Sunday, January 28, 2007

Hey Now: It's Garry Shandling's Obsession

Garry Shandling and Jeffrey Tambor in The Larry Sanders Show

The New York Times
Published: January 28, 2007

IT was almost nine years ago that Larry Sanders, the fictional talk-show host who was a too-close-for-comfort amalgam of Johnny Carson, David Letterman, Jay Leno and Jack Paar, signed off the air. In the final episode of his show (and of the biting HBO series that bore the same name), he perched Carsonesque on a stool in front of a blue curtain and started his farewell monologue.

“To you at home, thank you so much,” he began, choking up. Regaining his composure, he returned his gaze to the audience and continued, “To tell you the truth, I don’t know exactly what I’m going to do without you.”

Larry wasn’t just losing his talk show; he was losing a nightly ego boost, and the security of a shimmering curtain that kept the real world at bay. But what of Garry Shandling, the comedian who not only played Larry but created him and “The Larry Sanders Show”? After a six-year run, what would either of them do without it?

“The Larry Sanders Show” had always straddled a fine line between reality and fiction, with Mr. Shandling encouraging the actors and writers to draw on their own experiences to send up the most unappealing aspects of Hollywood culture. Thus an endless stream of celebrities were recruited to play cartoonish versions of themselves, whether it was Ellen DeGeneres having a fling with Larry while Hollywood buzzed about her sexuality, or Alec Baldwin sleeping with Larry’s wife while the couple were separated, only to be booked later as one of Larry’s guests.

But while the actor and his main character shared more than a few awkward insecurities, Mr. Shandling had never pursued that nightly fix of entertaining millions. As a regular substitute host on “The Tonight Show” in the 1980s, he could have tried to succeed Mr. Carson and was later offered Mr. Letterman’s old job. He declined.

Nonetheless that final “Larry Sanders” monologue proved prescient: Mr. Shandling, now 57, has never entirely moved on. Unlike Jerry Seinfeld, whose television series ended that same spring, Mr. Shandling has not done a stand-up tour. And unlike Bill Cosby, whose “Cosby Show” signed off NBC in 1992 only to be succeeded by “Cosby” on CBS, he has not pursued another series. Meanwhile, as “Larry Sanders” fades from memory, shows like “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Entourage” on HBO, and “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” and “30 Rock” on NBC, have tried to replicate the show-business realism that Mr. Shandling did first and, arguably, best.

Save for two gigs as host of the Emmy Awards and scattered movie roles, Mr. Shandling has kept a low profile. “It’s very similar to — what is it? — the seven stages of grieving,” he said recently, during the first extended interview he had granted in several years. “First there’s the shock,” he said, at ease in a soft leather chair in his living room. “Now I’m going to head for something funny here. Then there’s denial, acceptance and,” he paused, “masturbation.”

As it turns out, the wrenching process of producing as many as 18 episodes a season was so grueling for Mr. Shandling — who was not only the star but also the head writer and so-called show runner — that he never really gave the show a proper goodbye. Meanwhile, in the midst of ending the show, he filed a spectacular lawsuit against his manager, Brad Grey, whom he accused of cheating him.

Hence there was no real wrap party for the cast, and even years later Mr. Shandling was still too exhausted to contribute much to a DVD of episodes from the first season. “It was unfortunate the show couldn’t end with a higher spirit,” he said.

These days Mr. Shandling seems more settled. He spends much of his time boxing (four times a week) or in periodic pickup basketball games at his home. He is financially secure, at least partly as a result of his settlement with Mr. Grey, valued by Mr. Shandling’s lawyer at more than $10 million. His bushy brown hair, so memorable from his early “Tonight” appearances, remains full but is now close-cropped; his face is tan and taut. And he has sought peace in a place Larry never would: the study of Zen Buddhism. He meditates on long, solitary trips to Hawaii or around his sprawling home, with its sloping backyard overlooking a canyon.

“My sense is that this has been a time for Garry of introspection, and, it sounds funny to say about a comedian or comic actor, of real spiritual growth,” said Peter Tolan, a writer and producer who was his longtime collaborator on the show. “He’s in a better place than when we were doing the show.”

Still, Mr. Shandling has lately been tugged by a powerful, almost obsessive desire to go back and revisit the breadth of his “Larry Sanders’’ experience, for the purpose, he said, of finding out both who he was then and how he might give the show, and his role in it, a fitting ending. His vehicle: a DVD set, drawn from all six seasons of “Larry Sanders,” to be released by Sony Pictures on April 17.

Other performers might be content to put out such packages with a few sweeteners, maybe some outtakes and running commentary from the star. But Mr. Shandling has never been like other performers. More than a year ago he set out, hand-held camera crew in tow, to interview virtually everyone connected to the show. There are the series regulars, including Jeffrey Tambor, who played Hank Kingsley (“hey now!”), Larry’s eager-to-please yet quick-to-lash-out sidekick, and Rip Torn, who played Artie, Larry’s fiercely protective executive producer. Mr. Shandling’s camera also found many of the A-list guest stars whom he had goaded into cameos on the original show, including Mr. Seinfeld, Mr. Baldwin, Sharon Stone, David Duchovny, Carol Burnett, Jon Stewart and Tom Petty.

Thus the DVD’s title, “Not Just the Best of the Larry Sanders Show,” and its length: four discs, despite containing just 23 episodes.

Mr. Shandling concedes that these recorded conversations — which are presented largely unedited, with awkward silences and plenty of mistakes — are at least partly self-congratulatory. Taken as a whole the treatment is also expansive, exhaustive and at times exhausting, with Mr. Shandling’s new material (including a documentary) adding up to nearly eight hours.

But the results are, in many instances, riveting. There are some good casting stories: Ms. Burnett, for example, tells how Mr. Shandling persuaded her to be a guest and to play against her clean-cut image. (On the talk-show-within-a-show, she warns Larry that the loincloth costume he’s wearing isn’t covering what it needs to cover.) And Bruno Kirby, whom Larry memorably “bumped” from the last episode, made an appearance as well — his last, it turned out, before he died last summer.

But to those who watch them carefully — and Mr. Shandling hasn’t a clue whether anyone will — the interviews are also striking for his efforts to make amends. He apologizes to some of the best-known people in Hollywood for having failed to thank them for their service on “Larry Sanders,” and for largely allowing them to drift from his life in the years since.

It is as if the drama club president has returned to high school, a decade after graduating, to find out what his classmates and teachers really thought of him, while also telling them he was sorry if he occasionally passed them in the corridor without saying hello. Mr. Shandling has a slightly darker analogy.

“What’s that old adage, you don’t hear nice things until the funeral?” he said. “I wanted to objectively see the realities of that time. What was I like? What were my relationships like, with the actors and writers? What did they feel?”

Thus the viewer gets to listen in as Mr. Shandling apologizes for not reciprocating when Mr. Baldwin promised to send a gift after his cameo appearance, and later for losing Mr. Baldwin’s cellphone number. This scene of self-reckoning takes place in a boxing gym.

“I thought you really extended yourself,” Mr. Shandling says, as his hands are being wrapped outside the ring. “I did not appropriately extend myself back. I’d like to. ...”

“Make it up to me by coming in here and smacking me in the face a few times?” Mr. Baldwin says, leaning against the ropes.

Mr. Shandling responds, “I’m going to allow you to hit me so hard that I don’t have to. ... ”

“Work again for the next five years?” Mr. Baldwin interjects.

No, Mr. Shandling says, “ ...finish these DVDs.” Mr. Baldwin eventually gets fairly pummeled by the better-trained Mr. Shandling, while the two somehow conduct a meaningful conversation about comedy.

It is hard of course for anyone to be genuine with a camera trained on him, but an exchange that raw would never find its way onto Jay Leno’s “Tonight,” or even Bravo’s “Inside the Actors Studio.”

The most voyeuristic moment on the DVD, however, probably comes when Mr. Shandling sits down in a production office to talk to Linda Doucett. On the show she played Hank’s secretary, Darlene, but in real life she was Mr. Shandling’s fiancée, at least for a time. After the engagement ended, she was fired, and in 1996 she sued Mr. Shandling, along with Mr. Grey’s company, for sexual harassment and wrongful termination. Mr. Shandling and Ms. Doucett eventually reached a settlement, but last March she told The New York Times that he had warned her that Mr. Grey once considered putting Anthony Pellicano, the private investigator now under federal investigation, on her case.

In the interview Ms. Doucett is teary as she and Mr. Shandling openly discuss their relationship. “It’s really perfect for ‘Larry Sanders,’ ” he said, “and perfect for the DVD and, I suppose, perfect for my life that I’m able to have captured the nature of this personal relationship on tape.” (He said he would have nothing to say about the Pellicano matter, “until it’s finished.”)

Perhaps appropriately, the four discs end with Mr. Shandling in idle conversation with a Vietnamese monk, who is seeking to explain the meaning of a particular Buddhist statue.

“So always extend compassion,” Mr. Shandling is heard saying to the monk, Hanh Nguyen, who interrupts him to add, “Love and compassion to all sentient beings.”

“Even for the enemy,” Mr. Shandling adds, sounding like a post-enlightenment Larry.

The monk responds: “Sure. The true enemy is ignorance.”

GARRY SHANDLING’S humor always had the neurotic shadings of someone raised a summer weekend’s drive from the borscht belt, but he actually grew up in Tucson. His family had moved there from Chicago because the dry climate better suited his older brother, Barry, who suffered from cystic fibrosis.

Barry died when Garry was 10. “I was devastated,” Mr. Shandling recalled. “I remember starting to cry in the schoolyard. I didn’t quite know how to deal with it. I think there was some damage in that.”

His comedic awakening came in his early teens, when he watched “Hot Dog,” a children’s show that, in this particular episode, featured an appearance by Woody Allen. “Here he is, this kid in Arizona, he’s not in New York,” Mr. Shandling recalled, “and while being Jewish, he’s not at all Jewish in the traditional sense, of a noisy Jewish household. And suddenly he sees Woody Allen, and he relates.”

He went on to study electrical engineering at the University of Arizona, but in his junior year he wrote a monologue in the style of George Carlin. As it turned out, he was able to get it to Mr. Carlin, who read it and encouraged him to pursue a career in comedy. After he sold scripts for “Sanford and Son” and “Welcome Back, Kotter,” his big break came during a “Tonight” appearance in March 1981, in which Carson told viewers: “His name is Garry Shandling. You’ll hear a lot about him.”

In his first sitcom, “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show,” Mr. Shandling frequently broke character to address the camera and even walk into the audience. That experience led directly to “Larry Sanders,” in which he marshaled everything he had seen backstage in Hollywood to produce, in cinéma vérité style, a scripted half-hour comedy intended to show how people really treat one another when the spotlights are off.

For several years now the creative well that fed those efforts seems to have run dry, and instead of mounting something original, he has been content to retrace old steps. Watching him during this period has been somewhat frustrating to some old friends, who believe he is young enough and creative enough to find fresh ways to entertain people.

Mr. Seinfeld, for example, is among those who have been encouraging Mr. Shandling to go back on the road as a stand-up comedian, with an eye toward bringing his act to television. In a recent phone interview Mr. Seinfeld said he understood his friend’s reluctance.

“When you go through this TV thing like he and I did, you make so much, you do so much, you’re kind of overfull at the end,” he said. “You don’t want to write anything. You don’t want to read anybody at an audition.”

“Someone starts pitching you an idea,” he added, “and your head just explodes.”

And yet, Jeffrey Tambor said, the same relentlessness Mr. Shandling displayed on “Larry Sanders” was reassuringly evident in his preparation of the DVD. When Mr. Tambor arrived at Mr. Shandling’s home for a joint interview with Mr. Torn, he was filmed from the time he left his car, so no moment would be lost.

“He’s thrown himself into this like I’ve never seen,” Mr. Tambor said. “Happy go lucky, he ain’t. Heels clicking, he ain’t. But I think he had enormous pride in that show, and I think that continues.”

Told of Mr. Shandling’s various attempts to make amends, Mr. Tambor said: “He certainly doesn’t owe me an apology. He changed my life.”

Nonetheless, by finally putting his “Sanders” experience to bed between the covers of his DVD, Mr. Shandling is hoping that he may finally be able to consider what the next new thing might be. “It certainly didn’t start that way,” he said, “but there is no question that this became a reflective journey that I’m still absorbing.”

One idea he is mulling is working up to a stand-up special, as Mr. Seinfeld and others have urged. Another project would draw from his study of Buddhism and shed further light on “what life is about, what the human condition is about,” maybe a series or documentary. He has yet to divine quite what.

“Usually things become clearer as I get closer to the moment of execution,” he said. And then, because old habits die hard, he added, “That’s not to be confused with Saddam Hussein’s execution.”

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