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Jewish Journal

Dealin’ with funnyman Jeff Garlin

by Naomi Pfefferman

July 24, 2013 | 2:17 pm

From left: Jeff Garlin and Richard Kind in “Dealin’ With Idiots.” Photo courtesy of IFC Films

You can hear Jeff Garlin’s signature rumbling laugh way down the hall from inside his publicist’s Hollywood office, and when he ambles into a conference room, he’s all smiles, appearing just as blustery yet affable as his character Jeff Greene, Larry David’s jocular manager, from all eight seasons of HBO’s hit comedy “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” The actor-comic-writer-director, decked out in casual plaid slacks and a “Clockwork Orange” T-shirt, was relaxed and somewhat slimmed down from his new diet eschewing wheat and sugar, which, he said, is all good because, “If I have more energy and feel great, I’m funnier.” 

During a conversation to promote his new Little League comic film, “Dealin’ With Idiots,” Garlin was breezily droll (he tends to laugh before he tells a joke, as if he is amusing himself) as well as low-key — which was remarkable given that in a few days he was scheduled to attend a meeting with city officials regarding his much-publicized June 15 arrest in Studio City over alleged vandalism reportedly stemming from an argument over a parking space. No charges were filed against Garlin.

The comedian admitted that the incident sounds like something right out of “Curb,” although he wasn’t able to talk about the details, save to say the events were “entirely boring and nothing like they’ve been portrayed in the media.” Even so, he was “shocked,” he said, when he was actually arrested, and it was distressing to find himself handcuffed in the back of a police car, then jailed for a number of hours. “The police didn’t recognize me — and I didn’t throw out the, ‘Do you know who I am?’ [line] — but the prisoners did. They were like, ‘Wow, what are you doing here?’ ” he recalled.  

Still, there’s a bright side, sort of: The whole affair will become great fodder for his stand-up comedy act, once “everything is cleared and I can talk about it,” he said. 

“The entire idea of it was idiocy,” he said.  

Garlin knows from idiots. His new movie — all improvised, much like “Curb” — was inspired by the absurdly over-involved, narcissistic parents he observed on his older son’s Little League team about eight years ago. Garlin plays a successful comedian, not unlike himself, who is so aghast by the parents’ over-the-top behavior that he decides to interview them as material for a possible movie. “Dealin’ With Idiots” co-stars “Curb” alumnus J.B. Smoove as well as Bob Odenkirk, Fred Willard and Jami Gertz, Garlin’s old pal from Jewish preschool in Chicago. The IFC film is available nationwide on demand.

When this reporter mentioned that her son was about to start playing in the American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO), Garlin immediately quipped, “I’m sorry,” then added, “You’re going to see some crazy, crazy, crazy stuff.”

He said his new film was born at one baseball game, when he actually turned to his wife and said, “I’m dealing with idiots here.”

“It’s just the fact that parents would obsess over whether their kids’ team won or not,” he said of his observations. “They can be at times incredibly mean or embarrassing, and just to see the competitiveness in the stands and the snide comments about little kids — it was upsetting.

“Anything that brings me sadness and frustration ultimately leads to comedy, and, therefore, the movie,” he said.

The conversation turned to Garlin’s definition of an idiot: “The word ‘clueless’ comes to mind, and selfish and arrogant. And the worst kind of idiot is someone who doesn’t know they’re an idiot,” he said.

His always-scheming character Jeff Greene falls into that category: “He’s not that intelligent, he has no integrity and he’s kind of arrogant.

“What stops you from being an idiot is being humble,” Garlin added. “Some people can be incredibly stupid, but at least they know it.”

Garlin admitted he himself can succumb to the i-word syndrome. “Oh my God, can I be an idiot,” he said.

When dealing with idiots, the most important thing, he’s learned from the events of June 15, is to act serene. “Next time, I’ll just wave and smile and say, ‘Merry Christmas’ — or ‘Happy Chanukah,’ ” he said, then reconsidered. “But someone might take offense at ‘Happy Chanukah.’ No one takes offense to ‘Merry Christmas,’ even Jews.” 

Garlin, who got his start with Chicago’s comedy troupe Second City, may be one of the most versatile performers working today. In recent years, he’s starred in Pixar films (as the voice of Buttercup the Unicorn in “Toy Story 3”), co-starred on series such as “Arrested Development” (not to mention “Curb”) and penned a 2010 memoir about his struggles with weight loss. He’s now conducting a monthly podcast, “By the Way, In Conversation With Jeff Garlin,” recorded live at the Largo theater, in Los Angeles, featuring luminaries such as David, Lena Dunham and Will Ferrell. And this fall he’ll debut as a gruff dad in a loud Jewish family in the new ABC sitcom “The Goldbergs.” As far as a ninth season of “Curb,” he said, he’s been talking to David and “chances are good.”

Then there’s his stand-up work, which he performs almost nightly around town, at venues like The Comedy Store and Largo — though he’s held off lately as he’s itching to talk about his arrest onstage and can’t as of yet. His act is almost all improvised, he said, with just a list of premises committed to memory. But no, he doesn’t tell audiences that he’s virtually flying blind: “That would be bragging,” he said. “It would be not unlike [jazz artist] John Coltrane stopping a show and going, ‘You know, I’m really making a lot of this up.’ ”

Dealing with hecklers — another kind of idiot, he said — “is pretty easy for me. I do it in a very friendly, affable way. The key is to not get angry and make sure the crowd’s on your side, and you can destroy a heckler in seconds.”

Garlin is about to start shooting additional episodes of “The Goldbergs,” which he describes as “like ‘The Wonder Years’ with an edge — and with Jews.” He’s pleased about the tribal title: “The only way it could be better is if it was called, ‘Jew,’ ” he said.  “I play an Archie Bunker-like character who is a frustrated curmudgeon and emotionally unable to express himself except through anger.”

Will people assume that Garlin is an angry person because of his arrest?

“I’m crazy laid-back,” he said. “I do Transcendental Meditation, I take Lexapro, and I’m as calm as you can be.

“The truth is that at times we’re all idiots,” he said.  “You’ve just got to recognize it, embrace it, forgive yourself and move on.”

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Naomi Pfefferman Magid is the arts & entertainment editor of the Jewish Journal, where she’s spent the last quarter century interviewing everyone from Seth Rogen, Natalie...

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