Critic Tom Carson summed it up: “It’s really hard to imagine what today’s meta-TV would be like without Garry Shandling doing so much to invent it.”
Meanwhile, his peers were understandably in shock at the sudden reports that the pioneering comedian/actor Garry Shandling had died yesterday at 66.
“If it’s true I am heartsick,” tweeted Sandra Bernhard, like so many, stunned beyond belief. “Garry Shandling has died? One in a million brilliant people–say it’s not so.” Via email, she added: “He was a true original—funny, self-effacing and brilliant.”
Albert Brooks likewise tweeted, “I am so saddened to hear this. Brilliantly funny and such a great guy. He will be so missed.” Bob Newhart, also via Twitter, said, “Had lunch w/ Garry a few weeks ago. He seemed fine. He was the same Garry–self-effacing. He never did anyone else–he did Garry. A great loss.”
Harry Shearer tweeted, “Total f’ing drag about Garry Shandling. A swell guy, and as funny as they come.” Howard Stern, whose 1993 appearance on The Larry Sanders Show marked one of his first ventures into mainstream media visibility, tweeted, “The world has lost a comedy giant. An all-time great. Hey Now Garry Shandling.”
Stern’s “Hey Now” referenced the catch phrase of Hank Kingsley, Shandling’s talk show host character Larry Sanders’ sidekick, played unforgettably by Jeffrey Tambor. “Garry was/will always be my teacher. He redesigned the wheel of comedy and was the kindest and funniest of geniuses. Will miss him so much,” Tambor tweeted. Howard Kaylan, who with Mark Volman as Flo & Eddie of The Turtles sang the theme to Shandling’s late 1980s Showtime/Fox sitcom It’s Garry Shandling’s Show on a memorable 1988 episode, tweeted: “Love you, Garry. And have forever. Since Tahoe, since the Showtime series.”
Melenie Caldwell, then the talent placement coordinator for Warner Bros. Records, recalls bringing her label artist k.d. lang to the set of a 1995 Sanders episode regarded as one of the series’ funniest.
“I don’t remember what he said to me, but he had me in stitches!” recalls Caldwell. “Just the way he talked made you laugh! He always seemed happy, and he was thrilled to have k.d. on the show.”
Bob Merlis, who was Warner Bros. Records’ senior VP for worldwide corporate communications and was also the label’s comedy a&r rep in the 1990s (he signed Robert Schimmel, Julia Sweeney, Eddie Griffin and Joe Rogan), marvels that lang’s part called for her to feud with Tambor’s Kingsley.
“Garry Shandling was a comedy pioneer in no uncertain terms,” says Merlis, noting that Warner Bros. also supplied Elvis Costello and Chris Isaak for Sanders.
“It’s Garry Shandling’s Show and The Larry Sanders Show were uniquely groundbreaking,” says Merlis. “The former was a send-up of the traditional sitcom with Garry acknowledging that it was a TV show to the viewing audience. I suppose he owed a debt to George Burns who would confide in the audience during episodes of The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show but Garry’s take was more edgy and underscored his healthy cynicism. The Larry Sanders Show was a show-about-a-show in the tradition of Kiss Me Kate. The characters were faulty, vain and petty–a reflection of reality that was completely refreshing.”
Conan bandleader Jimmy Vivino also cited Shandling as a “groundbreaking comedian” in a tweet, then added in an email, “The Larry Sanders Show was the funniest and most ironically insightful backstage view of the workings of network TV–way before 30 Rock and others that followed. He left a big footprint! Young people need to go back and check him out like we did Ernie Kovacs.”
Comedian Eddie Brill, who warmed up the audience and served as stand-up talent coordinator at Late Show with David Letterman, notes Shandling’s numerous appearances on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show—many as guest host.
“Only a handful of comedians caught Johnny Carson’s eye,” says Brill. “Even fewer touched Johnny enough to trust them to guest host The Tonight Show. Garry Shandling was in that rarefied category, and for a spell was the permanent guest host. He was also a great comedian and actor–and turned down permanent hosting gigs twice: He was offered Late Night on NBC and then The Late, Late Show on CBS. Instead he turned the genre on its head with The Larry Sanders Show, which many people consider one of the top 100 TV shows of all time.”
Echoing Carson, The Los Angeles Times’ Robert Lloyd hailed It’s Garry Shandling’s Show as “a meta-meta-fictional sitcom in which he played a version of himself [not only breaking] the fourth but the fifth wall, pulling the camera back far enough to make the studio audience part of the action. [It] was something new, and something still to cherish.”
But Shandling’s “real legacy,” per Lloyd, lies in The Larry Sanders Show, in which Shandling’s “neurotic talk-show host whose life might have in some respects resembled his own” truly ushered in “the new age of television.”
Lloyd also picked up on Shandling’s reluctance to focus on the superstardom that seemed always his for the taking, as manifested by his turning down the offers to host real talk shows or otherwise exploit his success.
As Shandling had told Howard Stern, “I don’t have the gift of wanting to go on the air every day, because I need the space in between to grow.” As he told Lloyd: “That’s what we were exploring on Larry Sanders–the human qualities that have brought us to where we are now in the world: the addiction to needing more and wanting more and talking more. We were examining the labels put on success–is it successful to be on TV every day, to be famous, to have a paycheck? And you see what’s missing is love and heart.”
“My friends tell me that I have an intimacy problem. But they don’t really know me,” was a typical Shandling joke. As brilliant as he was, he always seemed sweet, whimsical, vulnerable, approachable, relatable. But behind that broad grin there also seemed a pained grimace, a certain sadness. As delightful as he was in It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, he courageously showed a darker, self-absorbed side in The Larry Sanders Show.
Conan O’Brien touched on this duality in a moving opening monologue devoted entirely to Shandling on his show last night. Shandling, he said, was “a masterful writer [and] performer who went on to create incredibly groundbreaking comedy shows that inspired an entire generation of comedians—myself included.”
“But right now I’m not thinking about that aspect of Garry Shandling,” O’Brien continued. “I’m thinking about Garry Shandling the person. He was obviously hysterically funny pretty much all the time, but he was also extremely sensitive, he was complicated, and he had a ton of empathy for other people. And I want to make that point, because that’s something in this business—in comedy—that is very rare. He really did care about other people.”