Friday, March 25, 2016

It's Garry Shandling's Life

If Garry Shandling did nothing else, THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW would be his perfect comedy statement. Anyone who's written for or been around talk show hosts immediately recognized Larry Sanders. Vain, insecure, petty, funny, and cocksure, reliant upon an unseen backstage army, constantly worried about his place in the food chain. Who would want to live like that? Well, Larry Sanders, for one.

Showbiz is a generally awful place, filled with genuinely awful people. Shandling made this his centerpiece, and there were more than a few cringe-inducing moments on LARRY SANDERS. Yet, despite the shallowness of his character, Shandling made him funny and compelling. As bad as Larry could be, he was often outpaced by his celebrity guests. You almost felt sorry for him.

Like Roseanne and Seinfeld, Shandling surrounded himself with first-rate character actors. Rip Torn as Larry's producer and Jeffrey Tambor as his announcer gave the show its kick. Penny Johnson, as Larry's personal assistant Beverly, convincingly showed how frustrating and maddening that job would be. The rest of the revolving cast -- Janeane Garofalo, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Jeremy Piven, Scott Thompson, Wallace Langham, Sarah Silverman, Bob Odenkirk, among others -- added texture to Larry's tortured world.

I don't know if Shandling was looking to influence the likes of Tina Fey and Larry David, but their respective shows bear the LARRY SANDERS mark. Shandling simply did his best work about a world he intimately understood. And while he was considered cutting edge for his time, Shandling owed much to the comedy before him.

IT'S GARRY SHANDLING'S SHOW, his first series, is often lauded as being meta -- breaking the fourth wall, acknowledging the medium, playing with form. But as I'm sure Shandling knew, this was done at television's dawn.

THE BURNS AND ALLEN SHOW offered the same conceit, though at a time when most Americans didn't own a TV. George Burns, as himself, talked to the audience, set up subsequent scenes, even watched his own show on a monitor in his office, commenting on the characters. As contemporary as Shandling was, he also honored the classics (Jack Benny, too).

In an age of interchangeable, frenzied comedy, Shandling seems almost sedate and measured. Not many comics find that quiet voice. Rest in that peace, Garry Shandling.