Bill Carter on Garry Shandling's Legacy: The Late-Night Star Who Never Was

THE TONIGHT SHOW -David Letterman, Garry Shandling, Jay Leno, and  Johnny Carson -1988 -H 2016
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"Without ever actually being a full-time late-night host, Garry Shandling put an artistic stamp on the genre as indelible as the mark left by any of his contemporaries."

A couple of years into Garry Shandling's groundbreaking HBO comedy The Larry Sanders Show, I got word that Garry and his writers had come up with a plotline for the new season that would mix his fictional late-night television world with the real-life events that I had reported on in my book The Late Shift.

At the time, everything Garry was doing on Sanders was head-spinningly new (and brilliant): He was playing a mock late-night host, but the show always included scenes exactly like a late-night show, with Garry in a studio in front of a real audience, telling jokes that could have been on Letterman or Leno; he created an array of producers, writers and staff to surround Larry, who bore more than passing resemblances to figures I knew from the interviews I had conducted for the book; and the show incorporated actual Hollywood figures as "guests," sitting on a couch next to Larry's desk, answering with faux sincerity the usual superficial interview questions while acting out scripted feuds or dalliances with the faux host.

Of course, I didn't expect to somehow wander into this exercise in magical realism myself. I had been to the studio to watch tapings of the "show" portion of episodes. (It was a hot ticket.) While there, I'd had conversations with staff members, including one chat with Garry, about how much fodder The Late Shift was providing them.

So then there was the episode titled "Montana." It opened season three. Larry had quit in a huff and was holed up in a cabin in Montana, but he was desperate to get back in the game. Through the machinations of his Rasputin-like producer, Artie (the incredible Rip Torn), who told him, "You're like one of those goddamn creatures out of Greek mythology — half man, half desk," Larry's fictional network agreed to consider reinstating him. Meanwhile, Larry and the staff were obsessing over a certain book that had just come out about the Letterman-Leno showdown over The Tonight Show. Larry told Artie: "Man, I can't believe Leno actually hid in the closet so he could hear the whole network meeting. That's a sickness — to be so obsessed with what people are saying about you."

The scene of Jay Leno secretly listening in to NBC's executives thrashing out his future was perhaps the most talked-about moment from my book. (More than two decades later, I am still asked about it multiple times a year.) Watching this play out, the crossover from reality to fiction left me gobsmacked, more so when Larry (who, later in the episode, does go into a closet to eavesdrop on the network discussing his contract) asked Artie, "What did people say about me not being mentioned in the book?"

Not mentioned in the book? How could I have left him out? (I guess Larry got even in the episode by never mentioning the title of the book in question — or its author.)

It was a heady experience when it was happening in 1994; but now, in the wake of Garry's sudden death on March 24 and the raft of tributes to the stunning originality of his masterwork, it is mind-blowing to have traveled — even glancingly — through the looking glass of his singular comedy mind.

The truth is that Garry is mentioned in The Late Shift, of course. He is the late-night star who never was — in the real world, anyway. He always had the sensibility, the talent and, yes, the neurosis to be a long-running host on a hit late-night television show. The only thing he didn't have was the job. Which was how he wanted it. In the '90s, Shandling brushed up against two late-night franchises on NBC and one on CBS and walked away from all of them, opting instead to create and execute one of the most insightful and hilarious parodies in television history.

In the '80s, Garry had been seriously in the running to be the successor to Johnny Carson, at least even with Leno in the vague succession plan hatched by then-NBC Entertainment president Brandon Tartikoff. They were both working as "regular guest host." Shandling might even have had an edge, at least inside The Tonight Show. He was close to Johnny's legendary executive producer, Peter Lassally, who had perhaps the finest eye and ear ever for potential late-night hosts (Letterman being another protege, as was Craig Ferguson later). But Garry, then involved in his first highly creative sitcom concept, It's Garry Shandling's Show, took himself out of the running.

As Larry Sanders was achieving huge media buzz, Garry's name was floated again when NBC came to the very last moment to announce a host to succeed Letterman on its Late Night show. Lorne Michaels, put in charge of the show by NBC, had finally come down to the unknown Conan O'Brien as his choice, but some NBC executives were in a panic. They reached out to Garry's manager (and closest friend) Brad Grey — a relationship later to explode in a bitter lawsuit — and made a last-minute offer at the then-compelling number of $5?million a year. Grey also represented Michaels, which made the whole enterprise incredibly messy.

Shandling again declined, just as he declined CBS' overture a few months later to host a show following Letterman. Beyond ensuring the legacy of Larry Sanders, Shandling's decisions to bypass the late-night wars essentially made possible the career of another late-night icon, Conan. The two men subsequently developed a close and warm mentoring relationship, the kind Shandling seemed to take joy in spreading all over the comedy landscape, as evidenced by the touching remembrances since his death.

Garry did speak with me for the book about his supporting role in all the late-night machinations that transpired during that period. He was — as Jerry Seinfeld observed in his recent Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee jaunt with Garry — prone to thoughtful pauses and careful consideration. It was always clear that he deeply respected the careers of his peers; he had a wise man's insight into — and appreciation for — the challenges of being funny.

Without ever actually being a full-time late-night host, Garry Shandling put an artistic stamp on the genre as indelible as the mark left by any of his contemporaries. He was right all along: Larry Sanders deserves to be mentioned.

Bill Carter, a THR contributor, has covered television for more than 40 years, most recently for The New York Times.