Did anyone mine self-deprecation and self-loathing for comic gold more brilliantly than Garry Shandling?
The legendary comedian died Thursday and he leaves behind an army of comics and a number of television series influenced by his style (from both versions of The Office to Arrested Development, 30 Rock and more); culturally, it’s a loss of tragic proportion.
Shandling was already a successful stand-up comic and Tonight Show guest host before creating the two shows that are now his legacy — It’s Garry Shandling’s Show (1986 to 1990 on Showtime) and The Larry Sanders Show (1992 to 1998 on HBO).
The former was a groundbreaking meta-send-up of a situation comedy, breaking the fourth wall and being as self-aware and “on” as could be executed and endured — which paved the way for the searingly funny and wildly creative latter series, which will go down as one of the all-time greats and cemented Shandling’s well-honed persona of crippling self-doubt coupled with raging narcissism in the public’s mind.
If It’s Garry Shandling’s Show seemed subversive and anarchic and weird (it was), that was just the test run for The Larry Sanders Show, which, even before Shandling’s death, was widely considered one of the all-time greats. As deaths often do, Shandling’s puts an exclamation mark on that sentiment.
Of course, if you wanted to immerse yourself in Shandling’s signature style, you’d have to take in and experience it all: the stand-up years; his excellent hosting of The Tonight Show (he really was a great listener and put everyone at ease and teed-up a lot of jokes for others); his guesting on The Tonight Show (or any talk show, for that matter), where his uncomfortable stories — he always seemed to be wincing as he told them, his lips front and center, his brilliantly aware faux-nervous glances darting — were often capped by right-to-the-camera punch lines.
It wasn’t for everybody — Shandling seemed to make some people nervous — but people who got him loved him. He was both a comic’s comic and broad enough to host the Emmys; he was always at his best playing off of others, whether it was David Duchovny on The Larry Sanders Show or his most recent appearance with Jerry Seinfeld on the latter’s online Crackle series, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee (even though it was tagged with the now unfortunate title “It’s Great That Garry Shandling Is Still Alive” — though you’d have to think that Shandling himself would have thought it was impeccably perfect).
To see him make Seinfeld, or any other comedian, laugh was to understand how much they enjoyed his navigating a funny moment, his ability to play off their bits to enhance his own, to make them crack up at his verbal dexterity.
But if you can only watch Shandling in one environment, it should definitely be on The Larry Sanders Show. The temptation after a prominent death is to say something or someone was better or funnier or more influential than it or he or she really was, but that series is almost universally considered a slice of genius. And if you watch it, you know why — because it channeled all of Shandling’s humor into his intellectually charged spoof of the industry he was in (the one in which he wasn’t really going to be the guy who succeeded Johnny Carson, even though he was once the “permanent guest host”; the one in which Shandling fully understood why that was — not mainstream enough, not good looking enough, full of weird tics — and he was able to build an alternate version of what could have been, making it infinitely funnier than it probably would have ever been in real life).
We’re certainly better off having both It’s Garry Shandling’s Show and The Larry Sanders Show than we’d have been with Shandling taking over The Tonight Show or launching his own real-life version of some other chat fest on Fox. The savage wit and keen perception that went into Larry Sanders was always better than what Garry Shandling would have been allowed to deliver.
On Larry Sanders, he could send up celebrities and play both a preeningly confident host in one scene and then fear that Jon Stewart was going to replace him in the next. He could undermine his looks with wincing self-laceration, then play scenes where the ladies wanted him. Larry could be cynical about the entire industry backstage and then suck up to it as the fictional host after the commercial break. His “No flipping!” reminder to not change the channel at the commercial break is a classic, as is Larry’s co-host Hank (Jeffrey Tambor) saying “Hey now!” in a wink to you know who and you know what.
The Larry Sanders Show knew what the hell was up with the world of entertainment.
And the people who were associated with that gem — Tambor, Rip Torn, Bob Odenkirk, Scott Thompson, Janeane Garofalo, Jeremy Piven, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Penny Johnson, Wallace Langham and others — were a testament to the talent that fueled it. Larry Sanders was the show about show business that everybody knew was dead-on accurate and executed with hilarious precision. You could do great work making fun of yourself (and others) on that show.
It will live on (with It’s Garry Shandling’s Show) as an apt legacy for a man who played the outsider so exquisitely it gave him the chance to be the ultimate insider.