Jeff Garlin On The Influence Jazz Has On His Comedy, Why He Never Writes Material, And Finding ‘Moments Of Greatness’

There’s a moment in Jeff Garlin’s new Netflix special, Our Man In Chicago (which is available to stream on Netflix now), where the Goldbergs and Curb Your Enthusiasm star spins an epic story of missed connections and unrequited love for a pair of long-time friends seated in the front row of his show. The point is, of course, to get a laugh. And it does. But it’s also a hell of a flex for a comic who loves to riff and find a rhythm on the stage. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t serious craft involved in what Garlin does.

Uproxx spoke with the comic (who accidentally celebrated 37 years as a comic while recording the special) about his process, time spent developing specials with Denis Leary and Jon Stewart, his early influences, not having too many voices in his head, and how comedy and jazz come together when he finds “moments of greatness.”

What’s the first comedy special that you ever saw?

I can’t say for sure what it was, but I can give you a “probably” because these are what’s in my mind. In terms of an actual comedian doing an hour, that would be Robert Klein and George Carlin. That would definitely be in the 70s. The first one that I saw that had a profound effect on me where I thought of myself, even though I wasn’t a comedian then… in the late seventies or early eighties, it was Showtimes The Big Laff Off and Eddie Murphy was in it. I think Bobby Slayton, as well. What it basically was was they showed a little mini-doc about the comedians and how they approach it and then they filmed them doing a set and I was fascinated. It really stuck with me that there was a craft to it and it was a job.

Richard Pryor Wanted: Live In Concert is not a comedy special. It is a comedy film because there is a difference. And I feel strongly that a comedy special should be less than an hour and a comedy film can be 90 minutes… whatever you want it to be because it’s crafted differently and feels different. I feel like with my special, I kind of wanted to punch people in the face and then get the hell out of there.

What was it about Pryor’s film that reached you?

All I saw with Richard Pryor was artistry. I didn’t see the craft. The craft goes into all the sets that he did prior to that, you know? But when I saw that, it was pure artistry, pure emotion, hard laughs and true, true brilliance. So there was a lot that hit me at once.

Who else besides Pryor do you count as an influence?

Monty Python, Second City TV, all the old comics. Jack Benny is one of my favorite comedians. But, do you know what inspires me more than anything in terms of my approach to comedy? It’s jazz. John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins. The rhythms of my stand up lie in jazz.

I find that very interesting because I feel very similarly about writing with that. Do you write comedy material with your ear? Are you listening for a rhythm?

No, I’m not. You’re even taking it a step further. I don’t even go there. I go up on stage with nothing. I record. I just talk and then whatever appeals to me I’ll bring up again.

Oh, awesome.

I do no prep for what I create.

Is that because… I’m someone who, when I write something down, I’m terrible. In the moment is the only time that I actually find any kind of rhythm or any kind of place. Is that what that is for you?

If I may say…

You may!

My greatness lies in the moment. Before the moment, after the moment, there’s no greatness.

Have you tried to analyze why that is?

No, I don’t want to analyze that at all, because that’ll make me not be funny. But my greatness lies in the moment. And by the way, speaking of the moment, I have moments of greatness. [Laughs] It doesn’t happen all the time. Moments of greatness.

What was the first special that you saw from a peer that you were coming up with?

Early on, my peers, Denis Leary and Jon Stewart, they got their specials and I helped develop their specials. So I was involved with my peers doing their specials. I guess Denis’s No Cure For Cancer came before, then I did Denis’s second special and I did Jon’s Unleavened special. But yeah, Denis was maybe the first person of my peers that had a special, that completely changed his life.

When something like that happens to somebody you’re close to how does that impact your career? Does it give you a little bit more focus?

Well, the one thing I don’t feel remotely is any jealousy. I am filled with joy for any of my peers that are my friends. I’m thrilled for them and all that. So I don’t need a friend or a peer doing a successful special for me to get more focused. I’m super focused. I don’t take myself seriously, but I take what I do very seriously. Truly, none of my friends could have ever had a special and I would have still been laser-focused.

In terms of the topics that you touch on, if you see Denis finding certain success with certain topics, do you start to look at those topics and maybe wonder, “Should I talk about this a little bit more?”?

I can tell you, unequivocally, no. There’s nothing that my peers do in terms of content that I ever apply to myself. I am my own man. It’s whatever whimsy, whatever my mind takes me to. What someone else does, has no effect. Now, mind you, I’m talking about my peers. When I watch Richard Pryor, when I watched George Carlin, when I watched Bob Newhart, when I watch any of the great comedians that had started before me, that’s where the influences came. That’s where the, “Oh, you do that? You talk about that that way?” [comes in]. That occurred before I even stepped on stage.

Talk to me a little bit about working behind the scenes on a special and how much effort actually goes into the crafting of a special and writing material.

For Denis Leary, I was completely focused on the development of it. We went on the road. I opened for him. Every night we discussed the set. My focus with Denis Leary. What I brought to it was to try and get the Denis Leary that I know on the screen. That’s what my focus was. So it was very content-oriented. Jon Stewart was not content-oriented because he was able to put [forward] who he is as a person. I wasn’t worried about that. But I wanted to get him as a performer to a place where Denis lives. You know what I mean? Denis is a very charismatic actor. Jon is a charismatic guy, but he’s not as big as Denis. So I didn’t have to focus on material with Jon, even though we did some, it was more on performance.

I look back, I made both of them a bit crazy. I know this. And we’re close friends so they accepted it and they trusted me. But I know I made both of them nuts for the opposite reasons. Dennis, for really showing who he is, and Jon for trying to get him to perform it to the last row of the house.

With this special, your special, when you’re building that material, is there any collaboration there? Do you have a version of yourself with Denis working with you on that?

I had a few people. I had a fellow named Mat Edgar who opened for me a lot. He just recorded his first comedy album at the New York Comedy Festival. I’m very proud of him. So I had him open for me. He would give me thoughts and notes. Another person who was very helpful is Heather Pasternak, another comedian. So I had a few people that I trusted, and even John Mulaney came when I was in New York and gave me his thoughts. But that’s about it. I didn’t want too many voices in my head. But collaborating, even on something that’s as personal as your own comedy special, is very important. Very important to have people you trust giving you their point of view.

‘Our Man In Chicago’ is available for streaming on Netflix now.