by Leo Mayberry
We probably met Garry Shandling on the Tonight Show. He sort of crept into our lives, my family and myself, as we spent evenings in front of the TV set in the little rural town I grew up in. As often as not at my grandparents house, or at my other set of grandparents house when we’d visit for the holidays, I’d get to stay up late and watch The Tonight Show. Johnny welcomed his guests into your home, and sometimes you could tell he was a bit embarrassed that they’d show up drunk, or rude, or just too nervous to deliver. Other times he was quite proud. Look at that clever young man with the self-deprecating sense of humor and some darn clever jokes. That was Garry, and next thing you knew, that clever fellow had his own show.
It was something new. It was ostensibly a sitcom, but it was simultaneously the coolest and least hip thing you’d ever seen. It seemed to borrow from the loose skit style of Carson, breaking the fourth wall more often then not to bring the audience in on the joke. That was an even deeper call back to Benny and Burns. Here, nobody looked like a TV star. This was the antithesis of sexy, shiny Spelling productions. People dressed like your actual neighbors, and came in all shapes and sizes with glasses and accents intact. There was comedy, pathos, and each week some morality play about friendship or forgiveness. Garry himself seemed on our side of the glass as we observed the inhabitants of his little terrarium of human behavior. My parents would explain obscure jokes and references. It was a much more neurotic Lake Wobegon. It got increasingly dark and surreal. I left for college.
I discovered Larry Sanders by myself. There was workplace insecurity, interoffice romance, ego in excess and crass commerce, exhaustion and anxiety. It was frank and adult. Betrayals and deaths, heartbreaks and divorce. It was profane. As opposed to the old show, Garry/Larry was a bit of a cypher. The center of the show always seemed to be escaping out the back of the room, and we were as often locked out of the office as brought back home to hear what was eating him up. The show within the show was in constant assault from ratings and executives, young blood and competition. It had the urgency of a M.A.S.H. medical tent. It was how the sausage is made, assholes and all.
Then Garry Shandling sort of disappeared. Not unlike Carson himself, he ghosted us.
He’d laid the groundwork for new forms, but seemed spent. He’d appear here and there, but there was to be no revelatory third act. Maybe if Ricky Gervais had dropped his own ego he’d have been able to give us a decent interview instead of his “Ricky Gervais Meets…” Instead we get a lesson in crossed-wires and flop sweat. Garry didn’t suffer fools. There was a lot there to mine, and if you dig into the extras on the Larry Sanders DVDs and his You Made It Weird podcast episode, you can start to see his exit into a sort of wealthy zen that profited from a lifetime of self-scrutiny. You can see his direct influence in the work of his collaborators, from Apatow, Tambor and Oedinkirk, to more indirect connections like Larry David, Lisa Kudrow, Louis C.K. and Vince Gilligan. His story began in the writer’s room, and perhaps that’s where it continues as television continues to reinvent itself at the hands of those willing to share their anxious laughs about our lives on screen. Its a shame we don’t have Garry to share them with.
Leo Mayberry is a Scarecrow Video employee and noted VeeJay.