Shooting the breeze with Jeff Garlin

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Garlin in his natural habitat
Personally, I think Jeff Garlin undervalues his star power. Maybe it has something to do with my boundless love for anything or anyone involved with Larry David (Garlin is both a producer and costar on David's Curb Your Enthusiasm). Or maybe I'm influenced by living in Chicago, a mecca of improv comedy where Garlin grew up, cut his teeth in the 80s with the Second City, and still keeps a residence. Either way, as we sit across from one another at 3rd Coast Cafe & Wine Bar in Gold Coast the interplay is more comfortable conversation than timed question and answer. There's no air of entitlement, no gruffness from Garlin. "Ask me anything," he says. And he means it.

When we settle in, he alerts me that I'm his "last one," his final interview of an intensive four-day press stint he's doing to promote his stand-up show Closer Than I Appear, which began last Tuesday, December 4, and runs through Sunday, December 16, at Steppenwolf. And he seems pleased by this knowledge. He's laid back and amiable, with a sly wit that's been honed over years of thinking comedy and thinking it quick. During June's Just for Laughs Festival, I watched him do a short, completely improvised set at the Beat Kitchen—probably the most worthwhile five-buck cover I ever paid—and his demeanor was absolutely identical. If there's one thing Garlin drives home during our lunch, it's that he's more comfortable improvising on stage than he is strolling through the real world. "No comparison," he tells me. "That's a controlled environment. Even when I'm improvising, I control it."

Check out our conversation below:

When I was prepping for this . . .

Thank you for prepping. And I'm not saying that lightly. People generally don't prep.

They just do off-the-cuff interviews?

Here I am an improviser saying thank you for prepping, but I'm prepared when I go up on stage because I've done it, and I know how to make an audience laugh. I've done my prep work. My prep work is 30 years, you know? I have a show I do at Largo in Los Angeles called By the Way, Jeff Garlin in Conversation With . . . whomever. And whomever I'm talking to, I'm very familiar with their work.

I read an excellent interview you did with Jesse Thorn on The Sound of Young America (now called Bullseye With Jesse Thorn) in which you did a quick juxtaposition of LA's scene with Chicago's. You talk about how some people should consider staying in Chicago, act in films and plays here, teach here, be comfortable. Because you see so many people struggle in LA.

There's two things we can talk about here. One as an actor, the other as a comic. As a comedian, you want to be really good before you go to LA. As an actor, same thing, but people don't know their strengths or weaknesses, and I guess they need to go to LA to figure them out. But boy oh boy, there's a lot of people there who are really good and struggling. I don't think they have that something. It's not a learned thing. It's what's inherent in you. And if you can't get a part in TV or movies, why would you not live here where you can be in productions, work here, and also have a nice life? Where as there, you're struggling. And what are you struggling for?

And it can be a little cutthroat there?

A little?! Here it's not cutthroat. There it is. Imagine all the prettiest girls from every high school moving to LA. And everyone thought you were gorgeous in high school and you get out to LA, and you know what? You're not so gorgeous. Don't get me wrong, for the actual work everyone is lucky, but it's the top 5 percent that really do well. I see it with comedians all the time. You were funny with your friend and your thing there. You see a lot of "Who told you?" Like "Who encouraged you?" And you see brilliant people, too. Some people who are great at Second City come out to LA and it's like a punch in the face.

I caught a short set by you at the Beat Kitchen during the Just for Laughs Festival in which you went up with nothing prepared. That's normal for you, obviously?

Oh, that was fun. I have to say if you saw that, you pretty much saw what my show at Steppenwolf is. I perform that way. I'm writing material, because I'm doing an HBO special in the spring. But it's not going to change my performance style, even for the special. The great thing about improvising for a special is, if it's not good, I'll cut it out.

I'm saying 75 minutes at Steppenwolf. I've been on the road doing an hour, hour and a half. I did almost two hours in Phoenix or something. An hour and 15 means it's a better show. Groucho Marx once saw Second City and they asked Groucho, "What did you think of the show?" Groucho replied, "Make it shorter and make it funnier."

I have a film coming out in the spring called Dealing With Idiots about youth-baseball parents. The impetus was experiences I had with my children. I have to say, it's shorter and funnier [than I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With]. Shorter and funnier is good, not longer and funnier.

How was it going on at Second City initially?

Extreme nerves. Throwing-up nerves. When I started I was going through a period of incredible stage fright. The only way to get past it was to keep getting up there. And now I look back and I have respect for it. Now I'm the opposite of stage fright. I'm more at ease than when I'm offstage. The same when on camera. Everything. I meditate to be able to function offstage. I do transcendental meditation. Twice a day. It helps me function in the real world.

[The stage] is a controlled environment. Even when I'm improvising, I control it. I'm more scared to walk across the street than to get onstage. Getting to Steppenwolf is more stressful than getting onstage.

During the Beat Kitchen set you said you were working on nonimprovised material, an outline. I assume you have one prepared for the Steppenwolf run?

I have to have an outline when I go on stage. People have paid so much to see me, I owe them some semblance of a show. At the Annoyance Theatre when I used to do shows, I would do an entire hour that was 100 percent improvised. It was really joyful.

Are you as excited to do a show with an outline?

Most definitely. I'm just excited to be up there doing anything, even if it's a piece of material that I've already done. There's one bit I know I'm going to do about an old man who wants to bring his lotions and creams on an airplane with him. It's something I did in my first special, and I'm going to go ahead and do it in my second special. I'm better at it.

I assume with any tour you're doing, Chicago is an almost-guaranteed stop to work out material?

It's what I hope to be able to do. I'm playing Zanie's this weekend [sorry, this already happened], but if you saw an ad for the show, my opening act is listed as the headliner. Because I don't want anyone to know. It'll make it harder for me, because a lot of people there won't be fans of mine. They also won't know who I am. Or they may have just heard of me. I know it. I'm not a big star.

Do you hope for there to be a ninth season of Curb? I imagine there's probably nothing more fun.

There is nothing more fun. I'm incredibly lucky.

What is the phone conversation like when Larry calls about doing another season? How black-and-white is it?

He doesn't call me and say, "I'm not sure." He calls and asks, "Do you want to do more?" And I always say yes.

Some of my favorite moments on the show are when you and Larry are placed across from each other at a restaurant and just given free rein. For instance, in last season's episode featuring Ricky Gervais ("The Hero"), you showed off a trick on how to point out someone in a restaurant by pretending to be looking at the lighting.

That's actually a real thing that I do. You can point out anyone in a restaurant. For instance, if I wanted to point out this guy [he covertly points at a gentleman sitting in a booth behind me], I would go, "Now the lighting there . . . " And I point up here. So if he's turning, I'm doing this [pointing more toward the ceiling]. You may catch his eye, but he thinks you're looking at what I'm pointing at.

How surreal was it coming together with the Seinfeld cast on Curb's seventh season?

The only time it was really surreal was when we were watching them rehearse a scene and I was standing behind Larry on the set and Larry turned to me and said, "This is where I stood when we did Seinfeld." That was really an interesting, dreamlike moment.

It's great to witness the gears turning in your brain as you're improvising on the show. When you first encounter Bill Buckner in the "Mister Softee" episode from season eight, you were working through which ballplayer it was.

I was fake working through. Because a bad show would be if Bill Buckner walks in and I go, "Bill Buckner!" In real life I would recognize Bill Buckner in a second, but I also took it to where [my character] just needed to let it process for a second. That's about the extent of my acting chops. As long as I'm grounded and real, I'm good.

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