Our neighborhood was, as they say, idyllic, living at the corner of Church Street and Merrill Avenue in Morton Grove. I walked or rode my bike to Melzer Elementary School. I came home every day at lunch-time, when my mom made me lunch and I watched Bozo’s Circus. After school, we played outside. Every. Day. Football, baseball, basketball, whatever.
I was actually born in Chicago and lived my first couple years in Skokie, in a little apartment with my parents, Carole and Gene. Then, we moved to the house in Morton Grove. It was a two-story house, three bedrooms, with a basement, which is where I watched a lot of TV. My younger brother, Michael, and I had shared a room for a while. I don’t know why my parents did that. But then we had our own rooms. When we moved in, the house was brand new. We were able to make our own history there. It was really a warm, wonderful home.
The neighborhood had character. I would walk to Golf Mill mall. I would walk to different gas stations to get STP stickers, or whatever stickers I could get my hands on to add to my collection. My favorite thing was going to a local store, Convenient, on Dempster. I used to go buy candy, baseball cards, and wacky packages. I still have some old wacky packages from when I was a kid. I used to always buy comic books at the drug store near that convenience store. I still collect older comic books but am not much of a collector anymore. My passions now are photography and guitars. Down the block was Oriole Park, where I used to ice skate in the winter and swim in the summer. As a matter of fact, about five years ago, I was driving around the old neighborhood and by my old house. I was wearing shorts, and when I went by Oriole Park, the pool was open. I paid admission, and I dove in. I didn’t have a towel; I didn’t have anything and I didn’t care. I swam in the pool, and it made me very happy.
We did normal family things, the four of us in that house. We played a lot of board games, just hung out, but I specifically remember watching TV in the basement—WGN with Bozo, Ray Rayner, Frazier Thomas, Superman. I was very taken by television. If I wasn’t outside running around, I was watching television. I used to love Family Classics on Sunday. There was “BJ and The Dirty Dragon” on Channel 32. Friday nights, I would watch “The Odd Couple.” ABC had a great Friday night lineup—“Partridge Family” and “The Brady Bunch.” I’d watch all these with my mom. I watched sports with my dad—Cubs and Bears. I used to listen to the Bulls and Blackhawks on the radio.
I grew a great affinity for the Cubs. I remember my first year being an active Cub fan, when I watched games and actually knew statistics and players, was 1969, which was a golden year for the Cubs. Although we didn’t go all the way, it was a pretty magical year. That’s how I got swept up in it all. That’s how I thought it was. I didn’t realize I was getting into this losing proposition for decades—except last year, of course. I was able to see all three World Series games at Wrigley Field. I would not miss a Cubs World Series game at Wrigley Field, but I don’t want to go to Cleveland, not even for a Cubs World Series game. So I was watching game seven at my house in Los Angeles. To me, it was a very private moment. I was home alone, and my younger son came down. And on my Instagram account there’s a video of me when they won—crying, screaming the same thing over and over and over and over: “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god.” I’m not sure how many times I said it.
I lived in Morton Grove until I was twelve. Then, we moved to Florida. My grandparents sold the family business, which was a plumbing-supply business, Billco, and moved. So my dad thought he could start fresh in Florida. It was very much culture shock. I always thought of Florida as what you think if you vacationed there, which we did. We used to go to my grandparents’ place, a condo on the intercoastal waterway. So for me, Florida was like this unique, tropical adventure. But the move there was culture shock because Florida is the South, and that’s a lot different than the way I grew up. The people were the culture shock.
At that time, it was very sleepy and very tropical. I took advantage of the Florida lifestyle. I used to skip school all the time and go to the beach. And then I ended up going to the University of Miami, but I quit to become a comedian, which totally worried my parents. They knew I was funny, but it was shocking to them. But I wanted to be a comedian for a long time, ever since I saw Jimmy Durante live in Chicago in the Empire Room at the Palmer House around 1970. I was so caught up in his performance and by the people laughing and reacting to him that on the way home I asked my parents if that was a job. They said yes, and I told them that was the job I wanted. It wasn’t until years later that I committed to it. I saw “The Blues Brothers” and I left the movie saying, “I’m on a mission from God. I’m going to be a famous comedian.” That was in eleventh grade. So after leaving the University of Miami, I moved back to Chicago with that in mind. I was twenty-two.
Second City was the first order of business. I did stand-up there and all over town, the suburbs, everywhere, eventually all over the Midwest. It was very tough. At first, I was very successful because my act was, what comedians call, hackneyed, or hack. It was all about television or sex; if I could combine the two even better. Then one day a friend of mine—Lew Schneider, another comedian, who is a producer on “The Goldbergs” ironically, who I work with every day—asked me if I ever listened to my shows. I said I didn’t, but I had them recorded. So I listened to them and I was aghast. I was terrible. I was killing, but I thought I was terrible. I decided to start over and just talk about things I was passionate about—life, whatever was happening to me, what was true to me. That time is what I like to call the festival of bombing, when I bombed all the time. God bless Zanies. Zanies let me bomb. Rick Uchwat, who owned Zanies and passed away a couple years ago, and Bert Haas, who was the manager and still is, were completely supportive.
So Zanies holds a special place in my heart. I am forever loyal to Zanies.
I knew I was funny and I believed in it. Eventually, things just turned around, I hit my stride. I enjoyed it from day one, even when I was bombing, I felt it was working and I was doing the right thing. My faith in myself and my confidence never wavered. I aspire not to have a big ego. I try to recognize my ego, but I was completely confident. I didn’t laugh at adversity, but I didn’t cry at adversity. I plowed through it.
My parents saw me bomb early on, but also stuck with me. Maybe three or four years in, my dad told me, “You’re as funny as any comedian I’ve ever seen.” Then it was all good. I appreciated that. My parents have been very supportive of me.
I moved from Chicago to New York and then to L.A. and then back to Chicago where I met my wife, Marla, in the early nineteen nineties. I did one-man shows with Second City and at Remains Theatre—it was the other Steppenwolf at that time, owned by William Peterson. I did three one-man shows there, too. They wanted to develop some more one-man shows, and there were talks of TV shows, but none of that really took off. Then I ended up on “Mad About You” and was on that the last three seasons. That led to something else, and then something else, and so on.
Then came “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” I was writing a pilot for CBS with a guy named Alan Zweibel, who created the “It’s Garry Shandling Show,” a wonderful writer and great guy. This is post-“Seinfeld,” and Larry David’s office was right next door. I go in and talk to Larry, who I knew from when we were both comedians, and I told him an idea that I had. The idea was a special that’s not really a stand-up special; it’s seeing the process of doing a stand-up special, but you don’t do the stand-up special at the end. You just show behind the scenes. When we were making it, he said, “Wouldn’t this be great as a TV series?” And, of course, I was in. That became “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
Officially, I was going to be the show’s director. He insisted I be his manager on-screen and executive producer off it, because, he said, in television, executive producer is the one who makes the creative decisions. The show went beyond anything I could have imagined.
The “Goldbergs” I thought could be hugely successful when I first read it. When I got the script for it, I was writing my movie, “Handsome,” and I thought, “Oh, I like this character. This is right in my wheelhouse.” I thought the show could be hugely successful, and, lo and behold, it’s hugely successful.
I got a chance to make “Handsome” last summer. It’s a comedy, and the first Netflix mystery movie. The main idea was to do something like “Columbo.” I used to love Columbo; people love Columbo. It’s as if Robert Altman directed “Columbo” starring Charlie Brown. Gene Handsome, named after my father, is an L.A. homicide cop and he’s solving a murder. Here’s what’s different about it: The very first scene of the movie, the very first thing people see, is actor Steven Weber getting out of a pool, looking at the camera and saying, “Hi, I’m Steven Weber and I play the part of the murderer in this Handsome mystery movie. Enjoy this multi-platform event.” You know who the murderer is right at the top. Now Colombo used to do something similar by showing the crime scene at top. I don’t do that. I do it in flashbacks later. It started on Netflix May 5th and it will be up there forever.
I’m still doing stand-up, too, and loving it. Chicago’s a great place to learn, but once you learn, you have to get out of your comfort zone and move to New York or Los Angeles. Some comedians stay here too long. Doing stand-up here should only be about growing and experimenting. Once you feel you got your groove, you get out. And you come back once you have your success. That’s the plan at least.
I come back to Chicago as often as I can. I have a place here. I was lucky to grow up here. Whatever makes me extraordinary, whether it’s my personality or how funny I am, that’s not what it means to be from Chicago. What’s Chicago is that at your core, you’re a regular, good person. So, whatever makes me special is not a credit to Chicago. Being a Chicagoan is about being a genuine, good person. I haven’t been here a lot lately, actually. I get cravings for just Chicago in general. Certainly, I love Lou Malnati’s and the Weiner Circle and all that stuff, but I’m really just a Chicago guy. I walk by the lake, go to the Music Box Theater, go to a Cub game.
— As told to Publisher Joe Coughlin
Jeff Garlin stars in the ABC sitcom “The Goldbergs” and stars in and directed the new Netflix mystery “Handsome,” which was released May 5th. He was nominated for an Emmy seven times as executive producer of the HBO comedy “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” in which he also starred as Jeff Greene.