Jerry Seinfeld & Garry Shandling on 'Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee'
The late Garry Shandling, who died on Thursday, in Los Angeles, at age sixty-six, was not just one of the most influential comedy writers and performers of the past few decades but one of the most beloved. There was perhaps more love—real, uncomplicated love—for Shandling among his fellow-comedians than there was for anyone else. They respected and admired him as a comedian, of course; his standup and two shows, “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show” and “The Larry Sanders Show,” were intelligent, honest, and groundbreaking. But Shandling was also a kind and empathetic person in a comedy world in which those qualities rarely come in uncomplicated packages, if at all.
When Shandling appeared on “WTF with Marc Maron,” in 2011, Maron, introducing him, was full of expectation, to an unusual degree. “For some reason, I think that he’s a Buddha,” Maron said. “For some reason, I think that he has some information for me that I need to know. I think I have this weird void because my father was this angry, detached, self-involved dude.” Maron had been looking for a father figure, he said, and there was a part of him that wanted that, or insight, from Shandling. “I feel myself wanting some wisdom,” Maron said. Even if many comedians weren’t necessarily looking for a parent, they appreciated Shandling on a personal and spiritual level. It wasn’t that he provided anyone with certainty but that he was calm and reassuring within life’s uncertainty.
Shandling was born in Chicago and grew up in Arizona. His father was a successful print-shop owner, and his mother, who ran a pet store, was famously smothering. (“She wanted me to have kids, but not with another woman,” he said on “WTF,” repeating a joke from his act.) When he was nineteen, during college at the University of Arizona, he showed some jokes to George Carlin, who was appearing at a club in Phoenix. Carlin told him that he had funny stuff on every page and should keep at it. After college, Shandling moved to Los Angeles. He wrote for “Welcome Back, Kotter,” “Sanford and Son,” and “The Harvey Korman Show,” and then turned to standup. He first appeared on “The Tonight Show” in 1981. (“I had dinner last night at a friend of mine’s house, and he has, ah—what do you call those things? A baby.”) In the eighties, he started filling in for Johnny Carson as a guest host, an experience that became fodder for “The Larry Sanders Show.”
Shandling never married. He liked to make self-deprecating jokes about sex, or, as he called it, lovemaking. His first “Tonight Show” set ends on an “It’s a Small World” penis-size joke; on “Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist,” he says that he thinks it’s more important that a couple start at the same time than finish at the same time; when talking to the Times in 2007 about life after “Larry Sanders,” he said that one of the seven stages of grieving was masturbation. One takeaway from these jokes, perhaps, is reassurance that though we are all pathetic and life is ridiculous, cringing together in public helps remove the sting.
Young Shandling was handsome and odd, telegenic and intriguing, with a crown of fluffy hair, eyes that squinted in contemplation and bemusement, and rather puffy lips. When he smiled, he revealed a surprisingly dazzling set of teeth. He looked as if his natural expression was thoughtfulness; the smile seemed to indicate the joy of finding the humor amid the introspection. The audience shared in that joy. In 1984, before doing a gig in Lake Tahoe, he told a young Judd Apatow, who was interviewing him over the phone, “The most important thing a comic can do is write from his insides.” This idea—writing comedy from within, honestly, and not just casting about for jokes—strongly influenced his peers. (In 1993, he hired Apatow to write for “The Larry Sanders Show,” and mentored him. “There is no one who has taught me more or been kinder to me in the comedy world than Garry Shandling,” Apatow writes in his book “Sick in the Head.”)
Shandling and Alan Zweibel co-created “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show” in 1986. It ran on Showtime until 1990. Shandling starred as a standup comedian named Garry Shandling, who knew he was a sitcom character; he lived in a condo like Shandling’s, in the same town. The show’s theme song went, “This is the theme to Garry’s show. . . . Garry called me up and asked if I would write his theme song. . . . This is the music that you hear as you watch the credits.” Shandling broke the fourth wall so thoroughly as to obliterate it.
In 1992, he and Dennis Klein co-created “The Larry Sanders Show,” which ran on HBO until 1998. Among its many innovations, “Larry Sanders” helped popularize a trope that has become ubiquitous: celebrities playing unflattering versions of themselves. In the first season, Sanders books David Spade, a young standup he has helped get his start, only to discover that Spade is appearing on Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show” first, doing the same jokes. When Sanders confronts him, Spade plays innocent and pretends to be naïve and remorseful; he’s later revealed to be a casually smug bastard who is out for himself. The Larry Sanders character was as flawed as the satirized celebrity guests. What made the audience love him was that Shandling’s empathy showed the humanity within. It was clear that the insight required to observe and portray all of these lacerating details came from a singularly sensitive mind.
In 1993, Shandling was offered a late-night talk show on NBC, in David Letterman’s old slot, but he chose instead to keep doing “Larry Sanders”—his own show, in his own format. (Thinking of this now, I find myself mourning the loss of “The Colbert Report,” a more precise and original vehicle for Stephen Colbert’s satirical talents than “The Late Show” has been so far.) The late-late gig in 1993 went to Conan O’Brien.
Last night, on “Conan,” O’Brien paid tribute to Shandling, in a segment that taped a few hours after O’Brien had learned of his death. Shandling was “extremely sensitive, he was complicated, and he had a ton of empathy for other people,” O’Brien said. “That is something that in this business, in comedy, is extremely rare.” O’Brien said that when his “Tonight Show” gig ended—“in this crazy, effed-up, spectacular fashion,” he was shell-shocked, and took a trip to Hawaii with his wife and children, not knowing what to do with himself. Shortly after they arrived, he was alone in his room, feeling bad, and Shandling called—he happened to be staying three doors down.
“I spent the entire week with Garry Shandling,” O’Brien said. “He counselled me, he cheered me up, he told me jokes, he talked to me about philosophy, he told me everything was going to be fine, he talked about how there are bigger things in the world and I was going to be fine, he talked about Eckhart Tolle, all this amazing stuff,” O’Brien said. One afternoon, they took a long walk. “We climbed over lava formations, we went through a cave,” they found a strip of sand and lay down and watched the sun go down. O’Brien said, “I turned to him and I said, ‘Garry, this is the most romantic moment of my life, and it’s with you.’ ” The segment ends with an amazing clip from years earlier, when O’Brien hosted the Emmys and Shandling helped out, which seems, uncannily, to anticipate that experience.
Shandling’s appearance on Jerry Seinfeld’s Web series “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” from January, is a portrait of friendship and affection we might not typically associate with Seinfeld, who can come across as a very observant robot. “We started at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles at the same time, we did ‘The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson’ at the same time, we did our TV series in the nineties at the same lot at the same time, right across the street from each other,” Seinfeld tells us, in a voice-over, as we see old photos and clips. “We were a pair.” When they greet each other, Shandling walks toward Seinfeld, says, “I love you,” and hugs him. Seinfeld says he loves him, too. They drive around in a Porsche, making jokes and visiting old haunts: the Comedy Store, the CBS Studio Center lot. They walk with their arms around each other. They end up talking at length about mortality; mostly, though, Seinfeld laughs so much, and with such violent delight, that we keep seeing his molars.
In the car, Seinfeld mentions the comic David Brenner. He says, “David Brenner passed away last year. Do you ever think about, like, all that material?”
Shandling, laughing, is partly incredulous, but knows Seinfeld so well that he on some level isn’t. “I’m at a stage in my life where I actually care about the person,” he says, fond and amused at once.
Seinfeld won’t let it go. “All that material. You work so hard on it,” he says. “It’s just gone, and it doesn’t mean anything to anyone anymore.”
“That material, and your material, is purely a way for you to express your spirit and your soul and your being,” Shandling tells him.
“It doesn’t have any value beyond that?”
“It doesn’t have any value beyond you expressing yourself spiritually in a very soulful, spiritual way,” Shandling says, laughing at him. “It’s why you’re on the planet!” He punches the ceiling. “God! Open up the sunroof!” he says, and laughs again.