Garry Shandling wasn’t necessarily a natural for television, but he was something of a genius at mastering the form and subtly turning it on its head.
The comic, who died suddenly Thursday at 66, came of age alongside a generation of funny folk who included David Letterman and Jay Leno. But Shandling made a name for himself by channeling all of the neuroses of his stand-up act into two highly memorable pay cable series: “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show,” a Showtime series (also aired on a then-fledgling Fox) in which he consistently broke TV’s “fourth wall” by interacting directly with his audience; and “The Larry Sanders Show,” which cast him as a Johnny Carson-like late-night host.
“Sanders” helped bridge the gap for HBO between the CableACE Awards and becoming a heavyweight player at the Emmys during the 1990s. HBO chief Richard Plepler has said that the pop culture buzz stirred by “Sanders” was one of the driving forces in the pay cabler’s decision to go all-in on original series.
Shandling possessed a brilliant knack for identifying showbiz eccentricities and anxiety, and then mining them within his series, while enlisting celebrities to spoof their own well-manicured images. In one of the more memorable “Larry Sanders” episodes, the host finds himself unable to perform sexually while dating Sharon Stone (playing herself), emasculated by the realization that she’s more famous than he is. (He can only complete the act, hilariously, by turning on his own TV program.)
In another, he seeks to convince Ellen DeGeneres to come out on his show – thinking it will be good for ratings – and winds up having a one-night stand with her.
Like Leno and Letterman, “The Tonight Show” under Carson played a major role in establishing Shandling as one of the premiere comics of his time, and he even served as a regular guest host, back in those days when hosts were still willing to allow someone else to occupy their chairs. Yet unlike his contemporaries, Shandling resisted the siren call to do late-night, finding a more suitable home for his comedic sensibilities in the rarefied confines of pay cable.
Then again, the neurotic character that Shandling played never seemed to be too far from the actual guy, a point driven home by some of the off-screen tumult that surrounded him. That included a lawsuit filed against him by his former girlfriend and “Larry Sanders” co-star Linda Doucett, who maintained that she was fired when their relationship ended; and Shandling’s own high-profile $100 million action against manager-turned-Paramount Pictures chief Brad Grey, claiming that Grey leveraged their relationship to benefit himself and other clients. (The suit was eventually settled in 1999.)
Shandling’s career slowed considerably following the success of his two series, and his appearances in recent years were both sporadic and occurred in somewhat incongruous venues, such as small roles in Marvel’s “Iron Man” and “Captain America” sequels. Given the quality of his earlier works, in hindsight, it’s hard not to wish that the wildly creative vein he’d tapped hadn’t been allowed to run a bit longer.
Nevertheless, Shandling was one of the truly gifted comics of his generation, with a signature voice filled with self-deprecation and angst. His observational material was equally good, owing a debt to George Carlin (whom he considered a mentor), although branded with his own unique stamp.
One of Shandling’s signature stand-up jokes involved him having sex with a woman and asking, “Was that good for you too?” Her response: “I don’t think this was good for anybody.”
Shandling’s brand of comedy wasn’t for everybody. But for the people who enjoyed it, and savored his forays into television, it was very, very good.