Comedian Garry Shandling Dies at 66

Garry Shandling Photofest - H 2016

The comic, whose career has spanned decades in the industry, is known for his turns with the 'Larry Sanders Show' and 'It's Garry Shandling's Show.'

Comedian Garry Shandling died Thursday, a Los Angeles Police Department spokesman confirmed to The Hollywood Reporter. He was 66.

At 10:40 a.m., the Los Angeles Fire Department responded to "a medical emergency" at an address believed to be Shandling's. The patient was then transported to Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica. 

A Los Angeles medical examiner told THR on Friday morning that Shandling died of suspected natural causes. 

For the moment, no autopsy is planned as doctors' reports are pending as to the exact cause of death, Lt. David Smith with the Los Angeles County Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner told THR.

Those reports may be done by the end of the day, Smith said. 

The comic, whose career has spanned decades in the industry, is known for influential and highly regarded turns in two comedy series: The Larry Sanders Show and It's Garry Shandling's Show.

In recent years, a more private Shandling popped up intermittently and unexpectedly in mainstream movies such as Marvel's Captain America: Winter Soldier and Iron Man 2.

Born in Chicago, Shandling's family relocated to Tucson, Ariz., to help treat his older brother, Barry, who suffered from cystic fibrosis. Barry died at age 10 but the family remained.

Shandling moved to Los Angeles in the early 1970s to give comedy writing a shot. He first earned a living writing ad copy, but his dry, cerebral wit quickly earned him staff-writer gigs on such sitcoms a Sanford and Son and Welcome Back, Kotter

In 1977, when he was 27, Shandling was in a serious car accident in Beverly Hills that nearly killed him.

"I had a vivid near-death experience that involved a voice asking, 'Do you want to continue leading Garry Shandling's life?'" he later wrote. "Without thinking, I said, 'Yes.' Since then, I've been stuck living in the physical world while knowing, without a doubt, that there's something much more meaningful within it all. That realization is what drives my life and work."

From that moment on, Shandling decided to concentrate on stand-up comedy, finding the constraints of traditional sitcom writing limiting. He started performing at the Comedy Store in L.A. a year later, and quickly developed a stage persona that capitalized on his real-life neuroses.

In 2007, Shandling told Esquire, "I remember when I was a struggling comic appearing for the first time in Las Vegas. Don Rickles came in to watch the new guy. Afterward, he came backstage, and I asked him if he thought I was funny. He said, 'You know when you're funny. You don't have to ask.' And he was right."

Shandling's career-making moment — a spot on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show — came on March 18, 1981. Carson immediately warmed to Shandling, and the comic was soon a regular fixture on the late-night talker, eventually replacing Joan Rivers (whom Carson shunned after she left to host her own show on the fledgling Fox network in 1986) as the permanent guest host.

In the meantime, he forged a reputation as one of premium cable's most dependable stars, headlining a series of specials for Showtime and HBO. In 1985, he also developed his first sitcom — It's Garry Shandling's Show — for Showtime. Meta before that concept was commonplace in the comedy world, the series' characters all openly acknowledged being characters in a TV comedy.

Even its catchy theme song broke the fourth wall, with self-explanatory lyrics that describe how the tune came into existence: "Garry called me up and asked if I would write his theme song."

The experimental series was a critical success in the fledgling world of scripted cable, and ran for 72 episodes on Showtime from 1986 to 1990. Fox, meanwhile, aired a toned-down version on Sunday nights from 1988 to 1990, introducing Shandling's comedy style to an even wider audience and setting the stage for his next series, the groundbreaking The Larry Sanders Show on HBO. He also served as a popular awards show host, emceeing the Grammys in 1990, 1991, 1993 and 1994, and the Emmys in 2000 and 2004.

In 1992, Jay Leno was named as retiring Carson's successor. Shandling was reportedly offered CBS' The Late Late Show at the time, but declined. He also turned down a reported $5 million offer to take over from David Letterman after he departed Late Night in 1993, choosing instead to work with HBO to develop a backstage series set at a fictional talk show. 

Larry Sanders premiered in August 1992 and ran through May 1998, totaling 89 half-hour episodes. The darkly comic show, which starred Shandling as a morose talk show host surrounded by a constantly scheming and bickering staff, took full advantage of its behind-the-scenes Hollywood milieu, with stars regularly appearing as parody versions of themselves, years before Entourage traded in the trope.

Among them: Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, Courteney Cox, David Letterman, Chris Farley, Sharon Stone and David Duchovny (who was involved in a running gag in which Sanders thinks Duchovny is trying to seduce him). A pre-Daily Show Jon Stewart was featured on the series as well, playing Sanders' guest host. (Sanders grew jealous and insecure that Stewart was booking higher-profile guests in his absence.) A full list of celebrities who played themselves on the show is available here.

Among the standouts on the series, the first cable series to be nominated in major Emmy categories, were Jeffrey Tambor, who played Sanders' desperate-to-be-liked sidekick, Hank Kingsley, and Rip Torn, Larry's "fixer" executive producer, Artie, who keeps his star's many demons at bay while playing staff peacekeeper.

The Hollywood Reporter said in its review: "Despite its generally unsympathetic cast of characters, most of whom seem willing to lie, cheat and steal to achieve their relentlessly greedy, superficial goals, the show is a winner because the very funny scripts are so finely tuned that industry-wise viewers will barely have time to catch their breath from one yuk to the next."

Judd Apatow — who cites Shandling as having given him one of his first breaks, writing gags for an awards show — also worked as a writing producer on the series, once telling THR, "I learned almost everything I know from Garry." The series won two Emmys for writing and directing for its final episode, and one for Torn in 1996 for outstanding supporting actor in a comedy series.

"Today we lost a comedic genius and a very dear friend. Garry entertained millions of people and was an inspiration to generations of comedians, actors and writers. He will be greatly missed," said Steve Mosko, chairman of Sony Pictures Television, the studio that produced and owns The Larry Sanders Show.

In the years that followed, Shandling withdrew from the public eye and turned to Buddhism, surfacing occasionally to cameo in mainstream comedy films. In 2015, he sat alongside another comedy legend, Jerry Seinfeld, in a 1979 Porsche 930 for Seinfeld's web series, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.

The pair, whose careers paralleled closely, reminisced fondly in the episode, unfortunately titled "It's Great That Garry Shandling Is Still Alive."

A 2010 profile in GQ called Shandling "the comedian's comedian's comedian." It described him as being an avid basketball fanatic who hosted game-viewing parties at his Brentwood home that typically turned into matches on his backyard court, where regulars like Duchovny, Sarah Silverman and Peter Berg faced off with the likes of Sacha Baron Cohen, Ben Stiller and Adam Sandler.

While he never married or had children, his devotion to Buddhism only deepened — a faith whose origins lay in that life-altering car wreck back in 1977 that informed all of his work.

"I have this very abstract idea in my head," he said of new comedy material he was working on at the time. "I wouldn't even want to call it stand-up, because stand-up conjures in one's mind a comedian with a microphone standing onstage under a spotlight telling jokes to an audience."

Shandling continued: "The direction I'm going in is eventually you won't know if it's a joke or not. What I want to happen is that I talk for an hour and the audience doesn't realize it is funny until they're driving home."