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I’ve often wondered why the name Garry Shandling sparks a near-worshipful reverence from his fellow comedians. Within the profession, Shandling is regarded as a trailblazer, but also as someone who reached back to help the careers of his fellow artists.
Shandling, who died on March 24, 2016 at age 66, was the star of the fourth-wall breaking sitcom “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show” on Showtime from 1986 to 1990. He also starred on “The Larry Sanders Show,” an HBO hit that ran for six seasons from 1992 to 1998, and sent up the late-night talk-show format. His neurotic persona on both shows paved the way for other sitcoms like “Seinfeld,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and The Sarah Silverman Program.” Not to mention Apatow’s own recent show, “Crashing,” about the stand-up scene.
Apatow relied on Shandling’s personal diaries to create a two-part documentary airing on HBO. Apatow credits Shandling with giving him his start as a prolific and multi-talented comedy writer and director.
WaxWord spoke to the director as the two-part doc was going up on HBO.
Why is Garry Shandling so beloved among comedians?
One reason is he was the funniest. And the most innovative and daring. From a creative standpoint everybody has always looked up to him. He did something that most people would like to do but find very difficult to do, which is he carved his own path, he always seemed like he was in his own category. He played by his own rules, he didn’t follow trends.
Actually, he created trends in comedy, right? The comedian starring as his own alter ego came from Shandling…
He did “The Garry Shandling Show” for Showtime when in it was in its infancy, then it was picked up by Fox in their infancy. And “The Larry Sanders Show” was one of the first groundbreaking shows HBO did. It indicated the type of programming they wanted to do in the future.
As a friend, he was always available to everybody, both personally and professionally. There are not many people out there who are that generous.
From the outside, he seemed rather cantankerous. Wasn’t he?
He was everything. In production, he was very intense. He was obsessed with making something of the highest possible quality, and of the deepest depth. If things didn’t look like they were going to come out well, he wasn’t happy. But he could also be fun, and hysterical to hang out with.
He seemed to have a much more easygoing relationship with the actors than the writers. He was very supportive of his cast, and more of a boss with the writers.
So you started out with him on his writing staff?
I started writing jokes for him when he hosted the Grammys. I was doing “The Ben Stiller Show,” and when that was cancelled he asked me to write for “The Larry Sanders Show.” Then he asked me to direct, which I had not done before. He gave me my big break, but he gave me the confidence to believe I could do it. I was probably 28. I had avoided it for a long time out of terror. The week I did it, he basically co-directed the episode with me. The episode came out well, and it gave me a lot of confidence going forward.
How did he influence you in your writing?
He felt the most important thing writers should do is search for truth. To create as much complexity as possible when creating characters, and that everything would flow out of that. If it’s people in an office, they’re well-drawn characters with specific problems and wounds that help him illuminate his theme.
The way peoples’ egos prevent them from being as kind and loving as they should be. That’s what he was interested in writing about. It’s as if he’d seen so much selfishness in show business, and in himself, and he wanted to satirize the way ego screws everything up.
He used to say, the difference between him and Larry Sanders is Larry Sanders couldn’t write “The Larry Sanders Show.” He didn’t have enough self-awareness to do it.
A lot of what I’ve done has been about looking at my life, the lives of people around me, blurring the line between fiction and non-fiction. “Funny People” is clearly inspired by Garry’s work, “Crashing” follows and is inspired by “Larry Sanders” — in the way a comedian follows his spiritual life in a sometimes treacherous business.
Garry was kind of fearless in making himself look like an ass.
He had a very clear message in his work. He was interested in religion and Buddism, and he found a way to express those ideas in all the ways that people have trouble in their work and personal lives, because they’re valuing the wrong things. So when he shows Larry Sanders obsessed with his ratings, his point is – he should be more obsessed with being kind.
He would talk about that explicitly?
He talked about it all the time. For instance, there was an episode where Hank (Jeffrey Tambor) was trying to get a raise. And he wanted Larry to support him in his contract negotiatins. To Garry that was about friendship, and how hard it is to find out if people are actually your friends. So it was really about: Is this person really a friend? Am I just an employee, or does he really care? That’s what he wanted to explore. It’s a show that took place in an office, but to Garry it was about how people treat each other.
There’s a deep spiritual underpinning to the show. It’s about a man who’s conflicted. At some level he knows he needs to leave the show or he won’t evolve, but it’s really hard. There was a season when he moved to Montana. But ultimately he couldn’t resist the spotlight and came back.
Garry started the show before Letterman and Leno had their drama. He anticipated all of this before it happened. When all of that was going on, “The Larry Sanders Show” was just starting its second season.
The jockeying for these talk show jobs — these machinations are accurate today. Just as we saw Larry get pushed off his show by Jon Stewart at the end of the last season of the show.
How did you know about his diaries?
Garry had begun a project where he was considering using his diaries as a jumping off point. So I knew about them. He knew there was something that would be educational and inspiring.
The documentary is so personal because we are able to show his thoughts in his diaries. It’s not just about his comedic evolution, it’s about his personal evolution. And how through the course of his life he grew into being a mentor, and to value other people above all else.
Were you shocked when he died?
I was. I didn’t see it coming at all. I had been speaking to him a lot before then, because he was trying to get “The Larry Sanders Show” bought by HBO so they could run it on their streaming services. He was very concerned about making sure it had a permanent home. And I had done a bunch of shows on stage with him at Largo we would just chat and he was as riotous as ever.
Garry was informed they closed the deal with HBO and he died that same morning.