Thu, 03/31/2016

The Late Garry Shandling

Garry Shandling

June Gloom hung in the sky as I frantically paced back and forth at the foot of a driveway of a beautiful home in Brentwood. I was supposed to be interviewing Garry Shandling for the Archive of American Television, and he was late. Very late. And I was starting to get nervous.

Yes, I’d been a fan of Shandling since I was a kid. I always looked forward to his guest-hosting of The Tonight Show, and his appearing on the show as a guest with either Johnny Carson or Joan Rivers. My great regard for him, and how much he meant to me back then was perfectly summed up in a scene from Freaks and Geeks, where Martin Starr’s character comes home after a tough day at school to forget his troubles watching Garry on Dinah! Judd Apatow totally got it.

But my long-time fandom isn’t why I was nervous. The then-director of The Archive of American Television Karen Herman was waiting there with me, along with two crew guys - a cameraman and sound guy. In the course of making chit-chat, I was warned by them that Shandling could be “prickly.” They’d worked with him before, and told me he might randomly be in a bad mood and challenge me. I’d seen Garry’s interview with Ricky Gervais, and knew what they were telling me was true. And here I was, back at the very scene of that BBC debacle, waiting to get my crack at it.

Standing there I thought back over his remarkable career. What fascinated me about him was that he’d always had one foot in old time show biz comedy and one foot always ahead of his time. He’d had a very traditional but hysterical stand-up routine, and his ability to adapt an odd comedic persona while interviewing guests on The Tonight Show rivaled Jack Paar’s. At the same time, he created It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, a clear forerunner to Seinfeld, and created The Larry Sanders Show, without which there never would have been The Office, or 30 Rock, or any modern “cringe comedy.” Not to mention, he ushered in an era of quality, original programming on HBO, which continues to this day. 

Garry could have easily been the host of The Tonight Show, but removed himself when he asked not to be the “revolving guest host” along with Jay Leno in 1986, in order to do It’s Garry Shandling’s Show for Showtime. He could have taken any 12:35 slot in 1993, when Letterman went to CBS, but chose instead to do The Larry Sanders Show on HBO. He didn’t find the talk show format to be creatively satisfying, so he turned his back on greater fame and fortune in order to do something interesting.

Garry Shandling showed up two hours late on that June morning. He was apologetic, but as I walked into his home, flashbacks of the Gervais interview starting entering my head. We made small talk. He told Karen and I how much he loved the then-current cast of Saturday Night Live (“the best it’s ever been,” he said) and that actor Michael Cera was, “the future of comedy.”

Just as the interview was about to start, Garry said to me, “Relax, breathe, ask your questions, it will be fine.” (I relaxed a little.)

The cameras roll, we begin. "Garry, the first thing - "

“THAT’S how you’re gonna start?” he interjected.

I panicked for a split second. I’d blown it. It was going to be awful. I’d Gervais’d it!! But I looked up to see Garry’s broad smile and realized he’d set me up for a joke that would ultimately break the ice. It was smooth sailing from then on out, and the best version of the interview that I could have hoped for slowly emerged. 

He wasn’t prickly in the least. He was open, forthcoming, engaging, and kind. It was a great day, and the following morning at 3am he sent me a tweet saying that I’d done a good job and thanked me for being prepared. I will always be grateful for the opportunity, through my questions, to let him know how much his work meant to so many. 

What I loved best about Garry Shandling is summed up in this clip. “What’s it about?” was always the question he was asking in his life and in his art, and he never stopped searching. 

I urge everyone to watch Garry’s full interview. In addition to it being a two-hour history lesson about late 20th Century television comedy, it is very entertaining and funny.

Rest in Peace.

- by John Dalton