Monday, July 6, 2009

On DVD: "Young and Handsome: A Night with Jeff Garlin"

As far as this fan is concerned, Jeff Garlin is the unsung hero of Curb Your Enthusiasm. While the considerable comic energy and deftly cultivated persona of star/creator Larry David is undoubtedly the fuel for that terrific program, its uproariously funny semi-improvisational scenes would go nowhere if David didn’t have the right performers to bounce off of and riff with. As Larry’s manager, Jeff Garlin has clearly proven the man for that job (his comic timing and quick wit are among the show’s greatest assets), and his influence on the distinctive style of that show can be easily seen in his (unfortunately underseen) feature film I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With, a breezy, off-the-cuff Curb-flavored picture which he wrote, directed, and starred in.

Garlin’s ease with David’s barely-scripted show is presumably due to his years at Chicago’s world-famous Second City, the improv-heavy comedy theater that launched talents ranging from Fred Willard and Alan Arkin to John Belushi and Bill Murray to Tina Fey and Steve Carell. That improvisational background also altered and influenced his style as a stand-up; he was a nightclub comic before working at Second City, but his experiments as an improv actor gave him the confidence to throw out the tight bits that pleased comedy club crowds and work toward something looser and more interesting.

Young and Handsome: A Night with Jeff Garlin captures his stand-up persona, which traffics in an offbeat, shambling storytelling style that couldn’t care less about obvious constructs and easy punch lines. Filmed at Second City in July of 2008, Young and Handsome is directed by Mr. Show vet (and fellow Second City alum) Bob Odenkirk, who attempts some minor variations on the boilerplate stand-up special; he starts with Garlin in mid-story and includes a few opening jokes before giving us an odd but funny opening credit sequence. Each section begins with an on-screen title (“a fat man falling,” “a.d.d.,” “fuck you, old man”), and Garlin proceeds to talk about married life, his unfortunate eating habits and being a minor celebrity.

Perhaps the most interesting element of this particular act (and Odenkirk’s shooting of it) is how much is left in that most comics (and directors) would take out. Garlin’s stream-of-consciousness, conversational style is prone to sidebars and tangents; he has no problem pursuing them and then returning to the original story with an offhand “Okay, back to the thing” or “Ah, we’ll cut it out, fuck it.” He even references that the offhand line or chunk will surely not make the cut, noting “It’s all right, because I don’t move, it’ll all cut together,” which is a funny line anyway, but it’s funnier because it all stayed in.

So it’s not the tightest set of comedy you’ll ever see, but that’s clearly none too bothersome for Garlin; at one point, he even does a bit of stand-alone pieces, which he introduces by saying, “I can’t cleanly tie them into anything, and I’m okay with that.” Considering how tenuous some of the connections before that are, it’s both amusing and ridiculous, as if he’d suddenly come down with a case of structural discipline. There are other enjoyable pieces of meta-comedy as well, like his running joke about how all of his female voices sound like an “elderly gay man.”

But make no mistake, this isn’t just an inside-comedy set by a fringe comic. There are plenty of good old-fashioned belly laughs to be found, such as an uproarious story about his afternoon babysitting Kid Rock at a Cubs game or the perfectly logical rules about when and in what volume he will consume Krispy Kreme donuts. In spite of his comment about never moving, he makes excellent use of the small stage space and the center stage microphone in a funny piece about goofing off as a security guard. And some of those unconnected bits have some great lines—my favorite: “Some people say the first year of marriage is the toughest… I say the last year probably is.”

Young and Handsome: A Night with Jeff Garlin may sport fewer quotable lines and less laughs-per-minute than other recent stand-up discs. But Garlin’s affable, conversational style creates a loose, enjoyable vibe, and the intimate setting at his home base certainly seems to put the comic at ease. It’s not a must-own show, but it’s certainly a relaxed, genial, satisfying hour of comedy.

"Young and Handsome: A Night with Jeff Garlin" hits DVD on Tuesday, July 7th.

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