Last week, Jeff Garlin was in Chicago to host the premiere of his new movie, Dealin’ with Idiots, which was a pretty curious location for such an event. Yes, the Windy City is one of America’s biggest, but movie premieres and limited releases almost always start out in New York and/or Los Angeles. But Garlin specifically requested that his improvised comedy — which he wrote, directed and stars in — start its run in Chicago because it really brings his career full circle.
Garlin grew up in the Chicagoland area, then came back home at 22 to study improv with the famed Second City troupe. A few years later, he was rooming with a friend of a friend, an on-hiatus Saturday Night Live writer named Conan O’Brien, the pair beating an insanely hot summer by goofing off as much as possible.
“We had a great time together. We used to even do a fake talk show in the living room, having no idea that he would somehow really host a talk show,” Garlin remembered during a phone chat with BuzzFeed. “The only person in my apartment that I thought was going to be famous was me.”
Really? He had no inkling that his orange-coifed roomie would one day be a star?
“Well Conan was a writer at that time. You don’t think that a guy who’s a writer is going to host his own talk show and be a star,” he explained. “Although I will say that I found him to be the funniest person I ever met.”
Unlike O’Brien, Garlin says he had no other choice but to succeed as a comedic performer.
“Well, first off, I had nothing to fall back on so I had no choice but to move forward, which is a key thing,” he said, laughing at his risky life plan. “And then even to this day, I’m not as successful as I want to be. I’m not talking about being a big star, I’m talking about being able to make the movies, getting more money for the movies, I think I still have work to do in terms of becoming more successful.”
Also in their crew of young comics was Bob Odenkirk, who went on to create the cult comedy hit Mr. Show with David Cross and, now, plays Saul Goodman on Breaking Bad. He also plays a role in Dealin’ with Idiots, co-starring as an overeager copy shop manager whose son is on the same baseball team as Garlin’s son.
The kids’ baseball team forms the basis of Garlin’s film, in which he plays a stand-up comic who is looking for inspiration for his new movie; he thinks he finds it in the kooky parents of his kid’s Little League teammates, so he follows them around to mine them for ideas.
Garlin actually got the idea for the movie by observing the real parents of the real kids on his real son’s baseball team, which makes the movie as meta as possible.
“It’s really a thin story, so you had to have something to tie on,” he said, laughing at the absurdity. “Why would I investigate these peoples’ behavior? In earlier versions I was a novelist who tried to write something different, there were a bunch of different angles. And then I said eh, I’ll just be a comedian.”
Among the other actors along with Odenkirk in the group of test subjects are Fred Willard and a pair of Garlin’s Curb Your Enthusiasm cast mates, Richard Kind and J.B. Smoove. Beyond friendship, they also share a keen ability to improvise, which was absolutely vital for a movie that relied on spontaneity.
“It was completely improvised, so much so that none of the actors got a script,” Garlin revealed. “I would just tell them before the scene what it was about.”
That led to some delicious awkward silences, including a scene in which Garlin has an uncomfortable moment with a mailman.
“When it’s happening and we’re discovering it, I’m so happy on the inside,” he said. “I say, ‘Just react to what I say, don’t say anything until I talk.’ So he just smiled and nodded.”
Garlin made the film in less than two weeks, which he openly admits was a questionable decision.
“I made the stupid choice, with the budget that we have, to shoot it in 12 days,” he said, still marveling at himself. “Generally a movie takes a minimum of 21 days. You can shoot a movie in 12 days, but it’s really smart to have very few locations and very few actors. And I went against both of those and I still don’t know how I did it.”
Following the film’s run — it opens in New York and LA this week — Garlin will get back to work on his new ABC sitcom The Goldbergs, which he promises is funny — even if, unlike Curb, it’s on a broadcast network.
“Generally shows on network television are not funny,” he said. “Generally. There are exceptions, and there’s been exceptions recently, but they’re not funny. The biggest reason is that if you give notes to a drama show and you’re a network, it doesn’t really screw things that badly. The littlest note can ruin an entire episode of a comedy. I’ve experienced it, I’ve seen it firsthand.”
Another bonus of The Goldbergs: Finally, a large audience will get to see another side of Garlin, who has largely been conflated with his Curb character, who is also named Jeff.
“I think anyone who watches that show probably mistakes me for the character, because it looks like me and sounds like me,” Garlin said. “But the character on Curb has no morals, and I like to think that I do.”