An Encounter With, and Appreciation of, Garry Shandling

Matt Roush
Garry Shandling
Karl Walter/GettyImages

The one time I visited the set of Garry Shandling's brilliantly groundbreaking The Larry Sanders Show, in anticipation of the show's fourth season in 1995, the star's trademark obsessive anxieties were on full display.

After a take, he turned to his observer to nervously query, "Is Seinfeld coming back in the fall?" (A joke; it was then TV's top-rated sitcom.) He kvetched about his performance: "Sometimes I'm so down on my acting that I sulk all the way till we shoot the next scene," and later confessed, "Any time a writer comes on the set, I like to blurt out, 'Wouldn't you rather be on Seinfeld?'," which filmed on the same lot. (Answer: Not really.)

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When that episode's guest star Rob Lowe arrived, Shandling greeted him with a dry, "Rob … or (brother) Chad?" It was hard to tell whether Garry or Larry was speaking.

This remarkable actor-writer-comedian, who died suddenly March 24 at 66, perfected a persona of neurotic self-deprecation in his stand-up comedy, Woody Allen by way of George Burns, which he then turned into a fine art that famously blurred the lines between TV fiction and reality, paving a darkly comic path for the likes of Curb Your Enthusiasm, 30 Rock and Louie.

In his innovative breakthrough 1980s Showtime comedy It's Garry's Shandling's Show, the former writer for Sanford and Son and Welcome Back, Kotter obliterated the fourth wall, turning the traditional sitcom on its head as he acknowledged the artifice of his absurdist misadventures. Writing for TV Guide Magazine in 1987, Larry Gelbart (M*A*S*H) praised Shandling and his show for its "restless energy, an impatience with predictability, a gleeful assault on convention, a willingness, a need to experiment."

Shandling was just getting started. Having become a favorite of Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, where he regularly guest-hosted, he was wooed to replace David Letterman at NBC and follow him in late-late night on CBS. Instead, he created a searing classic about a fake late-night talk-show host who would become one of TV's most unforgettable characters.

HBO's acclaimed The Larry Sanders Show (1992-98) was Shandling's bitterly hilarious ahead-of-its-time mockumentary exposing not only the ego-driven insecurities and hypocrisies of show business, with celebrity guests from Carol Burnett to Jim Carrey parodying themselves as monsters when the camera went dark, but also the human condition. "We're using a talk show not just to look at the inside workings of television, but to act as a metaphor for everybody's experience of how people act one way to your face and another behind your back," Shandling told us in 1992.

Deep stuff from a comedian who was serious about life, known to practice Zen meditation daily. "I am very dedicated to a spiritual path. So I weigh all the decisions I make in my career against this," he said in a 1993 TV Guide interview.

A popular host of the Grammys (four times) and Emmys (three times, once as co-host), Shandling became something of a cult figure in later years, appearing in movie cameos (Zoolander, Iron Man 2) and playing himself in The X-Files in 2000 as Hollywood's version of Fox Mulder—a witty response to David Duchovny's recurring appearances on Larry Sanders as a seriously smitten guest.

One of his final gigs was in a January installment of Jerry Seinfeld's streaming series, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, ghoulishly titled "It's Great That Garry Shandling Is Still Alive." Reflecting on lost friends including Robin Williams, Shandling mordantly joked: "What I want at my funeral is an actual boxing referee to do a count, and at 5 just wave it off and say he's not getting up."

Seriously, who wouldn't want to go a few more rounds with the great Garry Shandling?