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Gary Janetti is hiding in a booth at the Soho House. It’s a scene that’s simultaneously at odds and completely aligned with the public persona he has meticulously honed — and disseminated through his popular Instagram account — over the years. A membership at the exclusive industry-focused club makes sense for an Emmy-winning television writer and producer (he shares a 2005 nod with the rest of the team behind Will & Grace); less so for one who has built his following by writing viral Instagram jokes like “Just saw one of my closest friends. Thank God I was able to hide in time.” And “Just to be completely safe let’s never see each other again.”
But Janetti — who often prefers to hang out at a variety of local Starbucks — has a new book to promote, and the project is luring him out of his house more successfully than any dinner plans could. And Start Without Me (I’ll Be There In a Minute), which hits shelves on April 26, has big shoes to fill: His debut collection, 2019’s Do You Mind If I Cancel?, was an instant New York Times bestseller. His upcoming book lives in the same universe, creatively and spiritually, as its predecessor, filled with first-person stories that range in tone from cunning to heartwarming and allow him to reflect on his life before he became a card-carrying member of the Hollywood establishment. He describes the way he fell in love with The Carol Burnett Show as a child. He chronicles his first days living in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood while harboring vague notions about becoming a writer. There’s a chapter-long denunciation of destination weddings (“I don’t believe I know any human being well enough that they should feel comfortable asking me to fly to the Bahamas for a piece of chicken.”)
Like with the last book, Janetti will embark on a cross-country promotional tour, with stops at Brooklyn’s Powerhouse Arena and an event in Los Angeles hosted by Black Monday actress (and fellow bestselling essay author) Casey Wilson. So today’s meeting at the Soho House is both a necessary step on the journey to second-time bestseller status and a warmup for a lot of socializing to come. Plus, Janetti points out, he’s been inside for two years. “I’ve been storing up,” he says. “I can do this now. I was never sad thinking I might not go to a restaurant again, but I did miss talking with people about my work.”
In a conversation with The Hollywood Reporter, Janetti reflects on the early days of his Hollywood aspirations that provided the source material for Start Without Me.
You seem quite self-assured in your career now; did you always know what you wanted to do?
When I was young, it didn’t even occur to me that I could have this kind of job, that it was something I could do. It wasn’t like people were going off and wanting to be showrunners. I wanted to be a writer in a vague way. And of course I wasn’t doing it. I wasn’t writing. I just had this vague notion that I wanted to be a novelist. And I had a stint of wanting to be an actor. I went to an acting school, which was very demoralizing, because, at that time, all the roles were straight roles, and I realized I’m never going to be as good at being a straight person as an actually straight person is. I’ve got another layer of acting I need to do. I’ve been trying to pretend I’m straight my whole life and it hasn’t been going well.
As someone who was raised in Queens, entirely outside of any semblance of show business, what kind of reaction was there when you told your parents about your ambitions?
When I told my parents I wanted to be an actor, it was horrifying to them. It was like I was insane. There was a fear that I might actually pursue it, so I was encouraged to go to college and have a career. But then I kind of thought, oh I’ll show you. One day you’ll be sorry. That was my modus operandi.
Where did your comedic sensibilities come from — did you start off with your specific sense of humor or did you hone it over the years?
I was an observer for many years. When you don’t talk, but you listen and watch for 18 years, you accumulate a lot. I had very strong opinions in my own mind. And when I wasn’t observing I was watching TV, an inordinate amount of comedy. It’s like studying, in a way. I didn’t think of it in those terms at the time, but it was years later when I started writing and it all came to me quickly that I realized how familiar with the form I was, from watching so much of it. I have to say I wasn’t a funny kid. I was a quiet kid. But when I did have something to say, it was usually very cutting for my young age.
Both of your books dedicate space to odd jobs you did before finding your way in the television industry; which do you consider to be your favorite?
In my twenties I got a job at the Paramount Hotel, in New York, where a lot of famous people stayed. I thought, obviously one of them is going to pluck me out of the crowd and put me in a movie or TV show, or ask me to write something. I’d found a place that gave me access to the people that are in the universe I wanted to be in, but that’s where it stopped. I was serving them. But it was a very trendy place in a very specific time in New York, and it gave me access I wouldn’t have had otherwise: we would get free tickets to Broadway shoes or dinners at a new restaurant, so we could recommend things to guests. It made me feel a part of something. Of course I wasn’t a part of it [laughs]; I could disappear out of the equation at any moment and nothing would change there. I wasn’t building a career.
Which job or moment do you consider to be your big break?
I moved to Los Angeles to try to become a TV writer. But I didn’t know what pilot season was. I knew nothing. I can’t express that enough, I knew not one person or thing about the business. I went to the Writers Guild library and read scripts: Friends, Frazier, Mad About You. They were so well-crafted, I would laugh out loud while reading them and also think, I can do this. I wrote a spec script next, but I didn’t have the correct software so I just eyeballed the spacing. I got a baby agent, because the main agents wouldn’t see me, and that eventually led to a meeting with Chris Thompson, who created a show called The Naked Truth, with Téa Leoni. I took the meeting and just told him straight up how badly I wanted the job and what it would mean to me. And he gave me a chance. I was like, I guess that’s how L.A. works. Nobody prepared me for the fact that it would never happen like that again.
When did you start to feel a part of Hollywood? Did you feel like an insider immediately?
I was so naive, and thank God, but I just didn’t know how difficult it was going to be to keep getting jobs here. I remember walking into somebody’s office to try to get my second writing job and there was a huge stack of scripts from candidates. I was like, these are all the people they’re meeting for this job? Suddenly I was nervous. But I’m a scrappy person and I’ve always kind of figured out the next thing. So I don’t feel like I’m part of Hollywood necessarily, but I do feel I’ve been super fortunate.
Do you feel like that needing to be scrappy is exhausting, or does it make each project you do get more exciting?
Nothing feels exciting. I mean, really. It takes so much to get something from your head to the screen. I’m at a point where, unless I love the thing and feel extremely passionate about it, I don’t want to do that process. If you don’t know exactly what the project is, if you don’t really know it in your bones, then it becomes a problem. So much in this business conspires to make things not happen, so if you don’t feel strongly you inevitably hit a point where you don’t even know what the project is anymore. It’s like, you win. I don’t want to do this. It takes a couple years off your life. When you’re 30 you’ve got a few extra years to go around.
Did you ever feel like you should put any of your Hollywood war stories into your books?
No, and nobody ever asked me to put that in. I don’t actually have any fun anecdotes about it. It’s the least interesting thing about me, I think. I’m always interested in the messy things, and I find it’s funnier to look back at my life. I don’t think anyone would have any interest in my time on Will & Grace, but people will recognize things in my childhood stories and that forms a connection.
How did the prospect of writing the first essay collection come about?
My editor asked for a meeting with me, through my agents, because of my Instagram account. Strangely, I had wanted to write a book like this, but never thought I had it in me to go around meeting with publishers. It’s the same process of trying to sell something. So it was very serendipitous that it worked out. It was a two-book offer, so I knew I was going to be on the hook for a second one, and after I finished that first one I took some time and there were things from my past that would recur in my thoughts and that I realized I never really excavated. I would jot them down and then after a few months I realized I had enough, roughly, for a second book.
Did you have expectations for your first book? It made the bestseller list, but not all authors set out for that specifically…
Oh yes, that was my goal. I feel like I sold every one of those books individually. I was relentless. But I also had moments of wondering, who is going to care about this book? I write such specific things about my childhood. But I read what other people write about the specificities of their lives, and it has meant something to me. So I just had to trust that people would connect.
How do you reconcile the part of you that’s thrilled to go out on book tour and meet readers and interact, with the part of you and your brand that’s more introverted and sarcastic?
My hope with my brand of humor is that I give voice to things that people feel that they can’t give voice to. It’s always nice when somebody else feels the same way you do. And when it comes to putting content out, I want to reach the biggest audience I can. That’s the purpose, for me, of trying to communicate. I’m not going to modify what I write or say in order to lead to a bigger audience, but I like to reach as many people as possible. The fact that people want to come out and listen to me read the book or talk about it, it’s so nice. It’s a reciprocal relationship. And also, I think people understand that it’s a persona. It’s not completely who I am.
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