Jeff Garlin, Actor, Director, and Comic: Interview on The Sound of Young America

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Bullseye
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Jeff Garlin

Jeff Garlin began his career in comedy at The Second City in Chicago. He's since worn many hats in the worlds of live comedy, movies, and television. In addition to performing his own stand up comedy, he's directed stand up specials for John Waters and Jon Stewart. He also wrote, directed and acted in the film Someone to Eat Cheese With, co-starring with Sarah Silverman.

One of his best-known roles is Jeff Greene, Larry David's best friend / manager on the acclaimed HBO show Curb Your Enthusiasm. Garlin also executive produces the show. Curb recently returned to air after two years on hiatus; new episodes of the eighth season currently air Sunday nights at 10pm.

Jeff joins us to talk about his confidence as a stand up comic, his eye for directing other comedians, and working on the great creative project that is Curb.

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JESSE THORN: It's The Sound of Young America, I'm Jesse Thorn. My guest, Jeff Garlin, is a veteran stand up comedian, improvisor, actor, writer, and director. He's probably best known for his role as Jeff, the manager and best friend of Larry on Curb Your Enthusiasm. He's also been a stand up comedian for many many many years, and as a director has written, directed, and starred in an acclaimed feature film called I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With, and had directed all kinds of other stuff, including stand up specials for Jon Stewart and Denis Leary, and a one man show starring Mr. John Waters. Let's hear a clip from season eight of Curb Your Enthusiasm which just started on HBO. In this scene, Larry and Jeff are discussing where to have lunch.

JESSE THORN: Jeff Garlin, welcome to The Sound of Young America.

JEFF GARLIN: It's good to be here. You know, I am the sound of young America.

JESSE THORN: That's true. That's why we booked you on the show. We did some brainstorming, we did have some online voting.

JEFF GARLIN: Young Americans love me and the timbre of my voice represents young America.

JESSE THORN: I actually want to ask you a question about people loving you, because as I was watching some episodes from the new season of Curb Your Enthusiasm thinking about talking to you, I realized that while I thought of you character, Jeff, as sort of the moral counterpoint to Larry's character, actually, your character Jeff is every - - in fact, probably less moral than Larry David's character. Almost unimaginably, I don't know if I'd say immoral, but at least amoral.

JEFF GARLIN: He has no morals, no integrity. He only cares that he gets through the day and Susie doesn't yell at him and Larry and his other clients make lots of money.

JESSE THORN: It's an interesting thing to watch on screen, because I realized when I saw it, and you must realize, because you've also always been a producer on the show and have directed the show, that there are things that you can do and get away with just because of your screen presence that would be very difficult for somebody else to do.

JEFF GARLIN: Well thank you for the observation, but that's not something I think about at all. I am very unconscious in terms of what I'm doing and what I represent and all that sort of stuff.

JESSE THORN: You helped create Curb Your Enthusiasm at the very very beginning, even when it started off as a pseudo stand up special.

JEFF GARLIN: Right.

JESSE THORN: Tell me a little bit about where it came from.

JEFF GARLIN: I was on the road with both Denis Leary and Jon Stewart developing their HBO specials and directing what you saw on the stage. I didn't direct the cameras for it, but the actual show I would develop, I wanted to say direct, I developed, with Jon and with Denis. While I was on the road with them I thought, you know what would make a great HBO special is the making of an HBO special, and then you don't even have to have the HBO special. You see what it's about. I was thinking of getting out of acting and performing and just focusing on directing, and Larry and I were at lunch and he was asking me questions about stand up when I told him that I had something that I thought would be perfect for him, and I told him about, and he said let's do it.

JESSE THORN: It's interesting because you have to find a stand up comedian who wants to do a stand up comedy special but does not want to show any of their stand up comedy.

JEFF GARLIN: Right. Well, Larry was the perfect guy.

JESSE THORN: How did you know him?

JEFF GARLIN: From stand up. I met him in New York, he didn't really remember meeting me I think, I was in the back of his head. And then we met in Chicago, he was coming through Chicago to - - I was performing downtown and he came by the club and he remembered me and then we sort of kept on bumping into each other over the years, so we were acquaintances. Both stand ups and had the same friends and that sort of thing. I was writing a pilot for CBS with a writer named Alan Zweibel that was going to be the companion show to Everybody Loves Raymond, and they chose the show King of Queens instead of my show. Larry, one day, shared an office with Alan and he said, “Do you want to go to lunch?” and that's when it all started.

JESSE THORN: What do you remember of him as a performer? I remember I didn't know who Larry David was other than him being a name in the credits until a New Yorker profile that ran right when that stand up special was about to air.

JEFF GARLIN: Right.

JESSE THORN: How did you think of him as a stand up performer rather than as an obviously exceptionally successful - - the co-creator of one of the most successful television sitcoms of all time?

JEFF GARLIN: Seeing him before, there was always a level of excitement A) Because he was funny and B) Because you never knew what he was going to do. Sometimes he would look at the audience and if he didn't like the way they looked he would go, “Ah, not tonight.” And he would walk off the stage.

JESSE THORN: Is that a thing he did more than a time?

JEFF GARLIN: Definitely. Definitely.

JESSE THORN: How did he get another booking?

JEFF GARLIN: He doesn't work that way. What I mean by that is he was a New York comic playing the New York clubs. There's no real booking. When you go to Cincinnati you're booked into Cincinnati and you're making a substantial paycheck and people are paying to see you specifically. When he was doing this he was on a show with 15 other comedians and each comedian did 15 or 20 minutes. If he screwed up there was always the next person.

JESSE THORN: I remember reading that story in that New Yorker profile I think, and trying to figure out what he could see from the stage, that would be the clincher.

JEFF GARLIN: It didn't take much. It could be just somebody whispering to somebody while he's on stage.

JESSE THORN: What do you think worked about that special that made you and he and some of your other collaborators want to expand it into a series?

JEFF GARLIN: I know when we were first shooting it, the very first scene we were having such a good time he said to me, “Wouldn't it be great to do this as a series?” I'm thinking, that's Larry David. Sure, yeah, of course, yes, I'd love to. Little did I know that I'd be here however many years later doing season eight.

JESSE THORN: What do you enjoy most about making the show?

JEFF GARLIN: I guess when I'm filming scenes with Larry and being on camera with him is really enjoyable. Also watching him in scenes when I'm just being a producer. I think the thing that I enjoy most, if there's a thing with the most pleasure, it's when he's done writing the episodes and he sends them to me. I'm the first person - - I wanna say the first person, there's other producers and such, but I'm one of the first people to see what the episodes are.

JESSE THORN: What does he send you?

JEFF GARLIN: He sends me the outlines.

JESSE THORN: Tell me what you actually get, like what those outlines are.

JEFF GARLIN: A normal sitcom script is like 35 pages; a Curb Your Enthusiasm script is about seven pages. It's none of the dialogue and all of the action, so the entire story is there for me to read.

JESSE THORN: Do you remember when you first got one of those for Season One of Curb and what your reaction was?

JEFF GARLIN: Awe. That was my reaction, awe, like, I can't believe I'm involved in this, I can't believe we're doing this and I can't believe how great this is, what he's written.

JESSE THORN: It's something that is both so completely improvised, but it's also as intricate as any comedy on television.

JEFF GARLIN: It's probably more intricate than any comedy on television in terms of intricacies, but the story is what's intricate and how he pulls it together and it comes along in the end. But remember, we'll do a take, and then we'll all discuss what we need to do to make the take better; not only in performance, but story wise.

JESSE THORN: It's interesting to have that discussion, because it's unusual, I think, to have a show that has both that kind of collaboration and the sort of distinctive auteur authorial voice of Larry David so strongly.

JEFF GARLIN: He puts all of himself into those outlines. When we're working, he's - - you know, nobody works harder on the show than Larry, no one. I'm talking about really working hard, you know? Sometimes I'll go home; he doesn't go home ever.

JESSE THORN: That was Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm, alongside my guest Jeff Garlin, who's not just an actor, director, writer, and producer, but also a stand up. His most recent special was called Young and Handsome. Here's a clip.

I watched your last stand up special, and one of the things that struck me about it was that it was so loose relative to most stand up specials. It looked like somebody who was on stage feeling funny, rather than somebody who was on stage delivering a routine that they'd honed on the road because they knew this works, this works, this works, and that one there's no breaks.

JEFF GARLIN: That's my style of performing. What was different than that and was different a lot of times is I generally will go up plenty of times with no material and have no idea what I'm going to talk about. I'm completely comfortable with it. I think if I was to give myself credit for anything, I am the most comfortable comedian in show business.

JESSE THORN: That's a really interesting descriptor to use.

JEFF GARLIN: I'd love to be able to say I'm the funniest, but there's plenty of people who are as funny as me or funnier than me, but there are none who are as relaxed as me.

JESSE THORN: Do you think that that comfort as a performer is part of why you can be so horrible on screen in Curb and people still want to follow your adventures?

JEFF GARLIN: That's possible, but I certainly will never analyze why an audience likes me or my character. I try not to even analyze comedy too much because I feel that takes - - it's something that's hard to analyze. I leave it to other people.

One time I was out with a comedian who really wasn't - - a very smart guy, but not a developed comedian. He analyzed what I was doing and analyzed this, and I'm not making up, I wasn't funny for a month after. I was too in my head. It took about a month to come out of it.

JESSE THORN: When you're developing a stand up special with Jon Stewart or Denis Leary, what does that mean?

JEFF GARLIN: It means that every night I watch their set and I tell them what I think they could do better to get across whatever point or whatever joke it is that they're trying to get. Then I'll say cut this, this is rambling, this is what you can do here, here's something funny you might be able to say there. It's sort of molding their material, you're co-writing their material to a degree and you're also - - with Jon I had to focus more on performance and less on content and with Denis Leary, he's such a natural performer, but you have to focus more on content than you do on the performance.

JESSE THORN: In addition to directing stand up comedy specials, you also worked with John Waters, who's been a guest on this show a couple times and is basically the most delightful person ever.

JEFF GARLIN: He is the most delightful person ever.

JESSE THORN: He's basically transformed - -

JEFF GARLIN: He's a joy to be around. I was just with him doing, he had his paperback just come out recently and he and I did at Largo in Los Angeles a “Jeff Garlin in conversation with John Waters,” and it was so much fun, and it wasn't an interview, it was just a conversation that we had.

JESSE THORN: The kind of guy that John Waters makes every effort to hang out around is someone who is as remarkable as a person could be in any area; not just remarkably good or - - just someone who is a thousand percent of something, and your stage persona anyway is to be 100% of a real regular decent fella, so I have a real hard time reconciling those two things. Imagining you being like, you know who I want to direct? Mr. John Waters. And John Waters thinking - -

JEFF GARLIN: Our agent put it together, but here's the thing you have to understand. I think the thing that John likes about me is that I am kind, but I'm also interested in other people, so I'm very interested in him and I'm interested in learning from him and I'm interested in getting the most from him.

I met with him, he didn't have to work with me, I met with him and he said what do you want to do, and I said, I don't want to move the cameras. I will cut when I have to, I'll get different coverage in terms of from different camera angle,s but I said, you're cinematic, I don't want this to be cinematic. You're going to be the cinematic portion of what I'm going to shoot. When you're sitting and watching a performer, there's not a lot of movement unless the performer moves. You're not moving. So I thought, let me give someone the feeling that they're in the audience watching John Waters. So often when I watch any kind of performance, whether it be a band or a comedian, there's all these cuts and it's just so distracting, and it annoys me. So I went the opposite with working with him, and he dug that. That's why it ended up working.

JESSE THORN: It seems to me like you're interest in other people has been one of the defining characteristics of your career. You've had so many amazing relationships, we haven't even discussed the fact that you were Conan O'Brien's roommate, or that every single one of your movies is full of brilliant actors, and they're all people that you had some relationship with.

JEFF GARLIN: Yes, very much so.

JESSE THORN: Do you think that's always been a part of you as a creator is that feeling of wanting to pull something out of other people?

JEFF GARLIN: Most definitely! Most definitely. Whether someone is unknown or known, to me, collaboration and making the - - that's what makes life interesting is being interested in other people and what they can do. Jack Benny, who's my all time favorite comedian, maybe the nicest comedian of all time – one thing that he was known for, that I take pride in, was being a great audience of other performers.

JESSE THORN: A couple of years ago you made this movie called I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With, and it's about a character that feels a lot like you; a comedy performer at the Second City, a young man in Chicago, and his essential conflict is that he doesn't know how to find love, but also he has that Chicago issue of - - the fact that there's a kind of career that you can make, and then there's not much more beyond that for you.

JEFF GARLIN: That's exactly right, and by the way, for a lot of people they should be doing that. I know too many people in LA who are struggling, and I know that's what they're going to end up doing for the rest of their career, whereas if they were in Chicago they could be acting in plays, getting parts in movies that are filmed there, teaching. There's so much that they could do and earn a living in Chicago, so the character is definitely conflicted. Do I go for it all in Los Angeles or do I stay in Chicago where I love it and I'm comfortable?

JESSE THORN: I want to play this clip from the movie, this is your character at an elementary school Career Day giving a talk on being an actor and essentially dropping the ball pretty significantly.

JEFF GARLIN: Pretty significantly, yes indeed.

JESSE THORN: Did you have a point in your career where you felt as unconvinced by yourself as your character in that movie seemed to?

JEFF GARLIN: That's about the only thing in the movie that's autobiographical. Everything else is imagined, but I felt like that, yes.

JESSE THORN: When was that?

JEFF GARLIN: That was in the late 80s. I hadn't developed yet. I did stand up and I did improvising with Second City. When I went on stage with Second City, the audiences loved me but my peers did not respect me. In the world of stand up I would go on stage and the audiences, I confused them to no end, but the other comedians thought I was the funniest thing ever. Those two things were going on, and also, I really wanted to be successful and famous, and I thought, oh it's going to happen any second. What happened was, two things happened. One was, everything equaled out eventually to where I got respect, and I as a person said, I don't care about fame. I just care about being great and it will happen when it will happen. That's when everything started to happen for me.

JESSE THORN: Do you think that was a causal relationship? Do you think something about you letting go was what led to your career changing?

JEFF GARLIN: I haven't thought about it, but if I was guessing right now I would say yes.

JESSE THORN: The other big conflict in the movie are romance and body type image.

JEFF GARLIN: Yes, being heavy, which is a difficult struggle which I've been fighting against. I've lost a significant amount of weight, I haven't had sugar in over two and a half years; I haven't had fast food in about two and a half years, a little over two and a half years, and I'm still fighting. It's a fight. That's the thing about it, it's not ever over, it's a constant battle, although I have to say after about the first two, three weeks, maybe about a month of not eating sugar, it gets a lot easier. You don't crave it.

JESSE THORN: Your character in the film, there's a very deep relationship between the eating and emotional stuff. Was that there for you as well or was that...

JEFF GARLIN: That's definitely for me. The other thing that's autobiographical about the film is me sitting by the left field wall of Wrigley Field having just gone to 7-11 and getting Ho Ho's and chocolate milk and all sorts of crap and just sat there and said, this is going to be the last time I do it. The thing I had in the movie that I had to cut because, boy oh boy, everyone I showed it to did not believe it, and that was, when something good happened to me, I went and I ate. The thing about being a compulsive overeater and having an eating disorder, is that you eat to knock down any emotion, good or bad. Feelings have gotta go.

JESSE THORN: Did you always feel comfortable in your body as part of being comfortable as a performer?

JEFF GARLIN: More so than other people, yes, but no, I did not always feel so comfortable. I'd get nervous before I'd go on. Now, and for many years - - I could be eating a slice of pizza and somebody could go, you're on, and I'd either say hold this or I'd finish eating on stage, I wouldn't think about it. But I went through a period in my life, I remember distinctly, where I had horrible stage fright when I first started Second City, to where I'd throw up before I went on stage. The only way I got through that was to keep on working and working and working, and then finally after I'd say three or four months it went away.

JESSE THORN: Was part of the relationship that you had with your peers at the Second City, and part of that lack of respect that they, or audiences, or you thought of you as just a fat guy comedian?

JEFF GARLIN: The New York Times even had a headline, “Will I still be funny if I lose weight?” I'm thinking, of course! I'm just funny! My weight is strictly a topic. Certainly an emotional topic and a personal topic, but it's a topic. If my hair was interesting or my eyes were interesting, or if I had 3D vision, I would obviously talk about that. My weight is something to talk about, but not necessarily who I am.

JESSE THORN: Who do you think of now as who you are as a - - it sounds a little bit pretentious, but as an artist, do you feel like you've found a place where you want to be?

JEFF GARLIN: No, I'll never get there.

JESSE THORN: Really? Why not?

JEFF GARLIN: Because life's too short. There's no way. Am I pleased with where I am? Forget success wise, but artistically, as compared to six months ago or a year ago? Hell yes. I'm always growing. It's ironic because I aspire to be a wise man. I aspire to be somebody that knows more. That knows, I shouldn't even say knows more, but I should say knows. I want to be someone who knows. I work towards that all the time, but do we ever really know? And whatever that is, no, I don't think we do. I think life's too short for that. If I had a 100,000 years, maybe. I aspire to be wise and kind.

JESSE THORN: That's not a bad aspiration as far as that goes.

JEFF GARLIN: No, it's not. I aspire to that more than anything else. More than monetary success, more than anything, that's what I want to be. Kind and wise, that's really what I - - and I am kind, and wise, but I always want to be kinder and wiser.

JESSE THORN: Well Jeff, I sure appreciate you taking the time to be on The Sound of Young America, it was really great to have you on the show.

JEFF GARLIN: Well I enjoy The Sound of Young America, and I always want to hear The Sound of Young America, and I like being with you and I thank you so very very much.

JESSE THORN: Thanks so much. Jeff Garlin is, of course, one of the stars of Curb Your Enthusiasm, which is running on HBO on its eighth, and who knows, maybe it's its final season.

JEFF GARLIN: Maybe, maybe not, I never know every year.

JESSE THORN: He's also the writer, director, and star of I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With, which is out on video now.

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