Garry Shandling was a pioneer of TV’s second Golden Age. In 1986, his surreal sitcom It’s Garry Shandling’s Show debuted on Showtime, back in the days when the broadcast networks ruled and pay-cable was thought of as career exile. It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, which ran until 1990, found stand-up comedian Shandling playing a sitcom version of himself; he frequently broke the fourth wall to directly address viewers, much like another TV pioneer, George Burns, did on The Burns and Allen Show in the ’50s. With episodes broadcast on fledgling Fox a week after they ran on Showtime, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show created just enough buzz to convince viewers that something weird and wonderful was happening on cable, and maybe it was worth paying for.
Between It’s Garry Shandling’s Show and the masterpiece that followed, HBO’s mock-talk show The Larry Sanders Show, Garry Shandling was responsible for some of the most inventive and influential TV of the 1980’s and ’90’s. These two shows were instrumental in changing pay-cable’s image from a purveyor of uncut feature films to a source of original programming that colored outside the lines of broadcast TV.
Even if you’ve never seen either show, you’ve seen their influence. Following a couple of years in the wake of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, Seinfeld had a similar neurotic-comedian-playing-himself premise and subversive/quirky comic tone (writers Tom Gammill and Max Pross got their start on It’s Garry Shandling’s Show). Larry David’s later Curb Your Enthusiasm, with its star and celebrity guests playing versions of themselves, hearkens back to both of Shandling’s shows. And Ricky Gervais’s The Office worked both the broken fourth wall angle of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show and the uncomfortably awkward emotional tone of Larry Sanders. Among the now-familiar writers and actors who came to prominence working on Shandling’s series are Judd Apatow, Jeffrey Tambor, Bob Odenkirk, Mary Lynn Rajskub and Jeremy Piven. Shandling’s two shows jump-started what we now know as the modern TV comedy sensibility — self-reflexive, not afraid to make viewers squirm, with the punchlines unpredictable if there at all.
In a column written for Salon at the end of 1999, I listed The Larry Sanders Show as one of the decade’s most groundbreaking TV shows; it further blurred the boundaries between TV and reality and commented on the pervasiveness of TV in our culture and emotional lives. Shandling’s Larry Sanders was an insecure, egotistical, paranoid late-night talk show host, aloof as Johnny Carson (for whom Shandling often subbed in real life as host of The Tonight Show), self-loathing as David Letterman and viciously competitive as Jay Leno. Forget psychodrama, I wrote, this was psychocomedy: “Life was a talk show for the emotionally frozen Larry, who couldn’t relate to other humans without a camera running; his producer and father figure Artie (Rip Torn, in one of the most brilliant performances of the decade) called him ‘half-man, half-desk’.”
The Larry Sanders Show was a pitch-dark comedy about Hollywood at its ugliest, where ratings equalled love and everything in Larry’s world came down to maintaining his perch at the top of the celebrity food chain. In the jerk behavior of guests playing themselves on the talk-show-within-a-talk show (Roseanne Barr, Alec Baldwin, Robin Williams, Jon Stewart and David Duchovny are a few of those who appeared) and in the brutal carelessness with which passive-aggressive Larry treated his sad-sack on-air sidekick Hank Kingsley (an unforgettable Tambor), Larry Sanders anticipated the train wreck appeal of reality TV. And Shandling’s layered performance as a complicated monster who you can’t help cutting slack might have helped ease viewers into the mindset needed to appreciate Tony Soprano when HBO unveiled The Sopranos a year after Larry Sanders‘ final episode.
Even Larry’s talk-show catch phrase — “No flipping,” said directly to the camera while miming a TV remote as the feed cuts to a commercial — commented on the enormous changes TV was undergoing in the ’90s. Before cable and remotes, there weren’t enough channels to even make it worth flipping.
As I wrote in a Salon column about the end of Larry Sanders, “Some of the show’s funniest and sharpest moments — and some of its saddest and most intimate — came when Larry watched himself on the tube. Nothing else turned him on this way; he was enthralled with, in love with, his TV self. Five hours a week he was Larry Sanders; the rest of the time, he was bored with himself for being human. The paradox of Larry Sanders is this: A show about people too damn famous to have feelings was the one comedy on TV that could make you cry.”
In real life, Shandling was more introspective (he practiced Buddhism for much of his life) than his TV alter ego. After Larry Sanders ended, Shandling kept a low profile, appearing in the occasional movie (Iron Man 2, Dr. Dolittle). He was a recent guest on close friend Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee; ironically, the episode is titled “It’s Great that Garry Shandling Is Still Alive.” His death from a suspected heart attack Thursday at age 66 stunned his fellow comedians, friends and fans. If you care at all about TV’s history, do whatever you can to see full episodes of Shandling’s two series, and give a pioneer his due.
©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2016