HBO's Garry Shandling Biography Is An Affecting Take On The Meaning Of Life

Mar 22, 2018
Originally published on March 28, 2018 10:37 am
Copyright 2018 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Next Monday and Tuesday, HBO presents a two-part biography of comedian Garry Shandling that covers his life and career but sometimes is much more serious than you might expect. It's by Judd Apatow, and it's called "The Zen Diaries Of Garry Shandling." Shandling died two years ago. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: The new biography of Garry Shandling that premieres Monday and Tuesday on HBO is almost five hours long, but Shandling deserves that amount of time and respect. He created one of the most-innovative TV sitcoms of all time, Showtime's "It's Garry Shandling's Show," where he broke the fourth wall and talked to the studio and TV audience while his pretend life unfolded like a reality show. Then he created another one, HBO's "The Larry Sanders Show," where he played a talk show host in a comedy that presented not only the character's on-air TV shows but his private life backstage and at home.

Shandling was particularly fascinated by that idea because he had been a regular substitute host for Johnny Carson on NBC's "The Tonight Show" and knew that world. He'd even turned down the offer to replace Carson because a talk show didn't interest him quite enough. But a show about a talk show? That was temptingly different, as he explains in this vintage interview.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GARRY SHANDLING: I actually - I had an idea about five years ago to do a show about a guy who hosted a late-night show. I always thought that would be fun to do because I find the personality of these guys really fascinating. I mean, it's - this is how I think of it. The only thing worse than being on TV every night is wanting to be on TV every night.

BIANCULLI: Once he started writing jokes, Garry Shandling got some early encouragement from George Carlin, headed to Hollywood and soon began writing scripts for such unlikely shows as "Sanford And Son" and "Welcome Back, Kotter." At first, that was where the work was. Then, as a standup, he scored big at the clubs and on TV, especially with Johnny Carson. Then he got his own shows on cable in the early days of both Showtime and HBO, before ending both series on his own terms, and for the rest of his life, adopting a much lower profile.

He threw a lot of effort into interviewing former cast members and writers of "The Larry Sanders Show" for a DVD box set, but that was about it. Shandling, at that point, was more interested in the bigger questions of life but was enough of a comedian to joke about it when interviewed by David Steinberg on his recent TV talk show.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "INSIDE COMEDY")

DAVID STEINBERG: Would you ever - do you think...

SHANDLING: Commit suicide?

STEINBERG: Yeah, well, I guess it's committing suicide, yeah.

SHANDLING: I've written a note.

STEINBERG: You have? You have it ready?

SHANDLING: I do.

STEINBERG: Really? What's on it?

SHANDLING: I'm not mad at anyone. This is just something I wanted to do for myself.

(LAUGHTER)

SHANDLING: That's my suicide note. Hey, I'm looking for someone to do the forward for the note. If you would do it, that would be fantastic.

STEINBERG: Sure.

SHANDLING: I know Garry is a very stable man.

STEINBERG: Are you writing my forward now? Is that what you just did?

SHANDLING: Yeah, I'm sorry.

STEINBERG: It's OK.

SHANDLING: Well, how would you write - what forward would you write for my suicide note?

STEINBERG: The lost to the comedy world is insurmountable. But he wasn't doing that much anyway just before he died, so maybe it was the right thing.

(LAUGHTER)

BIANCULLI: Death is a big part of this two-part HBO special called "The Zen Diaries Of Garry Shandling." It not only examines one of the major influences on Garry's life, the death of his older brother when they both were young boys, but follows the comedian's lifelong quest for spiritual peace and meaning. And, yes, this biography spends a lot of time looking for meaning itself - peeking into his private diaries.

One of the recurring threads is how powerfully Shandling affected scores of other comics, actors, TV writers and filmmakers who got pulled into his orbit. Sarah Silverman, Jeffrey Tambor, Conan O'Brien, Jerry Seinfeld and others are all on board telling how Shandling encouraged and influenced them. In one of Shandling's final TV appearances, on Seinfeld's "Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee," Seinfeld told him how the idea for his streaming talk show was inspired by the conversations they filmed while Shandling was making extras for the "Larry Sanders" box set.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "COMEDIANS IN CARS GETTING COFFEE")

JERRY SEINFELD: Well, there's a few things that the show is about, and one of them is friendship. Can you give me one more compliment - that I came up with a show that is such a perfect format for guys like us and particularly you. You know, partly where I got it from - our walk in Central Park that day doing DVD extras for "The Larry Sanders Show."

SHANDLING: You evidently have not been watching my show comedians in hospitals getting surgery.

SEINFELD: (Laughter).

BIANCULLI: Apatow interviews most of these fellow comics and adds his own stories about how Shandling helped so much when Apatow was writing "The 40-Year-Old Virgin." But the very best thing the director does here is give voice to Shandling himself - as when he's filmed two years before he died in 2016 at age 66, making his first stand-up appearance in years.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE ZEN DIARIES OF GARRY SHANDLING")

SHANDLING: I'm still single. I've been single my whole life. eHarmony just matched me up with a gun.

(LAUGHTER)

SHANDLING: Everybody thinks that you're weird if you didn't get married, yet the greatest religious leaders like Jesus and the pope and Buddha - not married. Buddha didn't get married because his wife said would have said, are you going to sit around like that all day?

(LAUGHTER)

SHANDLING: No, I'm meditating, honey. Well, why don't you meditate while you're taking out the trash?

BIANCULLI: "The Zen Diaries Of Garry Shandling" is very funny and gives Shandling the credit he's due in shaping TV comedy and history. I expected that - especially from someone as funny and smart as Judd Apatow. What I got from this HBO biography as a bonus was a deeply affecting TV show about the meaning of life - right up there with the final TV interviews by mythologist Joseph Campbell and British TV writer Dennis Potter. In his comedy, Garry Shandling always was in pursuit of the truth and contemplating real life. With this two-part HBO special, he and Judd Apatow achieved that very beautifully one last time.

GROSS: David Bianculli is editor of the website TV Worth Watching. His latest book is "The Platinum Age Of Television."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS IS THE THEME TO GARRY'S SHOW")

BILL LYNCH: (Singing) This is the theme to Garry's show, the theme to Garry's show. Garry called me up and asked me if I would write his theme song.

GROSS: If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed - like our interview with "Daily Show" correspondent Roy Wood Jr. and with Bart Ehrman, a scholar of early Christianity who is himself an agnostic - check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS IS THE THEME TO GARRY'S SHOW")

LYNCH: (Singing) This was the theme to Garry Shandling's show. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.