On the one hand, Garry Shandling (1949-2016) left us way too early; on the other hand, now that the book is closed you can see his life as a self-contained system. Shandling is already in the past. Many of us grew up watching him, but now he’s already history, and you can track the evolution of how we experience comedy using his career as a focal point.
Shandling started out as a free-lance sitcom writer in the mid ’70s. He’d written episodes of Sanford and Son (1975-76), Welcome Back Kotter (1976) and The Harvey Korman Show (1978) when, during a story session for Three’s Company in 1978, he decided he was fed up with groupthink and walked out. He worked up a stand-up set and began performing at The Comedy Store. By 1981 he had made it to The Tonight Show, and scored a hit there. Shandling’s stand-up style was very appealing. First, he was blessed with what I call excellent “comedy equipment”. His face was dominated by this enormous mouth and teeth. He was always either grimacing with a pained expression, or genuinely amused at his own remarks. It’s like his entire body was behind these teeth. The teeth were his superpower, like Captain America’s shield. So, frankly, we would have laughed at just about anything he said. That freed him up to write hilarious material. In the early Carson days, it was hackier, but he gradually began exploring his insecurities, his sexual life, his relationships, his problems with intimacy and so forth, and so there was a real “there” there. You felt like you knew him. I just made fun of his face, but not really. He was attractive in his way. He had a tremendous mane of hair, and I always felt it looked he was dressed for a date, which kind of reinforced the content of his act. And his identity (a Jew from Arizona) also gave him a lot to work with. One sees echoes of an older generation, guys like Alan King or Woody Allen, in the older clips, but he brought new honesty and substance, while never being less than hysterically funny. Starting in 1983 he also became a frequent guest on David Letterman’s show, and also became a a frequent guest host on The Tonight Show, subbing for Johnny Carson. In 1984 he starred in the first of his concert specials for Showtime.
In 1986, Shandling launched his innovative sitcom It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, co-wrttten with Alan Zweibel, one of the original writers for Saturday Night Live. The episodes premiered on Showtime, and then were rerun on Fox starting in 1988, which was where I saw them. I was a huge fan of this show, which borrowed the 4th wall breaking technique of The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, but took the concept much further, giving it an almost metaphysical Pirandello style experimentalism. Because he also played a version of himself it also had echoes of The Danny Thomas Show and The Joey Bishop Show. The theme song, by Joey Carbone, is a thing of genius. It’s Garry Shandling’s Show ended in 1990.
I was a huge devotee of his first show, but it was not nearly as successful as his second, The Larry Sanders Show (1992-1998). It was one of the first original programs to score a major success on HBO, a sort of game changer. And it, too, was innovative and influential in all kinds of ways. It was based on Shandling’s five years as a frequent guest host on The Tonight Show. As a fictional late night talk show, it reminded me a lot at the time of the one in Scorsese’s The King of Comedy. The great Rip Torn played Sanders’ ruthless producer (rather unlike Fred de Cordova I would have thought!), and Jeffery Tambor (whom I recognized at the time from Hill Street Blues and other shows and movies) played the sycophantic Ed McMahon equivalent. Celebrities came on the show and played themselves, which was one way in which the show was innovative. The other is that all of the characters, whether fictional or fictionalized, were hilariously horrible people (greedy, grasping, egotistical, narcissistic), making the show a satire about show business and American culture. You can see seeds of things that came later on the show, such as Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000), Primetime Glick (2001), and 30 Rock (2006). The show also had such notable cast members as Janeane Garofolo, Bob Odenkirk, and his then-girlfriend, model Linda Doucette (who sued him when he fired her after they broke up.) One very interesting (and instructive) thing about Shandling, is that he preferred the sealed world of the fiction to the real thing. He was actually offered David Letterman’s Late Night job when he moved to CBS in 1993, but turned it down (Conan O’Brien took over, his first gig as a late night host). Shandling was also offered the hosting gig on The Late Late Show when it started in 1995, but again turned it down.
Though it’s seldom spoken of, the pivotal moment for Shandling came next. The next logical move in an ascending career would be — what? “Movie star” is correct. Shandling had had supporting roles in a number of pictures by that point, such as Mixed Nuts (1994) and Hurlyburly (1998). In 2000 he debuted his first starring vehicle, the sci-fi comedy What Planet Are You From? directed by no less than Mike Nichols, and with a cast that included Ben Kingsley, Annett Bening, John Goodman, and Greg Kinear. Somehwat lackluster and perfunctory, it tanked at the box office and became an obscurity. The following year he was in the ensemble comedy Town and Country, co-written by Buck Henry, with an all-star cast that included Warren Beatty, Diane Keaton, Goldie Hawn, Andie MacDowell, Natassja Kinski, and (in one of his last screen roles), Charlton Heston. This was also a disaster.
But Shandling remained very present in pop culture over the next decade and a half. He hosted the Emmys several times (2000-2004) and appeared on The Daily Show and Real Time with Bill Maher, and other TV shows. He played an evil senator in the Marvel films Iron Man 2 (2010) and Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) — and there we caught a glimpse of the thyroid problem that plagued his last years. In January 2016 he did Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee with Jerry Seinfeld. The episode was ironically titled “It’s Great That Garry Shandling Is Still Alive”. Two months later Shandling was dead of a pulmonary embolism.
In 2018, Judd Apatow presented Shandling’s old journal entries, with commentaries by himself and others, in the film The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling, publishing it the following year as It’s Garry Shandling’s Book.
For more on show business history, including TV variety, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous and for more on comedy film history see Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.