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Jeff Garlin makes it up as he goes along — and it’s hilarious

Jeff Garl'Closer Than I  Appear' Steppenwolf.  |  Michael Brosilow photo

Jeff Garlin in "Closer Than I Appear" at Steppenwolf. | Michael Brosilow photo

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When: Through Dec. 16

Where: Steppenwolf Theatre Upstairs, 1650 N. Halsted

Tickets: $25

Info: (312) 335-1650;

Updated: January 9, 2013 6:05AM

So here’s the thing about Jeff Garlin’s show, “Closer Than I Appear,” now at Steppenwolf Theatre Upstairs: While I can describe almost everything the actor-writer-comedian did Wednesday night during his nearly two-hour performance, it’s unlikely he will reiterate about two-thirds of it in the remainder of the shows that run through Dec. 16.

Why? Because Garlin is a devoted improviser, and he more or less makes it all up as he goes along. For much of his time onstage he simply zooms in on members of the audience (most of whom are more than happy to engage with him), and proceeds to run with whatever he can seize upon — a provocative catcall, a guy wearing red loafers, the relationship someone has with the person seated beside them (whether a husband, a wife, a gay pal, two people who are sort of together but not quite). And only after the potential in the audience begins to lag does he serve up some “pre-cooked” material flip through a notebook of ideas that he has either tested before or has been thinking about but not quite formalized yet.

All the while you will note (as will Garlin himself) that at the same time he is performing and reacting, he also is observing both himself and the overall arc of response he has gotten. In fact, one of the more intriguing aspects of his show is sensing how he can simultaneously be “inside” it, and standing at a remove from it, in order to become his own editor/critic/laugh meter. What’s more, he will accurately report back to the audience about how it has all gone and where the lulls occurred.

The last time Garlin came to Steppenwolf, he dove into the doughnut hole of his existence, confessing his long-standing issues with food, dieting, diabetes and the self-loathing that can come from being overweight. That show, “No Sugar Tonight,” served up entirely too much information. This time around, Garlin — a veteran of The Second City (which he admirably knocked for depending far too much on easy expletives), and a star of the hit HBO show, “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” moves beyond the purely confessional and is a whole lot funnier.

Things got off to a zany start as a couple (so ideal you might suspect them of being ringers) told him they’d flown in from Florida to see him, and he reimbursed them for their cheap airline tickets.

Among the “set pieces” was an absurdist riff on his fantasy strip mall (it went on too long, but he knew it). There also was plenty of knowingly political, politically incorrect and mildly sexual banter.

Married, and the father of two sons, Garlin admitted that he dreams most of taking naps with young, beautiful women. But he loves his wife, even if he laments (in what was truly the funniest line of the evening) that “I wish I could have raised her from childhood.”

Garlin (and he knew it) should have walked into the wings about 15 minutes sooner than he did — immediately after his hilarious, brilliantly recounted “creams and lotions” story, which is an unmitigated classic. In fact, you should refuse to leave the theater until he tells it.

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