American comedian Garry Shandling passed away suddenly on March 24th 2016, at the age of 66. Audiences in the UK may have seen his two landmark TV sitcoms – It’s Garry Shandling’s Show and The Larry Sanders Show – on BBC Two, the latter having been buried in a late-night slot, yet still finding a cult following, particularly amongst comics like Sacha Baron Cohen and Ricky Gervais.
However, he may have been seen somewhat more widely by mainstream audiences with his appearance in The X-Files episode ‘Hollywood A.D.’, where he played himself playing Fox Mulder in a fictional movie production about the two FBI agents. Shandling also supplied the voice of Verne the tortoise in Over The Hedge, and turned up as Senator Stern in Iron Man 2 and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Chances are that even if you couldn’t place his name, you’d have come across some of his work at some stage.
Shandling’s been credited with breaking new ground when it came to situation comedy. It’s Garry Shandling’s Show was set in a world where Garry played a fictionalised version of himself, who was aware he was actually living in a sitcom. He would not only regularly break the fourth wall, he would also interact directly with the studio audience, walk off the side of the set, and play with such tropes as the passage of time to move plots along. It presaged later series like Sean Hughes’ Sean’s Show, and even Mrs Brown’s Boys.
The Larry Sanders Show was an entirely different venture, as it dealt with Shandling portraying a vain, monomaniacal and thin-skinned late night American talk show host. The revolutionary part came with it being split between actual staged talk show segments all shot on videotape with real celebrities, and showing the behind-the-scenes wranglings, power struggles and ego clashes, shot on film to distinguish between the two sides of the curtain. It inspired similarly-themed shows like Michael Barrymore vehicle Bob Martin, and the pairing of ITV’s Moving Wallpaper & Echo Beach.
Throughout his career, Shandling helped nurture new and rising talent, taking a number of people under his wing. One such individual was Judd Apatow, best known for the series Freaks And Geeks, as well as movies which include The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Trainwreck, and This Is 40. Apatow crossed paths with Shandling at an early age, as he was in his teens when he did a telephone interview with the comedian for a High School radio show.
The following decade, Apatow was introduced to Shandling, and ended up writing jokes for Shandling’s stint as host of the 1991 Grammy Awards. It started a lifelong friendship, with Shandling also acting as mentor to Apatow. Following Shandling’s death, Apatow announced that he was working on a documentary about Shandling’s life, which appeared on HBO in 2018. Apatow had access to Shandling’s personal archive, including journals going all the way back to 1978, and used this material as the basis of The Zen Diaries Of Garry Shandling.
The two-part documentary gave an intimate and personal portrait of Garry Shandling, using his own words, including archive standup footage and interviews, as well as candid moments from home movies. Friends and colleagues were also on hand to give their reminiscences, as well as paying tribute to Shandling. At the core of the project, however, were Shandling’s journals, with selected excerpts being used throughout.
In the introduction to It’s Garry Shandling’s Book, Apatow says that people who’d seen the documentary told him how much those extracts had meant to them, with some viewers even taking screen shots. This seems to have inspired him to put together one final Shandling-related project, going through the archive to compile what’s essentially a part-autobiography, part-tribute and part-scrapbook, bringing us fuller versions of the letters, notes, clippings and other documents used on screen.
With Apatow being behind both the documentary and the book, there’s inevitably more than a modicum of overlap between the two, with material from many of the same contributors cropping up in both. As a result, It’s Garry Shandling’s Book is something of a companion piece to that earlier project, expanding on some of what’s already been presented. However, it’s not to the detriment of the book, as not everyone who reads this will have seen the documentary, so it does manage to stand on its own.
It’s Garry Shandling’s Book takes us on a chronological journey through Shandling’s life, broken up into chapters which cover significant periods in his story, such as his boyhood years in Tucson, and his first steps into standup comedy, as well as the creation of his two TV shows. As it takes a scrapbook as its theme, the layout and design is rather patchy at points, with no consistent style used for the way in which quotes are presented; as such, you can find your eyes darting all over the page at times, trying to work out the flow of things.
Another significant shortcoming is that there’s no index, which can make it hard to try and find specific parts you may want to revisit, making the whole exercise somewhat time consuming. The tome itself is rather weighty, and is in quite a large format, but it’s understandable when the focus is on Shandling’s own writings; consequently, you want to be able to see them as clearly as possible in order to study them (particularly as Shandling’s handwriting can be rather scrawly at times), so the larger size of the finished product makes sense.
One of the risks of having an insight into someone you like or admire can be a double-edged sword – you may end up finding they’re not quite the person you thought they were, and at worst it can be a disillusioning process. Shandling is revealed as quite an introspective, self-analytical individual, who – despite coming from a Jewish background – spent a significant part of his life following Zen Buddhist teachings, trying to constantly self-improve and to rid himself of the burden of ego, which comes as a surprise for a comedian or entertainer.
With anyone who works in comedy, getting a close look into their inner workings and psyche can sometimes result in the sort of ‘tears of a clown’ exposé which has become all-too familiar – the sort of ‘only laughing on the outside’ reveal, masking some deep, dark tragedy. Shandling lost his elder brother at an early age, and it deeply affected him, but in his writings you get to see someone who’s strived to try and grow from that, as well as his own near-death experience in 1977. The book also doesn’t flinch away from the episodes where he perhaps didn’t live up to Zen teachings, so it’s a very open and honest portrait.
Whether you’re coming to Garry Shandling for the very first time, or you’re a long-term fan of his work, there’s enough here to satisfy anybody wanting to know more about the man both on and offstage (or screen); even the most ardent devotee will find something new about Shandling that they didn’t know before. It isn’t just a book for his admirers, but also for anybody who wants to get a glimpse into the inner workings of a truly creative mind. Plus, there are also plenty of dick jokes, if you happen to get bored.