NEW YORK — When Jeff Garlin's sons were still playing Little League baseball, the comedian would attend games and find himself horrified.
"You could say 'hilarious' or 'absurd' to describe what I witnessed, but the word I'd use is 'painful,'" Garlin said in a recent interview near a ball field in the city's Riverside Park. "Or maybe disgust."
The actor would observe the kind of cringe-inducing behavior — parents swearing at their own kids, parents swearing at other people's kids, parents swearing at other parents — that you might expect to find only in a movie. So Garlin decided to make one himself.
The result is "Dealin' With Idiots," a comedy that opened this past weekend in Los Angeles at the Sundance Sunset Cinemas.
Garlin's sophomore directorial effort (after the indie rom-com "I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With" seven years ago) is an improvised — some critics, less generous, found it slight and flat — look at the world of Little League. A host of comedic actors, including Fred Willard, Bob Odenkirk and Richard Kind, play the parents, riffing off Garlin's 20-page outline to talk about their oblivious characters' lives and many other things having little to do with baseball. Garlin plays the parental voice of reason amid a sandlot full of crazies.
The actor took notes over the course of one season at his sons' own games. Then he used the methodology he learned over the years playing Larry David's obsequious manager on "Curb Your Enthusiasm": Just give talented actors some story cues and let them fill in the rest.
Odenkirk described the process as a kind of sideways improv-comedy exercise.
"Before we shot [in Los Angeles] Jeff went next door to this little Hungarian shop, where he bought this goulash. Then he put it on the desk and said, 'Tell me about your lunch.' It was very on the spot," Odenkirk said. "But that's the way Jeff is, both as a director and in his stand-up comedy. It's the Robert Altman school. He wants you to discover it as you go."
Willard, who from his many decades as a comic actor knows a thing or two about improvising, described the process as "a little more make-it-up-as-you-go-along than in a Christopher Guest movie," describing a director already well-known for improvising.
At the moment, Garlin, 51, is peering in on a less intense session. During an East Coast heat wave, he's sitting at a picnic table watching a group of grade-schoolers take batting practice and shag fly balls. The actor is an avowed fan of baseball — he played it as a younger man and is a die-hard fan of his native Chicago Cubs. He takes out a camera every few minutes to snap photos of the children, part of a burgeoning shutterbug hobby.
"That boy just gave me a great look," he said, motioning to one sad-looking outfielder who has come to the bench.
For a comic known for his colorful persona, he can be careful with his answers. But he is open about parenting and sports.
"The kids are oblivious to all the yelling," he said. "But I could say the parents are truly oblivious. The reality is that most 10-year-olds are far more interested in the snacks after the game than anything that happens during the game itself." Garlin's own boys, now 13 and 17, no longer play baseball; his older son is bound for college and wants to study skateboard fashion-design, Garlin said.
After years as part of a big-screen comic bench of sorts — he's had small parts in dozens of films and TV series — Garlin is himself stepping up to the plate. It's part of a comedic persona that, though it often has him in supporting parts, has combined to form a surprisingly prolific career.
Garlin is the host of a popular interview podcast taped at the Largo at the Coronet — past editions have included director Judd Apatow, while an upcoming one will feature "Curb Your Enthusiasm's" J.B. Smoove. And this fall he's in a new TV series, "The Goldbergs," playing a character he could have lampooned in his new movie, the gruff head of a 1980s suburban family. The ABC sitcom is based partly on the life of actor-writer Adam Goldberg, and from the preview it would seem that Garlin's character's go-to word for his kids is "moron."
"It's like 'The Wonder Years' meets 'All in the Family,' but maybe edgier and darker," he said. "I've avoided doing network shows because I don't think they're true to real families. So few shows are. But I think people can associate with this because it's true to character and true to situations. How many parents talk the way my character talks?"
When talking to Garlin it's impossible to ignore the elephant in the room: his arrest last month in Studio City after an altercation in which he allegedly smashed the windows of a woman's vehicle after a parking-spot dispute.
Saying it was about more than a spot — "let's just say a lot of indignation was involved" — Garlin sought to downplay the incident as a "yawning festival" and said he hung around to wait for the police after the fight because it didn't occur to him there would be an issue.
"I had no idea I'd be arrested. None. Shocked!" he said, his voice hitting that upper register some will recognize from his comedy.
Still, he said he couldn't justify his actions. He admitted that it was "entirely" his fault, adding, "I could tell the story to make myself a victim, but I don't like doing that."
He also said he understood why it had so much traction in the media. "Because it sounds like a 'Curb' episode," he quipped, allowing himself a small smile at the idea that it would end up there. (It won't, though he said once the legal issues are resolved, he plans on incorporating the incident into a stand-up act that he routinely performs around Los Angeles.)
For now, Garlin said he's interested only in blurring real life and his trademark TV show in one way. And yet again, it involves people admitting to some pretty bad family foibles.
"People will walk up to me and say, 'My wife is just like Susie,'" he said, referring to the foul-mouthed henpecker played on "Curb" by Susie Essman. "And the only thing I can say is, 'I'm so sorry.' Even if the wife is right there." He paused. "Especially if the wife is right there."