Jeff Garlin: Closer Than I Appear
Jeff Garlin, of HBO’s "Curb Your Enthusiasm" fame, brings his stand-up comedy to Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company for a 12-show run. The word "show" for this performance, should be used loosely. Though it is named "Closer Than I Appear," Garlin makes mention several times of how each night will be different, with no real script and he has no intention of sticking to any theme or set list.
This is a triumphant return to Steppenwolf, for Garlin, following his popular, sold-out show, "No Sugar Tonight" in 2011. Garlin, a Chicagoland native and alum of Chicago’s famed Second City, is a writer, producer, director, actor and stand-up comedian. He makes frequent mention of his career in Hollywood, with some shameless name-dropping (while always mentioning he himself is not famous, rich, attractive or talented). Garlin most famously stars in and serves as an executive producer of HBO’s "Curb Your Enthusiasm."
Garlin’s comedy is kind of old-school. He tells jokes. He brings audience members on stage (and gives them used possessions he doesn’t want anymore, like used DVDs of C movies or XBox games he doesn’t want his kids to own). He makes fun of the first two rows of the audience, gently and with good humor, going back to them again and again at slow moments of the show.
His jokes can be sexist, racist, homophobic and in bad taste. He is obviously socially liberal but of a generation that doesn’t want to bother examining why calling someone in the front row, "gay knitter" even if it is funny, even if they don’t mind or take offense, might not be the best thing. It is the fastest way from point A to point B of the joke, however. And Garlin is great at charting that move.
"Closer Than I Appear" was slated for one hour and fifteen minutes, but the night I attended, Garlin performed for a dazzling two hours and twenty minutes, give or take. Garlin seemed to relish keeping the audience enthralled for longer than promised, often promising he was done, then starting a new joke, bit, answering an audience question about his "Curb Your Enthusiasm" schedule, Pixar, or another project.
It is hard to say what the show is about. Garlin wants to make his audience laugh, but he also wants to amuse himself. He does not seem to have an agenda beyond this mutual amusement, but you do get the feeling that Garlin’s amusement is more important than the audiences. And that seems to be the prerogative of an established comedian, Hollywood powerhouse, mover and shaker and a guy who has the kind of career that books are written about.
Garlin does love Chicago. He splits his time between L.A. and Chicago, and really seems to relish his time in our fair city. His thick frame (famously thinner than it once was, as chronicled in his book "Curbing It," about how he lost weight during filming "Curb Your Enthusiasm"’s seventh season), genial smile and down to earth mannerisms simply scream good Midwestern boy.
Even the giving away of his own unwanted possessions to audience members seems like a sweet, Midwest way of not being wasteful, and being interesting at the same time. How will the couple from Florida react to the gift of a suitcase Garlin doesn’t want because it is just too heavy? What will the young lady in the second row say when Garlin gifts her a copy of a book he just finished?
Though there is no plot, no theme, no thread, "Closer Than I Appear" is a lot of fun. Slow moments are punctuated with hilarious laugh so hard you cry stretches that leave you exhausted with joy.
"Closer Than I Appear" runs through Dec. 16 at Steppenwolf Theatre Company at the Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N Halsted St. in Chicago. For info or tickets, call 312-335-1650, or visit steppenwolf.org.