The nature of stand-up comedy precludes the theatrical fourth wall; the relationship with an audience is typically a fluid and intimate one. So it is fascinating to watch comedian Jeff Garlin push it to the next step by deconstructing his own material. "Number one, there IS a show," he states very early on in his set at the Steppenwolf's Upstairs Theatre. "But not really. It's just me saying things. I've prepared nothing."
This Second City alum certainly shines during moments when improvisation is the method, moments that have him responding to and riffing off of audience reactions or replies to questions. A man wearing red loafers without socks in the second row suddenly becomes a target, the flashy footwear becoming a motif Garlin peppers throughout the two hour set (Thursday night's show going longer than the estimated 75 minutes). Early in the performance he invites a couple from Florida – they’d come specifically to see him – onto the stage. So moved by their devotion, Garlin proceeds to reimburse them for the Spirit Airlines flight, and even gives them a suitcase. This also leads him to create an impromptu mock TV commercial for the airlines with the couple playing along. It's a wonderful improvised moment that develops an intimacy from the start.
Other moments do not work as well and Garlin acknowledges these: "At this point, I know I've lost you. I'm aware of that," he states. "The pain will end momentarily. Comedy doesn't always work." Indeed, the comedy that seems to work the least is that for which he consults a small notepad. These snippets are random thoughts/experiences that he seems to be trying out for audience appeal, perhaps for further exploration in another set.
On stage, Garlin is an appealing presence, not unlike his guileless character Jeff Greene on “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” and one immediately senses that he is willing to share anything. He talks of his sons and wife of 18 years with honesty and genuine affection, and answers questions about the HBO show -- “what’s your TV wife Susie Essman like?” “When will we see another season?” He talks about the voiceover work he’s done for films (WALL-E, Cars 2) and his jacket with the logo LA on the front and Wrigley Field on the back (“William Wrigley built a baseball stadium in Los Angeles. This is a groundskeeper’s jacket”). He bounces back to the man in the red shoes and dispenses advice: “Lose the loafers and wash your feet. American women are not keen on red loafers.”
Such digressions are all part of his act – and personality – and his comfort with an audience is evident. Throughout, he gives away stuff – the latest book by Gay Talese (“smart guy; full of himself”), a DVD of the Jake Gyllenhaal thriller “Source Code,” and a violent PlayStation Game (“I don’t want my 12-year old playing this”).
He has a generous spirit, reflecting as a man who has worked hard to get where he is and musing on what it might all mean.
Performances of Closer Than I Appear are Tuesday through Sunday at 8pm, December 4-16, 2012 in Steppenwolf’s Upstairs Theatre. The performance on December 14 features American Sign Language interpretation. Tickets ($25) go on sale through Audience Services 312-335-1650 and www.steppenwolf.org. A limited number of $15 student tickets are available online using promo code “GARLIN15.” Limit 2 tickets per student; must present a valid student ID for each ticket.
Steppenwolf Box Office
1650 N Halsted Street
Chicago, IL 60614
Phone: (312) 335-1650
Fax: (312) 335-0440
TTY: (312) 335-3830
Open 7 days a week except for certain major holidays
11am to 5pm Monday-Saturday & 1pm to 5pm Sunday
Open until 7pm on days with evening performances