THE GENEROUS STYLINGS OF JEFF GARLIN

October 1, 2010 § 1 Comment

After many years working as a successful stand-up comedian, Jeff Garlin made his name as an actor on the series Curb Your Enthusiasm, playing Larry David’s languid, slightly sleazy yet lovable manager, Jeff Green. The show is somewhat of a scripted improvisation, with most of the regulars on the show coming from a background of stand-up or sketch and improvisational comedy. Since experiencing a steep boost in his celebrity from the success of Curb, Garlin has gone on to act in feature films and enjoy a much higher profile as a stand-up comedian.

I first saw his Combo Platter comedy show at Upright Citizens Brigade, the best comedy venue in Los Angeles, a year or so ago, and last night was treated to a second helping. For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of seeing stand-up at the Brigade, I can tell you that it is that rarest of stand-up experiences: intelligent, original comics expressing well-formed ideas to a bright, enthusiastically warm audience. The room is small, with the cliche of “intimate” actually applying for once. There are no microphones; it really feels like a conversation.

And no one is better at holding that conversation with an audience than Garlin. The show has a particular formula: Garlin will come out with random objects and chat about whatever is on his mind that day. He will then give away the things he has brought with him onstage, ranging from books he has bought but knows he will never read, vinyl LPs, and other detritus he has picked up in his considerable travels. He will then introduce two comics, usually people with an intelligence and sensibility similar to his own, after which he will pull up two chairs and each comic will take their turn to stand and expostulate on whatever topic is being discussed in that moment.

Stand-up is an ‘art’ that has been devalued in recent years; most of the supposed ‘best’ comics still go on stage and attempt to  beat their audience into laughter through hyperactive sound, fury and as many expletives and genital references as can be packed into their set. The storytelling aspect has atrophied. So it is always with great delight that I find someone who is less a stand-up comedian and more a raconteur. Most of the comedians I consider to be at the top of the profession are strong in this: Eddie Izzard, Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Cosby, Ricky Gervais, to name a few.

Garlin has his own way of doing the same thing- a little broader, a little baser, but brilliant nonetheless. He also has one quality in abundance that I don’t see anywhere else in the perfomances of my favourite comics: an enormous generosity. It starts when you buy a ticket: the price tag is five bucks. Granted, all of UCB’s shows are cheap- but that’s one of the reasons most well-known comics don’t play there, unless they’re showing up for a surprise appearance.  Garlin has been doing this show for several years now. He clearly likes to promote young comics, often talking onstage about how he found them, and why they caught his attention. He really looks at people when he talks to them, and that is his genius: when he relates one of his experiences to the audience, he is always talking directly to someone. If everyone else can hear, so much the better, but Garlin clearly enjoys connecting with people on a personal level; last night he pointed out several regulars in his audience, asking them questions about their lives, and I got the impression that although he was clearly mining for comic opportunity, he was also listening to their answers as if he were on the street.

The other facet of Garlin’s generosity lies in not only repeatedly iterating that he’s been at the game for over 25 years, but also that when he started he wasn’t good. The statement hits home due to the absence of any false modesty; Garlin simply expresses it as fact. For anyone in the audience aspiring to anything near Garlin’s level of  artistic and commercial success, that is a powerful and optimistic message, one that Garlin could easily refrain from sending; we often are led to believe that those we admire never had to work at their art, that they somehow are elevated beyond the plane of us and other ‘ordinary people’. That, of course, is hogwash. To listen to Jeff Garlin is to know that he is at once one of us and, thanks to years of working at what he loves to do, also one of the funniest of us.


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