“Is Redd Foxx mad at you?”
With these tender words, in the world according to Garry Shandling, a career in standup comedy was born. The question came after Shandling told his mother he was leaving his television career as a writer for “Sanford and Son” to pursue the comedy circuit in 1976.
Fortunately for Mrs. Shandling and son, the move eventually brought him back into the folds of the boob tube, making him an annual staple during the Emmy and CableAce Award nominations.
“I never had the security within myself to think that I was funny enough to make a living at (standup),” says Shandling, who originally planned to be an electrical engineer. “But since I was 10 years old, I was always following comedians’ careers. I knew all of George Carlin’s routines and Mel Brooks’ 2,000-year-old man routine. I was just consumed by comedians.”
Cut to 1986 and Shandling was hosting his own production, “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show,” for Showtime and, later, the fledgling Fox network. Art imitated life in this series about a comedian named Garry Shandling who stars in his own sitcom. Even the show’s set was a replica of his real-life apartment.
The program helped launch Fox’s original cornerstone Sunday lineup, known for “The Tracey Ullman Show,” “In Living Color,” “Married … With Children” and “21 Jump Street.” The show ended its run in 1990, and left Shandling square in the middle of consideration in the changing talkshow scene after subbing for Johnny Carson on several occasions on “The Tonight Show.”
It took years of flirting and courting before Shandling, whose routine had been based on the perpetual bachelor lifestyle, finally settled down. And if you ask him about it, he’s all too happy to report that his current attachment is still wine and roses.
Fortunately for his career, this relationship isn’t with a female. Instead, disappointed suitors NBC and CBS were turned away in favor of “fringe” king HBO, an outlet that allowed him to turn up the heat on his long TV scribing career with the birth of “The Larry Sanders Show” in 1992.
“I have had shows that have always been sort of on the fringe because they were very specific visions, and the people I have worked with have given me the freedom to do that” he says. “I’ve always gravitated toward that as a priority. If you do a show on one of the three major networks you have different priorities that can get in the way of the work.
“If ‘Larry Sanders’ was on a network, it might have been broadened out and toned down a bit, and I think that would have made a difference in its quality,” Shandling notes. “You have to attempt to always do quality and see if people like it rather than just guess what the audience likes.”
With “The Larry Sanders Show,” Shandling again placed himself smack dab in the middle of the bruised-ego, gnashing-of-teeth battles in the latenight arena. The difference being that the celebrity personalities and ratings wars were now scripted and spoofed.
“Actually the show is not about Hollywood,” Shandling insists as he prepares for the shows sixth season. “It’s about people and behavior, and since I knew the talkshow world like the back of my hand, I wrote the show in that way. There’s a certain hypocrisy in the world that is reflected on television, and I’m proud of the fact that the characters on the show are full of good and bad qualities. That’s what really inspires me.”
Larry Sanders, according to Shandling, was an obvious extension of his early writing dating back to “Sanford and Son” and “Welcome Back, Kotter.” “Looking back, ‘Sanford and Son’ is ironically similar to ‘Larry Sanders,’ ” Shandling says. “In fact, Larry and Hank’s relationship strikingly resembles Fred and Lamont’s.”
Still inspired by the Foxx series, Shandling is quick to point out that the “Sanford and Son” crew ran a tight ship, a trait he says still is needed, and sometimes lacking, in today’s show productions.
“I learned there that discipline is very important and you have to write a story that makes complete sense,” he says. “I see people now who are not disciplined and it’s not something that you can allow on a television series because the process can be too overwhelming.”
Shandling’s discipline and chemistry with his co-workers clearly clicked, as “Larry Sanders” has gone on to garner 30 Emmy nominations during its four-year run, 12 in last year’s ceremony alone, the most of any sitcom from last season. In contrast, “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show” earned only one nomination in the same span of time.
Yet despite the slew of kudos for “The Larry Sanders Show” (taking home a quartet of CableAce Awards last year), the program has earned only one Emmy, a trend Shandling feels is slowly changing as cable draws more respect.
“There have been some really wonderful movies made on cable in recent years. It’s actually astonishing to me that we are seeing so much cable programming finally receiving Emmy nominations and awards,” he says. “I don’t think that was the case seven years ago. Still, when Emmy time comes around, you have to be braced for anything.”