If one were to look in the closet of artistic hats Janet Varney has worn throughout her career it’d be packed. Examining a few: Host of her own podcast. Star of a beloved animated series. Co-writer of a digital comedy TV series. Co-Founder, Co-Producer, and Co-Creative Director of an annual festival.
In Nickelodeon’s Legend of Korra series (2012-2014) her titular cartoon counterpart was a super powered multitasker able to wield and control all four Earthly elements; Varney can’t control waves or float on clouds, but it’s easy to see her and her character Korra share some real world commonalities with the many projects she’s juggled at the same time.
Before, during, and after that series Varney has stayed quite busy; last week The Beat was fortunate to have the opportunity to speak with her, in a phone interview, about her many projects including the upcoming SF Sketchfest (Jan 9-26), Legend of Korra, and her favorite holiday films.
Halls: A fun aspect of getting ready for this interview was I got to discover and listen to your podcast The JV Club where you talk to various women [past guests including Kirsten Bell and Gillian Jacobs] about the adolescent experience, which is so awesome. I speak for myself and probably other readers in that adolescence can often be an overwhelming and confusing time. Has talking with your guests, and hearing their stories, made you able to look back at your adolescent experience with more of an understanding or clarity?
Varney: Oh absolutely! I think that that’s one of the things that has been so incredibly inspiring and valuable to me about doing it is just getting to know a lot of people.
[Some people who] are in the entertainment business are more forthcoming about even things that they’re challenged by today in their lives like Maria Bamford [who’s] obviously a brilliant, brilliant, comedian. [She’s] been very frank about her struggles with mental illness in a way that I think has been so brave and inspiring.
But also just people who don’t necessarily express a lot about their personal selves and their work because they’re actors or they’re writing for a show or what have you.
Hearing all of these stories and experiences from people that we, I think, often — I think there’s still that thing where we put people on a pedestal if they’ve enjoyed success at something that we admire. For me, it’s just so nice to hear that everybody comes from a place of vulnerability, and I think adolescence is a really good way to explore that and explore what we have in common with each other.
Halls: Speaking of adolescence – For four seasons you got to voice a teen transiting into young womanhood on Nickelodeon’s Legend of Korra cartoon series. As Korra, was it fun to jump back into that adolescent mindset but in this expansive fantasy universe [Michael Dante DiMartino] and Bryan [Konietzko] created?
Varney: Oh absolutely! I would have been excited to be any part of that show at all; the fact that I got to voice Korra was just so shocking and wonderful and kind of unbelievable. It was a very funny coincidence because I had just started doing the podcast and so when I got the part it felt a little bit serendipitous because I was very much steeped in all of our teen experiences already. I was like, “Oh cool! This is a weird dovetail into me connecting with something else that I’m working on.”
I remember the first season — and by the way I don’t ever read feedback online because I definitely am like, “I’m not good at weeding through mean things for some nice things, so I just let people tell me nice things in person.” [laughs]
But I remember the first season people would be like, “I love the new show, but I was so use to Aang, and Korra is really frustrating me. What’s her problem?” I felt really connected to Korra in that way when I would defend her which is that I would say, “Imagine if you were in her position and you were a teenager and all of this was thrust upon you.” You don’t understand your mortality when you’re a teenager; it seems like we either feel like we’re the most helpless person in the world or we’re the most powerful. Or we’re trying to front as if we are powerful and as if we do have control of situations when we don’t. So everything that she did that I think was frustrating to fans initially, and some people were fine with it, was just the humanity of it and that’s what I loved about her; I loved that she had to go through that and go on that journey.
Halls: Korra as a series certainly wasn’t afraid to shy away from moments of darkness – Zaheer bending the air out of The Earth Queen. Tarrlok blowing himself and his brother Amon up. When you were getting those scripts, while working on the show, were you and the cast ever shocked at how far the creative team was willing to push the envelope of this so called children’s cartoon series?
Varney: Well I think shocked wouldn’t be the word — I think really impressed. I think the show comes out swinging with this really fantastic new piece of this universe that Mike and Bryan created, and the sophistication of the big city and all of that kind of stuff; then it brings us a level of maturity with Amon, the first villain, that really sets itself up for the progression of things escalating with the drama, and the action, and the tough stuff right through the forth season just with that first season alone.
So I think I was never surprised, but I was always impressed. I think the rest of the cast felt the same way just in terms of, like you said, not pulling any punches — really trusting in the fans to get the most out of the storytelling that was happening and understanding that sometimes you have to go to dark places to find that light.
Halls: Fortunately the show wasn’t just filled with darkness. It featured the much adored romance between Korra and her eventual girlfriend Asami [voiced by Seychelle Gabriel]. What was that storyline discovery like for you as an actor? While working on the show did you ever get to talk to Mike, Bryan, or Seychelle about it and how big of a deal it was?
Varney: Yeah! We did get to talk about it; it was really great. I absolutely adore Seychelle, and we worked so well together, which is true for the whole cast. As a person she’s a fearless, progressive, funny, sympathetic person, and I’d like to think in my best days I’m the same [laughs].
So, when Mike and Bryan — they actually did pull us aside while we were recording at one point. [It] was something they didn’t usually do; they didn’t usually tell us a ton about what was coming up in seasons ahead or in episodes ahead. While it might seem dramatic to pull your actors aside to talk about a love story — the reality is where cartoons were, and just the fact it was Nickelodeon and stuff like that they had to be mindful of and sensitive to the fact that this was breaking new ground in some ways.
[That’s] not to say there hasn’t been LGBTQ+ stuff called out in anime or in cartoons before but this was a high profile one, and so they wanted to share where the story was headed. They did sort of ask — not for our blessing cause’ those guys really know what they’re doing and they’re fairly uncompromising in that way, in a good way — but they just wanted to let us know and see what we thought about it. I think both our eyes teared up and we were smiling so hard our cheeks hurt, so they got a pretty good sense right away that we thought it was really wonderful. We were so excited to see the story go in that direction.
Halls: Having voiced Korra, how does it feel to know her and her friends adventures are continuing and still capturing fans imaginations in new [Dark Horse] comics [released] well after the series has ended?
Varney: Oh I love it! I’m such a fan of Irene Koh‘s illustrations, and she as a person is really remarkable — she did an episode of my podcast as well actually! So just getting to see things were they picked up and really I think it was the right thing to do just saying “Hey! Guess what? We’re going to pick up exactly where we left off.” Versus, “It’s been two years and Korra and Asami blah, blah, blah…” You know?
I was excited, and I’ve actually had the honor of being a part of some Dark Horse events at various Comic Cons where we’ve read passages from the book and done giveaways and trivia and all kinds of stuff to do with all the various books including the Poster Book and including the Airbender books that proceeded Korra. So, being connected with that world even as the cartoon itself has ended has been such as privilege.
Halls: My final Avatar related question for you is Mike and Bryan are currently hard at work on a live-action adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender for Netflix. If you could make a cameo on that show and portray anyone from a live-action bender to a random village person is there anyone you’d want to be?
Varney: I mean listen if they want to put some mega makeup on me and have me peddle cabbage juice I would really be on board for that, but probably there’s someone better suited for it than I! [Laughs] But that being said — Yeah! Anywhere they wanted to bury me I would be more than happy to do that. I don’t know that they know that, so I’m not sure they’re going to be calling me to roll a cart across the street, but I definitely am excited to see what they do and that they get to really be at the helm of this right? Because as we all know they had like nothing to do with the live-action movie and it showed.
Halls: You help produce Voyage to the Stars — an improvised sci-fi podcast where you star alongside other hilarious comedians – when you’re improvising sci-fi/fantasy material how does that compare to kind of just reading a script when you’re still working within that sci-fi and fantasy material?
Varney: What’s funny is when we first stared the podcast it became very clear, very quickly, that Felicia Day really had a lot more to worry about than the rest of us because she was the Chief Science Officer so she kind of needed to know about stuff. So, we were always so impressed when she would rattle off all these things; sometimes she would say a whole bunch of stuff and we’d be like, “Whoa dude! You really sound like a science officer,” and she would be like, “Oh! I don’t know what any of that means. They were just big science words that I put together that probably don’t make any sense when you put them together.”
What’s fun about it too, I think for us, is that we’re very unabashed about dropping tons of references to pop culture or sci-fi, horror, fantasy — all that kind of stuff in addition to making up our own crazy stuff, so I think that’s always fun. I love that we exist in a time in entertainment now where some of the comedy comes out of this sort of wink to the audience like, “Hey, we both know — you’re part of this.”
Do you know what I mean? To feel that meta quality of feeling like as a listener you’re sort of in on a joke or you sort of get a sense of like, “Oh! Steve Berg just made a reference to Tron or whatever. I love knowing that whatever his character on the show is obviously he has to be fan and have some knowledge of this other thing I like because he name dropped it or made a reference to the story.” So, I just love that. I love smart audiences being in on something.
Halls: You work with a lot of comedians [on] a lot of projects. This Friday I believe the lineup for the 19th annual San Francisco Sketchfest is dropping (now released), which you’re the co-founder, co-producer, and co-creative director for. This is a huge comedy festival — Being so involved in the festival from the ground up in what ways has SketchFest developed over the years that you’re most proud of since it’s been going on for so long?
Varney: I think what we have to show for ourselves has as much to do with stuff that we were doing right as much as just the city of San Francisco being such a welcoming place for comedy and the audiences. Even when had first started doing the festival we ourselves felt like, “Wow, these audiences are so savvy and they’re so fun. They really show up wanting to laugh.”
A lot of people who would come in from out of town, from New York or Los Angeles, would sometimes say there’s a freshness to these audiences that is still very cosmopolitan, very urban, but it’s not an audience full of other performers or agents — not to say that I don’t love performing in LA, but there’s just kind of a different vibe to San Francisco.
We’ve been lucky enough to be able to be supported by the city and the people in the city and our staff as much as even just performers who come back year after year who are kind of acting as emissaries unofficially; when we reach out to a new person who’s never done the festival before we try to say like “Hey, we’re totally independent. It’s just three kids who were in a sketch comedy group together who founded this and now we’ve grown into one of the biggest comedy festivals in the country. Take our word for it you’re going to have fun.”
We’re very, very, lucky that we have people like Fred Armisen, or Bob Odenkirk, or Amy Poehler, or people who come back year after year who are willing to put in a good word. Who are willing to say “Hey Conan O’Brien you should do this!” And then Conan O’Brien does it, and then we ask three people Conan knows a year later and Conan tells them “You should do this!”
So, we are so beholden to all of the things, all of the other factors outside of just us as a producing trio or us as an entire staff and team doing the festival. All of those things have to work together for us to be able to do it year after year and we’re really aware of that.
Halls: This next question’s just a fun throwaway. With the holidays coming up — do you have a favorite holiday-themed movie that you like to return to year after year?
Varney: Oh man! That’s a great question. I have a couple. I definitely continue to always love Scrooged. I just feel like it’s such a ridiculous movie. It’s so funny. In terms of retelling old stories I’m always excited to see how people are going to interpret these old stories that we’ve heard time and again. That remains one of the ones I think is just so clever and funny and has a heart.
I have another thing that I watch, that my dad and I used to watch together, which was this old version of A Child’s Christmas in Wales, and it was actually just on Public Television. I’m a huge Dylan Thomas fan — I love his poetry. It’s a wonderful, wonderful, story and Denholm Elliott, who lots of people know from being in Indiana Jones, plays the main character. It’s just absolutely charming, and ironically I feel like I watch it to feel cold and to feel like it’s snowing outside just because it is so summery sometimes during the holidays [on the West Coast]. Just being able to watch this little old Welsh town where the snowflakes are falling into the ocean and everybody is all bundled up and singing carols and stuff it really gets me in the spirit.
Halls: Just to wrap everything up — is there any additional projects or anything going on in your life that you want fans to keep an eye out for?
Varney: I would say it’s never too late to check out this IFC series that my friends and I did online called Fortune Rookie. [It’s] just a weird idea I had that my co-writer Brandon Reynolds and I put together and we filmed with some of our pals and we were supported by IFC. It’s just this kind of odd story/series of different scenes where I, Janet Varney, quit show business to become a fortune teller full time to hilarious effect.
It’s got lots of great funny people in it. It’s got a couple of different people from the Psych movies and from the Psych TV show, James Roday and Tim Omundson, who are real life friends of mine who I met doing the show Psych. The plot of the continuing thread of the show is that James feels that I became a psychic and that I’m steeling his mojo because he’s the one who’s plays a psychic on TV. So, speaking on meta, like we were talking about eariler, it’s like meta, meta, meta!
To keep up with Janet Varney make sure to follow her on Instagram and Twitter. Her regularly released podcast, The JV Club, can be found in multiple places such as Maximum Fun and Apple. The digital series she helped create, Fortune Rookie, can be found on places such as IFC’s website and YouTube. SF Sketchfest, of which she’s helped develop and run, has just released it’s 2020 lineup.