Comedian Jeff Garlin isn't afraid of political correctness

The "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "Goldbergs" actor talks about dreams, donuts, and his new Netflix special

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published November 18, 2019 4:00PM (EST)

Jeff Garlin: Our Man In Chicago (Elizabeth Sisson/Netflix)
Jeff Garlin: Our Man In Chicago (Elizabeth Sisson/Netflix)

Jeff Garlin is a one-of-a-kind everyman. The actor, podcaster, director and stand-up comic has spent nearly 40 years in show business playing the wisecracking buddy, the gruff dad, and the all-around comic foil in long-running hits like "Curb Your Enthusiasm," "Arrested Development," and "The Goldbergs."

He's also a fearless improvisor, the author of a book on reducing his carbon footprint and an executive producer of an Oscar-nominated documentary on enigmatic photographer Vivian Maier. That complexity is fully on display his new Netflix special, "Our Man In Chicago." The show is a brisk, often slyly touching standup performance that explores everything from donut overconsumption to unrequited love, and reminds you the ways in which both can wreak such havoc on the heart. Garlin joined us in studio recently for a Salon Talks conversation about his current abundance of television shows, political correctness and his most important tip for following your dreams.

You are a busy, busy, busy man. You're on two shows you, you do stand-up every week.

I'm taking a little break now because the special is out, and I'm filming "The Goldbergs." Having just filmed "The Goldbergs" and another season of "Curb Your Enthusiasm," while preparing for my special, I'm a little bit burnt. After this press run work to promote the special, I'll be just working full time on "The Goldbergs," which will be to me truthfully kind of a vacation.

What made you do this? You've had a relationship with Netflix for a while, you did a movie for them a couple of years ago that you wrote and directed called "Handsome." What made you feel like this is the moment where you want to do this stand-up special, there are things in particular that you want to be saying right now?

It wasn't a matter of, "I want to do this right now." I've had this opportunity for a while. I felt with stand-up specials, I would watch and get depressed. Usually it was an ego move. When someone did the the special, it wasn't like they had something to say, like they were crafting an album, like if they were a musician. I felt like my special would be, "What's so special about my special?" I worked three years on material. I felt it was time. I filmed a couple of shows in Chicago. The first one I was very pleased at my beginning, my middle, and my end. But I'm an improviser. So the second show, I improvised a ton. That's the one that's the special.

Because you are famously an improviser. You go up on the stage, and you say you really don't know. You liken it to being a jazz musician.

Very much like a jazz improviser, like being Sonny Rollins. My big influences in comedy are Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Bill Evans. Jazz has had a profound effect. I kind of feel like I'm a Chicago blues man. That's the way I approach my work.

But for this, you had to plan, you had to prepare. Was that hard for you? I know you're also a writer and director.

It's all difficult. It was just all hard work. I put in a lot of hard work, but I had to. It would've been mighty arrogant of me to go, "Oh, they're filming tonight. I'm just going to do anything." However, I think my next special, I may do a week in a small theater somewhere and film all the shows and then put together the best of all the shows, like literally go up with nothing and have something at the end.

You've been in this business 37 years. How did that [improv]  process come about for you? You're also having this parallel career as an actor. You're doing stand-up.  

I learned. I was in Second City, and Second City, like jazz musicians, had a profound effect on the way I approached stand-up. I approached stand-up like Second City. They improvise in order to create material for their shows. That's the way I approach material, if I want to choose said material. But a lot of times I just am happy every week just making it up.

That sounds terrifying,

But it's not for me. If it was terrifying every week, then it'd be kind of self-destructive to approach it that way. The more joyful I am and the more relaxed I am, the funnier I am. So if the audience is great, and I go up with nothing and I'm feeling good and I'm feeling funny, it'll be fine.

Watching this, I think a big part of the delight, Jeff, is that you do seem to be having fun. You are laughing. The audience is laughing.

I had a good time. I'm not exaggerating. When I filmed the second one where I improvised, I was thinking to myself, "Oh my God, look at all this stuff I'm making up. This is so much fun." I'm really thinking that. And yeah, I'm so happy.

And yet you're talking about some dark things.

Oh, lots of dark things. But, the way that someone like me deals with the darkness is to present it in a vulnerable and funny way, so the audience can enjoy it as opposed to them feeling bad for me, or being turned off.

Let's talk about some of the dark things. One of the things that comes up for a long time with you is about your journey with health and with eating. It's not always funny to say, "Now I eat healthier; now I don't eat sugar." And yet you make it funny, Jeff. Why is it important for you to be talking about that?

Here's the thing. It's not important for me to be talking about that. I don't have an agenda. I have no agenda. It's just what I'm talking about. I have no agenda. But I think that it's very important that when an audience is done watching me, they leave with a piece of me, being that vulnerable and that open that when they leave they go, "Oh, I know who Jeff Garlin is."

Jeff Garlin, the man who once ate 36 donuts.

Thirty-six donuts. By the way, I didn't eat 35 and I didn't eat 37 donuts. Yep. There was a tally. Yes. And not on a dare. You watch the special you'll hear about it.

Jeff Garlin, a man who once ate 36 donuts, but who now eats no sugar at all.

Well, I don't eat any sweets. Sometimes there's sugar in things. I didn't get heavier and develop diabetes via having ketchup. So if someone goes, "I think there's sugar in that ketchup," it doesn't affect me. Look, I miss cookies, I miss cake, I miss all that. But ice cream, that's the one thing.

You say, it's proof of God.

I think you can't be an atheist and have had ice cream, because ice cream or sex, those to me are proof that there's a higher power.

Ice cream during sex.

Somebody asked me if I've ever done that. I haven't, but someone who asked me did. I don't know how you pull that off, and it can't be comfortable because ice cream is so cold. I don't even know how you could do it. When I'm having sex, I am not thinking about ice cream.

And when you were having ice cream, you probably weren't thinking about sex.

No, I was thinking about sex.

Among other things you talk about in this special that are so vulnerable, you talk about getting arrested, you talk about having your marriage end, you talk about your sore vagina.

Yes, I don't have a vagina, but I talk about getting in trouble at the HR with Sony at "The Goldbergs." I say things that are silly sometimes, like "grandma's balls," and grandma and balls you don't normally associate. The point is every time I stand up I say "Oh, my vagina." But someone complained, and then I had to go in front of HR.

I understand if you work in a regular business office and there's other people with their desks and you stand up and you go, "Oh, my vagina," it's inappropriate. I'm a comedian being an idiot, and everyone knows I don't have a vagina. I am not making any statement. There's other things I've said that just as stupid, [but] I would never say anything about somebody, and I don't. I'm very respectful.

You don't talk about anybody else's vagina.

No, it's none of my business.

You go up on stage without a net, improvisational. Do you feel somewhere in the back of your mind, a part of you that is thinking, "Okay, in this climate, do I need to be careful?"

Oh my God, no. Because I'm going to tell you a few things. No. 1, I have no fear of saying something racist or really ignorant. That's not going to come out of me. It's not. It's not. If it did, it would be as a character, which would be clear that it was a character. Speaking as myself, as a stand-up, no chance. This whole climate thing, do you know what it is? Here's the climate. We should do what we always should be doing, which is respect other people, their sexuality, their race, whatever it is. Show them respect. When hasn't that been true in terms of proper behavior? It's always been true. Now, people are being called out, what have you. It has not changed comedy. It's not changed my comedy, it's not changed anyone I know, who's funny, it's not changed their comedy.

Nobody is worried, who's funny, before they go up. Now if you're into shock comedy, and you're not that funny, you may go to places that are just like, "Hey, it's comedy man." Like it's your excuse. Those types of comedians, that's for them to deal with. But everyone I know is funny, who is funny, is still funny. And I think you can still make comedy movies. There's so much, it's not changed. People still love comedy. They still love irreverence. "Curb" is proof of that. People love irreverence. People love comedically being politically incorrect. If it's funny, funny is the key. Nothing else.

I completely agree. There was a comic recently and his defense was, "I like to push boundaries."

The "Saturday Night Live" guy. The thing about that is, I never heard of him, and everyone I know hasn't heard of him. I know he said some disparaging things about Judd Apatow. I don't even know who this is. And how does "Saturday Night Live" not do their due diligence to discover that this man had said these things? Being irreverent and saying what you want does not constitute comedy. You can be irreverent and say what you want. If you're not funny, you're just saying insulting things.

Good comedy takes work.

Hard work and thought. Great thought. Even though I'm an improviser, there's great thought when I'm doing something. I'm present in the moment. And I'm very aware of what's going on. I'm not hesitant because of any of this stuff. It's not who I am. I'm not worried about it at all, including improvising an entire set. But will somebody be offended by something I say? Probably. Am I saying anything that's outrageous? I don't think so. We're also in a time where if you don't have a sense of humor, you often can come out on the internet and slam something. A lot of this anti comedy stuff and a lot of #metoo stuff, even though it's all important, there are people without senses of humor involved in that.

I think there are people without senses of humor on the side of saying what's not funny. And then there are people saying that just being a jerk is funny. In the middle, there's plenty of room for comedy.

There's plenty of room for comedy. Most definitely. Yes. I'm glad we talked about this because, it's been a hot topic and it is to me annoying.

Jeff, now we solved it. That was easier than I thought it was going to be. I know your idols were people who did push the boundary but were geniuses like Richard Pryor.

Lenny Bruce, most certainly.

Do you feel there was a golden era of comedy? Do you feel we are just as funny now?

I feel that the golden era of comedy was the '70s, that's really when, I mean there was great stuff going on in the '60s. Lenny started that, Richard Pryor was developing, but the '70s had the best of Carlin and the best of Pryor, and other people too. I love Monty Python. I love "SCTV," and I think that what was funny then, is still funny now. That was truly, for me, the golden age.

Is it harder for a comic now or easier because we are living in such a horrible, depressing, dark time?

That question is not relevant. If you're funny, you do what you do. I don't, for example, I don't do a lot of social, I mean political commentary. That's not my thing. You can say I read the paper and like that might give me an advantage, as a comedian, for that. If that helps somebody fine, but I don't feel that any comedians that I know need [that]. I think if everything was wonderful, people would be just as funny.

Because you've still got to raise your kids, you've still got to have your relationships.

For me, that's what life is no matter what. So for me the answer is no. None of that has anything to do with it. And most of the comedians I know, none of that. We don't root for bad times. We are a respite from bad times. Hopefully, if we're doing our job, that's what great comedy is, whether it's movies, television, standup. My job is to ease people's pain. I literally look at it that way. When you come home from work, if you had a crappy day at work, or your love life's not good, if you watch my special, you watch "Curb," I feel like I'm contributing. That's my job.

And using your own pain and discomfort.

That's the way it has to be. It has to be your own pain. Because if you're doing someone else's pain, unless you're empathetic, you're just making fun of somebody, or hitting somebody.

What is it you say in the special? You hate slick.

I was talking about, I want the special to contain me making some mistakes, seeing things real, like you're there.

One of the things I love that you say at the end, is the advice you give to your children.

Don't follow your dreams — unless your dream is what you're great at. It's better to do what you're great at. If you have a dream, do that on the side. Follow whatever you're great at. That's my advice. I see too many people in pain in Los Angeles, here in New York, because they're just good and good means nothing. And at least I'll say comedy, if you're good, you might make a living, might.

But if you're a great anything – fill in the blank – anything: accountant, photographer, a bass player, a gardener. Do what you're great at because you'll always make money and then you can have fun with what you love. By the way, these are all my opinions. Nothing more. I don't want anyone to ever think that I know anything. I don't know anything.

But you could be like the next Oprah. You could sit down in a beautiful pashmina and give a lot of really good advice. I would watch that, Jeff.

People are always trying to replace Oprah, but she can't really be replaced, she's Oprah. But nonetheless, I think I'd be a good Oprah. But I have no desire. I just want to do my comedy. I want to stand up, I want to make movies, I want to make TV shows that people get joy out of. And also it eases their pain.

One more question, because there are so many reboots right now. You've been on a thousand TV shows, including "Mad About You."

Which I just filmed last week. I did an episode, and it was like literally walking back in time.

I wanted to know what Marvin is up to 20 years later. Can you give me a little hint?

I'm in the air conditioning and heating business.

Because he's probably great at it. And your special once again is "Our Man In Chicago," but thank you for being our man here today.

By the way, I'm building up a new website right now and I think I'm going to have a page where I list like my favorite songs, my favorite albums, my favorite movies, all that stuff. Now, if you stayed this far and you were interested in what I have to say, I'm sure Salon is offering some delightful stuff to watch and hang out with, but go over to Netflix, right now.

This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. "Our Man In Chicago" is currently streaming on Netflix.


By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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