Meet the actress who is empowering and inspiring women through comedy

Janet Varney poses during the Stan Against Evil NY Comic Con Panel at Javits Center on Thursday, Oct. 6, 2016, in New York. (Photo by Diane Bondareff/Invision for IFC/AP Images)

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Janet Varney moved to California from Arizona when she was just 18 years old to forge a career in acting and comedy. In the years since, she has starred in IFC’s horror comedy series “Stan Against Evil,” FXX’s “You’re the Worst,” and as the voice of Korra for Nickeldeon’s hit series “The Legend of Korra,” among many others. Additionally, Varney is involved in a variety of projects from “SF Sketchfest: the San Francisco Comedy Festival,” an annual event she co-founded for local sketch artists and well-known comedians, to her successful Nerdist podcast “The JV Club,” which gives funny women a platform to share their stories, to Art of Elysium‘s “Girl Talk,” a program that aims to help girls with facial disfigurements build self-esteem.

While juggling it all, she found time to speak with Rare about her diverse television roles, her role as an advocate for women and how she rules comedy on her own terms. When it comes to comedy, Varney has watched the industry evolve over the years into a more inclusive sphere for women.

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“I don’t ever want anyone to think that, you know, any of us working in comedy now feel like there weren’t great, funny women that we got to look at and be influenced by in our lives because certainly there absolutely were,” she shared. “But in terms of being on the front line doing improv, doing stand-up and doing acting, what I’ve seen in comedy is definitely that there has been improvement in diversity and the kind of characters women can play. Over the years, I think I have seen it change more, and I feel like people are paying more attention and writing with more care for women characters. Now you see people really standing up and taking notice and realizing that people do think women are funny and they do want to hear women writing in their own comedic voices. So any time female-created and female-driven comedy projects do well, many of us feel this real sense of shared victory.”

Like many female celebrities, Varney joined in on one of the Women’s Marches held worldwide this past January, in which hundreds of thousands of women, men and children came together to march for the preservation of women’s rights in America under an administration that many feel could send women’s progress backwards.

“There was an enormous part of me that was like, ‘I’ve got to drop everything, and I’ve got to be there,'” she said of the Women’s March on Washington in particular, adding that work obligations prevented her from traveling across the country for it. “I just thought, ‘Okay, what could I do in my capacity as a woman in the arts? Is there a way for me to participate in San Francisco?’ And I did. There were some wonderful marches and activities in San Francisco, and then I was also able to bring a smile to people’s faces through comedy and remind people that they can still laugh and that they’re not alone.”

Varney is a firm believer in art playing a role in politics and being used as a tool to drive social change. While she feels that artists should continue to make art that feels true to themselves despite what may be happening around the world at the time, she also feels art should be used to inspire. Her show “The Legend of Korra,” she says, does just that.

“She’s a strong female character, and she’s fighting for justice, and she’s inspiring young women to be powerful but also to not be afraid to admit their weaknesses and to work on those weaknesses,” she continued. “I think for me, it’s like what are you making that feels authentically you and also is hopefully inspiring people in ways that things they see in the news aren’t necessarily?”

In addition to “The Legend of Korra,” Varney aims to give women a strong voice through “The JV Club.” She started the podcast about five years ago with no conscious desire to make it solely about women, but rather to focus on the unifying adolescent experience that people everywhere can relate to and laugh at themselves over while remembering the awkward and embarrassing moments.

“I was really interested in doing a podcast and was looking around at a lot of my friends who had podcasts. At the time, they were almost all guys,” she said. “When I started it, I just felt like there was a real dearth of women in podcasting. I wasn’t doing it because I’m a woman and I want to feature women, but it just felt very organic, like, ‘You know what? I really just want to talk to women.’ But then I started getting all of this positive feedback from male listeners, so I started expanding it, but it’s still 75 percent women.”

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On a different but related note, Varney is involved in Art of Elysium’s “Girl Talk,” a self-esteem workshop primarily in partnership with the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles. The program helps young girls with facial disfigurements and works to instill a positive self-image through art, dance, acting and fashion.

“The hospital works to not just address the physical side of whatever their challenge is, but also Art of Elysium works to manage and help and inspire and educate the kind of emotional side of that, including self esteem. So, it’s just been such a privilege to be a part of that,” she said. “I go in with some other improvisers, and there will be role playing, and it almost turns into a therapy session where some really great stuff comes up between parents and their kids. It’s just heartening to know there are programs out there like this, and it’s an honor to have anything to do with it.”

As for what’s next on Varney’s agenda, she heads back to film the second season of “Stan Against Evil” in the late spring or early summer, and she’s also hoping to return for the next season of “You’re the Worst.” In the meantime, she’ll continue recording episodes of “The JV Club” and attending comic-con events for “The Legend of Korra.”

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