For Judd Apatow, the process of creating “The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling,” a two-part documentary on the life of the late comedian, was eye-opening in understanding Shandling’s impact on young comedians.
“I didn’t realize that he had chosen really consciously to be a mentor,” Apatow told Variety at the film’s Los Angeles screening on Wednesday. “I knew he was available to people and he was really kind and if you said, ‘Will you read my script?’ he would give you notes. But he wrote in his journals that he wanted to help people and he thought that was the win in life, to help people.”
Apatow, who early in his career worked on Shandling’s “The Larry Sanders Show,” directed and executive produced the documentary, which explores the legendary comedian through four decades’ worth of television appearances and a lifetime of personal journals, private letters, and home audio and video footage. “The Zen Diaries” also features more than 40 interviews with Shandling’s family and friends, including Jim Carrey, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jon Favreau, Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien, Jerry Seinfeld and Sarah Silverman.
The director first got the idea for the two-part documentary, which will air on HBO on March 26 and 27, when putting together footage for Shandling’s memorial, following his death in 2016.
“I was able to get an enormous amount of footage from different people and then I realized ‘Oh, this would make a great Bob Dylan-type two-part documentary’ so we spent about a year searching for footage and just watching footage and then a year editing it,” Apatow said. “It was a pretty massive job but really fun.”
In a speech prior to the screening, he described what making the project honoring his friend had meant to him, saying, “Garry was such a great person to so many of us and I don’t want to get emotional now because it’s all in this film. I’m very sad that I’m not going to be able to continue making this film and spend every day with Garry.”
The premiere, held at the Avalon Hollywood, also welcomed Bob Saget, Kevin Nealon, Vanessa Bayer, Kathy Griffin and Regis Philbin.
Like Apatow, Nealon, who is also featured in the documentary, said that Shandling became a mentor to him over the years and the two would frequently write jokes together over the phone. “I thought maybe he was only supportive to me and a few other people, but as I see this, he touched so many people’s lives and he was so compassionate in so many ways with people who were suffering,” the comedian said.
Saget told Variety that Shandling was his first friend in Los Angeles when he moved to the city in 1978, and they “went through a lot of stuff together, a lot of good stuff, a lot of ups and downs stuff.”
“He was a very complex, very brilliant, very funny man and I miss him and I wish I could spend time with him now,” he added. “Judd did a beautiful tribute to him.”