Music Features

An Omnibus of Misguided Hero Choices #1! (Garry Shandling)

As far as cultishly adored reclusive celebrities go, Garry Shandling often comes off as a smarmy jerk.  Having Ricky Gervais fellate him with great thoroughness doesn't seem to impress him.  Most of the few characters he has played (one of the major ones coincidentally named "Garry Shandling") are capable of being cruel self-absorbed monsters.  It would all be intolerable if it didn't sear with invention like art happening right up in my face.

Working as a writer on classic '70s sitcoms such as "Sanford and Son", Shandling emerged in late '70s Los Angeles as a technically inventive and precise neurotic stand-up whose material could be frighteningly dark and brutal (at the expense of himself).  He went through the old path of befriending Carson and ascending to guest host status (it seems this used to be an effective filter for finding genuinely talented comics).

Garry could have followed that career path but by that time he had begun to be brainwashed by acting mentorship and an impulse to experiment beyond the rigid formulas he had trained himself in.  "It's Garry Shandling's Show" (Showtime, 1986-90) was an uncommon comedy series.

The inane, contemporaneous lyrics to the theme to Garry's show, entitled "This is the Theme to Garry's Show", set the stage for a solid TV half hour of meta-shenanigans.  The show functioned as a conventional, and even contemporary, sitcom, one whose influence might be blamed for Nora Ephron's milquetoast romantic monstrosities starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.  Most of the show, however, existed beyond the story.  The universe of "It's Garry Shandling's Show" has no fourth wall, so characters, completely self-aware of their role in a conventional sitcom, frequently address the camera and walk freely between artificial sets (and sometimes into the studio audience itself).  Way ahead of its time, the show reverberates in reality twisting comic endeavors such as "Mr. Show" in the '90s and Charlie Kaufman scripts of the aughts.

In the early '90s, late night comedy television, a subject Garry knew well, became an odd national fixation as Carson inched towards retirement.  As Johnny wrapped up his elegant, goofy reign as the king of late night, the controversy over his replacement gave entertainment junkies a new window into the back-biting treachery of corporate showbiz.  "The Larry Sanders Show" (HBO, 1992-98), a workplace sitcom set behind the scenes of a fictional talk show, seemed like a timely gimmick to address this drama.

Just as the Letterman-Leno battle made the duplicitous dealings of heartless networks a daily news concern, "The Larry Sanders Show" stared deep into that void.  Being an asshole becomes honest artistic expression and purity, a bold willingness to show the ugly behind the affable.

To realistically create this offscreen cruelty "The Larry Sanders Show" developed a unique, and hugely influential, visual and editing style.  In contrast to the flat, overly familiar style of the "talk show" segments, the backstage camera was always fluid and handheld, seeming to capture awkward, overstressed, and dark moments (also with frequent profanity).  While utilizing the best comedy editing tricks ("The Larry Sanders Show" is nothing if not full of great cut gags), these shots and scenes would often hold past the sitcomic cut point to highlight emotional sadness or vacuity.  The show may be the most depressing satirical vision of LA this side of classics like Day of the Locust, Sunset Boulevard, or Mulholland Drive.

Throughout the '90s, Garry was something of a patron to much of the emergent leftfield comic talent, most notably in his casting of Janeane Garafalo, Bob Odenkirk and others in "The Larry Sanders Show".  The "Mr. Show" team even had Garry cameo as himself in their disappointing feature attempt "Run Ronnie Run".  He played himself, perhaps accurately, perhaps not, as a smarmy pothead.  Although he came up in a different system, Garry seemed to identify with these forward thinking comics and benevolently guide them.  Judd Apatow, who Garry hired as a writer, has identified him as a primary comic mentor.

Ricky Gervais has also singled out Garry as his most important influence.  Surely "The Office" could not exist without the formal innovation of "The Larry Sanders Show" (nor could any modern show using the "walk and talk" technique of sustaining expository dialog and action by having two characters walk through an active hallway as they talk).  As much as This is Spinal Tap created a format for Christopher Guest's later vehicles, they probably would not have had the video/editing language to tell their stories without "The Larry Sanders Show" as a reference.  Nearly every current comedy production with any documentary/reality/improvisation hook owes something to it.

So Garry Shandling goes about his life relaxing by canyons, tiptoeing towards self actualization whilst meditating upon how much more enlightened he is than us, the internet hoi polloi (that's my best guess as to what Garry could be doing right now).  However much of a jerk Garry might happen to be allegedly and apparently, he explores it honestly and deeply, and discovers new ways of doing it.  His contribution to the modern vocabulary is underestimated.