Unlike Bill Cosby, Roseanne Bar, and Jerry Seinfeld, who shaped my comic sensibilities as a youth, Shandling came along in my adulthood, in my mid-20's, as a seminary student. As a kid I remember The Larry Sanders show winning lots of Emmy's. It was always this mysterious, out-of-reach show on the forbidden (and expensive) HBO. I always thought "boy, they must cuss a lot on that show and the jokes are probably dirtier than I can even imagine." (I was mostly right.) Something about Sanders and the mustachioed goofy guy on there drew me to it though. I catalogued the scenes (which I didn't understand) deep into my mind and waited.
Also somewhere in my youth the theme song to his It's Garry Shandling's Show got lodged in my brain, probably when it ran in re-runs late at night on the Fox network.
Then, in my early 20's, I discovered Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant's The Office (the "British version," and the original). I fell in the love with the show and sought out anything Gervais put out, even following the daily updates on his website. This eventually led to a 2006 interview he did with Shandling. In the interview, which is off-putting but intriguing all the same, Gervais mentions how much The Larry Sanders Show inspired The Office's now famous brand of painfully awkward comic-realism. This was all I needed. I was off to find a way to watch the The Larry Sanders Show.
Problem was, I could not find a DVD release of Larry Sanders anywhere. Thankfully, the gods of Youtube were persistently uploading them all for me. Eventually the entire series bootlegged its way onto someone's Youtube channel and I watched every episode. I do not know if that channel still exists, but full episodes are still available, though I would not recommend them (the audio is all high for some reason). Instead, it is best to watch a few clips (of which there are many), wade into Shandling's genre-altering style, and get ready to acquaint yourself with some of the most iconic television character's ever created (mainly Jeffrey Tambor's Hank Kingsley and Rip Torn's Artie):
Immerse yourself in the rhythms of Larry Sanders and you will soon realize how utterly painful Shandling's comedy is. The narratives pulled on and drew out every moment to the emotional near breaking point. It took every weakness of its characters and gleefully exposed them. Larry Sanders was raw and ugly and awkward and one of the most comedically honest shows ever made. Even The Office and Gervais' next show Extras, for all their brilliance, did not manage to as consistently capture the barren depths of the human psyche as Sanders did. What Gervais and other "mockumentary" style shows seem to miss is that Shandling intentionally focused his jokes on the truth of his characters. The jokes always revealed more about them as people and always resulted in actual consequences for them. The jokes were funnier (and more painful) because of how they were connected to the characters and their narratives. Shandling never let the humor venture into the mere "are you having a laugh?" territory, if you will pardon the expression.
Shandling's status as a comic legend is a testament to what we like about comedians: their presence lingers on in our lives because we love their idiosyncratic personalities—that is, we love them as people, even if from a distance. We need to find all public artists endearing, but comedians are in the strange position of actually seeming to speak to their audiences in a one-to-one private conversation though they are on a stage. It is intimate while also communal. Shandling's presence has stuck with us for years, despite not being in the public eye much recently. Added to that, he holds a special place in the hearts of many comics, whom he influenced personally, as evidenced by the mass amount of memorials this past week.
But Shandling's personality is a strange one. He could be very kind and loving, but he was also pretty prickly. Like many comedians, the persona he created on his shows was an exaggeration of real life and in Shandling's case he was socially awkward, narcissistic, whiny, controlling, and a bit of a hypochondriac. But he is beloved despite his quirks and downfalls. His comedy and personality was wry, holding you at an emotional arm's length, but he was also always winking at us, inviting us in to the way he saw the world, to the joke he was making out of it. He did not really know how to let people in emotionally, unless it was through a joke—the laugh is what he could mutually share with us.
Garry Shandling died last week and I am really sad about it. His presence will be missed. But if we are all being honest, we have been missing his presence for quite some time already. I was somewhat perplexed to read about how little Shandling worked after Sanders ended. Apart from the goofy What Planet Are You From, Shandling never really put out another work of his own making. His output just...stopped. Shandling gave a little insight into this lack of output in his recent interview with Pete Holmes, but I have been wondering for quite some time "Where has Garry Shandling gone?" Still, his presence lingers on in my life...
The past week has brought out a number of tributes and interviews and I would like to compile them and share them here. The greatest tribute you can ever give to a great artist is to immerse yourself in their work. I invite you to do so.
Garry Shandling on Marc Maron's WTF:
Garry Shandling on Pete Holmes' You Made It Weird:
Garry Shandling on Jerry Seinfeld's Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee:
Conan O'briens tribute:
Shandling on Charlie Rose: