Zen and the Art of the Jump Shot: What I Learned From Garry Shandling (Guest Column)

Garry Shandling Lakers Game - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of Suli McCullough

The late comedy legend met actor/writer Suli McCullough on the set of 'The Larry Sanders Show.' Now, in advance of a new documentary, McCollough reminisces about Shandling's secret backyard basketball games, his Zen outlook and the time he passed on a Jimmy Fallon 'Tonight Show' bit.

On Monday, March 26, HBO will air the first part of The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling, Judd Apatow's documentary about the influential Larry Sanders Show creator and star, who died unexpectedly of a heart attack in March 2016 at age 66. Suli McCullough, who met Shandling while guest starring on that show and became a close confidante, shares his own memories here of the comedian.

My name is Suli McCullough. I’m a 50-year-old comedian, writer, actor, producer and father. I had the exceptional privilege of writing with my friend and mentor Garry Shandling.

It’s hard to believe it’s been almost two years since we lost him. We were supposed to write together at noon the day he died. I had just made it to the front of the line at the coffee shop near his home in Brentwood, about to order his venti black coffee with three espresso shots, when my phone started ringing. It was my daughter, Kennedy. She asked, “Are you OK?” “Yeah, I’m about to write with Garry. I’m just grabbing his coffee.” She paused, then said, “Dad…you didn’t hear? Garry died this morning.”

The news was devastating. He was like a brother. At the time of his death, we were quietly working on stand-up material for a comedy special and a TV series idea based on his journals, tentatively titled Halfway to Hawaii. Garry would often sum this show up by saying, “It’s not about me…but then again, it is!”

I first met Garry in 1997, the same year my daughter was born. I guest starred on The Larry Sanders Show. The title of the episode: “Pain Equals Funny.” I played a writer. (A decade later, thanks in part to Barack Obama securing the Democratic nomination, I would be hired as a monologue writer on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno. It was a case of art imitating life.)

Garry and I immediately hit it off. At first we connected by a mutual admiration of Muhammad Ali, which led to a deep discussion about race relations in America. Our talk was the opposite of one of those patronizing, “So, do think O.J. was guilty?” conversations. Garry had genuine empathy regarding the difficulty of being black in Hollywood and in America. I remember him saying, “Man, I wish I would have met you earlier. We could have explored some of these things on the show.” Garry Shandling was “woke” long before that was a thing.

Eventually, I was invited to play in his famous Sunday basketball game. Garry’s house became my oasis. It was the perfect combination of monastery meets bachelor pad. Spanish style, mixed with Buddhist influences and Southwest art, there was a healing quality about it. His backyard 3-on-3 hoop games were friendly — yet far more competitive than you’d think. In attendance was David Duchovny, who played junior varsity at Princeton; Adam Sandler, who played like New York Knicks power-forward Charles Oakley, throwing elbows and using his chunky frame to clear space; Kevin Nealon was 6-foot-4, enjoyed “mixing it up” in the paint and made impossible shots; director Adam McKay 6’ 5”, a crafty, Zydrunas Ilgauskas-type; and at 6’ 1”, comedy writer Chris Henchy, simply known as “Freight Train.” With so many brilliant comic minds on the court, your wit and intellect was just as important as your hoop skills.

From left: Suli McCullough, hair and makeup stylist Bruce Grayson, Garry Shandling, Kevin Nealon and Breckin Meyer at one of Shandling's Sunday basketball games.

Garry had a few simple rules: You weren’t allowed to talk about the game outside his home, or show business inside it. Garry wanted his Sunday game to be a sanctuary from Hollywood. Sarah Silverman called it “Camp Garry.” To me, it was a very neurotic Fight Club.

“People will come into your life to help you stay on path or try to pull you off.” — Garry Shandling

Garry frequently stressed the importance of staying on path. It was a core belief. If he felt you were willing to do the work, he openly shared his gifts. He believed good friends should never tolerate mediocrity in one another. Garry was most happy when people evolved. One day he asked me, “Have you devoted yourself to finding the deepest truth of your own existence?” This was a call to action.

He believed in incorporating all aspects of mind, body and spirit into his creative process. Sometimes he’d call to confirm our writing time and say, “I’m doing yoga before, and you’re more than welcome to join.” I never considered incorporating this discipline into my writing. Even when you don’t think you’re carrying tension, you are. Yoga was an excellent building block for writing comedy. It freed us both up to be our most creative selves.

When it came to writing comedy, Garry mined for material from a very personal place. Everything he did was anchored by a deeper sense of purpose. Even his current-events jokes felt personal. If Garry agreed to appear on TV, he required a valid and compelling reason for doing so. If he didn’t feel he had this reason, it was going to be a failure.

They wanted Garry to do a cameo on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon. For the bit, Jimmy would begin doing his monologue but suddenly become distracted. Jimmy would then explain to the audience that he was having a problem focusing and needed some help. Then Garry would come out and finish the joke. Simple enough. But Garry really grappled with the premise because for him, appearing on The Tonight Show was more about his authentic relationship with Jimmy Fallon. And if Jimmy needed his help, Garry really wanted to provide it for him. Garry reworked the bit, where he tried to help Jimmy discover the real reason behind why he couldn’t do his monologue. Garry’s version was so much more than a simple cameo — it was a hilarious therapy session. But Fallon’s people were eager to do the bit how it was originally conceived. Garry passed on the opportunity.

I think Garry was at a crossroads in his final years of life. He was dealing with tormenting health issues (he was feeling exhausted and doctors couldn’t figure out why), questioning getting older (something that began early on in his life — I think after his 10th birthday), and determining what he wanted professionally moving forward. He was seriously entertaining the idea of buying a place in Hawaii — which is where Halfway to Hawaii got its name. I wish he would have. I always got excited for him whenever he was in Hawaii. That seemed to be where he felt most charged. You heard it in his voice. I think he needed the freedom Hawaii provided him to explore without interruption. To wander without being lost.

Garry gave me two books a few weeks before he passed: The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hahn and The Way of the Superior Man by David Deida. One travels in my backpack; I keep the other by my bed. The Way of the Superior Man is a spiritual guide to mastering the challenges of relationships, work and sexual desire. (All the things that can trip you up if you aren’t mindful.) I’ve read each twice already. They’re my fire extinguishers: Break open in case of emergency. Both books are a fantastic representation of who Garry was at the core.

Garry Shandling's backyard half-court at his Brentwood home.

The last time I saw Garry was two days before his death. We wrote that afternoon. As I began packing up for the day, he said, “Hey! Do you want to go for a quick hike?” “Yeah, sure!” After 20 years of friendship, I knew this was one of those “be present” moments. We drove up the hill to the Westridge Trail in Brentwood. On our hike, we talked about the books, along with a few other things. At some point, Garry got tired and sat down. He joked, “Now if I end up falling down this mountain, don’t try to catch me.” I laughed, but in hindsight, his joke may have been his way of letting me know he was on his way out. He sat there for a bit, then we headed back to the car.

A few months after his death, I was driving around L.A. feeling restless and unsettled. I was struggling to figure out why I was out of balance and what I could do to reset myself. Then it hit me: “The hike!” That was Garry’s last gift to me. I drove back up the hill to the trailhead and felt gratified for his extraordinary friendship.