Comedian Jeff Garlin reflects on his brief time as a ‘Cane

Photo courtesy of Netflix

By Jesse Lieberman and Naomi Feinstein

If you pull up a list of University of Miami’s most famous alumni, it doesn’t take long to find Jeff Garlin’s name. The producer, actor, writer and comedian is best known for playing the curmudgeonly father on the ABC’s “The Goldbergs” and co-starring in HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

Photo courtesy of Netflix
Photo courtesy of Netflix

Born in Chicago, the 58-year-old comedian and actor lived in South Florida from the ages of 12 to 22. During this time, he attended Nova High School and then went off to Broward Community College before spending one semester at UM. Despite the brief time spent at UM, Garlin looks back on his time there fondly and reflects on the influence it had on him and his career.

“I thought ‘oh I’m ready for University of Miami’…but I wasn’t,” Garlin said over Zoom. Laid back on a couch alongside his dog Lucky, who also happens to co-star on “The Goldbergs” with him, Garlin spoke of his time at UM with a smile.

“I loved everything about it,” Garlin said.

During quarantine, Garlin grew a beard speckled with gray hair and appears notably more tan than the man who appears on TV, but his voice that has been lent to many iconic Pixar characters, such the Captain from “Wall-E” and Buttercup from the “Toy Story” franchise, and his boisterous laugh are still unmistakable.

The producer, actor, writer and comedian lives in a picturesque home in Hollywood Hills, overlooking the Hollywood sign and Universal Studios. Although he has many titles, he describes himself simply as “a comedian of some notoriety.”

Throughout his life, he said he always struggled to sit still and pay attention in school, something attributable to his undiagnosed ADHD. To cope with this, Garlin found himself being the class clown from a young age.

“I couldn’t focus and I’m funny, so what am I going to do? I’m going to be disruptive,” Garlin said. Although all his fellow classmates loved his humor, the feeling was not shared by all the teachers– one went as far as to write, “I’ll see you in jail,” in his yearbook.

At 19, after community college, Garlin found himself at UM studying film, where he lived in the Hecht-Stanford towers.

“I loved the dorms, the students and playing football under the lights at 1 a.m.,” Garlin said.

During his time at UM, Garlin saw the football team, led by quarterback Jim Kelly and head coach Howard Schnellenberger, win its first national championship. Other highlights that have stuck with him were during his film class.

“I loved my film professor,” Garlin said. To this day, Garlin still has his textbook from the class and looks at it on occasion. “It had a profound effect on me.”

Garlin is a man who found immense success in a non-traditional career, spent only one semester at UM, is still unsure how he got into UM in the first place, cut classes to the chagrin of his parents, yet still managed to find value in the experience.

“Just going to college and getting an education, which is living in a dorm with people, spending time with people, everything about college, besides your f**king degree prepares you for the world,” Garlin said. “It’s more important to get an education and develop as a person, and the University of Miami, when I was there, was a beautiful place for that.”

After his only semester at UM, filled with pool visits and skipping class, Garlin’s father told him he couldn’t attend anymore, which he said propelled him to pursue comedy.

It was at UM where he realized his passion for comedy, as his floormates and residential assistant thought he was hilarious. “Oh god, you should be a comedian,” they would say.

Upon dropping out of UM, Garlin headed to the one comedy club in Florida at the time – The Comic Strip in Fort Lauderdale. Many of his friends from UM would make the hour long commute to see him perform.

Although no longer standing, The Comic Strip hosted notable comics such as Eddie Murphy, Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock. It was there that it clicked for Garlin.

“I was like, this is what I’m meant to do,” he said. “Being a comedian is a calling…there was nothing going to stop me because that’s what I do.”

After his success at The Comic Strip, Garlin moved back to Chicago and honed his craft at Second City. His career would eventually lead him to stardome on shows and movies such as “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “The Goldbergs,” “Toy story” and “Wall-E.”

Throughout his career, Garlin has worked on four Pixar movies, but he said “Wall-E” is the film he is most proud of.

“When I first saw it I cried,” Garlin said. “I couldn’t believe I worked on something so beautiful.”

Pixar became one of his children’s favorite places. Garlin compares Pixar studios to a real-life Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory– a magical place with hidden rooms and kitchens filled with cereals.

“Every year they would want to go there for their birthdays,” he said about his sons, now 20 and 24, one of whom he is trying to sway into comedy. They would be given scooters, and as Garlin sat in meetings or ran through his lines, they would ride around the campus.

Though Garlin has had great success in film and comedy, his career success was far from instant or guaranteed. Like many comedians, he said he spent years broke and overcoming obstacles.

“The whole journey is like 9 million steps,” he said. “I remember when I was broke and I’m so grateful for it.”

Garlin mentions a time in Chicago with a fellow struggling comedian Bob Odenkirk, who would go on to be one of his best friends and star in AMC’s “Better Call Saul.”

“We couldn’t understand why people didn’t think we were funny or good,” Garlin said. “There were many times where it felt like getting punched in the face, and I considered quitting.”

When you turn on Garlin’s most recent comedy special, Netflix’s “Our Man in Chicago,” you’ll see a natural, relaxed improviser smiling and laughing as he pokes fun at the audience. What you don’t notice is a man who once dealt with crippling stage fright. Garlin said he used to shake in fear whenever he was on stage or filming a scene.

“My journey has been someone with severe ADHD and fear…to fearless,” Garlin said. “Successful people don’t let fear paralyze them.”

Garlin recalled his first time performing on “Late Night with David Letterman.” Not yet a staple on late-night tv shows, Garlin recalls shaking behind stage waiting to go on. But when the words of a friend appeared in his mind: “You are doing what you are supposed to be doing,” a calm fell over him.

When asked about his success, Garlin noted how things fall into place. He never set out to be an actor or a producer—it just happened.

Garlin noted comedy isn’t a business where you show up to work and wait to get promoted, rather a career where you must network. Many of the comedians Garlin came up with went on to become his best friends, including Conan O’Brien, and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” co-star, Larry David.

“I approached Larry with an idea that would become Curb in ‘98,” Garlin said. The idea was an HBO special about the making of an HBO special, which eventually became the hit show, “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

“I wasn’t supposed to be on it, but Larry approached me and asked me to play his manager,” Garlin said.

Beyond networking, Garlin stresses that attitude is important for success. He speaks about humility and not having ego, but maintaining the importance of believing in oneself.

“Take what you do seriously, but don’t take yourself seriously,” Garlin said. “I love being humble, and I love being grateful.”

Despite his success in the comedy and film world, Garlin’s chapter at UM may not be closed. He has a fantasy of finishing his degree online and returning to teach classes in comedy or drama.

It may be an unprecedented time for many living through this pandemic, but Garlin said he wants the incoming freshman to appreciate their time at UM, in spite of the unorthodox times.

“Don’t get caught up on what you can’t do because of this or that,” Garlin said. “Just do what you need to do, and if you do that, then there is plenty of joy afterwards. You will accomplish a lot.”