The Chicago Comedy Film Festival returned to the New 400 Theater this weekend, with festivities wrapping up on Nov. 14. From short films to pilots and feature films, close to 70 different projects were shown.
Actress and comedian Jane Lynch starred in “Writer’s Block,” one of the shorts screened. The Emmy Award and Golden Globe winner was raised in Dolton, Illinois, and got her start as an actress performing with Second City, Steppenwolf and other theatre companies in Chicago. The PHOENIX had the opportunity to sit down with Lynch before she accepted the Lifetime Achievement Award for outstanding contribution to comedy during the opening reception of the festival.
The actress took time to discuss her acting career, her recently released Christmas album and her role in “Glee.”
What’s the best part of being home?
Aurelio’s Pizza, the Public [Chicago Hotel], my family, walking. I walk everywhere. I love going downtown. I love going to the Ralph Lauren restaurant. I wear my Ralph Lauren sweater and order a hamburger. They have the best hamburgers. I love it there.
You’re receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award for your outstanding contribution to comedy by the Chicago Comedy Film Festival and The Harold Ramis Film School at the Second City Training Center. How did your time at Second City influence you as a comedian and an actress?
The world kind of opened up for me when I started doing sketch. I had been doing plays, regular plays, and I had a degree in theatre. I went to Cornell and got a Masters and that was kind of like classical training. And I thought I’d be a theatre person. The Second City touring company audition I went do was just one of many auditions that I was trying to land. And I did get that audition and they cast me out of a bunch of people. They only cast two women. I was surprised because I didn’t have a blast at the audition. I didn’t think I was good at it. In fact, it was anxiety provoking. And they cast me and I went, ‘Alright.’
So, of course, I did it. I’m not one to say ‘No’ to anything. And it blew the doors off of my whole world. I love sketch. I love going from scene-to-scene and putting on a different wig, and putting on an apron for one character and a suit jacket for the next, and a pair of glasses. I just adored it. And the songs, man, I just loved it.
Did you experience any struggles as a female in the world of comedy?
I didn’t have any. Any struggles that I had, I created for myself. And they never centered around being a woman. The only struggle I had being a woman is that I couldn’t play baseball with the boys. I don’t really have an eye for that.
The short film you’re starring in at the festival, “Writer’s Block,” is only eight minutes long. Are there any extra difficulties that come with the telling of a story in that short of time?
It’s all the same thing, as far as I’m concerned. I don’t care if it’s eight minutes long or if it’s an epic three-part movie, which I’ve never done. It’s all the same. It’s being in the moment and doing your preparation and kind of being aware where the camera is. For years, I wasn’t even aware of where the camera was, but now that I’m getting older and I have a better side, I’m like, ‘That camera needs to be over there. It can’t be over here.’
You’ve also got a Christmas album coming out.
I do! It’s 10 Christmas carols and then five originals that will sound like they have been around forever because Tony Guerrero, who wrote them, is a brilliant genius. He’s our bandleader and I’m with The Tony Guerrero Quintet. We have been touring together for about two years. Kate Flannery, who was Meredith the drunk in “The Office,” and I have been doing shenanigans together for decades now. And we added Tim Davis, who was the vocal arranger on “Glee.” He is amazing and so good-looking and so of the era. It’s so fun.
What made you want to record a Christmas album?
We were touring together, all of us, and just loving each other and having a great time. We did 22 gigs in 29 days in June and we never fought. We just fell deeper in love — the band and the three of us. And so we said ‘Let’s do a Christmas album.’ And so one night, before one of our gigs, we all got into one dressing room and we sat down and we went to Christmas carols that are public domain. We picked 10 that we liked and we agreed on them immediately. Tony said, ‘You know, I’ve written three and I can write two more,’ and we were like, ‘Terrific, we’ve got our 15 songs. That’s a nice number.’ And then we laid down the orchestra tracks, and Tony owns a studio, so we got it at a nice rate. We added strings and horns, so it sounds lush and it sounds like an orchestra. We added the vocals in September and October, and then it was mixed. Now, we’re touting it.
What’s been your key to success?
Staying in the moment. Saying ‘Yes.’ Don’t waste your time doing something you don’t love. I always do what I love. I love acting, so even on the sh****est project, I’m still having fun. I rarely find myself in a position where I’m like, ‘I don’t like this.’ There was a point where I was being asked to give speeches and I kind of did it out of obligation. You know, like the LGBT things. I thought, ‘I should do this.’ And I did enjoy it, but after awhile I was like ‘Nah, I don’t want to do this anymore. It just doesn’t feel fun.’ I’ll go to the events, but I don’t want to get up there and give a speech.
You’ve done TV, film, Broadway, voiceover work and host “Hollywood Game Night.” Is there anything you haven’t done that you would like to do?
I wouldn’t mind doing — this is just coming to me now because I have like zero ambition these days; I’m just happy to sit at home with what animals are still alive — one of those J.K. Rowling films where you can recur a character and you’re part of an ensemble, kind of like the “Harry Potter” thing. Do something really big and wear a crazy costume and do magic — I would love to do something like that. That would be fun.
What’s one character you would like to revisit?
Constance Carmell from “Party Down.” I would love to see where she’s at these days.
Let’s talk about your time on “Glee.”
I loved playing that character. It was just a joy to step into that tracksuit everyday I got an opportunity to do that. If I had one complaint, I wish I would have been in it more. There were some times that I had one line in an episode and I was like ‘Ah, I wanted to do more.’ Other than that, it was a joy.
It was such a special show, wasn’t it?
It would be nice to have “Glee” now. A show that kind of makes kids feel empowered. If you’re gay or in a wheelchair, or if you’re Asian, or if you have autism, there’s some place you can always go where people have your back. It adds to the rainbow of who we all are. I would love to see that, especially in this time, after this election, to have a show as bold as “Glee” was in those early days.
What is something you wish your younger self knew when she was just getting started in Chicago?
Relax, my love. Continue enjoying. The world wasn’t opposing me. It was my own self, my own fears and my own anxieties. [This feeling that] I should be further along. I would just say, ‘Shut that little voice up. It doesn’t serve you. Everything’s going to be fine. You’re going to be famous.’
What’s next for you?
Nothing. I just did an episode of “Criminal Minds” and I’ll do another one in January. I played a character [on “Criminal Minds”] before I did “Glee.” I played Spencer Reid’s mom and they brought my story back, so I did a couple of those. Other than that, nothing.
Jane Lynch’s new album “A Swingin’ Little Christmas!” is available now.