Brad Garrett is a few minutes late calling. He apologizes, then launches into a spiel. "I'm calling from prison," he says. "Let me get this wig off. I'm trying to run away from my career. It's not that hard."
It's not that easy, either. Garrett is best known as Robert, the beleaguered police officer brother of Raymond, in "Everybody Loves Raymond," for which he won three Emmy Awards.
Since that show ended, Garrett played Murray in "The Odd Couple" on Broadway and now has a Thursday FOX sitcom, " 'Til Death," recently picked up for the full season. He plays Eddie, a world-weary high-school history teacher, married to Joy (Joely Fisher) for 8,743 days.
Garrett does shtick with a counterperson at Starbucks, confused over the cup sizes. He gets his latte and settles his 6-foot-8-inch frame onto a bench in Pacific Palisades, Calif., for a long talk. "It's all I have left in my life, caffeine and a poodle," he says.
A native Californian, Garrett is disarmingly honest, saying that his latest show, in which he stars and produces, is beginning to hit its stride.
"I myself just found the guy around 9 p.m., three weeks ago," he says of Eddie. "There is a lot of me in him. He is flawed, not angry; broken, not beaten. There is a lot of the poor soul in him."
And a lot of Ralph Kramden. Garrett played Jackie Gleason in a TV biopic four years ago, for which he earned Emmy and Screen Actors Guild Award nominations. Eddie and Joy's relationship is a 21st-century version of Ralph and Alice's. The steady love between them -- even when one partner wants to send the other to the moon -- is evident.
"Joely, to me, is the find of the century," Garrett says. "I love strong women, not only in life but in craft. [Alice] never played the victim, not the put-upon wife, and Joely was able to capture that."
"He says we have the same sense of humor, which frightens me," Fisher says. "He is off-color and irreverent and filthy at times. It's a belly laugh every day, and it's not often that you get that. I have worked with a lot of funny men and women who have sadness and emptiness about them, and I find myself so attracted to that. I think he does have that, but I haven't been with him long enough to know what it is."
Eddie Kaye Thomas and Kat Foster, who play newlyweds Jeff and Steph Woodcock, both say they're learning from Garrett.
"This is not 'The Brad Garrett Show,' even though it is the Brad Garrett show, he doesn't treat it like 'The Brad Garrett Show,'" Foster says. "He makes everything so instantly funny."
Thomas, the cast's mellow guy, adds, "He is a teacher, whether he realizes it or not. He has perfected the art of the sitcom, if there is such a thing."
As a producer, Garrett helps decide the show's tone. He's working on casting their daughter, who is away at college, and wants to make her mixed-race or Korean.
"I want to make sure the show stays with the family dynamic and keeping everything real," he says. "It really rang of married life."
Garrett should know, though his marriage fell apart as the show launched. Still, he and his wife "are very close with what we are going through," he says. "And we laugh, and I miss her humor and she misses my drama."
They have two children, Hope, 6, and Max, 8. By the time Garrett was his son's age, he was funny.
"My whole life, I've been telling jokes," he says. "I just knew it was my thing. I was very, very large as a kid and never athletic, and my home life was a little upside down and I never felt comfortable. I was 6 feet at 13, and I couldn't play any ball. When I made fun of myself, I beat the bully to the punch as he was pummeling me; I beat him. Then I started impersonating teachers, and all of a sudden I was cool."
By high school, he was working open mics. At the nightclub the Turkey Farm, still going by his birth name, Brad Gerstenfeld, he won $75, second place to a rock band called Monkey Vomit.
Garrett won on "Star Search," and the prize was an unknown comic's dream: an appearance on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson." He was warned to not use a joke he told in rehearsal. He did, and was not invited back for 10 years. "I told Tommy Newsom I had sperm bigger than him," Garrett recalls.
Garrett, however, does not blame the joke for him not being invited back. "I didn't really tear the house down," he says. "Then I went on the road."
Being a stand-up comedian meant having other jobs. "I was a waiter," he says. "I was horrible. I watched my debut from TGIF while waitering. It was the Norm Crosby comedy show, and I came out in a cowboy hat. I did a line about being urban Hebrew. I was 21. I said, 'Please, I am a little nervous, but I am going to be fine.' Then I take a teddy bear out of my jacket."
Garrett credits a high-school teacher with encouraging him to become a comedian. "I would probably be a teacher if I weren't a comedian," he says. "We don't take care of our teachers and our cops and our firemen. They should be at the top of our list. I look at our administration, and I don't know what has happened to us. It's another reason to live in a make-believe world. I am playing cowboys and Indians at 46."
Garrett finishes his latte and considers his goals. "I just want to one day have my own apartment," he says, the stand-up comic taking over again. Then he turns more serious and says, "I want to do work that scares me in a good way. I want to keep growing as an actor. I would love to do some drama. I want to be a great dad, and I want better abs. It will never happen. I had a box of Mike and Ikes and a pudding before. My blood type is caramel, and I don't care anymore."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times