A stand up comic by trade, she was first discovered during a comedy talent search by Showtime. Her TV debut was on The Ben Stiller Show (the second one), which resulted in Garofalo and Ben Stiller getting cozy for a while. A lucky break landed her the role of Paula on The Larry Sanders Show, netting her two Emmy nominations.
Garofalo joined Saturday Night Live during the show's 1994-95 season, which was fraught with Seasonal Rot the likes of which haven't been seen on the show since the 1980-1981 season note . Garofalo hated her time on the show, describing the sketches as "juvenile" and "homophobic" and referring to the male-dominated cast and writing staff as an "immature boys' club." Garofalo quit midseason (her last episode was a February 1995 episode hosted by George Clooney) and was replaced by Molly Shannon. Garofalo's short time on SNL yielded no recurring characters and only thirteen celebrity impressions: Pamela Anderson (as C.J. Parker from Baywatch), Kathleen Gingrichnote , Hilary Clinton (with Bill Clinton played by Michael McKean), Jackie Stallone, Joan Embery, Jodie Foster, Madonna, Juliette Lewis, Martha Stewart, Mary Lou Retton, Susan Sarandon, Susan Molinari, and Sherry Stringfield (as Susan Lewis from E.R.).
Her other notable 90s roles include Jerry's Distaff Counterpart on Seinfeld, a snarky Gap manager in Reality Bites, and starring alongside Uma Thurman in The Truth About Cats & Dogs. She continues to act on television.
In the 2000s, her acting has largely taken a backseat to her current work as a liberal political pundit, most prominently as host of her own show on the short-lived Air America Radio.
Notable film roles:
- Vicky Milner in Reality Bites (1994)
- "Serving Wench" in The Cable Guy (1996)[deadpan] "There were no utensils in medieval times, hence there are no utensils at Medieval Times. Would you like a refill of that Pepsi?"
- Abby Barnes in The Truth About Cats & Dogs (1996)
- Heather Mooney in Romy and Michele's High School Reunion (1997)
- Deputy Cindy Betts in Cop Land (1997)
- Liz in Dogma (1997)
- The Bowler in Mystery Men (1999)
- Paloma Fineman in The Independent (2000)
- Stith (voice) in Titan A.E. (2000)
- Beth in Wet Hot American Summer (2001)
- Officer Monica Romero in Big Trouble (2002)
- Colette Tatou (voice) in Ratatouille (2007)
Notable television roles:
- Paula on The Larry Sanders Show (1992-96)
- The Ben Stiller Show (1992-93)
- Saturday Night Live (1994-95)
- Jeannie on Seinfeld (2 episodes, 1996)
- Adult Mabel on Mad About You (series finale, 1999)
- Herself on The Sopranos ("D-Girl", 2000)
- Sheila (voice) on King of the Hill ("Cheap Saks", 2003)
- Louise Thornton on The West Wing (2005-06)
- Janis Gold on 24 (2009)
- Tilly on Ideal (2011)
- Beth Griffith on Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior (2011)
- Lyla on Girlfriend Guide to Divorce (2015- )
Janeane Garofalo's work provides examples of:
- Ambiguously Jewish: Her characters in Dogma and Wet Hot American Summer are, though she is herself not.
- Brainy Brunette: Often plays intelligent characters and almost always sports her naturally black hair.
- Deadpan Snarker: Her comedic style is based around a flat delivery of barbed witticisms.
- Demoted to Extra:
- Meganekko: She often wears the black-rimmed glasses that she wears in real life. She is sometimes portrayed as attractive, but other times she's rather infamously cast as Hollywood Homely.
- Nerds Are Sexy: Her characters are usually very intelligent, and they are sometimes allowed to be presented as attractive, though not always.
- Old Shame:
- Her brief tenure on Saturday Night Live (which she described on an HBO special as "...being the Indian who was given the smallpox-infested blankets by the white settlers") is something that she (and most SNL fans) would like to forget.
- Her highest-grossing film, ironically enough. Garofalo liked The Truth About Cats & Dogs better when it was still a small indie production, in which her character ended up loveless and alone at the end.
- Overly Narrow Superlative: Often refers to herself as "the Funniest Person in Rhode Island."
- Sir Not-Appearing-in-This-Trailer: In Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior her character Beth isn't even in the promotional stills.
- The Snark Knight: Her characters and comedic persona are usually very jaded and pessimistic, using humor to cope.
- What Could Have Been:
- Has a blink-and-you'll-miss-it scene in Dogma as Bethany's friend. In the DVD commentary for the film, Kevin Smith castigates himself for not casting Garofalo in the lead instead, citing Linda Fiorentino being impossible to direct.
- On the strength of her success in The Truth About Cats & Dogs, Garofalo was offered the leading lady role in Jerry Maguire. By the time she had gotten in shape for the role, Renée Zellweger was cast in her place.
- Garofalo later received an offer to play Gale in Scream (played by Courtney Cox in the film) and was David Fincher's first choice to play Marla in Fight Club; she turned both down.
- She played Princess Fiona opposite Chris Farley in the first soundtrack for Shrek. After Farley's death, both parts were completely changed and Janeane's sarcastic princess no longer worked.