GROWING up in the burbs of Los Angeles as the stepson of a cantor wasn’t always, well, a piece of kugel for Everybody Loves Raymond actor Brad Garrett.
At 6ft 8in tall, Garrett – born Brad Gerstenfeld – regularly found himself being confronted by expectations he simply couldn’t meet.
“I was really not coordinated,” the 54-year-old Emmy Award winner explains cheerfully by phone from his home in LA.
“There aren’t a huge number of Jewish athletes. But being a six-foot-something white kid, every time I changed schools -– we moved a lot when I was young – people would assume ‘Oh, this kid has to really know how to play ball!’ and I was horrific at it.
“I was already 6ft tall at 13, which was also brutal,” recalls Garrett. “I have pictures of my rabbi shaking my hand at my bar mitzvah. You can tell he’s squeezing it a little too hard in the hope that maybe I’ll slouch a little! But you just find your niche and mine was always humour. That diffused being an awkward, large kid.”
Garrett, now a single dad to two teenagers of his own, says he has “strayed away from religion a little” over the years.
Yet it seems that there is one thing that hasn’t waned with the passing of time – the comedian’s passion for Jewish culinary delights.
“Oh my God, if I showed you what I had eaten today, you’d call a paramedic!” he quips. “I love Jewish food. Actually, I made matzah brei for my family two days ago and I really do make a wonderful matzah brei. You have to do it with egg and onions and matzah, of course, and you have to really soak it. I also love a good blintz, a good kasha varnishkes and, if the cabbage is good, a cabbage soup.
“When I grew up, there was a lot of Yidelekh in my life,” he muses. “We were always proud to be Jews. My grandparents were from Russia and from Poland. There was a lot of pride, but we also had a great sense of humour about it. There was no area that was off-limits when it came to jokes and fun. I think that had a lot to do with me getting into this business.”
Garrett says his stand-up show, Is It Something I Said?, which opens at Sydney’s Enmore Theatre on October 22 and at Melbourne’s Palms at Crown on October 23 followed by Brisbane and Canberra, is also no-holds-barred comedy. Certainly, he is relishing the chance to show another side of himself to those familiar with his television and film roles.
“I work very free-form. I do a lot of ad-libbing along with the audience and I have a lot of takes on life after living half a century on earth,” he says. “It’s an adult-oriented show – there’s definitely adult language and topics and things I talk about that are very different from my television persona, whether it was on Raymond or any of the other shows.”
Clearly, Garrett is looking forward to his first visit to Australia. If only he could somehow devise a way to bypass the long flight across the Pacific.
“I’m not a great flier,” he confesses, “so I’m dreading that huge flight. I get a little claustro – I don’t enjoy being in a metal tomb for 15 hours. I get schpilkas!”
For Garrett, who began his show business career as a stand-up artist 37 years ago, there’s still nothing quite like the adrenaline rush of performing live.
“It’s something that’s just always in you,” he reflects, “something that just gnaws away. We’re almost like the skydivers of the entertainment industry. You’re really out on the edge and working without a net, and there’s something about that which is really wonderful.”
While Garrett has appeared in countless TV and film roles – and lent his distinctive voice to animated blockbusters including Ratatouille and Finding Nemo – it was Everybody Loves Raymond that propelled him into Hollywood’s big league. For nine years, until the sitcom finally called it a wrap in 2005, after 210 episodes, Garrett played Ray Romano’s gruff policeman brother, Robert.
Garrett has only the fondest of memories of his time on the show about TV’s favourite Italian-American family. Interestingly, the series was the work of Jewish writer-producer Phil Rosenthal and also starred legendary Jewish performer Doris Roberts as the overbearing mother, Marie, of Ray and Robert.
“Yes, it was the Jews and the Italians,” laughs Garrett. “Just a couple of days ago, we had this annual barbecue and the cast was there and the writers were there. We get to see the bunch of people once a year that were so wonderfully involved with that show. We’re very grateful. We knew when we were in the middle of it that we were very lucky. It’s something that does not happen very often on TV.”
This led to his shows ’Til Death and The Crazy Ones. These days, however, Garrett enjoys nothing more than taking time out with his children, son Max, 16, and daughter Hope, 14.
“They’re really great kids,” he says, his voice brimming with pride. “It is work – and if it isn’t hard, then you’re not doing your job as a parent. But I just love it, and to me it’s what it’s all about.”
Is It Something I Said? is in Sydney on October 22. at the Enmore Theatre,Newtown (Bookings: www.enmoretheatre.com.au) and in Melbourne on October 23-25 at Palms at Crown (Bookings: www.ticketek.com.au), in Brisbane on October 26 at Eatons Hill Hotel and in Canberra on October 27 at Canberra Theatre.
REPORT by Jackie Brygel
PHOTO of Brad Garrett