Ralph Doin’ Work

Ralph Garman’s long road to semi-stardom in Hollywood Babble-on and Yoga Hosers

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Ralph Doin’ Work

Even moviegoers who aren’t listeners to Kevin Smith’s podcast Hollywood Babble-On will be struck by the comedic gifts of the actor who comes onscreen two-thirds of the way through the film to play the most brilliantly bizarre movie villain of the year. But those of us who are proud Babbleheads squealed with recognition (some of us literally) at the appearance of Smith’s Babble-On co-host and partner in geek crime, Ralph Garman. And when he started pulling out some of the same impressions he does on the show, we were in Babble Heaven.

It wasn’t always like this. Smith first approached his friend, co-host, and frequent KROQ-LA morning DJ to play a very specific kind of role in a previous film. “When he came to me with Red State,” remembers Garman, “I was like, ‘Sure, I’d love to work with Kevin Smith’ and I sort of went in sight unseen. Then I found out I was playing a mute character.” He pauses for effect. “And I was like, ‘Really? The guy that talks for a living, you’re going to give him no lines? That’s going to be my role?’” Another perfectly timed pause. “And he said, ‘Look, I played a character who didn’t speak, and it worked pretty well for me.’ And I said, ‘Oh, I can see—you’ve got a point.’”

It’s a story, like many between the two, that’s almost too good to be true. Garman follows up with a characteristically humble/proud summation: “I never asked him—I probably should have—but I always wondered if maybe he didn’t know if I could act at all. Maybe he just liked me and wanted to throw me a bone. And he put me in this gig figuring, ‘he can’t fuck it up too badly because he doesn’t have to say anything!’ But it ended up being really a fascinating exercise because I got the chance to act without having to rely on any dialogue, which was like nothing I’d ever done before. It was a cool role.”

A “Brotherly” Beginning

As Babble listeners will know, Garman is a proud Philadelphian, having grown up in the northeast section of that city. (“It was a great childhood, a great city,” he remembers.) He often references the City of Brotherly Love in the podcast, and gets back to the city as often as possible. Early on, he had a peek into the movie business—his father was a branch manager of distribution for Paramount Pictures. “He’d book the films into the theaters,” explains Garman, “throughout Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, the whole tri-state area. So I was exposed to movies and fell in love with them at an early age.”

That access intersected with a natural love of performing for Garman. “I was performing at a very early age,” he admits. “I was the guy who was putting on puppet shows for the other kindergarteners in kindergarten class. I’d take a table and put it on its side and get behind it with the hand puppets and do some shows for the kids. So it started in elementary school really, my love for performing. And then, like a lot of people, I started doing shows in junior high school and high school. I did all the school plays and musicals. And it was in high school that I decided I wanted to give it a shot as a career.”

Garman went to college at LaSalle University and majored in Communications, which encompassed film, radio and television. “At that point, I had done a lot of theater,” he explains. “I had studied at the Walnut Street Theater in Philadelphia, so I knew I had a pretty good head start in that area, but I didn’t know what everybody else did on the set. I thought if I got a background in film, radio and television production I would have some idea of what the other people on the set were doing when I showed up, and I wouldn’t look like a complete idiot. So I got my degree from LaSalle and then about a year later, actually right out of college, I got cast in my very first TV show. I got my SAG card early on in Philadelphia, and I moved to California about a year later.”

Once in California, he quickly found a niche in the sketch and improv community—unsurprising for an actor who would later show such a gift for characters and improvised humor in his radio work. “I was just doing the usual audition routine, and working waiting tables and bartending and stuff like that. But I had an itch just to perform, and I was tired of taking classes—I wanted to get in front of a crowd somehow. So I joined a sketch & improv comedy troupe. I knew I could write a little bit, so I figured I could write my own sketches and I was pretty good at improv. The group was called the Acme Comedy Theatre—it was kind of a cross-town rival to the Groundlings out here. Once I got into that, I found that a way to distinguish myself from some of the other performers was to start doing the impressions on stage, and that was the first time I ever used them in any professional way.”

Nearly any actor who has worked any significant time in sketch and improv will tell you that it’s a marvelous preparation for more structured work, especially comedic work. But for many—and Garman was among them—the close relationships built while performing in those troupes often prove to be valuable as well. “I was the poor man’s Phil Hartman,” he laughs. “I would do characters and voices and celebrity impressions and things like that. That led to radio because Adam Carolla—who was working with the radio station that I’m currently with where I do the morning show—he and Jimmy Kimmel had worked together on the radio. Adam and I were in the same comedy troupe, so Kimmel had seen me a bunch on stage. When it came time for him to leave to go do The Man Show with Adam, Jimmy recommended me to the guy he was working with on the radio. Once I started doing the radio gig, that’s when the voices and the impressions and stuff really came in handy, because when you’re trying to fill five hours of live radio every morning, you’ve really got to use all the tools in your tool box.”

Once again, Garman had landed in a spot that would prove to be an excellent training ground for him. Radio personalities, soap opera stars, working stage actors—anyone who has to perform for hours every single day for long periods of time will confirm that there’s a special kind of chops that can only be built in that way. It was Kimmel himself who first opened Garman’s eyes to those possibilities in the job. “I had no real interest in being in radio,” Garman recalls. “I had always assumed it was just announcing records and reading time and temperature and doing news and stuff, and that was nothing that appealed to me. But Jimmy explained it to me and said it was like comedy boot camp. When you’re forced to generate material every day whether you’re in the mood or not, it just really helps you strengthen those muscles. You start to develop a sense of your own comic timing, and a sense of your comic persona that you create when you’re on the air. You find out what works and what doesn’t, what people respond to. It’s absolutely a huge part of any success I may have had—getting those reps in and just putting it out there, and honing it.”

One specific takeaway from the experience was the development of his very particular on-air persona. “[My] comic persona [is] the cantankerous guy who rants and raves and gets outraged a lot and goes off. That came about by taking that part of my personality and making that my niche, if you will, on the radio show. That’s the role I filled. So, when I started doing Babble-On with Kevin, we share a lot of audience with the people who listen to me on the radio, especially here in Los Angeles. So I just took that same energy and just moved it over into that show. It worked so well with Kevin because he’s so laid back, and warm and fuzzy. And stoned. And I’m, you know, often angry and drunk. So we make a good couple.”

The Birth of Babble

The show also brought Garman and Smith together in the first place. “Kevin would come on,” he says, “to promote whatever films he was selling at that particular time. I think it was Zack and Miri when he first came on the show with me. Of course I had been a fan, but I also felt we shared a certain sensibility. We’re both East Coast guys. He’s Jersey; I’m Philly. And we’re both geeks, and we had a similar sense of humor. Sure enough, when we started hanging out together, it just all fell into place pretty quickly. We became friends pretty quickly.”

The friendship, which seems so natural and easy on the radio, did actually develop pretty naturally and easily. “Early on when he would come in,” Garman remembers, “I would always invite him to stick around, because I’ve got a recurring segment every hour on the radio show where I take a look at the entertainment news of the day. It’s only five or six minutes, but I would have Kevin sit in and we would just riff together on whatever stories were going on. We found out we had a pretty good chemistry together. That laid the foundation for an idea we had later on, which was to do our own long-form radio show, kind of a weekly update of the entertainment world. We actually recorded a pilot for that for my radio station, and they rejected it roundly, saying nobody wanted to hear people talk for two hours.”

Suffice it to say, the station was wrong. Garman and Smith launched Hollywood Babble-On as a podcast, and listenership has been steadily climbing ever since. The podcast has garnered several awards, including Stitcher Radio’s Top Entertainment and Culture Podcast in 2013. But before it became such a hit worldwide, Garman and Smith thought first about the live audience before whom each show is taped. “I always felt an obligation first and foremost,” says Garman, “to serve the live audience, because let’s face it, these people are paying money for tickets. And that’s not lost on me. So primarily it was a local thing, for local audiences, and we promoted a local radio show, and it was just something we were doing in Hollywood. We didn’t really think about the bigger picture. We never assumed someday people would be listening to this in Australia and England and Scotland and Brazil and all the places now where we get emails from, where people are regular listeners of the podcast. It was always first and foremost a live show. We wanted to entertain the people who that were right in front of us. But we started to think of it as almost like a comedy album where the podcast is a record of the live show and then you get to listen to that and sort of imagine what it would be like to be in the audience.”

Come for the Podcast … Stay for the Live Show

Garman still believes that, ideally, the podcast episodes are merely the gateway drug as it were, and that the live show is the real place to be. “Originally it was just us talking, and then we started adding audio elements and photos, and then we started adding video clips. A lot of the things we added as the show grew and changed were in order to create a better experience for those people who were sitting in front of us. It’s a difficult balance to walk between [podcast and live] audiences, but if I have to ever make a choice I always lean toward the live audience. We want the podcast listeners to say, “Ooh that sounds like a fun night. I wish I could be there,” so they’ll make an effort to show up. Anytime we take the show on the road, whether it be Canada, or the sold-out 3,600 seats at the Hammersmith Odeon Theatre in London, or Dublin—it’s all these people who have listened to dozens of the shows and got the sense of fun and got what we were doing. Then when the opportunity arose for them to be there in front of us, they really wanted to be there.”

Part of the show’s appeal is the sense of fun it engenders. Garman and Smith obviously really do like each other and find each other funny. And they love the audience, and find them funny, as well. Sometimes a live audience member will shout out a reference to one of the show’s many running jokes even before the hosts have realized the connection to the conversation at hand. “There are familiar tent poles, if you will, that run through the show,” Garman says. “Sometimes we’ll have a segment that runs for a year and then disappears, and then we will bring it back, or it will be replaced by a different thing. And largely that’s because of people’s reaction to it. Our show is enormously interactive, not only with the live audience in front of us, but with the content we get from people emailing us and sending us art work, video clips, audio and introductory songs that they’ve written or created for certain recurring segments that they think need a jingle. It’s very much a give and take, so it’s pretty obvious early on when we do something, by the response we get from the listeners and from the crowd, which things they want to hear more of. We start the show off with requests from the live audience and from some people at home who say, ‘Oh I heard this last week and I would love it if Al Pacino could sing “Stand By Me.”’ Or something like that. And they come up with these ridiculous fantasies they have, and then we do the best that we can to fulfill them. And people respond to that familiarity of knowing that when they go in each and every week, there’s going to be a segment that they can relate to, that they like, and they’re going to hear a variation on a theme. A lot of that comes from my background in radio because you sort of do that with radio, too. You have staples and you have recurring segments that you go to on a weekly basis that people really like.”

With Airwaves Come Opportunity

And of course, it was Smith’s longstanding friendship with Garman, and his weekly front row seat to his comedic gifts, that led to Garman’s role in Yoga Hosers. But between the radio and the podcast, Garman has created relationships that have led to other great parts, too. “I had a semi-regular role on NYPD Blue,” he recalls, “because one of the producers of that show was a regular listener to the radio show, and he thought I was funny and talented and he offered me a role. And you know, Seth Macfarlane found me on the radio to bring me in for Family Guy. It never ceases to amaze me, working in Los Angeles, the people who are in their cars driving to work, who are listening. I got a call from the Agent Carter producer, saying come on in and do something with us, because we like what you do. I’ve gotten a lot of opportunities that way. And then having met Kevin through the radio and then our relationship growing professionally and personally, and him including me in his work, in Red State and then Tusk and now Yoga Hosers. It’s just been a benefit of having done the work on the radio and on the podcasts, that these other things just sort of present themselves.”

Show business is a pretty inefficient business in a lot of ways, but it’s usually pretty efficient at unearthing talent. For someone like Ralph Garman, all it took was a little exposure. That, and grinding away the reps, every single day. Like a pro.