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Comic Jeff Garlin reaches heights atop 'Curb'

Some people believe that it takes hard work and talent to make it in show business. Others believe that luck and timing are just as important. Comedian Jeff Garlin, co-star and executive producer of the HBO hit "Curb Your Enthusiasm," shows that sometimes, the answer to the question, "What's needed to be a success?" is "All of the above."

Garlin is a former member of Chicago's famed "Second City" improv group, and a 21-year stand-up comedy veteran. He credits "Second City" -- where he worked with people such as Tim Meadows, Bonnie Hunt and Mike Myers -- for providing him with an education in the finer points of acting, writing and directing comedy. While he has never turned his back on stand-up, he has slowly crawled up the Hollywood success ladder as a triple threat: He writes numerous TV pilots, directs stand-up specials for comics such as Jon Stewart and Denis Leary, and acts in shows such as "Mad About You," where he was a regular for three seasons. But while he found success on his own as a TV writer and actor, his biggest break just might have occurred because his partner turned down a lunch invite.

Several years ago, Jeff shared a suite of writing offices with Billy Crystal, "Seinfeld" creator Larry David and former "Saturday Night Live" writer Alan Zweibel, with whom Garlin was writing a pilot for CBS. One day, David asked Garlin and Zweibel if they wanted to go for lunch, but Zweibel declined. So Garlin and David ate and talked about David's desire to return to stand-up. Garlin shared with him an idea he had for an HBO special about the making of a HBO special, and "Curb Your Enthusiasm" was born.

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Bankrate spoke with Garlin about his own success and that of "Curb Your Enthusiasm," which had a Jan. 4 season debut on HBO and releases its first season on DVD on Jan. 13.

Bankrate: When you were with "Second City," how did you make a living?

Jeff Garlin: When I did "Second City," I had my car repossessed. I made a very small living. But when I was doing stand-up I was working on the road, making cash. I made more than enough to pay my rent, anywhere from $400 to $700 per week. Then I focused on "Second City," and things weren't as good financially.

Bankrate: So how did you pay the bills?

Garlin: I worked at the box office of "Second City," selling tickets to the shows and answering phones. That was the last day job I had. I've been doing stand-up for 21 years, and making a living at it about 14.

Bankrate: When did you hit the point where you were making great money as a stand-up?

Garlin: Here's the thing. As a stand-up, I'm only now making a good living. I maxed out at maybe, during the heyday, $1,000 a week. Only now do I make a really good living as a stand-up, where I can work full time as a stand-up and have a house. It took "Curb Your Enthusiasm" for me to make a real good living at it. Even when I had done Letterman and an HBO half-hour special, those meant nothing. I had offers to go on the road for $2,000 a week, $3,000, tops. But that wasn't enough money for me to leave Los Angeles and a lucrative TV and movie career. I was making a living as an actor in L.A. Nobody's going to pay any real money until you can put people in the seats. When you put people in the seats, that's when they open their checkbooks. They're happy to. So now I put people in the seats and sell out shows, and I do clubs and concerts. And people come.

Bankrate: What acting were you doing?

Garlin: I was on "Mad About You" for three seasons. I did lots of different sitcoms, bit parts in movies. I was working. But just prior to "Curb," I really made my living in a big way by developing television shows for myself. For example, I'd sign a deal with NBC, and I'd write the pilot for myself, so I got paid to do that, and I made a really good living. When we did the special for "Curb," I was writing one for CBS with Alan Zweibel, which HBO was producing, which was ironic. I've had deals with ABC, Fox, every network except for the WB and UPN.

Bankrate: How lucrative are those deals?

Garlin: They're not lucrative enough that you get rich, but enough that you make six figures, and have enough to live on for a year.

Bankrate: And that's even if they don't get picked up.

Garlin: None of them did. I did one pilot years ago for Fox that I didn't write, it was just a development deal, that got picked up for six episodes. But it never aired. The first show I ever had that got picked up that was successful was "Curb Your Enthusiasm." But I had four deals before that.

Bankrate: How has "Curb Your Enthusiasm" changed your financial life?

Garlin: I'm very successful, but not rich yet. I think I'll be rich soon. I'm a lot more successful than I was before, a lot more successful than most people in show business. Because, look, I'm doing a series for HBO, which doesn't necessarily make you rich. I've only starred in one movie ("Daddy Day Care," with Eddie Murphy), and when you star in your first movie they pay you eight bucks, because they know they have you. What -- I'm going to say "no" to starring in a movie with Eddie Murphy? Now, if we do a sequel, I'll make some money. I still won't be rich. But if my career keeps going the way it's going, I'll be rich.

Bankrate: What do you consider rich? Because with the great success of "Curb," I'd figure you'd be a millionaire.

Garlin: Here's the best way to say it. With the success of "Curb," if that was a show in CBS, I would have millions and millions of dollars. When you're on HBO, there's nowhere near a million. They looked at our show as experimental until we won the Golden Globe. Now don't get me wrong, I make a good living. But I have to work. I take plenty of weeks off, I could afford to not work for a month, not do anything. But rich to me is, I don't have to work for a year, I don't have to work for the rest of my life, either one of those things. You have to be as rich as Larry David to be rich. He could buy a country.

Larry Getlen is a freelance journalist and comedian in New York. Enjoy his frivolity at http://zhet.blogspot.com.

-- Posted: Jan. 7, 2004
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