The comedian Jeff Garlin is never happy unless he actually starts his prepared material — well, what passes for his prepared material — at approximately the time his show was scheduled to end.
Over two decades of reviewing his elongated riffs in and around the "Curb Your Enthusiasm" star's hometown, I've learned not to trust his running times, although last year's gig at the Steppenwolf Theatre was truncated as the great man was in ill health. This year, he looks much better ("you're not worried about me, but you're not thinking, when's the marathon?") and thus he yakked on and on Thursday night for a bladder-challenging two hours and fifteen minutes.
At one point, even as a very nice octogenarian lady just across from me was starting to break down and heckle, one could see a mischievous glint form in Garlin's eye. Bad, compulsive Jeff was just about to leap from Garlin's amiable, chatty commercial shell, like a leaping, destructive parasite. All of a sudden, we were in scary Bob Zmuda territory.
"What if I said I was going to end with my creams-and-lotions story but just kept going?" Garlin was clearly thinking. "How would that go? Would that be funny? Could I get away with that?"
Maybe. Garlin traffics in maybe. And risk, buffering himself only by his constant references to process ("that was a lull"; "I lost you there"; "about 20 of you got that"; and so on). He has a couple of sure-fire lines: "If Hostess had only gotten behind pot reform, they'd still be in business." And nobody delivers better delayed-reaction truisms. "I wish I could have raised my wife," he suddenly observed at one point, suggesting that he could, all things considered, have done a better job than his in-laws.
I hope his wife is not reading this, she generally gets rid of lines like that from Garlin's shows. And if she is, she should know that the line sent me down a mental journey of great subsequent richness: What if we could have raised our spouses and partners? Hmm. Imagine what we could have fixed.
And then there are the special pleasures of seeing Garlin in the city he knows backward, listening to him, in that barked voice of his, riffing on media, (bien sur) critics, and local geography. "I consume everything Chicago," he declared at one point, and that is as true of Garlin as any comic you ever will see.
"Tracy Letts actually said to me that he wished he'd written my creams-and-lotions story instead of "August: Osage County,'" he said, musing on why he was booked into the Steppenwolf, "where they never even do a comic play."
Who knows? Certainly, Garlin is a long-from Chicago improviser with few peers — and, since he has a TV show and a minor film career, he can evangelize for the form with more visibility than most. Few are as skilled as feeding from an audience (although Garlin should resist his tendency to show off; we did not need his grand, concluding megamix of all the people who'd helped him fill out a night). Aside from a lesbian who likes to knit and various couples with ill-defined relationships, who had their relationships defined from the stage, the centerpiece was a guy with cherry red loafers — predictable catnip for Garlin, but it all went down a much more interesting path when the guy claimed that his shoes were disposable. "So you want to stand out on a temporary basis?" Garlin shot back.
On Thursday, deliciously, Garlin also found a couple who'd flown up from Florida, special, just to see him. Clearly touched, and a touched Garlin is a slightly uncomfortable Garlin, he pulled out his wallet and reimbursed their airfare on the spot. It's not like he came up with a big wad, we were talking, like, 40 bucks each on Spirit Airlines, but still. "Take the money," said Garlin's crowd, a group that appreciates a little celebrity but also stands up for the regular Joe and Jane. Garlin is a guy who does very nicely voicing animated characters, although rarely the ones that sell the most toys.
Good for Garlin. He's true to our town, respectful of his roots, willing to crash and burn, more a truth teller than not. At one point, he burned what felt like forever describing his own esoteric strip mall, filled with characters and retail outlets not unlike himself. When you added that to his giveaways and his airfare refunds, and his constant use of the word "owe," you start to see that Garlin is ambivalent about actually taking people's money when, as he likes to say, "this is a show, but not really," yet he cannot do a show any other way. When you were born and raised in Morgan Park, that is as it should be.
When: Through Dec. 16
Where: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St.
Running time: Who knows?