Chicago Closeup: Jeff Garlin, improvised outlaw

The Second City alum talks about his new all-improvised film and his recent brush with the law

Nina Metz

Chicago Closeup

July 12, 2013


It took the cringe-humor masterpiece of HBO's long-running "Curb Your Enthusiasm" to finally give Chicago-style improv a measure of TV legitimacy. The easygoing yin to Larry David's irascible yang, Second City alum Jeff Garlin carries that same approach over to his latest film, "Dealin' With Idiots."

Set within the suburban world of youth league baseball — a subculture of upper-middle-class parenting rendered here as baroque as it is banal — Garlin surrounded himself with a long list of former Chicagoans: Fred Willard, Bob Odenkirk, Jami Gertz, Richard Kind and real-life couple Ian Gomez and Nia Vardalos.

"Chicago people are my favorite actors," Garlin said when we spoke by phone. "I've hired most of them on 'Curb Your Enthusiasm.' The way I work" — sans scripted dialogue — "is a very natural way for them to work too."

A Chicago native himself, Garlin comes to town Friday for a screening at the Music Box Theatre, and then next month he begins work on the new ABC sitcom "The Goldbergs," a Reagan-era single-camera family comedy starring Garlin and an exuberantly bewigged Wendi McLendon-Covey ("Bridesmaids").

His return to town follows news of his arrest in June on a felony vandalism charge after an altercation with someone over a parking spot. A window was reportedly smashed, which Garlin disputes. Prosecutors declined to file charges and, according to the Huffington Post, Garlin will at some point have to attend a hearing at the Los Angeles city attorney's office "where he will be advised about the law and how to avoid such incidents."

In light of that, you might think this would be an awkward time for Garlin to do publicity. You would be wrong. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation about his new film as well as the arrest — the latter of which I initially assumed was a publicity stunt for the former.

Q: Let's start with the movie. Why youth baseball?

A: I was watching my son play baseball. Actually, not watching my son, watching the parents while my son was playing baseball. He's now 17 but at the time I believe he was 10. I saw this behavior and I couldn't believe it and I thought, I need to write something about this.

Q: The film looks largely improvised.

A: It's not only largely improvised, it's completely improvised. None of the actors ever saw a script. I would just tell them before we filmed scenes what was going to happen.

Q: How does that differ from what you do on "Curb Your Enthusiasm"?

A: On "Curb," the regulars get the see the (outline), but the guest actors do not, and we do that because we don't want them prepping. The more they think about it, the more they prepare.

Q: There's an ingenious moment — and it is a perfect distillation of improv at its best — when Bob Odenkirk, who plays the baseball coach, is talking to you about why he hasn't fixed a busted door lock. It's a random comversational tangent that becomes this strange, incredibly detailed monologue that snakes around and seems like it's headed nowhere. Watching it, you start to worry for the guy as a performer— that this little anecdote he's constructing is headed straight for a brick wall — but he somehow pushes through and comes out on the other side with a hilarious and surprisingly coherent story. It's a whole world that he builds within that story. It's amazing that he came up with that off the top of his head.

A: Can I tell you something? When he was telling me that story, I was as enthralled as you must have been watching it because I didn't give him any of that information. When he says to me, "Do you want to know why I don't fix the door?" and I say, 'Yeah, I really do want to know why," I had to do everything in my power to not fall over from laughter. It killed me. That's why Bob Odenkirk is an improvisational genius.

Q: Since it's all improvised and at points seriously exaggerated, how much of the film syncs up with your actual experiences?

A: Pretty good, actually, which sounds strange. But I think it does line up.

Q: Were the parents of your son's teammates aware that you were making a movie based on their idiocy?

A: No, and they'll have no idea if they were the inspiration. None whatsoever.

Q: Let me change the subject: You tweeted the other day that you were running naked.

A: (laughs) Yeah, I was not running naked. I was just tweeting silly things. I even tweeted, "Why isn't everybody talking about me?" and little did I know a week later I'd be arrested. That was the most ironic tweet of all time! I only tweeted that as a joke because I'm so boring, in terms of my life.

And by the way, the thing with me being arrested, the charges were dropped the next day. It was so not exciting, but according to all these news outlets suddenly I'm this violent crazy guy smashing windows and that is so not what happened. I still have another meeting with the city of Los Angeles to go over it, but at least I know I'm not going back to jail.

Q: You were in jail for the night?

A: No, but I was in jail for like eight hours. I was arrested in the afternoon, and I didn't get out until later that night. And the reason I was in jail for so long is that they take your fingerprints and if you've never been in trouble — everyone's fingerprints go to the Department of Justice, and if you have nothing in your past, it takes forever (to complete the records search).

Q: Can you tell me what happened?

A: No, I can't tell you anything. I want to be respectful, and I don't treat anything that happened lightly. It was a very serious thing. I was in jail. So I'm not messing around and making light of it.

Q: What was it like in jail?

A: I was mostly off by myself watching everything. I wasn't there going, "Oh, the mistakes I made!" I did think I made a mistake, don't get me wrong. You're in a room and the doors close and they won't let you out, and I actually just kept on going — in a funny way, mind you — "I'm in jail!" At first it was very emotional. I was cuffed and taken in the back of a police car. I thought, "This is terrible. I'm in jail." There was not much there that was a big bowl of pleasant.

Q: OK, so you're taken to jail and you're put in a holding tank with other people. Did they recognize you?

A: You know what's funny? None of the police officers knew who I was, but all the prisoners knew me.

Q: I have to admit, when I first read the story I wondered if it was a publicity stunt for your movie, considering it's called "Dealin' With Idiots."

A: Or it was a "Curb Your Enthusiasm" episode that was being filmed and by accident got out to the press that it was real.

Except, of course, it really was real.

Q: Since you're starring in "The Goldbergs" in the fall, will you be able to do another season of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" if Larry David is willing?

A: Absolutely. If I couldn't still do "Curb Your Enthusiasm" that would have been a deal-breaker for me.

Jeff Garlin comes to the Music Box Friday for a screening of his film "Dealin' With Idiots," which also screens Saturday. Go to musicboxtheatre.com.

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Satirize this

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Fund a TV pilot

If there is such a thing as avant-garde sketch comedy in Chicago, the lean, nerdy duo of Tim Soszko and Micah Philbrook have captured it with their brainy, boundary-pushing shows. I'm a big fan. Billing themselves as the tim&micah project, they are currently raising money on Kickstarter to fund a television pilot, with a goal of $28,500 by July 20. A small caveat: Their stage shows have a barebones aesthetic that is not easily reimagined in video form and, alas, their Kickstarter video doesn't offer many clues or even a sample of what they have in mind. Go to Kickstarter.com and search "tim&micah project."

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