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Back Room

Jeff Garlin

The comedian on his napping skills and his man crush on Joe Maddon

Illustration by Stavros Damos
Illustration: Stavros Damos

When I was 8 or 9, my family came downtown from Morton Grove to see Jimmy Durante play the Empire Room in the Palmer House. I’d never been in a room like that, never seen a show. And I was so taken by the excitement in that room, by the audience’s love for Durante. It was like, “Oh, he’s something.” On the way home I asked my parents, “Is that a job?” And they said it was. And I said, “Well, then that’s the job I want.”

My dad taught me to be humble. And my mom taught me to not be denied. It’s part of my success.

It’s a lot more challenging to be a comedian now. When you talk to an audience, they’re made up of so many different experiences. Whereas before, we shared a world that was smaller. There were only three TV channels—four if you include Channel 32. Everyone watched Bozo. Everyone watched BJ and Dirty Dragon. Or Frazier Thomas. Or Fahey Flynn with the news.

I’m an improvisational standup comedian. I took what I learned at Second City and put it into my standup. Nobody else has done that.

When I first went to L.A., you’d see other Chicago actors and you’d have this instant camaraderie. I remember people actually got confused why we were being so nice to each other. “We’re Chicago, man. If any one of us makes it, it’s good.”

If you’re bitter and jealous, you will not become successful. I’ve never seen an exception to that rule.

Be lucky. That’s what Roger Daltrey always says. So no matter how good I am, I’m lucky.

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Comedy’s what I do, but it takes somebody special to make me want to watch it. I hate most comedy movies. There’s no nuance. It’s all just pounding me in the face. There’s been nothing in the past 30 years to move me like Groundhog Day.

What a weird house it was that first night at Wrigley. Everyone was thinking the same thing: Are we really in the World Series? The next night the Cubs asked me to say the ceremonial “Play ball!” And I said, “Can I give a speech?” And they go, “Sure, if you keep it short.” So I got to talk about the elephant in the room. I said, “Last night, we didn’t know how to act. I didn’t know how to act. But now we’ve got experience, we know how to act. Tonight we make noise, because tonight we win.” And everybody was very happy. And it felt normal in the ballpark. Even though we lost again that night.

I can nap anywhere. It’s a gift.

I’m not a fan of being maudlin, but I am of pathos. For me, the greatest moment of pathos in the history of cinema is the end of City Lights when she finally can see, and she sees Chaplin, who’s been nothing but nice to her. It blows my mind.

The late, great Ron Santo was the only broadcaster in the history of broadcasting who called things like this: “It’s a ball up—Oh no. What? No! WHAT? NO!” Lamenting calls, screaming. Santo was terrible, but he was our terrible.

My heart’s always on my sleeve. Even though I’ve been married 23 years, I have a long history of unrequited love, and a long history of pain and getting my heart broken. That’s who I am.

I want to be Joe Maddon’s best friend. He’s so laid-back. He uses words like “groovy” and “man.” I keep trying to have dinner with him. It’s not that he won’t. He’s busy, he’s managing the Cubs. Every time, he says, “Please, let’s think of another date.” Like he’s encouraging me. Don’t you think?

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