiety manager, right? I’m like oh, the pandemic is tearing through the world. Let me quickly get rid of a bunch of old socks. Yes, I have. Yes. I feel much better. This is very bearable now. Like, you know, it’s that kind of control. Like what can I control in my little world? I think actors or writers, there’s a sort of ephemeral quality to their work product. A lot of us also respond really positively to like, ‘I cleaned this’, or ‘I built this’, or ‘I gardened this’ but I’m not a bread maker and I’m not avid gardener.

DA: Oh, you missed the bread craze earlier this year?

JV: I missed the bread craze. Entirely, entirely. So, I love a podcast because I love to veg out and watch TV or, you know, check out something that’s streaming online on my computer, if it’s really special and all of that works for me. But for me, I’m very much the person that podcast was made for, which is to say, I love having earbuds in my ears that I can take with me anywhere to the top of a mountain or while I’m doing the laundry,  to feel like I have either that companionship or that entertainment or that suspense if it’s an audiobook. So, it’s kind of remained unchanged for me just in the sense that I can still do the audio with people because, in some ways, it’s opened it up more. I still try as much as I can to get people to record if they have their own kind of setup that will allow for it to sound a little bit more like we’re the same room together because that’s one of the things I love about my podcast. I think there’s an intimacy to it that, you know. It’s kind of like you’re sitting in on a pretty candid conversation. But people like Colin Mochrie or Alan Zweibel, both of whom I had on my podcast this summer, they don’t need to have that kind of setup because that’s not what their lives look like. And so normally I might not even have had a chance to talk with them and they were two delightful interviews.

DA: Yeah.

JV: So, it’s opened it up a little bit, but I still love the idea of people being in people’s ears and keeping them company, whatever they’re doing with their day, you know?

DA: So, obviously it’s hard to say necessarily cause a lot of the stuff that you normally would be doing, as you said, is kind of on pause.  But is there anything you’re working on right now?

JV: Yeah. So, I’ve been doing, let’s see, I’m trying to think I’ve been doing some live shows. I think the next one we haven’t announced when, but it’ll be probably next month. We are doing some live Thrilling Adventure Hour streaming shows with folks like Paul F. Tompkins and Paget Brewster and Busy Phillips and Josh Malina and our whole gang, as well as some really, really great guest stars. That’s been really, really fun. It’s been a great way to stay connected to that kind of group of people that I just absolutely love and miss dearly.

So those are happening. I’ve also been doing, as much as I can, with just various Maximum Fun shows [EN: At the time of recording, Max Fun was in the midst of its annual Max Fun Drive].  And, the Quibi show is ongoing. So that’s like if you want to hear me do a bunch of ridiculous voices every day, you can certainly do that. I play Gemini, Cancer, and Leo, and it is, they are writing such funny stuff and it’s really a blessing. So, it’s good for are, it’s a real, like uplifting giggle for me, on weekdays.

And so those are kind of the main ones along with the podcast. And then, as far as, you know, I’m very, very much hoping that I can get back into production with the Netflix sitcom I’ve been on, but you know, that hasn’t, we only had filmed four episodes when this all happened.

DA: Oh, yeah?

JV:  So, we got a way to go before anybody sees it. I’m presuming we can get back in there and keep making this really funny show called Country Comfort. And also, there’s a bunch of kids on it. So everyone’s like: don’t grow up, don’t have any growth spurts. Maybe just don’t eat, maybe just don’t eat, maybe just stay tiny. Cause you’re really cute. So yeah, it’ll be really fun to see everybody again, but you know, those conversations about what it’s going to take to, for it to make sure everybody’s taken care of. And because it’s a Netflix show, I will say about that, that organization, they are NOT fooling around, and they put all kinds of resources into taking care of their people. So, I know that if and when we do go back, I think we will. But when that happens, I feel like they’re going to be ushering in some stuff that’s going to really make people feel like everyone is staying safe. So, it’ll be interesting and I’m sure awkward, as we sort of, you know, adjust to that. Hopefully, it will happen sooner than later, as long as it’s safe.

Dan: Yeah. Well, fingers crossed on that and fingers crossed all this stuff ends sooner rather than later, you know?

You can follow Janet on Twitter or Instagram, and check out her website to stay up to date on all of her latest projects. And be sure to tune in for more Korra Week goodness we enter the weekend!

Images belong to their respective owners

*Portions of this interview were edited for clarity.

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