at the Second City E.T.C.

Jeff Garlin’s one-man show, I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With, begins with perhaps the most genuinely nontheatrical opening I’ve seen. The lights come up–to “reveal” the empty stage we’ve been looking at since we sat down. Then Garlin walks casually onstage, dressed in a white T-shirt, blue jeans, and a red terry-cloth bathrobe, looking as though he might have been plopped in front of a television just offstage for the last few hours. He sort of nods to his audience, not the least shaken by the fact that several dozen people are staring at him, expensive drinks in hand, expecting him to be funny. Then, with seemingly nothing better to say, he announces, “Hi. I’m Jeff. Welcome to my show . . . thing . . . whatever you call it. It’s me.”

This is the kind of opening line that makes me groan–usually comedians or monologuists think they’re being clever to point out in such a false, self-deprecating manner that their show is wacky, unconventional, and uncategorizable. But Garlin is disarmingly sincere in this moment, and wholly unimpressed with himself or his status as artist.

This ten-second opening is the perfect introduction to Garlin’s charming piece, which breaks down the wall between audience and performer as successfully as any performance I’ve seen. He tells an hour’s worth of anecdotes and observations seemingly drawn from his own life, some of them remarkably odd and some intentionally mundane. But throughout, his virtuoso story telling and his warm, genuinely inviting manner make even his uninspired moments endearing.

Garlin’s tales are wonderfully funny. So much so that I hate to give away too much of his material. But he begins by telling us about a television pilot he was in called “The DIRT Squad,” DIRT being an acronym for Devious Institute of Revenge and Trickery. (“Some studio head thought it up,” he tells us, “so we had to say, ‘Hey, it’s funny!'”) As a member of the squad, Garlin plays practical jokes on people while they’re filmed by hidden cameras. The jokes turn out to be horribly cruel, however. An 80-year-old German woman is reduced to tears when Garlin, as a “guy from the government,” threatens to take away her credit cards because of her outrageous charges. While she blubbers, Garlin can hear the show’s producers shouting in his earpiece, “This is hysterical!”

Much of Garlin’s material follows the same theme–of compromised dignity: he’s both unable to control his eating disorder and unable to express love. (You have to admire him for tackling such deeply felt material in a setting usually reserved for more superficial comedy.) The funniest and paradoxically most moving section comes when he gives his heart to a woman–literally–and after cooing delicately over it, she says, “Oops, I dropped it. And now . . . I seem to be dancing on it.”

This story and the others like it–in one hysterical monologue, Garlin talks about hearing himself on his girlfriend’s answering machine–avoid any hint of the misogyny that most comedians probing this kind of material fall prey to. The woman is not painted as the enemy but as someone who simply doesn’t care for him–and who has every right not to care for him.

Garlin always seems candid, yet his material never becomes sentimental or exploitive. How many times have you heard a comedian telling fat jokes about himself and wanted to bury your head in embarrassment for the guy? Garlin instead creates an atmosphere of trust. He talks to us as if we were his closest friends, but never makes us feel uncomfortable by getting too intimate. Most impressive, Garlin never says anything that is “supposed to be funny,” never makes his personal life into an excuse for a stand-up comic’s joke. Rather, Garlin’s wonderful sense of humor makes us laugh, even during the most heartbreaking moments. It’s as if we were saying, “I know how that feels, too.”

Near the end of the hour, Garlin tells us of a rare and potentially life-threatening heart condition he had as a child; it often made his heart race uncontrollably, causing him sudden, intense chest pain. This sobering story not only serves as a unifying image for his piece–the heart condition a metaphor for his and others’ inability to feel or express emotions genuinely–but reminds us of the underlying seriousness of his material. Garlin takes us on a potentially painful journey, and without compromising the emotional truth of his material, keeps us safely out of harm’s way.

But the image that I’ll always carry with me from I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With is Garlin’s red bathrobe. This choice, credited in the program to the famous costume designer Edith Head, is brilliant, not only because it creates the air of informality Garlin needs to make his piece work but also because it never recedes. The red bathrobe is a continual reminder that this is a costume, a conscious choice–however naturally the performer wears it. In like manner, though Garlin always seems to be simply talking off the top of his head, in fact he’s carefully chosen his material, expertly shaping these little fragments into a unified gem.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Erving Potter.