Jeff Garlin’s giggle is one of the greatest things on this earth. If you’ve seen him on Curb Your Enthusiasm or listened to his wonderful By the Way podcast, you’ve heard it; it’s a full, hearty, robust laugh, inexplicably high-pitched considering the deep, Midwestern tones of his normal speaking voice. It’s not the kind of thing you can fake — when he giggles like that, he’s genuinely amused. So it was one of my greatest achievements in life thus far to have prompted that giggle in our recent telephone interview.
We were there to discuss his new film Dealin’ with Idiots. His second narrative effort as writer/director/star (after 2006’s terrific I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With), the movie has him playing a comedian named Max Morris, who gets a load of the comically dysfunctional parents of the kids on his son’s Little League team and decides to spend some time with them as research for his next movie. We talked about the film and its stellar cast of improvisational comics (including Fred Willard, Bob Oedenkirk, Kerri Kenney-Silver, and J.B. Smoove), as well as the chances for another season of Curb. But first I wanted to talk to him about Michael Bay, a line of questioning that prompted the aforementioned Garlin Giggle.
Flavorwire: So, I love the movie, it’s a big bowl of funny, and we’ll talk about it. But first I wanna talk about Michael Bay, because one of the things I love about your podcast is how, no matter who the guest and what the topic, it will eventually come up that you hate Michael Bay. I feel the same way, and bring it up about as often — especially here in the middle of summer movie season — and I was hoping you could explain exactly why you hate his stuff.
Garlin: I’ve never seen it. I’ve only seen — I shouldn’t say I’ve never seen it. I’ve never watched a complete movie of his. I’ve watched five minutes here, ten minutes there, but what I’ve seen has always disgusted me. It’s truly lowest common denominator. I remember there was a chase scene in The Rock, and I remember at the end of the chase scene, nothing happened, so it occurred to me that it was just there to be a chase scene. It wasn’t there for any emotional value whatsoever. It was like, “Oh, people will like a chase scene.” Well, why don’t I just go on Space Mountain instead of watching a movie?
A small movie like this sort of seems like counter-programming to that kind of big, dumb, blockbuster stuff.
It’s not counter-programming because his movie opens in thousands of theaters and my movie opens in a few theaters, so there’s no doubt as to who is more successful in terms of the business, and I can’t say I’m jealous, but you can’t compare it. It would be counter-programming if my movie was in every theater that his movie is playing at the same time. Then you could call it counter-programming.
Well, as grown ups who like movies, it’s nice to have that option.
It is. Sure, sure, but I wish it was opening in more theaters.
You’re a very good interviewer on the podcast — to such a degree that it’s a little intimidating to interview you, since you do it so well. And it seems like the interviews on your show feel like real conversations, stripping away the artifice of a “fake conversation” that so many interviews and podcasts have. How do you achieve that?
I achieve it by not preparing.
At all. I mean, no, I don’t have a list of questions. What it really is, is if I was having lunch with this person, what would we talk about? Sometimes I think of a first question, like, Henry Rollins is my newest one, and my first question to him is “Do you take baths?” I know, funny! And the perfect person to ask that to! But that led to so much great stuff. And when I say I don’t prepare, I have a lot of respect for preparation, but for the style of this show, preparation is the enemy.
Well, it helps to be a great improvisational comic, so I’ll probably play it safe and stick to the questions I already have. So in the movie, you play a comic who is inspired to make a movie about the insane parents on his kid’s Little League team. So I’m assuming it is, to some degree, autobiographical?
Yes, the entire movie is inspired from my own experiences.
Were both of your kids in Little League?
No. Only the older one. The younger one never had any interest.
Your background is heavy on improvisation, so when you’re directing a movie, what is your process — in terms of how much is written and how much is improvised?
Well, I’ve directed two narratives. One was completely scripted and I encouraged the actors to improvise, and they didn’t improvise very much — some, but not a whole lot. And then on this movie, I didn’t even give a script to anyone. I told everybody right before we filmed what the scene was about.
That sounds even less structured than how you and Larry do Curb.
I would say it’s pretty equal, because here’s the thing: on Curb, I read the scripts and some of the other regular people — I’m sure JB reads something — but for the most part, we just tell the actors what they’re doing.
You’ve got so many brilliant improvisational actors in this cast, and a structure that really allows each of them to do what they do. How early on did that casting occur? Were you writing for specific people?
I had my wish list for all the characters, yes, and I’d have to say, if I’m not mistaken, all of my wishes came true.
Fred Willard’s scenes are amazing. He’s so funny, he’s just one of those guys who’s funny no matter what he says, just sitting there. What was that experience like, of working with that kind of, y’know, legendary guy in your field?
And by the way, when you say that it’s a legend, all I’m thinking when I’m in scenes with Fred is, “Oh my god, I’m acting with Fred Willard!” because I love him so much. That’s what I’m thinking. That’s my inner monologue when I’m performing with him, is, “Oh my god, that’s Fred Willard, who I love so much.”
So when you’re doing a scene like when Bob Odenkirk goes off on a long riff about his brother the locksmith, that was entirely in the moment?
Entirely him, entirely in the moment. All I said to him was — I bought that can of food that’s on the counter. I bought that goulash at a store next door. I couldn’t believe it was goulash. I go and I say to Bob before the scene, I say, “Some point during this scene, bring up the goulash. I don’t care what you do. Just bring up the goulash, because it’s going to be on the counter.” He said, “Okay,” and the goulash led to the back door being open and someone stealing his goulash and that led to the whole story. I was in awe as he was telling it and we did it a couple of times and it’s one of the highlights of the movie for me.
You said you did it a couple of times. On a scene like that or in another scene, will there be a moment where something will start to happen in a take and then you’ll say, “Let’s do more of that”?
Yes, most definitely, most definitely. Yes, “Let’s do more of that,” “Less of that,” “This time, let’s do the same thing, but have this in mind.” I don’t try and mess with things too much. The key is hiring brilliant people, and then directing is pretty gosh darn easy once you hire great people.
Nia Vardalos plays your wife in the movie, and your relationship seems very comfortable and lived-in. Did you know her before filming?
We were in Second City together.
I noticed that your wife is the casting director, so presumably she’s known Nia for a long time as well.
Yes, most definitely. My wife is friends with Nia, but she wasn’t copying my relationship. It had nothing to do with my real relationship. Actually, there was one scene that reminded me of it, but it actually got cut. I believe, hey, hold it — [off the phone] Hey, Heather? Is the scene with the towels in the movie? I forgot. By the pool? [back on the phone] Yeah, we cut that. You know the scene where my son and I are swimming and my wife comes out? Well, there’s so much great stuff that I had to cut out because it went on. There was just one thing after another — Babe Ruth and the hot dogs, and my wife telling me that she got the towels for cheap — I mean, there was so much great stuff in there, but it had to get cut down. It was just too long.
For a film with so much improvisation that you want to keep at a tight 80, 90 minute length, how long is the rough cut?
An hour and 50, and I always knew it was going to be less than 90 minutes.
Are we going to get see any of the stuff from the cutting room floor?
You don’t like doing deleted scenes?
No. I mean, they may ask for one. I don’t know. Yeah, I’d like to think that all the stuff — a movie is a movie, and deleted scenes are stuff that… I don’t know. I don’t have a strong opinion one way or another about commentary or deleted scenes. Great commentary is wonderful and other commentaries that I’ve heard, I thought, “Do these people realize that people are supposed to be listening to this?” The best commentary ever is on a movie called The Limey, that Soderbergh movie.
Where they’re arguing about the movie.
You’ve talked before about how much you love Woody Allen, and there are certainly things in the movie that show that affection. I wondered if you could tell me a little bit about how he’s influenced you, as a comic and filmmaker, and if you could ever see yourself following his trajectory and doing more serious stuff too?
Okay, a couple of thoughts here: 1) he’s not — except for being funny and me digging him, as a stand up, he was not an influence on me. But as a filmmaker, what he eventually — because the early movies also are not a big influence, except for my sheer enjoyment of something like Bananas or Sleeper. But with Annie Hall on, per se, he taught me — well, I’m influenced by him, first off, if I could do a whole movie of masters, I’d love that. And I like when people walk on and off screen. They don’t need to be onscreen; you don’t need coverage for this and that all the time. You know what it is? It’s the naturalistic feeling. But you have to understand that I’ve gone to the things that influenced him, you know? I’ve gone to Bergman. I think for me, my strongest influence on this movie is probably Fellini.
That would’ve never occurred to me, but I could certainly see it. And there’s certainly a pathos and sweetness to the Timothy Olyphant stuff that indicates an interest in material that’s a little heavier in nature.
And I would most definitely do a movie that is more dramatic. My favorite feelings are pathos and melancholy. Those are my two favorites by far. I mean, I want to be funny, but I don’t feel the need to be so funny. My humor is much more subtle. I remember there’s a scene in my last movie, I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With, where a little boy — my character has found himself serving hot dogs, like, free samples at a hot dog place — and the little boy comes up and says, “Can I have one?” And I say to the little kid, “Why are you wearing a poncho? It’s such a beautiful day,” and the kid says, “Because when I’m bad, my dad makes me wear the poncho.” And then father comes up and says, “Did he say thank you?” And I say, “Well, actually, no,” and his dad goes, “Alright, another week in the poncho.” In my opinion, I can’t write funnier than that. That’s as funny as I can ever possibly be, and that’s really subtle, so that’s my favorite stuff. To me, subtle melancholy, pathos is funny stuff.
How much stand up do you do now? Because I’ve always been fascinated that you never prepare an act. You just kind of wing it. Does it get exhausting to do it that way?
It can be exhausting to do it that way, especially when it’s not working, but it usually works. I won’t be doing a lot of stand up soon because The Goldbergs, my new television show, is starting in mid-August, so once that starts, I don’t think I’ll have any time. I’ll still try and get in at least a set a week, so I’m never going to stop.
Tell me about The Goldbergs.
The Goldbergs is about a family in the 1980s, and it’s pretty realistic. I like to think of it as a combination of All in the Family and The Wonder Years.
I start shooting in August. It comes on Tuesdays at nine on ABC, right after Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
That’s a great spot. Are you acting, writing?
No, I’m just acting. Just acting.
Finally, I apologize for asking the question you must get tired of, but: do you think there’s gonna be another season of Curb?
I am hopeful. I think there’s a good chance — I’m not going to say very good or great — a good chance, and I’m hopeful, and I’m lucky that I can still do it with another show.
Dealin’ with Idiots is out Wednesday in New York and Friday in Los Angeles. It will also be available Friday on demand.