Kevin Nealon Remembers Garry Shandling, One Year Later

Kevin Nealon Garry Shandling

Last year, my wife, Susan and I were sitting in our parked car on a cul-de-sac in the hills of Brentwood, California, just outside the bougainvillea draped gate that led to Garry Shandling’s Spanish villa. With great melancholy, we were ruminating and paying tribute to our good friend when a postal worker pulled up and sprang out of her jeep with a handful of deliveries. As she headed toward Garry’s mailbox, I gently alerted her that Mr. Shandling had passed away four months earlier and wouldn’t be needing those letters. She somberly responded that she was aware of that, but it was her duty and the law to continue to deliver the Bed, Bath and Beyond coupons, an Architectural Digest subscription and other mail still addressed to him.

2016 was not a good year for a narcissist to die. It was akin to being on an airplane going down with about a dozen famous people up in first class. Your demise would, more than likely, not even be a mention in the news reports. Maybe even your own family wouldn’t notice.

Amid the crop of notable and creative entertainers who died last year, it did not go unnoticed that the world lost an inventive and trail-blazing comedian. Most remember Garry Shandling from his groundbreaking TV series, “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show” and “The Larry Sanders Show,” or from his brilliant stand-up comedy. I met Garry 38 years ago, soon after arriving in Los Angeles to pursue my own career in comedy. I always admired his work ethic and hilarious point of view. He was an inspiration and mentor not just to me but to a large percentage of today’s most brilliant comedy writers and standups. In that spirit, I would like to be incredibly honest and authentic here about my friend Garry Shandling.

I think it was very, very difficult to be Garry. He was complex, at times neurotic, persnickety, high-maintenance, child-like, a perfectionist with the highest standards, and, since we’re being honest, he could be a handful. Being in his company sometimes required extra patience. That said, Garry often apologized for these shortcomings and always owned them. He was extremely complicated, and I think the fact that he spelled his name with two R’s was fair enough warning. That was Garry.

Garry could never fully commit and it drove a lot of us crazy. If I invited him to an event or party there would be a lot of hemming and hawing, doubt and second-guessing, and then stipulations. If he should decide to go, he could only stay five minutes because he may have somewhere else he might have to be. I learned, eventually, that was his process, it was his dance and I came to expect it. That was Garry. I’m sure when he arrived at the Pearly Gates he probably informed God that he could only stay for a few minutes. After Garry passed March 24, 2016 from pulmonary thrombosis, my wife and I were fondly reminiscing and perusing various photos from events or parties we had invited him to. In spite of all of his wavering, Garry was always somewhere in those pictures, albeit, mostly sitting near or looking toward the exit but, he was there.

It took some work to be Garry’s friend, but it was worth it. He was quality. He was the gold standard. He was funny, wonderful, self-deprecating, playful, kind, generous, stylish, spiritual. (I got those descriptions from his Tinder profile.)

Nealon sketched his friend of 37 years.

He was the first friend I had who meditated. He was my only friend who had Buddhist monks for friends, and on occasion they actually stayed at his house. The only time I had floor seats at a Lakers game was because of Garry. He was the first person I ever saw French kiss a dog. He was my first “male friend” to send me flowers on my birthday. He despised gossip, and you could rest assured that anything personal you shared with him was safe. He was also the only friend I ever had who was into CBs and ham radios, and he wasn’t even a truck driver. That was Garry.

In the later years of his life and in his further search for truth, self and the meaning of life, Garry curiously explored Buddhism. He didn’t shave his head or walk around barefoot in an orange robe and, ironically, didn’t even stop another one of his passions, boxing. He simply immersed himself in books dedicated to this spiritual practice, and even set up a small Buddhist altar in one of his spare rooms complete with burning candles and incense sticks. He even became friendly with a Buddhist Monastic Community in San Diego, all of whom were present at his memorial service. It was only after his passing that I learned just how few people knew how philanthropically generous Garry was to various causes that moved him.

Recently, I was looking back at some emails I had received from him. About two years ago I emailed Garry from Denver, just touching base as I often did when I was on the road. Sometimes I would run new material by him or just lament being away from my family and friends. He was always so supportive and insightful, and would often tickle me with his dark, gallows humor.

He wrote back: Kevin, looking forward to seeing u soon. Denver is a good city. You are the funniest. Lots ahead for you. Before I die we’ll do some dates together, or after, and you can drag my body on stage, which you’ll do either way. And let’s hike again, soon. 

When I was first getting to know him, he would often invite me to go hiking. I quickly discovered his idea of ‘hiking’ was walking from open-house to open-house in one of the Los Angeles canyons. This should have come as no surprise to me because he would only hike on Sundays and Tuesdays between 11-2 pm, and told me to bring a pair of those little, blue, paper booties. Garry loved architecture and homes. He had such an appreciation for light and the effect it had on spaces. For years he complained incessantly about his house not facing the right direction for light, and for years he toiled with architects, contractors and interior designers about making changes. For years there were design proposals and home magazines cluttering his dining room table and kitchen counter with blueprints pinned to the walls. Over the years not one of those plans was implemented, and nothing ever changed except for a pair of new speakers in the living room. This beautiful, amazing home in that gorgeous park-like setting with those stunning views of the Pacific Ocean continued to be Garry’s albatross. That was Garry.

A few days before he passed, we went for a short drive up the Pacific Coast Highway. He casually mentioned an unusual predicament that he found himself in. Last year, a Buddhist monk that he knew from Oregon was a house guest of his for several days. He said the monk was coming back through town again soon and invited himself for another stay. Garry wasn’t comfortable with the notion of his return to the house, especially uninvited, and was struggling with how to broach it. I thought his quandary was hilarious and could have easily been worthy fodder for an episode of “Larry Sanders.” We soon stopped at one of his favorite lunch spots in Malibu that overlooked the Pacific. As we ate together at an outside picnic bench, he gazed out at the vast beauty of ocean saying, ‘How great is this, Kevin? How great is this?’ I would hear him say that often. He had such a deep appreciation for nature. On the drive home, I asked him if he was seeing anyone. He immediately thought I was referring to a therapist but, of course, I actually meant, ‘was he dating anyone?’ He was very private about that part of his life. After I reiterated my question, he laughed and quickly responded that he just wasn’t interested in a relationship at this point in his life, and was more concerned with getting healthy. Garry never married and never had a traditional family, but for those of us who knew him and loved him, we were his family.

Looking back, I felt honored to have been responsible for hooking Garry up with his longest and most fulfilling relationship. My wife and I were staying at a resort, in Hana, Maui, where Garry had stayed about a week or so earlier. On our first day there, we came across a cute black and white border collie that was running around the hotel grounds. It was very friendly despite its back leg dangling from its body from a compound fracture. The hotel manager told us he had probably been hit by a car, and that the local rancher who owned this unfortunate dog would probably shoot him rather than pay the vet bills. Horrified at this thought, we brought the injured dog to a vet on the other end of the island, had him de-wormed and his leg set with metal rods and a cast. We quickly fell in love with this charismatic pooch and decided to take him home to become part of our family. We named him “Hana.”

Sometime during the remainder of our stay in Hawaii, when our lovable Hana was still at the vet, I called Garry and casually mentioned our episode with him. He became very curious and excited. He asked me to describe the dog and I did. Garry, said, “Wait a minute. Hold on. You know what?’ he said, ‘I think that’s the dog I was going to bring home!” He said the dog’s leg wasn’t broken at the time but he had such a visceral connection with him, if indeed it was the same dog, that he, in fact, had actually planned on adopting him. He continued,”On the day I was scheduled to fly home I was playing with him in a field, chasing him around when I accidentally stepped in a hole and sprained my ankle. By my departure time, I couldn’t find the dog and reluctantly had to leave without him.’ He really wanted to take a look at our “Hana” when we returned, just to see if, on the outside chance, it was the same dog. Of course, by now, my wife and I have become attached to our sweet Hana but when we eventually brought it to Garry’s house and they saw each other, the connection was undeniably obvious that they belonged together. After some soul searching and serious deliberation, I thought five hundred dollars was reasonable. Garry renamed him “Shep” and they became inseparable. Shep died of natural causes about a dozen or so years later, and Garry never got another dog.

Show business, like life, is not always a fair game, not always a level playing field and it’s no secret that at a certain point Garry’s spirit had been crushed by a betrayal. There was a messy and drawn-out lawsuit with his one-time manager, and during that time Garry (among others, including me by association) was illegally wiretapped by the infamous Los Angeles private eye, Anthony Pellicano, who has since been convicted and is now serving time in prison. This highly stressful and ugly period deeply rattled Garry and left him emotionally raw. I don’t think those wounds ever healed, and I believe that was when we lost a big part of him.  He became disenchanted and withdrawn and I honestly think that it took him out of the game. None of that, though, stopped him from growing as a person and ultimately finding clarity and peace. It also didn’t change his enthusiasm for helping so many of us as we developed and worked on our craft.  That was Garry.

During the well-documented Sunday basketball games at his house, a mélange of famous and not-so-famous actors, writers, comics and even musicians showed up to play. They weren’t so much there because they loved playing basketball, but rather because they loved and respected Garry. I would sit there and humbly watch as all sorts of creative types would excitedly exchange ideas or look for Garry’s approval on various projects. He was so encouraging and helpful to so many of us as we developed and worked on our craft. We went to him for his advice, for his experience and his wisdom. He took such a personal interest in our lives and careers and he made us feel so special and so talented. He was always in our corner. He was our “cut man.”

Getting the news of his death that morning, a year ago, was such a kick in the gut. I mean, he had had some health issues in the previous year or two that he was recovering from but nothing that was then life-threatening. It just all seemed so unfathomable. Shortly after learning about his death from Twitter, I commiserated with mutual friends, sharing our disbelief and heartache. The first person I called was Monty Python’s Eric Idle and I remember thinking, “Why? Why couldn’t it have been him instead of Garry?”

For months, after Garry’s passing, I would often call his still connected home number just to hear his voice on his familiar, outgoing message: “I don’t think I’m heeeeere.” I would then hang up and think how eerily prophetic that message had become. To this day it is still so hard to understand and accept that he is gone. I miss our long conversations, on the phone, late into the night, discussing comedy or joke structure or whatever, just him and me and, on occasion, Anthony Pellicano, who, incidentally, didn’t contribute much.

Like many others, I was in awe of Garry’s talent. Aside from being an incredible performer, he was a masterful joke writer. Here are just three jokes of his that come to mind that I loved:

“Sometimes when I feel lonely I’ll shave one leg so that it feels like I’m sleeping with a woman.”

“I can’t afford a private jet but I can afford to pay the other passengers on my commercial flight to get off.”

“When I told my therapist that my mother wanted to marry me, I saw him do a move that I’ve only seen a black jack dealer in Vegas do when his shift was up. (Garry mimes the dealer opening hands to ceiling security camera and then clapping once) “I’m done.”

It would be a gross understatement to say that Garry’s relationship with his domineering and peculiar mother was complicated. Although I’m sure he must have loved her in some way, she had been the bane of his existence, the source of much of his neurosis, failed relationships and fears of commitment, thus many of his jokes were based on her or those issues. By far, the saddest irony of all of this is that Garry is now reunited with his mother for all of eternity and that absolutely kills me.

He was brilliant in so many ways and unbelievably inspiring. Having his approval meant the world to me, and, of course, his friendship meant even more. I loved Garry for everything he was, and don’t know how I will ever stop missing him. I don’t want to stop missing him. I read somewhere that grief is not a sign of weakness.  Grief is simply the price you pay to love someone and I can tell you that Garry had turned out to be very, very, expensive. That was Garry.

Kevin Nealon is a comedian-actor known for his roles on “Saturday Night Live” and “Weeds,” and currently on CBS’ “Man With a Plan.”