How Gillian Jacobs Helped Turn the Late Garry Marshall Into an Unlikely Comedy Podcasting Icon

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If Garry Marshall’s career began and ended with being the television guru behind such syndication favorites as Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley and Joanie Loves Chachi (as well as other, less Happy Days-rooted fare) he would have had an impressive career. But the affable writer-director-producer-actor’s career underwent a surprising number of permutations in the decades following his initial blockbuster success as the man behind network television’s big nostalgia boom.

Most impressively, Marshall reinvented himself as a hilarious character actor whose credits include such classy endeavors as Lost In America,  (where Marshall took front and center in the funniest scene, where Albert Brooks’ hopelessly deluded American dreamer tries to convince a casino bigwig played by Marshall to give back all the money he’s lost gambling as a publicity stunt) and Louie.

Marshall was also a very successful comedy film director whose sentimental touch transformed Pretty Woman from a gritty drama whose original screenplay chronicled a week in the life of a troubled hooker who is wooed, then abandoned by a wealthy client, into a wish fulfillment fantasy 12-year-old girls could watch with their families. Marshall directed other hits, like The Princess Diaries, and ended his career making giant, sappy romantic ensemble comedies based around holidays (New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day and finally Mother’s Day) that tonally and otherwise functioned as a cross between a 1970s disaster movie with smiles and kisses replacing destruction and devastation, and a big-screen version of a show like Love, American Style, which Marshall worked on early in his career.

Marshall chose his careers as a character actor, television mogul, and bigshot comedy movie director. He had no say, however, in the weird double life he would take on as one of Paul F. Tompkins’ most beloved characters on Comedy Bang Bang. Tompkins’ take on Marshall took off in part because people loved Marshall, and Tompkins benefited from that goodwill.

Marshall seemed like everyone’s dream uncle. Growing up outside of Milwaukee in the 1980s, I think everyone I went to school with wished they were related to Marshall and that he’d fly them out to Hollywood, introduce him to Henry Winkler, the coolest man in the world (something that has not changed in the decades that followed), drive around in his Corvette convertible and take them to a taping of Happy Days.

But Tompkins’ impish interpretation of Marshall endured as well because the show kept adding fascinating new layers to his backstory and persona. Most impressively, and memorably, Comedy Bang Bang transformed Marshall from a nice old man enjoying his sunset years in show-business to an international adventurer on the hunt for the Loch Ness monster while also involved in a tumultuous and torrid affair with gold-digging party girl Gillian Jacobs (as portrayed by Gillian Jacobs).

The strange, unlikely union of Marshall and the Community favorite makes such a profound impact that after he died, I stubbornly had to resist the urge to Tweet about Jacobs inheriting Marshall’s vast fortune, primarily because I probably would have been the 3,000th person making that same obvious joke.

Marshall and Jacobs’ affair for the ages began on the 2012 Comedy Bang Bang episode “Friends Without Words,” which finds Scott Aukerman co-hosting with the perpetually agreeable Marshall. And when Aukerman and Tompkins are together, in an Earwolf studio or on the road, a lot of the entertainment in hearing them interact comes from the palpable and infectious pleasure they take in each other’s company, and in their own wit. So Aukerman and Marshall spend the early part of the podcast kibitzing delightfully about such matters as the eroticism of table legs and naked trees, Tom Bosley’s sinister second life as an animal-sacrificing satanist, and why Marshall seems so intensely Jewish despite being Italian. Then again, Marshall is a New Yorker, and all New Yorkers are culturally Jews and all Jews are culturally New Yorkers.

Ah, but this episode isn’t famous because of its revelations about Tom Bosley’s love of the anti-Christ. No, it’s famous because it’s the podcast where Marshall and Jacobs met cute en route to being one of the most notorious fictional romantic couples in all of podcasting. The erotic chemistry is apparent right off the bat, as Jacobs teasingly references watching the oddly serious opening credits sequence of Joanie Loves Chachi’s as part of a “shitty opening credits sequence” watching spree. The eternally pleasant Marshall isn’t insulted. “I did that show as a goof!” he proudly proclaims.

Marshall establishes early on that he’s married, and has kids, grand-kids and maybe great grand-kids probably (that Tompkins’ knowledge of Marshall’s life and work is less than exhaustive somehow makes it funnier and more charming), but that doesn’t seem to deter Jacobs. Jacobs is shameless in her gold-digging. She doesn’t waste time with hints or suggestions. No, Jacobs essentially floats the idea of Marshall killing his longtime wife and the mother of his children so that she can remarry him solely for the sake of his vast personal fortune pretty early in the game.

Given Marshall’s very recent death, it should seem way more jarring and disconcerting for so much of Marshall and Jacobs’ “flirtation” involves discussions of death and murder, and old people being slaughtered solely for their personal fortune. When actors and actresses are on Comedy Bang Bang you never really know what to expect. Some actors clearly view it as a goofier variation on the kinds of boilerplate interviews press tours are full of. And then there are natural comediennes like Jacobs, who get it immediately, and take the conversation in weird and wonderful and unexpected directions.

That’s Jacobs here. She engages in some of the most inspired, “Yes, And”ing in the podcast’s history. As a lovable old man and calculating black widow, respectively, Marshall and Jacobs make for an unlikely, star-crossed pair, which is part of what makes them such an inspired couple. As a comedy team, if not as marriage partners, Marshall and Jacobs clicked immediately, and the boldly unselfconscious Jacobs really throws herself into making the fictionalized version of herself that would become a popular favorite on the show as sleazy, greedy, and deplorable as possible.

A goofy but ultimately brilliant decision made in the moment by Jacobs to romantically pursue Tompkins’ Marshall with psychopathic fervor paid such rich dividends that years later it remains many podcast fans’ enduring memory of a lovable show-business lifer following his unfortunate real-world death.

Nathan Rabin is the former head writer of The A.V. Club and the author of four books, including Weird Al: The Book (with “Weird Al” Yankovic) and, most recently, You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me.

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