During the live appearance of Curb Your Enthusiasm's Jeff Garlin after the premiere weekend showing of his new movie Dealin' With Idiots at Chicago's Music Box Theater; a question came from the darkened back of the house. A man hiding his face was handed the microphone and asked,
"Ah . . . Mister Garlin? Ah . . . who's your favorite professional wrestler?"
And just for a moment, Garlin giggled in a way that let every single person in the packed house in on the private joke and said, "That's my brother."
Then Garlin made everyone in the room feel like a brother or sister. This was not some movie star, director, Larry David pal. This was Jeff from the neighborhood. Jeff from Chicago. "Come on in! Sit down! Have a beer! Have I got a story for you." Saturday night in Chicago, Jeff Garlin didn't just make an appearance at a small neighborhood theater, to support the world premiere of his movie. Jeff Garlin welcomed everyone who could fit into his living room.
Garlin's new movie tells the stories of a group of parents and coaches on a youth baseball team. But even thinking of this hilarious gem as a baseball movie for a moment is wrong. Baseball is part of the set design, but that's where it stops. Think Best in Show or This is Spinal Tap. Not Field of Dreams.
But what's different from even Best in Show, is that Dealin With Idiots was all improvised. Showing a mastery of the craft that would make Second City legends going back to Mike Nichols and Elaine May and on through John Belushi, Bill Murray and Tina Fey all stand up and start whooping with both laughter and respect; Garlin made this movie in 12 days with only a 20 page script. At the beginning of each scene in the story, Garlin would tell the actors the basic premise and then say, "Go!" There were no lines to learn. They made it all up as they went along.
When this is done without training and talent, the results can be abysmal. But when it's done by people who are the masters of the craft, it's an art form like nothing you've ever seen. Watching improv done at world-class levels is like watching a tight rope walker who can make you feel like it's you on the wire. You are literally watching the art being created and holding your breath to see if it works.
Improv is at its very heart, a team sport. So you might or might not recognize the actors. But in this movie, that doesn't matter. Because what you watch them create out of nothing is the point. And what's created here is simply outstanding.
Written descriptions of improv often fall short because the immediacy of what's happening right now adds an electricity that beats out a re-telling of the scene. To take one example, there is a scene at the counter of a print copy shop involving a can of goulash and a locksmith that is improv honed to perfection. One of those rare scenes that makes your brain laugh. Then after the movie you think back and marvel ... that guy just made a can of goulash funny.
Besides Garlin himself, perhaps the one exception to the "there is no star" rule of improv is Fred Willard. Sometimes seen now as Phil Dunphy's father on the TV show Modern Family, Willard has a stage presence established across the decades that can make any breathing human start laughing by just raising his eyebrows and looking like he is about to say something. In the discussion after the showing, I asked Garlin what it was like to work with Willard and he said, "Every now and then I'd look over and think, 'Oh my god. I'm working with Fred Willard!'
Then Garlin went on to tell about a scene cut from the movie that involved Willard noticing a bird house in a back yard and riffing on bird droppings and breakfast cereal.
Garlin talked about his pride in getting the studio to agree to open the movie in Chicago. That doesn't happen very often. In the coming weeks, there will be openings in New York and Los Angeles Still, this movie will get only limited showings. "I make movies seen by hundreds!" Garlin said as that packed theater turned into a living room laughed.
In the middle of that laughter, I thought of Roger Ebert, wishing he were here. Because I knew he'd help get the word out. Then that thought passed. Garlin had the crowd laughing again.
But as I listened really hard to that laughter, that kind of listening with all your strength that is at the beating heart of making improv work, I swear I could hear Ebert laughing too.
Find this movie. See it. It's worth the search.