Interview: Jeff Garlin Gives Advice on ‘Dealin’ with Idiots’

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CHICAGO – Jeff Garlin is what he is. He wants to emphasize that characteristic over any in the formation and development of his many characters – most famously as Jeff Greene on “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and The Captain in the animated classic film “Wall-E.” Garlin also co-wrote and directed his latest film, “Dealin’ with Idiots.”

The film is a treatise on kid’s sports, in this case Little League baseball. Garlin portrays Max Morris, a “top twenty” comedian who simply wants his son to have fun playing the game. The other parents, the coaches and the rules conspire against that notion, and the Max character constantly fights against that system throughout the story. The film is off-beat and funny, using the same set-up and techniques as “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” with the actors improvising scenes based on an outline.

Jeff Garlin
Jeff Garlin is Off Base in ‘Dealin’ with Idiots’
Photo credit: IFC Films

The very direct and very engaging Jeff Garlin sticks to his self-described “reasonable thoughtlessness” in approaching his films, stand-up comedy and life. The Chicago native sat down with this week to talk about “Dealin’ with Idiots” and other show business adventures. ‘Dealin’ with Idiots’ is a very interesting film, in the sense that you seem to have many nits to pick. What specifically, besides exposing the idiotic archetypes, were you trying to almost symbolically communicate in the film?

Jeff Garlin: All right, I have no agenda whatsoever in the film. I wasn’t trying to expose anything, I was just trying to make an entertaining movie. If it’s entertaining, great. I’d rather it be fun and entertaining than be accurate. I feel it’s accurate, because so much is based on what actually happened when dealing with kid’s sports. But my only concern it to make an entertaining movie with a nice feeling to it. I asked that because there were touches of a Fellini-esque context in the film.

Garlin: I’m clearly influenced by Fellini. As a matter of fact, while on the film set, I was listening to soundtracks from Fellini films. In one of the sequences, the action was scored on set by music from ‘Amarcord.’ [1973 Frederico Fellini film], and another musical score was added in later.

That may be one of my fears regarding the film. That it might be too abstract. It’s not a straight ahead I’m-making-a-point type story. I wanted a feeling, I wanted to entertain and I want people to get something out of it. But not necessarily a lesson. How was this film prepared? Was it directly scripted by you or did you use an outline and allow for your talented cast to participate in improvisation, as is done on ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’?

Garlin: I used a 20 page outline. We shot over 12 days, and none of the actors would see the outline. I would tell them right beforehand what we were about to do in the scene. The character of the ‘father’ is specifically used in the film. Was this a casual intensity regarding your own relationship with your Dad or an attempt to satirize the flashback or imagined conversations with persons in your past?

Garlin: My father had passed away shortly before I began filming, so yes the conversation parts were inspired by his memory. I just imagined talking to my Dad about how kid sports were like in the past. The Dad in the film has died 30 years before I was talking to him. I cast Tim Olyphant because I’m a fan, although I would have probably been his ugly son, because he’s a handsome dude. [laughs] Which of the actors were you working with for the first time, and which were your Chicago connection go-tos?

Garlin: First time, was Timothy Olyphant and Kerry Kinney, but I knew everybody in the film beforehand. When I do this type of work, whether it’s on ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ or my films, Chicago trained and Second City actors are clearly the best for the job. What was your process in reaching The Second City stage back in the mid-1980s? What twist of fate or quirk in your act sealed the deal for your participation?

Garlin: I actually was kicked out of The Second City school and was fired a number of times from that company. I was doing stand-up comedy at the same time as doing Second City, just trying to find my way. It’s like college in a sense because I grew as a person and an artist. It was very rewarding, but in terms of how successful I was at it at the time? Not very. You were born in the area, but spent a number of your developmental years in South Florida. How did experiencing your growing years between those two geographical sensibilities make you different than the ‘typical’ Midwestern comedian?

Garlin: That’s interesting. First of all, I don’t know what a ‘typical’ Midwestern comedian is. [laughs] But I suppose there was a sense of growing and learning in South Florida. I started my career there at age 20, so I will be affected by that time and place, but I think that because my first 12 years were spent in this area, that so much of who you become happens early on. When I came back at age 22, I still felt like a ‘Chicago values’ person. Even now I feel like I’m a Chicagoan, that’s who I am more than anything. Your 2006 film ‘I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With,’ which was shot in Chicago, has a legendary history and story. Describe the process in which the film took two years to shoot, and its origins as your one man show?

Garlin: As far as my one man show, the only thing the film has in common is the title, although I did lift a couple of scenarios from the act to the film – making people cry on a hidden camera show and also having my heart broken – so thematically there were similarities.

It took a number of years to get the money to do the project. Then once the money was in place, it fell through. So I shot a week’s worth of footage, then showed it to people to get more money in place. All the interiors, except for a brief moment on The Second City stage, were all done in Los Angeles. It was a joy to make, but very difficult, because of the losing and obtaining of funding.

Gina Gershon, Kerry Kinney
Gina Gershon and Kerry Kinney in ‘Dealin’ with Idiots’
Photo credit: IFC Films In that film, your character had an overriding sense of pathos in his humor. How do you like to use that in formulating your comic characters?

Garlin: True pathos is great, I’m a real fan of that emotion in characters. One of my favorite films in that category is ‘City Lights’ [1931, with Charlie Chaplin]. But when I’m doing my act – whether it’s stand-up, movies or TV – I don’t have an agenda. I write what I write, I improvise what I improvise, I do what I do. It is reasonably thoughtless. I’m professional, and I take it seriously, but I don’t have an agenda, except to do the best work I can. You did some work on a classic pre-internet sitcom (‘Mad About You’), you’ve worked the high class HBO series and now you’re back this fall on a post-internet sitcom called ‘The Goldbergs.’ What have you observed to be the difference between the 3 experiences?

Garlin: I don’t see much difference between ‘Mad About You’ and ‘The Goldbergs’ as far as process. They both had show runners and a writing team, but the ‘The Goldbergs’ is shot on a single camera, not a three-camera live audience show like what was done on ‘Mad About You.’ That is the creative difference.

‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ was unlike anything I’ve ever done or ever will do. I had to film a scene, and then as one of the producers had to discuss it immediately. It is the way things should be, because there was no ‘us and them’ with the writers and performers. What is distinct or exciting about the prospect of ‘The Goldbergs’?

Garlin: What is exciting about ‘The Goldbergs’ is that it’s the autobiographical story of writer Adam Goldberg. It took me by surprise when I received the script – I wasn’t looking to jump into network sitcoms. The script was so funny, and I’m excited about the potential of being in not only a hit TV show, but the potential of being in an enduring classic show, because it’s so funny. We’ll see. I read in a description on Wikipedia that you could not empathize with your ‘Jeff’ character on ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm.’ In what experiences or observations were you able to find him, and what in retrospect do you like or relate about Jeff Greene?

Jeff Garlin
Jeff Garlin in Chicago, July 8th, 2013
Photo credit: Patrick McDonald for

Garlin: That implies I put a thought process into it, and I do not put any thought process into it. [laughs] I’m thinking about what’s for lunch or what my wife had said to me. In ‘Curb,’ there is no need to worry about knowing lines, I just have to not bump into the furniture. I’m aware about what the scene is about. I don’t know if I said ‘empathize,’ because I can empathize with any character. But the Jeff on the show has no integrity, he’s not like me. I can’t really associate with him, I think that’s what I said instead of empathize. That line was in the Wikipedia page for ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm.’

Garlin: I want to tell you this right now, I encourage people to write whatever they want on my Wikipedia page. Anything you want. Print that I like puppetry, that I got lost in a forest once, I don’t care. [laughs] What advice would you give people from other parts of the country about how to handle Los Angeles and the clubby cliques of the show business industry. What is your greatest defense against it?

Garlin: I don’t think about it – I am what I am and I do what I do. If you think about the nightlife and fitting in, then you’ll do fine, because there is a lot of insecure people who obsess about that. That’s not me, I don’t pay attention to any of that. I have a lot of friends who are big stars and a lot of friends who aren’t even in show business, so I don’t even look at Los Angeles that way. Finally, what specific role or performance would you like to be remembered for, and have you even thought about the epitaph to be written on your tombstone?

Garlin: No, I haven’t thought about that. [laughs] The role that I’m most proud of in my career was ‘Wall-E.’ as the Captain. ‘Curb’ is great, but that’s more of Larry David’s thing. For all time, I think ‘Wall-E’ is pretty magical and wonderful, and will endure. But like I don’t think about my approach to movies, I’m not thinking about my tombstone. I just try to do my best every day.

“Dealin’ with Idiots” has a limited release, including Chicago, on July 12th. See local listings for show times and theaters. Featuring Jeff Garlin, Timothy Olyphant, Gina Gershon, Jami Gertz, Bob Odenkirk, Nia Vardalos, J.B. Smoove, Richard Kind, Fred Willard and Kerry Kinney. Written by Jeff Garlin and Peter Murrieta. Directed by Jeff Garlin. Not rated. senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Senior Staff Writer

© 2013 Patrick McDonald,

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