I Worked for Garry Shandling, and Judd Apatow’s Doc Shows a Man I Never Knew (Guest Column)

Garry Shandling

'Will & Grace' and 'Frasier' writer Janis Hirsch reflects on the differences between the Garry Shandling she worked with and the man portrayed in Judd Apatow's HBO documentary.

We are always two people: in public or in private, at work or at home, with friends or with family.

There were two distinct Garry Shandlings: the one I knew, briefly, while working on It’s Garry Shandling’s Show and the one Judd Apatow knew, intensely, over decades. Judd’s Garry was his mentor and, later, his clay-footed shaman. My Garry was a passively malignant emperor who was charmingly self-deprecating about wearing no clothes. My Garry presided over a misogynistic writers room, where women (well, woman: it was just me) were called “slits” and where on one occasion, a flaccid penis was placed on my shoulder, you know, just for laughs. Judd’s Garry gave him opportunities and encouragement; made his home basketball court a haven for comics and comedy writers; counselled major directors on all sorts of films, including what Peter Berg calls an invaluable four-hour session on Lone Survivor; and selflessly helped anyone needing guidance while structuring stories.

Which is why Judd Apatow made The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling (premiering on HBO on Monday) and I didn’t. And also because Judd Apatow is an abundantly talented filmmaker who wears his heart on his sleeve and I’m none of those things. (I do wear sleeves but mostly to hide my upper arms.)

Judd reached out to me after my THR piece about my experiences with Garry, sad and sorry that I’d gone through what I had (he didn’t work with Garry until The Larry Sanders Show). He told me about his documentary — which was, at that point, four hours long — and asked if I’d come to a screening. I accepted his kind invitation because I was sick of my Garry — sick of my own story and eager to bury it once and for all. I also accepted because he’d trimmed an hour and a half off the film.

People will call The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling a labor of love, but it’s so much more complicated than that. The clips of Larry Sanders are howlingly, painfully funny. The clips of Garry doing stand-up are terrific. Scenes of Garry backstage at a comedy club with Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld show him at his best.

Oh, there’s plenty of Garry at his worst in this documentary, too: crashing and burning in a guest spot with Conan O’Brien; seeing Bob Saget break down while talking about Garry cutting him out of his life; watching Garry’s ex, Linda Doucett, unable to reconcile the man she loved with the man who fired her when they broke up (they ended on an ugly note, in court, although it was tame compared to the Brad Grey mishegas).

Apatow used no rose-colored lenses during the making of his film. The childhood death from cystic fibrosis of Garry’s brother haunted him, and his mother’s subsequent descent into untreated mental illness threatened to eat Garry alive. A devastating traffic accident almost killed Garry, but didn’t transform him the way melodrama likes to; he was still an unhappy camper. Although he embraced Buddhism — the diary entries Apatow shares are all zen-inspired — there is nothing serene about his self-loathing and churlishness.

The Garry I knew was always surrounded by guys, mostly younger, who made him laugh and for whom he returned the favor. There are interviews with and clips of directors like James L. Brooks, Jon Favreau and Peter Berg and kings of comedy like Seinfeld, Leno, Sacha Baron and Jim Carrey, all celebrating Garry’s genius.

There are only 3 women in the film: Linda Doucett, who is either crying or holding back tears throughout; Sarah Silverman, who first came to prominence on Larry Sanders and was the lone, cheerful female on Garry’s b-ball court; and Kathy Griffin, as a blink-or-you’ll-miss-her friend/fan.

The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling is as much about the director as it is about the subject. Apatow is determined to find out why this generous mentor with such a brilliant comic mind was so tortured, and maybe he’s just plain curious as to why Garry singled him out.

It’s not always an easy film to watch, but do yourself a favor and stick with it. Not only will you learn who Judd Apatow’s Garry was, but you’ll get to see Kevin Nealon’s flat-out hysterical eulogy at Shandling’s memorial.

Janis Hirsch is a TV comedy writer. Still.