Monday, September 24, 2007

Cheese Head

Many people assume that I love harsh, hard comedy. Throat-slitting stuff. Gags that choke you into submission. And I do, when appropriate. But I also have a Laurel and Hardy side, a gentle spot of human feeling and folly, where slapstick isn't used to punish but simply reminds us of our frailty, our clumsiness, our confusion. You don't see that kind of comedy very often today (Judd Apatow's recent work is a minor exception), for a number of reasons, but in the end, reason doesn't matter. Jump in, stab and mock your prey, then leap out of frame and collect your check. Heartless laughter sells, and frailty's for schmucks.

Still, every once in a while, a certain effort will surface to remind you that you're not alone, that tenderness and absurdity aren't dead, that the ceaseless 24/7 media onslaught is largely full of rancid shit. Jeff Garlin's new film, "I Want Someone To Eat Cheese With," is such an effort. It is funny without being cruel, a genuinely humane treatment that avoids corniness and cliché. I had no idea this small film existed until my friend Louis Proyect wrote about it. Lou thought I would share his enthusiasm for the film, and kindly mailed me his screener DVD, which I viewed a few nights ago. Lou was right: I loved it.

Garlin, as most of you know, plays Larry David's manager on "Curb Your Enthusiasm." And while there are a few Davidish touches in "Cheese," this is solely Garlin's baby, which he wrote and directed. Garlin's character, James Aaron, is a self-loathing actor in Chicago, who works nights at Second City, and spends his days rejecting the commercial crap his agent recommends. He lives with his mother, struggles with his weight, desires love but will settle for sex, and seems personally adrift at the middle of his life. This character could easily slide into a maudlin portrayal, but Garlin plays him believably, his quick wit and self-deprecating jibes helping to keep James' head just above water.

The centerpiece to "Cheese," if there really is one, given the film's ephemeral feel, is James' brief relationship with an ice cream store worker named Beth, played by Sarah Silverman. I won't give away how this relationship ends, but it shouldn't surprise you that Silverman's character is narcissistic, snarky and cruel, and that Silverman pulls this off with ease. The good thing is that her behavior is not celebrated or made to seem hip, but it did make me wonder if Silverman is as randomly and selfishly mean as her comedy suggests she is. Silverman has made me laugh in various projects and stand-up bits, yet her humor is oftentimes so pointlessly vicious, and she appears to take great delight in this, that it's hard to believe that her attitude is merely an act. Whatever the reality, Silverman does malicious well, too well for my taste, and this gives Garlin's character the wake-up call he desperately needs.

This film also made me feel wistful (which isn't hard to do these days) about a path not taken, or to be more exact, not aggressively tried. Garlin, being a Second City vet, not only has his character in the main stage company of that improv institution, but his film is populated by other Second City alums, from various eras. Mina Kolb, Tim Kazurinsky, Dan Castellaneta, Bonnie Hunt, Richard Kind, Amy Sedaris, and David Pasquesi all make appearances, and Garlin himself is shown working that famous stage.

I, too, have performed on that same stage -- twice.

The first time I was 18 and had no fucking clue what I was doing. I lived in Indianapolis, knew about Second City from watching the early version of "SCTV," and thought I'd be perfect for that company. Problem was, I had zero improv experience, and had just begun performing stand-up at a local hippie tea house, to the supreme indifference of most of the customers. Still, I phoned Second City and asked if they were holding auditions. They were, and the woman I spoke to added my name to the list and told me to be in Chicago the next day. I drove up to the city in my battered Buick, parked near Old Town, and walked into 1616 North Wells, nervous but confident.

Ah, the ignorance of youth.

Once inside, I saw all the photos of previous casts and revues. It was a little intimidating, but in my head, I thought the whole thing would be a cakewalk. When my name was called, I went up on the main stage, and the reality of the moment slammed me hard. What the hell was I doing up there? I was standing where so many comedy and acting legends cut their teeth, and the enormity of this sucked the saliva out of my mouth. I was paired with a twentysomething woman who played a security guard that my different characters had to get past. But I didn't have any characters, and clearly, I was in way over my head. The director clapped from the darkness and told us to get on with it. I think I pulled maybe three stereotypes out of my ass, from sheer panic if nothing else, one of which was a stoned hippie that Dan Aykroyd played on "SNL." It was a dreadful audition, and as I slunk off the stage, a man called for me to sit with him. It was Del Close, the improv mastermind who taught generations of Second City players their craft.

"Gotta tell ya, kid, that was pretty bad."

"I know. I'm sorry."

"How old are you?"


"Yeah. And I bet you've never done this before, right?'

"No, I haven't."

Close then went on a very supportive, very jazzy riff about learning the basics of improvisation. He told me that if I could get up on that famous stage with nothing and still make a go of it, then I had the courage necessary to perform, which was most of the battle. All I needed was experience, both comedically and in life.

"Study even the smallest social actions," he told me. Everything I needed to evolve was around me.

Thinking this meant that I would be accepted to study at Second City, I spoke enthusiastically about working there. But Close shook his head. "You're not ready. Not for a few years, anyway."

And with that I shook Close's hand, and headed back to Indy.

My second time on that stage came when I was 26. By then, I had plenty of comedy experience, both in New York and LA, the latter city I had just fled. I stayed in Indy with friends until I could work out a roommate situation in New York, and while there I again phoned Second City to see if they were auditioning. Remarkably enough, they were. This time I took a train to Chicago, brimming with fresh confidence. Unlike the last time, I had worked in various improv groups and jams, and knew several Second City trained actors. I was older, had a wider set of references, and was comfortable on stage. When I was called up to audition, I thought, this is it. Del Close wasn't present, but I recalled his pep talk, and this lent me added energy as I went into the scene where I was to play several would-be patients seeing an emergency room doctor. I popped out a few characters with little strain, generic types rather than one-joke grotesques that some of the other actors thought appropriate. One of my characters was a clumsy man who kept trying to commit suicide, but could never get it right, injuring himself in the process. I dragged my right leg as I approached the doctor, telling him that I had shot myself in the foot. The guy playing the doctor looked at my foot and said, "So, you say you stubbed your toe?"

I had no idea where he was going with this, since I clearly established my character's reality. And in improv, at least the good kind, you never negate another actor's reality. Kills the scene every time. The whole point is to accept that reality and build on it with your own. But this dick was negating me -- on Second City's main stage, no less!

I smiled and replied, "Well, I could've sworn that I shot my foot, but, you're the doctor!"

This got a nice laugh from those watching, and the director told me to step down.

He noticed on my resume my improv experience in New York, as well as my age. He could tell that I had plenty of training, and that this was a problem. He doubted that I could be re-trained in the Chicago school of improv, which was a very unique style of stage acting. I told him that I had worked with many Chicago-trained improvisers, and that the Second City style was what I was most familiar with. He shook his head, informing me that New York improv was crap, and that any Chicago actor who moved and worked there polluted their training with the more informal NY style. He thanked me for my time, and wished me the best of luck.

So, to review: for my first audition, I was too young and green; for my second, I was experienced and funny, but it was the wrong kind of experience and funny. Obviously, Second City was not intended for me.

I accepted the director's decision without serious protest. Those were the days before the Upright Citizens Brigade established Chicago-style improv in New York (there was Chicago City Limits, which I mentioned to the guy, but he brushed that aside), so there existed no connection that might sway the director's mind, assuming he could be swayed. Still, I imagine what might have happened had I remained in Chicago and kept beating on that door until it opened. I entertained the thought for a few days, but finally decided that I missed New York too much, and besides, I wanted to get out of comedy and into the happy world of political writing. And here I am, still cranking it out. There are worse fates.