Jeff Garlin isn’t long into his comedy set when he announces to the audience: “I’m never nervous.”
Calmness in the face of many things — an improvising Larry David, repeated production halts for his new film “I Want Someone to Each Cheese With” — has served Garlin well.
As David’s agent and sidekick on “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” which is made in only a roughly scripted manner, Garlin never flinches. He appears almost serene next to David’s hysterical paranoia. The comedy series, for which Garlin is also an executive producer, has just returned for its sixth season on HBO.
“To not be in the moment is to deny so much comic possibility,” the 45-year-old comedian said during a recent interview over breakfast at a Manhattan hotel. “By being in the moment, you are being true to the art form.”
The moment has finally arrived for “I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With,” a film that Garlin wrote, directed and stars in. It opened last week in New York, premieres in Los Angeles and other cities Friday, and further expands later this month. It’s also available on demand on cable channel IFC.
“I can’t believe it’s actually out. I’ve reach my goal,” says Garlin. “I got a release and a review in The New York Times — a rave. I’m done.”
It was around 1997 when Garlin began the script for “I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With,” a deadpan semi-autobiographical story about a Chicago comedian who’s fired from Second City and dumped by his girlfriend in quick succession.
Garlin struggled to find financing, which twice fell through. He shot it in 18 days, but those days were spread out over two years. Garlin cast the film mostly with comedians he’s known through the years, including Sarah Silverman, Amy Sedaris, Bonnie Hunt and Dan Castellaneta.
“I have a sense of resiliency,” Garlin says of bringing his film to theaters. “They knock me down, I just get back up. I don’t get emotional.”
The reviews have been positive. The film offers a pitch-perfect picture of loneliness and quiet desperation, populated with wry observations on life a la Paddy Chayefsky’s “Marty” — for which Garlin’s character repeatedly professes his devotion.
“It’s like an Albert Brooks or Woody Allen movie, only not as good and I star in it,” says Garlin. “But there aren’t a lot of movies like that.”
‘I’m just a lucky guy’Since he was 8 and saw Jimmy Durante perform, Garlin knew he wanted to be a comedian. He’s spent his entire career as a standup, character actor and improv player.
“I’m just a lucky guy,” he says. “I’m lucky because I crossed paths with Larry David. I think that, yeah, I’m talented, I’m a funny guy. But I’m lucky because there are talented, funny guys that haven’t gotten my career opportunities.”
It was Garlin who suggested to David that he film everything surrounding his post-“Seinfeld” comedy special on HBO, thereby leading to “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” On the show and in his movie, Garlin often plays the straight man to those around him: he’s a comedy enabler.
As an executive producer on “Curb,” he often advises David on what’s working and what isn’t. He also helped direct HBO comedy specials for Denis Leary and Jon Stewart.
The comedy show where Garlin pronounced his immunity to nerves is also a case in point. For years, he has been performing “Jeff Garlin’s Combo Platter” weekly at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in Los Angeles. (He lives with his wife and two sons in L.A.)
The show, which he recently brought to the UCB in New York, has a loose structure that allows for improvisation. Garlin begins with a set of standup, then introduces several guests (in this case, Louis C.K., “Curb” co-star Susie Essman and Jim Gaffigan), who each do a short set.
Garlin then takes a suggestion from the audience, spawning brief two-minute standup routines from every comic, with each riffing off the previous one. It’s the opposite of what you see at many chest-thumping standup shows.
“Most comedy today is about bravado,” says Garlin. “I love low-status. I love when you’re humiliated and the audience feels for you. In my standup, the only one who should ever look stupid is me.”
Garlin is now preparing a full-length standup act. He later plans to tour with Richard Lewis and Essman, and next year turn it into a TV special.
He places the odds for another season of “Curb” at 50/50, “because that’s what Larry says.” But Garlin isn’t as positive about the prospect of another season as you might expect.
“It’s a great job, but I’d like to move on and do whatever’s next,” he says. Still he adds: “But I’m not going to be the jerk that stops ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm.”’