Friday, March 25, 2016

How Garry Shandling became the godfather of spoof sitcoms

The comedian, actor and talk-show host Garry Shandling died yesterday of a heart attack at the age of 66. Here Jonathan Bernstein salutes Shandling's pioneering role as the father of the spoof sitcom and arguably, the man who inspired The Office
25 March 2016

Peter Tolan, left, and Garry Shandling pose with their Emmy awards for outstanding writing for a comedy series award for The Larry Sanders Show at the 50th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards in Los Angeles
Peter Tolan, left, and Garry Shandling pose with their Emmy awards for outstanding writing for a comedy series award for The Larry Sanders Show at the 50th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards in Los Angeles CREDIT: AP
In the 1980s, the BBC was haphazard in its scheduling of American imports. Sometimes shows would appear in the dead of night, sometimes in early evening, only to vanish mid-run, never to be seen again. The cult sitcom, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, which BBC Two aired in 1986, suffered a typical fate. But for the small, devoted audience who made the effort to follow its unpredictable movements, the rewards were monumental.

Most UK viewers were unaware Chicago-born Shandling had been, by the age of 27, a seasoned sitcom writer with Sanford & Son and Welcome Back Kotter among his credits. We didn’t know about his regular stint as guest host when Johnny Carson took one of his hiatuses from The Tonight Show. Shandling was considered a shoo-in to make over the job on a permanent basis when Carson finally bowed out.
We just knew Shandling from his playing an exaggerated, self-parodying version of himself as the neurotic, narcissistic star of a sitcom about being in a sitcom. The tone of the show was set by its cheery title song: “This is the theme to Garry’s show, the opening theme to Garry’s show, this is the music that they play when they run the credits…”
Shandling's spoof version of himself evolved into a seperate but ultimately very similar standalone character – Larry Sanders – who was the central role in 1992’s HBO comedy The Larry Sanders Show. Sanders was still neurotic, still worried about his hair and still desperate for the audience’s love. But by now, Shandling, who had rejected several offers for his own talk show and was intimately familiar with what the profession did to the soul of its most famous practitioners, was determined to dig deeper into this comic persona by playing Sanders.
Shandling’s creation was an emotionally stunted, capricious, charismatic monster, only fully alive when sitting behind his desk: the only sustainable relationship in his life with the audience that guffawed at his jokes.
During the series' six-year run, Shandling was relentless in portraying Sanders in as candid and unflattering fashion as possible while always showing his vulnerability and pain. The show, which had hit a creative resurgence during a story arc in which Sanders feared being replaced by the younger, more demographically desirable Jon Stewart, ended prematurely due to a legal dispute between Shandling and producer Brad Grey.
While the cultural references that pepper every episode of The Larry Sanders Show may have dated, the anxiety and ambivalence Shandling brought to the character remain hugely influential. Certainly, it’s hard to imagine Ricky Gervais penning as much as a comma without prolonged exposure to a Sanders box-set. (Gervais interviewed Shandling for a 2006 Channel 4 special in which Shandling’s disdain for Gervais was so palpable it was virtually a third participant.)
Shandling’s post-Sanders work – the unloved What Planet Are You From?; supporting parts in buddy Warren Beatty’s movies; turning up as Senator Stern in Marvel's Iron Man 2 and Captain America: The Winter Soldier – didn’t diminish his stature, so much as they increased the appetite for Shandling’s eventual third act.
During an appearance earlier this year on Jerry Seinfeld’s web series Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee, Shandling revealed that he had been struggling with health issues, specifically a hyper parathyroid gland that had gone undiagnosed. He died yesterday at age 66 from a massive heart attack.
Following his death yesterday, among the massed ranks of comedy luminaries eulogising Shandling, his protégé, Trainwreck and Knocked Up director Judd Apatow, found a pitch perfect way to address the loss: “Garry would see the ridiculousness of me being asked to sum up his life five minutes after being told of his passing. It is a perfect, ridiculous Larry Sanders moment.”

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