good one podcast

Jeff Garlin Doesn’t Want to Hear Your Theories About Writing Jokes

Photo: Getty Images

For each episode of Good One, Vulture’s podcast about jokes and the people who tell them, we have the guest pick a joke from their career (whether from stand-up, TV, film, etc.) for us to discuss. When asked to do so, Jeff Garlin canceled his appearance. Afterward, a compromise was made: He wouldn’t have to pick a joke, but we’d get to talk about why he backed out.

To put it briefly, Garlin, who trained in Chicago, is first and foremost and improvisor. He improvises his stand-up, and he improvises on Curb Your Enthusiasm: It’s his natural state. And that is the subject of this week’s Good One. Listen to the episode and read an excerpt from the transcript of the discussion below. Tune in to Good One every Monday on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.

You do not write jokes, per se, instead preferring to improvise your sets. But thinking of a joke as a unit of comedy, what do you see as being the thing making audiences laugh?
Laugh at me, laugh with me, hopefully laugh at yourselves. It’s myself trying as a human being to make it through the world. I will look foolish, I will have made mistakes, I will have not trusted my gut in some of these stories, therefore laugh at me. Or laugh with me because you’ve experienced something of the same.

Chris Rock, in an interview, talked about every singer having three or four songs, and then just rewriting that song. And he said, “I have four or five jokes.” It might be a ten-minute bit about whatever, but essentially it’s about how men and women are different. He thinks all comedians operate that way. Do you?
Let me say something. I couldn’t respect Chris Rock — or Jerry Seinfeld, as well — more, but those two fuckers — and when I say fuckers, I’m more friendly with Jerry then I am with Chris, although with Chris I’ve always had a great relationship — they have their theories and they shove them down my throat. I was with Jerry last week in New York and he had very strong theories about things that I disagreed with, but it’s not worth arguing because he has to be right, and so does Chris. It’s because Chris is so influenced by Jerry. If you want to know who Jerry Jr. is, it’s Chris. He has passed it down to him. Let ’em have his four-joke theory, but I disagree with that. I’m not going to go off on my theory but the truth is true to everyone.

When you started working with Larry [David], as a person trained in improv, how natural of a fit was your style?
Very natural. When I moved out to Los Angeles, I would improvise with Second City alumni and didn’t have the best time. The difference between myself and most people is they’d hear word that someone was in the room, or even it was just the potential, and it was all about them. I became more of a team player in their eyes because I was always about the other person. Immediately upon doing Curb Your Enthusiasm, man, everything in my head was about Larry, not about me looking good. That grew from there. I do think I should win Best Supporting Actor every year. Generally supporting actor is best person who is not the star but who is supporting, like really supporting. If I’m funny, great, but it’s about everybody else.

Your character is a manager, so it would make sense that all you do is support.
It helps the plot move forward. There’s a good deal of exposition. I am allowed to be funny, but it just happens naturally within the course of a scene. Whether it’s used or not, it’s ultimately not up to me. Some of the things I’ve done where I’ve been very proud in terms of making a choice beyond exposition have been on the cutting room floor.

Does Curb improvise based on an outline?
Yeah, it’s seven pages long and is essentially the story of the show, and not very much of it is dialogue. I may get one line that Larry will write per episode that he wants me to say. Other than that, I know the story and I know what has to be said and I just say it.

I know you help with the outlines. Do you gather like a writers room?
There’s a paragraph or two about the scene, but we will adapt it to what’s going on. It’s generally just first drafts. If Larry rewrites, he will just rewrite himself or bounce it off Jeff Shaffer, who is one of the producers. But it’s not like we have a room where there are rewrites.

So you have the outline and then it goes where it goes. Could you improvise something that would change the plot in a major way?
Most definitely. But you don’t necessarily want to if something is working. But I do a different take every time, unless he asks me to repeat something specifically.

Curb has been on hiatus for a while. What is it like getting back? Is there a certain amount of rust?
I’m friends with all the people I work with and I see them all on a regular basis, so it came very easy. The first scene we shot coming back was one with myself, Larry, and JB Smoove. These are friends of mine, so it was like we worked the week before. It was not difficult and it was wonderful.

These are your friends. Your name is Jeff. In a scene, how much are you playing yourself? How much is your brain in character?
I am never playing myself. I put on that suit, literally, and I’m that person. But what comes out is from myself, so people like the character because they like Jeff Garlin.

On a personal level, how did this season feel different?
It was the most fun I had. The least stressful and least worrisome. On the other hand, I was filming The Goldbergs at the exact same time and that was very stressful. It took away a lot of the joy but it didn’t effect my work. It would have been the most fun I would have had in my life on Curb if I didn’t have to do both shows.

How Curb Your Enthusiasm Scripts Go From Outline to Episode