Dealin' With Idiots

One of the coolest things I’ve ever done was spend three days on the set in Los Angeles watching Jeff Garlin make the movie “Dealin’ With Idiots.” The movie is on Netflix now, and it’s great and funny and quirky and oddly sweet and all that. But there’s something else about it that I think about.

I’ve gotten to know Jeff just a little bit. He’s a huge sports fan -- completely legit, not a celebrity pseudo sports fan in the least -- and he’s utterly fascinating to me because he’s funny in a way nobody else I know is funny. My Poscast partner Michael Schur, for instance, is brilliantly funny in the sharp writer way he sees the world ... I will never forgive myself for somehow failing to record his rant against convertibles. That was part of a podcast we did on stuff other people like but we don’t, and his 10 minutes on convertibles -- I swear this is true -- was as funny as the best 10 minutes I’ve ever heard Louis CK do. It was so funny that I don’t think Michael could ever do it again.

When I realized that I somehow failed to record it, I understood that I had not only failed the podcast, I had failed society. Jeff, meanwhile, is funny in a big, sprawling, profane, silly, deep and edgy way that makes him seem to overpower everything all around him. When he gives directions, he’s funny. When he orders breakfast, he’s funny. When he pinches my daughter’s cheeks, he’s funny. He too can be very sharp with stuff he has written -- he writes all the time, and I once wrote about his classic rant on the Cubs’ Billy Goat Curse, which is one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard -- but for me his brilliance comes out of the moment and the way he bounces off real life. I think this is why more or less everyone in show business adores him.* He’s the guy who makes funny people laugh.

*Several famous funny people just showed up to watch him film “Dealin’ With Idiots,” my favorite being Paul Reiser who saw me wearing a Royals cap and promptly jumped into a pretty good bit about how the Royals build a team (“Is this guy good? He is? OK we don’t want him.”).

Jeff invited me out to watch him film “Idiots” for a couple of reasons, I think. One is that there’s a baseball theme and we share a sensibility about baseball. The movie, very loosely (I don’t really think I can offer spoilers here -- it’s not that kind of movie), is about a comedian named Max Morris whose son plays little league baseball.* The other parents are a familiar collection of idiots -- the parent who screams at the umpire, the parent who takes being in chart of the snacks a bit too seriously, the hanger on who, as far as anyone can tell, isn’t related to anyone, the manager living out unrequited dreams by treating the games like world events and so on -- and Max decides to explore their lives a little bit more deeply for a possible movie.

*Max Morris’ son is named Jack. I would like to believe that I had something to do with that.

I should say here: There are a few very sweet scenes where Max talks with his dead father about parenting and baseball and how the world has changed. I loved these scenes and I think that they could have been the centerpiece for a different kind of movie.

But this movie was meant to be funny, intensely funny, “Curb Your Enthusiasm funny,” laugh on top of laugh on top of laugh, and I think that’s the second reason Jeff invited me out -- this was Jeff Garlin doing what Jeff Garlin does. This was comedy like magic. I guess all great improv comedy is like that -- the laughter appears out of nowhere, like jazz -- but there’s something about Jeff that takes it to a different level.

See, he has spent a life trying to get at the heart of funny. He dropped out to be a comic. He spent thousands and thousands of nights in small and big clubs trying to make drunk people laugh. He worked improv at The Second City (he was roommates with Conan O’Brien around this time), where he kept stretching and stretching and stretching in search of ... something.

You often hear that comedy is a serious business, but what does that mean? I think that maybe it is this: There’s the kind of funny that most of us understand as part of our lives -- funny at dinner, funny at work, funny in meetings. That stuff is pretty easy for people who have a light touch. You know people who are funny.

But they are funny in the same way that the guy who dominates your softball or pickup basketball league is a good softball or basketball player. They ARE good. But you know that there are a million layers above, and to get there you have to pick through some heavy rock, you have to go to depths others won’t, you have to slam against anything resembling self-doubt. You will hear the funniest people in the world talk about how the funniest stuff is the darkest stuff, they will talk about that thin line between what’s hilarious and what’s horrible.*

*Mel Brooks, to me, had the best description of the line between comedy and tragedy. “Tragedy is me cutting my finger. Ow, it hurt, it’s terrible, get me a bandage. Comedy is you falling in a man hole, what do I care?”

Jeff Garlin attacked those comedy layers night after night after night, dived deeper and deeper, kept trying jokes that he was sure was funny but kept dying, kept pushing themes he thought would yield laughter but instead produced silence, kept finding trap doors and secret passageways where others saw air. And somehow, through all of it, he came out with his own particular understanding of funny.

“The big thing,” he told me at one point, “is you don’t want to try and be funny. That’s the mistake people make. When you try to be funny, you’re not.”

Very zen. The dialogue in “Dealin’ With Idiots” was almost completely unscripted -- Jeff proudly showed me how little was in the actual script -- and so for three days I had the honor of watching Jeff Garlin (and his wonderful cast) CHASE laughter. It’s always dangerous -- and pointless -- to delve into what make something funny. But one of my favorite evolutions was this scene where Jami Gertz* plays an overbearing Little League Mom who is trying to get the other parents to contribute more to the snack table and generally follow her lead on things.

*Who didn’t have a crush on Jami Gertz?

This leads to Kerri Kenney (who plays a gay Mom of one of the players) ranting that Jami might want to spend less time on snacks and more time on important things, like the handicap spaces in the parking lot.

And here was the turn. Kerri wasn’t complaining that there were too few handicap spaces. She was complaining that there were TOO MANY, and it didn’t leave room for anyone else to park.

So that’s the first step. The second belonged to Fred Willard, who played another parent. He thought there were two ways to solve this “too many handicap spaces” problem. One, of course, they could get rid of some of the handicap spaces. But he preferred a second idea: They should start marketing their local Little League to people with disabilities to get more out there and fill those spaces. This crazy turn led to all sorts of insane, insulting and hysterical ideas, only a couple which could make it into the movie.

And there it was -- from snack tables to handicap spaces to “Little League Disability Day,” by just following the bouncing red rubber ball.

That was the making of this movie. I can tell you: Jeff was constantly worried about it. He knows from his life that comedy is a fragile thing. What’s funny one second is the opposite of funny two minutes later. What’s fresh and alive on first take can be stale and cliche on the second. What sounds so hilarious now can wilt on the screen. One of the fun gags was that the League Commissioner was named Dave Gordon -- that’s Commissioner Gordon, leading to a great Garlin bit. But how much do you push that? Another fun gag was Richard Kind (who you have seen in, well, everything) giving the back story of the Wild West photo he and his family shot on vacation in Arizona. How long does that stay alive?

I suggested earlier that Jeff is funny doing just about anything. But that could lead to the wrong conclusion: Jeff is not funny every minute -- I don’t think he likes being put in that position. He is serious about a lot of things (including being funny). He is spiritual (he meditates every day). He’s fascinated by photography (I’ve seen him wander around LA taking photographs of strangers). He’s a very serious sports fan who can go as deep as anyone on the Cubs (he loves the Bears too). He’s a family guy. And he’s fascinated by other people and how they do what they do. The first time we met, I was MC of an event where he performed and he told me, “Listen, I’m going to read your stuff and call you.” I nodded and thought, “Yeah, that’s not happening.”

A couple of months later, my phone rang. And the voice on the other end said: “Hey, you F-------. What are you doing you F------? What the hell is going on? You are a F------- writer, my man.” And every time we’ve talked since, he has interrupted my questions with questions of his own about how I think and write and what I think about the latest baseball news, which is absurd but crazy humbling. He’s just like that: He’s fascinated by what’s going around.

And he’s great at what he does. It’s amazing to watch people who are great at what they do, even at the simplest level. In my lucky life, I’ve gotten to see Ozzie Smith take infield practice, Tony Gonzalez catch 200 extra passes after practice, Jackie Stiles and Larry Bird shoot around before games. But I’ve also watched mesmerized as someone backed up an 18-wheeler into a garage, a real professional painted a wall and my father broke down a factory knitting machine that was making a weird sound.

That’s what it was like watching Jeff Garlin make a comedy. I guess “Dealin’ With Idiots” has gotten mixed reviews; I tend to agree with the positive ones but, hey, we all get mixed reviews. What I think about when watching this movie, however, is more than the movie itself. I think about what it was like watching Jeff Garlin work. At one point, Jeff asked me for a baseball gag he might use in the movie. I came up with one that sounded funny to me, and he listened and nodded. “Almost,” he said. “Not quite. But almost.”