Garry Shandling died today at age 66.
I knew him well. Very well. Very, very well. In other words, extremely well. Intimately well. Incredibly well. Exceedingly well. Profoundly well. Vibrantly well. On-a-first-name-basis well. Like-the-back-of-my-hand well. The front, too.
No, his alter ego, Larry Sanders: the Shandling-created headliner in the greatest show about show business in the history of show business or any other business. Avoiding oxymorons, I rarely unite brilliant and TV or movies in the same sentence. But HBO’s “The Larry Sanders Show” was brilliant!!!! The exclamation points were earned.
I knew Shandling himself only slightly. We spoke a few times on the phone, and I was flattered when he asked me to write an essay for the most recent release of “The Larry Sanders Show” on DVD, surely because I’d endorsed his series so emphatically in my column. I said I’d take the gig if he would visit my TV symposium at the University of Southern California. He came, and we had fun that night. At least I did because Shandling—patiently, benevolently—didn’t step on my cheap jokes, even though he, not I, was the funnyman. And let me tell you, he was funny.
Yes, as a stand-up comic and sub for Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show.” And yes, on his innovative, much-undervalued Showtime series, “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show,” a send-up of traditional sitcoms in which he played himself, broke the fourth wall and pulled his studio audience into the comedy.
But his masterwork was “The Larry Sanders Show,” on which he played an insecure, egoistic, neurotic, immature, two-faced TV talk show host (“There’s another kind?”) alongside Rip Torn as his nursemaid producer, Artie, and Jeffrey Tambor as his darkly self-serving sidekick, Hank.
The series ran six scintillating seasons on HBO, departing in 1998 after never averaging more than a paltry two million viewers an episode, a wee closetful even by pay-TV standards. Yet it resonated stereophonically—not only as a booming howl much of the time, but in its ability to size up and portray the nasty side of the entertainment business without losing its sense of fun.
“The Larry Sanders Show” was probably not as consistently funny as my other favorite comedy, “Seinfeld.” But it didn’t have to be; its other attributes also commanded your attention. The writing was superb, at once subtle and sharp, even brutal sometimes, with no prisoners taken. Even when not yielding laughs, the series captivated you with its acid realism and the way it raked the raw psychoses of its muddied characters.
Well before Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” did it, “The Larry Sanders Show” was able to entice celebrities to mock and ridicule themselves, from David Spade (labeled a “little prick”) to David Duchovny playing himself as sexually ambiguous with eyes for Larry. And the thinness of Larry’s interviews was matched only by the anorexia of actual talk-show interviews in front of audiences primed to laugh at anything, however unfunny.
If you haven’t seen “The Larry Sanders Show,” find it somewhere, anywhere. Consider it Garry Shandling’s parting gift.