How Garry Shandling Invented Comedy as We Know It

The legend behind <i>The Larry Sanders Show</i> who inspired a generation of comedians, died Thursday at the age of 66.

Mar 25 2016, 2:00pm

Garry Shandling in 1980. Photo by Ron Wolfson/WireImage

Defining influence is a tricky thing, but fuck it: Garry Shandling, who died Thursday afternoon at the age of 66, as first reported by TMZ, was the most influential and important comedian of the past 30 years. He's been out of the public eye for decades, so you'd be forgiven for not knowing who he is, but his work, his comedic philosophy, and his hands-on advice are directly responsible for the careers of dozens and dozens of professionally funny people, not least among them Judd Apatow and Ricky Gervais, making him the grandfather of all those Apatow and Gervais ripoffs currently playing everywhere. He was, as a definitive 2010 GQ profile dubbed him, the comedian's comedian's comedian. And now he's past tense.

Shandling was born someplace a while ago, then moved to Los Angeles when he was young to do the usual thing. He wrote for Sanford and Son, did some stand-up, once got encouraged by George Carlin, appeared on The Tonight Show, guest-hosted for Johnny Carson a bunch of times, and created a series called It's Garry Shandling's Show. That show deserves its own sentence. It deserves four sentences. It was a strange, experimental sitcom where Shandling played a comedian named Garry Shandling who knew he was on TV, talked to the audience, and generally broke the fourth wall completely down.

It's Garry Shandling's Show premiered in 1986, and it still feels fresh and deconstructive today, a product of a comic who was always trying to dig under facades, to probe past conventions and into surreality.

In his stand-up, Shandling was quick on his feet, self-deprecating and personable, and for that reason, people were always talking about him as a late-night talk show host. Before It's Garry Shandling's Show, he was a candidate to replace Carson; years later, NBC tried to get him to replace David Letterman. At that point, though, Shandling was already the star and creator of the show most comedy fans remember him for today, which is now one of the few sitcoms worth watching decades after its end.

The Larry Sanders Show, like Shandling's first show, was about the surfaces of things and what was below them. He played the titular character, a talk show host whose charm barely concealed a bottomless well of self-hatred and self-doubt. Larry's on-screen sidekick, Hank Kingsley—played by Jeffrey Tambor—was an arrogant, untalented hack with a desperate need for love and attention; the third lead, Artie (Rip Torn), was a take-no-shit producer constantly cleaning up everyone's messes.

The other characters revolved around them, dealing with Larry's shifting moods, Hank's bombastic incompetence, the stresses of an ever-rotating cast of celebrities—all playing themselves—who appeared on the show-within-the-show and caused havoc. The series was a single-camera cringefest about people picking at one another's emotional scabs and manipulating one another. It's about awkward pauses and tensions that never get resolved.

In retrospect, the people involved in the Larry Sanders Show are a who's-who's list of comedy. Jon Favreau and Jeremy Piven showed up in early seasons playing staff writers on the fictional talk show, indie comedy icon Janeane Garofalo was a core cast member, Bob Odenkirk guest-starred often as a fast-talking agent, Sarah Silverman was a late-season addition, and Apatow was a writer in a gig that launched his now omnipresent career. Even Jon Stewart made an appearance playing himself as the younger, hipper host preparing to take Larry's spot.

It was a weird animal during its mid 1990s run, hiding out on HBO and forgoing a laugh track at a time when traditional network sitcoms like Friends and Seinfeld reigned supreme. But nearly every worthwhile comedy to come out in the past couple decades has some Larry SandersDNA in it. Ricky Gervais once called it "the classiest sitcom of all time" and openly aped its cringing comedy in The Office. Arrested Development gave Tambor his best role since he played Hank, and it also adopted Larry Sanders's single-camera, no-laugh-track setup, which then became standard on any sitcom aimed at highbrow comedy fans. NBC shows like Community and 30 Rock took the metanarrative techniques of It's Garry Shandling's Show and Sanders and ran with them.

More broadly, Larry Sanders pioneered the idea that television comedy could take the audience into very dark places in service of laughs. It was always extremely funny (it had no "very special episodes" or MASHian turns into tragedy), but in the course of the show's run, the characters got divorced, contemplated suicide, had sex tapes leak, filed sexual harassment lawsuits against one another, and went through existential crises when they realized just how shitty and self-absorbed they were. Seinfeld had a crew of jerks too, but in that show, there was a laugh track to remind you that they were joking. No such relief in Sanders, which gave us moments like the time Hank had to fill in for Larry as host:

Since Sanders ended in 1998—with one of the best, most pitch-perfect series finales of all time, by the way—Shandling hadn't done much, at least not publicly. He appeared in a couple of bad movies, hosted the Emmys a few times, and came out of semi-retirement to appear in Favreau's Iron Man 2 as a mean politician (he then reprised the role in the last Captain America film). He held weekly pickup basketball games attended by some of Hollywood's funniest people. He meditated, he learned to box, he very occasionally did stand-up sets, and he offered advice to his friends and nudged the direction of American comedy in ways large and small. He was a guru of sorts—in the GQ profile, Robert Downey Jr. called him a "Jewish E.T." and Favreau referred to him as the "Godfather."

Over the years, everyone from Sasha Baron Cohen to Silverman to Favreau sought Shandling's advice; Apatow told GQ in 2010 that Shandling gave input on a lot of his movies, which often have that mix of vulnerability, bluster, and empathy that formed the emotional core of Larry Sanders.

One of Shandling's last filmed comedy bits was also one of his strangest. In 2006, Gervais showed up at Shandling's house to do an interview for the UK's Channel 4. It was supposed to be a fawning segment, a current-generation comedy star meeting his inspiration. Instead, it was a train wreck: Shandling is openly hostile and dickish to Gervais, who seems perpetually confused and wrong-footed. It's a cringe-off between two comedians, and there's no question who is winning. (You can watch the whole thing on YouTube, starting here.) Shandling told GQ that there was some confusion about whether they were doing a Channel 4 special or some DVD extras for Larry Sanders, and he had decided to fuck with Gervais. "He's trying to get me to do the show that he needs, and I'm trying to get him to do nothing," Shandling told the magazine. "I was trying to pull Ricky into the moment."

It's a weird interaction to watch, and it shows the strange place Shandling had moved to by then: not a comedian, not an actor, not a showrunner—just a guy walking the earth, dropping jokes and little pearls of wisdom.

On Thursday night, late-night hosts paid tribute to Shandling—Conan O'Brien shared a moving story about how the older comic counseled him after O'Brien lost his Tonight Show gig—but my favorite homage to Shandling is an odd cameo in Freaks and Geeks (another beloved single-camera sitcom about people playing roles in public and private). It happens when Bill, the picked-upon nerd played by Martin Starr, comes home from a shitty school day and unwinds with a cheese sandwich, a donut, milk, and a stand-up show on TV. In the course of a few minutes, the weight on Bill's shoulders is lifted, and he's laughing that kind of pure laugh that maybe only comes out of you when you're about 14 and feeling alone. I don't think it was an accident that the comedian they picked to inspire Bill at that moment was Garry Shandling.

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