Shandling really got it – the big stuff life throws your way, what it’s like to confront it and how that process can be both unbearably painful but also wondrous, often at the same time.
From time to time, I’ve indulged in an exercise where I pretend that I’m famous and am being interviewed for one of those glossy magazine profiles where they ask you to list things like your favourite meal or your favourite film. When they get to the question where they ask about my favorite comedian, I’ve always known that I wouldn’t hesitate before answering “Garry Shandling.”
Shandling – who died at his home on Thursday at the age of 66 from causes as yet unknown – was never a household name in the way of Robin Williams or Chris Rock. Still, Shandling had an almost cult-like following among people like me, for whom his brilliant 1990’s sitcom – The Larry Sanders Show – changed our understanding of what television was and could be. He was also clearly both a visionary and a mentor for an entire generation of comedians, as the outpouring of heartfelt tributes to him last week from the likes of Bob Odenkirk and Ellen De Generes demonstrate, not to mention Conan O’Brian’s very moving, personal tribute on his show.
The Larry Sanders Show was a behind-the-scenes send up of what it was like to work at a late night television show. It ran on HBO for six seasons was universally recognised as the harbinger for subsequent pathbreaking television shows like The Office, Curb Your Enthusiasm, 30 Rock and others. (If you’ve never seen The Larry Sanders Show I’ve got good news for you – HBO is about to re-release it.)
But Shandling – a practicing Buddhist – stayed largely out of the limelight after The Larry Sanders Show ended, save the odd cameo here and there in film, TV and as a host on assorted award shows. I myself had nearly forgotten about him until I saw him on The Jon Stewart show a few years back (Stewart being yet another comedic superstar – like Judd Apatow and Sarah Silverman – who made his name on The Larry Sanders Show).
Shandling was on the show to plug the release of a new boxed set called Not Just the Best of the Larry Sanders Show), which he promoted to Jon Stewart in his signature, at once devastatingly funny and self-deprecating way. And even though I’d already seen most of the episodes with my husband years earlier, we rushed out to buy it anyway.
It was in watching this boxed set that I really came to appreciate Shandling’s genius. Because in addition to the hand-picked “best of the best,” the DVD also contains, under the “special features” menu, a series of absolutely priceless interviews with assorted guests from the show whom Shandling revisits years later, ranging from Alec Baldwin to David Duchovney to Sharon Stone.
To call these “interviews” doesn’t even really capture them accurately; they are more like deeply personal encounters which just happened to be filmed. And you sit there feeling almost uncomfortable with just how far you’ve been let into his world and into his deeply human approach to comedy, work and relationships. Shandling prefaces this part of the DVD by saying that these are “experimental” pieces: “whatever happens from the actual human contact, when you don’t have to do anything or prove anything.” And you sense that this really is the deeply personal purpose they serve.
What’s clear from these interviews, is that for Shandling – television, comedy, stand up, all of it – wasn’t really about acting (with a capital A) or “craft” or celebrity. It was, rather, a deeply therapeutic process of discovering oneself and of unearthing the complicated, often painful parts and coming to terms with them – not as part of some sort of acceptance, but rather as an inevitable part of confronting what it means to be alive.
As Shandling’s close friend, the GQ writer Amy Wallace, puts it in an article entitled The Last Email Garry Shandling Ever Sent Me: “Better than anyone I know, he understood that the search was the destination, that messiness was better than tidiness, that the complexity that makes us suffer also is the source of all beauty.”
Shandling lived that mantra of “the journey” in his own work and clearly inspired others to do so as well. And that is why, although I never met the man, when I learned that Garry Shandling had died and had the opportunity to go back and revisit some of his work and some of the things his friends and colleagues had to say about him, I started to cry. Because Shandling really got it – the big stuff life throws your way, what it’s like to confront it and how that process can be both unbearably painful but also wondrous, often at the same time.
And that, my friends, is what it’s all about.
I doubt very much that I’ll ever have the chance to become famous and have that cheesy glossy profile written about my personal “favourites.” But Garry Shandling would have known better than to care about all of that: “Make the spiritual search more important than the problem,” he once advised Wallace.
Delia Lloyd is an American writer based in London. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Financial Times and The Guardian. She blogs about adulthood at realdelia.com.
Image: Garry Shandling via Wikimedia Commons