To describe Jeff Garlin’s character on HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” as an easygoing sideman to the dyspeptic leading role would be reductive. Garlin’s Jeff Greene, the ever-faithful manager/buddy, does serve as a conduit for the fictional Larry to reveal the trivial irritations that instigate the show’s loony predicaments. But Greene’s boisterous retorts blend in with Larry’s rants to help create the show’s trademark improvisation. “What?!” Greene responds to the irksome multi-millionaire’s latest triviality, “That’s a big bowl or wrong!” When some of David’s looser-cannon plots develop, and Larry’s irritability grows to a chalkboard-scratching discomfort, Jeff’s lighter personality serves up relief. Thanks to Garlin, stretches of “Curb” are rescued from jeopardy.
We need not look far to find the source of “Curb’s” breezy Jeff Greene. While promoting his new comedy, “I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With,” in which he stars, writes, and directs, Garlin has embarked on a tiresome press run. But when I caught up with him for a phone interview from New York, Garlin was as cheery as ever – even while reading an article that misquoted him (my call seemed to catch him mid-paragraph):
“In all sincerity, I’ve done probably 50 interviews in the past two weeks,” Garlin sighed. “When you do that many, there’s varying degrees of good writers and bad writers. . . it can be very frustrating. That’s why for my next [film], I’m going to pick and choose who did a good job and who I enjoyed talking to.”
Garlin has taken less-conventional approaches in other interviews on his press tour: for a spot on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” hours after we talked, Garlin carried the show’s gift basket on stage to chide Stewart about its paltry contents. Whatever the approach, Garlin never forgets to bring a “big bowl” of geniality.
And he shows refreshing honesty too. “I’m more than happy to do a crappy movie for a lot of money,” he noted when referring to his role in “Daddy Day Care,” though as his first starring role, it didn’t pay all that much. “I didn’t do ‘Daddy Day Camp’ because they didn’t offer me enough money.” Garlin’s not about to kid Hollywood bigwigs on any count: he admitted to Elvis Mitchell on the radio show “The Treatment” that for him, writing and standup are more creatively rewarding than acting. “Unless there’s a great director and a great script,” Garlin said during our talk, “acting can be quite boring,”
The dearth of roles for a performer like Garlin makes his new film, “I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With,” all the more fitting. The film features a realistic overweight character, while Hollywood reserves the type for one-dimensional comic relief. “Cheese” is a simple character study about James, a struggling, overeating comic who just wants someone to love and eat with. Like many directing efforts by performers, the film creates a universe idealistic for its star. “I am completely attracted to a slice-of-life film,” Garlin said, “a slice-of-life TV show, a slice-of-life book. I like seeing a slice of life.”
“Cheese” is Garlin’s writing and directing debut, though he has directed standup specials, including John Waters’ “This Filthy World,” and television. His approach to directing “Curb Your Enthusiasm” is worlds away from his method on his new film. When directing “Curb,” “I work[ed] very fast. There’s never been a director on ‘Curb’ who worked as fast as I do. I don’t know that Larry loves that – that’s why I’ve only done one episode. My episode finished a day and a half early. It’s not a skill thing, it’s a patience thing. I have ADD, and combine that with knowing exactly what I want, I moved fast.”
Yet his new effort has had its challenges. “The thing that really knocked me off my feet [about filmmaking] that I was not prepared for was producing. I’ve discovered that it’s the most difficult job in making a film. As a director, actor, or writer, you really get to do things artistically, whereas producing is just every crappy job that nobody else wants to do. I have a whole new respect for producers – especially ones who protect their directors.”
In “Cheese” Garlin’s James lives with his mother and eats convenience store junk food when down, usually right outside of the store. He seems comfortable and truly happy only when onstage doing improv. “That was a similar thing that happened to me [in my early career]. I used to be uncomfortable offstage and onstage. And then I became really able to harness more energy onstage when I didn’t use it offstage. [James] is very comfortable onstage. And that’s pretty true of most comedic performers. They’re more uncomfortable in their real lives than they are onstage.”
Aside from seeking solace from food, James plays vinyl to wash away a loathsome day’s work on a “Candid Camera”-style reality TV show that has viewers laughing at moments of sadness. “I hate reality TV, and I love vinyl,” says Garlin, who’s as much a traditionalist as his character, James. “I love where medical science has taken us – that has made things much better. And with race relations, even though I think things in the world are bad, I think we are better than we were. Outside of those two things, I don’t see how the world is a better place than it was in the ‘50s or the ‘60s.”
As James moves from one dismal situation to the next, losing jobs and a girlfriend, the film depicts a downward spiral. Known for his irreverent quips and small talk on “Curb,” in “Cheese” Garlin intones “You’re not sorry” to everyone who lets his character down, in a tone that grew organically. “I wasn’t thinking if the film was somber or not. . . When I was cutting it together, and putting the music in, and watching it on maybe my third viewing I thought, ‘oh, it’s kind of somber’. . . If there was something from the past that I did in stand up, I put it in, if I thought it was necessary, and then I made up [material] as I was writing.” For all the jests that appear, the sorrows of James are enough to submerge them.
Garlin’s hard luck story tributes the 1955 romance “Marty,” which starred an endearing, Oscar-winning Ernest Borgnine. In “Cheese,” the classic film is being remade with a heartthrob miscast in the title role, which is a dream part for James. While “Cheese’s” romantic quest makes a nice counterpart to the classic, Garlin isn’t keen on viewers drawing any comparisons. “The only thing good about comparing the two films is that ‘Marty’ is being talked about. Hopefully people, after seeing my movie, will buy or rent ‘Marty’. . . And, Paddy Chayefsky is a better writer than me. If you’re comparing Jeff Garlin to Paddy Chayefsky, no matter what, Chayefsky is always going to have the better ending.”
While a born comedian, Garlin can’t hide his love for filmmaking and his goals to write and direct more films. Though he idolizes Woody Allen, Garlin won’t necessarily star in his own future projects. “Two of the three films I’m developing now I’m not acting in. And I probably won’t even appear in them, even in a smaller role.” But to keep Garlin on the big screen, let’s hope other writers follow “Cheese’s” realistic example.