Garry Shandling, a comedian who deftly walked a tightrope between comic fiction and show-business reality on two critically praised cable shows, died on Thursday in Los Angeles. He was 66.
A spokesman for the Los Angeles police confirmed the death but did not give a cause. TMZ, the celebrity news site, reported that Mr. Shandling had had a heart attack.
Mr. Shandling, who began his comedy career as a writer and went on to become one of the most successful stand-up comics of the 1980s, was best known for “The Larry Sanders Show,” a dark look at life behind the scenes of a late-night talk show. It ran on HBO from 1992 to 1998.
Mr. Shandling’s Larry Sanders was the host of a fictional show within the show, interviewing real celebrities playing themselves in segments that were virtually indistinguishable from real talk shows like “The Tonight Show.” (Mr. Shandling had frequently substituted for Johnny Carson as the “Tonight Show” host.)
But the show was mostly concerned with what happened when the cameras were off, especially the interplay among Larry, his bumbling announcer and sidekick (Jeffrey Tambor) and his mercurial producer (Rip Torn).
“The Larry Sanders Show,” often cited as a groundbreaking precursor of shows like “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “30 Rock,” was the second show by Mr. Shandling to take an unorthodox approach. The first, “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show,” seen on Showtime from 1986 to 1990, freely admitted that it was a show, with Mr. Shandling often breaking the fourth wall by speaking directly to the audience.
Garry Emmanuel Shandling was born in Chicago on Nov. 29, 1949, and grew up in Tucson. His father, Irving, owned a print shop; his mother, Muriel, ran a pet store. An older brother, Barry, died of cystic fibrosis when Garry was 10.
He became interested in comedy at an early age, but put his show-business ambitions aside to study electrical engineering at the University of Arizona. In his junior year he wrote a monologue that he managed to get to George Carlin, who encouraged him to pursue a comedy career, but that was still a few years away.
After moving to Los Angeles in 1973, he worked in an advertising agency while writing and trying to sell sitcom scripts. He sold one to the producers of the hit Redd Foxx series “Sanford and Son” in 1975 and went on to write three more scripts for that show and one for “Welcome Back, Kotter” before trying his luck as a stand-up comic.
His rise was rapid, and in March 1981 he reached what at the time was considered a milestone in any comedian’s career: an appearance on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.” “His name is Garry Shandling,” Mr. Carson told the audience that night. “You’ll hear a lot about him.” Before long, Mr. Shandling had become a frequent guest host.
His comedy was dry, self-deprecating and sometimes a bit absurd. A frequent subject was his sexual prowess, or lack thereof:
“After making love I said to my girl, ‘Was it good for you too?’ And she said, ‘I don’t think this was good for anybody.’”
“I’m dating a woman now who, evidently, is unaware of it.”
Offered his own series by Showtime, Mr. Shandling created “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show” with the former “Saturday Night Live” writer Alan Zweibel. As suggested by its title, and by a theme song that began, “This is the theme to Garry’s show,” the series simultaneously adhered to sitcom conventions and mocked them by admitting that the characters were just actors on a set reciting dialogue.
“It’s Garry Shandling’s Show” ran for four seasons on Showtime and was also briefly rerun on the Fox network. It was nominated for four Emmy Awards and won four Cable ACE awards. Not long after it went off the air, Mr. Shandling was back, this time on HBO, with a show that crossed the line between show business and the real world in a different way.
Playing a talk-show host who was, as Jacques Steinberg wrote in The New York Times, “a too-close-for-comfort amalgam of Johnny Carson, David Letterman, Jay Leno and Jack Paar,” Mr. Shandling offered a jaundiced insider view of the television business.
Mr. Shandling’s Larry was egotistical and anxiety-ridden. His producer, Artie, was ruthless and deceitful. His sidekick, Hank, was eager to please and almost completely clueless.
In its six seasons, “The Larry Sanders Show” won near-unanimous critical praise and numerous Emmy Award nominations. And the real world of Garry Shandling intersected with the fictional world of Larry Sanders more than once.
The actress Linda Doucett, who played Hank’s loyal assistant, was in real life Mr. Shandling’s fiancée. She was fired after they broke up and sued Mr. Shandling for sexual harassment and wrongful termination. That suit was eventually settled, as was Mr. Shandling’s suit against Brad Grey, his former manager and an executive producer of the show.
When CBS lured David Letterman away from NBC in 1993, a year after “The Larry Sanders Show” had debuted, by giving him a show that would directly compete with “The Tonight Show,” NBC offered Mr. Letterman’s former time slot to Mr. Shandling. He turned down the job. It went to a virtually unknown writer named Conan O’Brien.
Mr. Shandling’s profile was never again as high as it was during the “Larry Sanders” years, but the show’s influence has been lasting. “30 Rock” borrowed its unblinking warts-and-all look at how television is made; “Curb Your Enthusiasm” embraced its use of real celebrities to play versions of themselves that were perhaps only slight exaggerations.
Its influence was also felt in less obvious ways. David Chase, the creator of “The Sopranos,” once said that “The Larry Sanders Show” “inspired me to want to do something really good for television.”
Mr. Shandling continued to appear on TV talk shows, notably Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show” and Craig Ferguson’s “Late Late Show,” and occasionally acted in movies, including “Iron Man 2” (2012) and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (2014). In both he played a United States senator.
Mr. Shandling, who never married, leaves no immediate survivors.
Just a few months ago Mr. Shandling was a guest on Jerry Seinfeld’s popular web series “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” in an episode eerily titled “It’s Great That Garry Shandling Is Still Alive.” Eighteen years earlier, Mr. Seinfeld had praised Mr. Shandling’s comedic instincts.
“Comedians all wait around to hear things that they can use,” Mr. Seinfeld said in 1998. “With Garry, it’s like being in a boat with a guy who’s constantly reeling in fish.”
In 2007, nine years after “The Larry Sanders Show” went off the air, Mr. Shandling spoke to The Times about his post-“Sanders” life.
“It’s very similar to — what is it? — the seven stages of grieving,” he said. “First there’s the shock. Now I’m going to head for something funny here. Then there’s denial, acceptance and” — he paused — “masturbation.”
The creator of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show and The Larry Sanders Show gave US comedy two of its most original series and influenced everyone from Judd Apatow to Larry David and Ricky Gervais
Thursday 24 March 2016
Garry Shandling, who died on Thursday at the age of 66, doesn’t have the name recognition of superstars such as Jerry Seinfeld, Tina Fey or Larry David, but without him none of the landmark shows they created might have existed. Shandling was a standup, host and comedy writer, but his legacy will really be felt in the two sitcoms that he made – It’s Garry Shandling’s Show and The Larry Sanders Show – both of which pushed the envelope in terms of the tone and direction that sitcoms can take.
It’s Garry Shandling’s Show ran on Showtime and Fox from 1986 to 1990, when both were still nascent forces on TV. They were the only places brave enough to let Shandling experiment with a show where he plays himself, a comedian named Garry Shandling, and often spoke directly to both the studio audience and the audience at home. Though this was a trick employed by George Burns when Shandling was younger, all the characters on the show knew that they were on a sitcom. It’s the sort of meta comedy that now pervades the likes of Community.
The first show about nothing was never huge with audiences but was nominated for four Emmys and was a hit both with critics and comedians who used what Shandling was doing and sanded off the edges, creating shows that might have tested very poorly with audiences but became huge mainstream hits, such as Seinfeld.
The success of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show and Shandling’s stint as the “permanent guest host” of The Tonight Show while it was hosted by Johnny Carson set him up perfectly to create his masterpiece, The Larry Sanders Show. This time Shandling was playing the vain and difficult host of a late-night talk show. The HBO sitcom, which ran for six seasons from 1992 to 1998, took viewers backstage to see just how awful and bumbling the people behind the talk show’s velvet curtain can be. While it was never as absurd as 30 Rock, it paved the way for the show about a show.
To add that special ingredient, The Larry Sanders Show featured real celebrities playing versions of themselves, something that has since been employed in all sorts of shows such as Entourage, Extras and, of course, Curb Your Enthusiasm. A famous example is when David Duchovny plays a gay version of himself who is obsessed with Larry in the last episode of the series (which, in the It’s Garry Sandling’s Show tradition, is about Larry Sanders’s final episode).
The behind-the-scenes footage on The Larry Sanders Show was shot in a documentary style with hand-held cameras, something that would be taken on by everything from The Office to Modern Family.
The Office and its ilk also share the tone and pathos that Larry David made acceptable and palatable for modern comedy audiences. Like the bar on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Larry Sanders’ office was full of awful people lying, cheating and stealing their way to success or, more often, failure – such as when Larry gets embroiled in a tabloid scandal because his PR rep told him to lie about pushing a woman over in a supermarket.
“It taught me that flawed characters can be compulsive viewing – seeing them squirm and get their comeuppance,” Ricky Gervais said about the show in 2010. In the same year the Guardian’s Andrew Pulver said, “This is where it all began. The whole postmodernist, self-reflexive fact-fiction sitcom thing – loudly claimed by the likes of Alan Partridge, Entourage, Curb Your Enthusiasm and 30 Rock.”
Another direct influence was on Hollywood heavyweight Judd Apatow, who worked as a writer and producer on the show and made his directorial debut with the episode Putting the ‘Gay’ Back in Litigation, in the show’s final season. “One thing Garry used to say that had a big impact on me was that the show was about people who loved each other but show business got in the way,” Apatow said on the DVD extras for The Larry Sanders Show. He said the difficult schedule and Shandling’s demand for excellence made him better when he made his first show, the cult classic Freaks and Geeks.
Though it never had a Game of Thrones-sized audience on HBO, Larry Sanders was the network’s first Emmy bait, receiving 56 nominations over the course of its run and winning three, one for Shandling and Peter Tolan for writing the series finale, one for Todd Holland for directing it and one for Rip Torn, who played the show’s producer, Artie.
Even for those who know Shandling only for his appearances in the Iron Man movies making a few cracks at Tony Stark’s expense, the innovations that he pioneered in comedy can still be felt every time we turn on the tube. TV was never the same after him, and it won’t be the same without him.
HISTORY has been doubly unkind to “The Larry Sanders Show,” the enormously influential, deeply neurotic HBO comedy that starred Garry Shandling as the anguished talk-show host of its title and Jeffrey Tambor as his bombastic but insecure sidekick, Hank Kingsley. First, the series ended its six-season run in 1998, before its cinematic, laugh-track-averse style (and its meta-fictional show-within-a-show) became the norm. Then, for years, only a handful of its episodes were available on home video. At least one of those wrongs will soon be righted. On Tuesday “The Larry Sanders Show: The Complete Series” will be released as a 17-DVD boxed set by Shout! Factory.
To mark the occasion Mr. Shandling and Mr. Tambor spoke by phone with Dave Itzkoff about their time together on “Larry Sanders.” These are excerpts from that conversation.
Q. You haven’t tired of talking about Larry Sanders, I hope.
GARRY SHANDLING It takes me so long to get tired of a man. It’s women that are the problem. Don’t get me wrong. I think men have their problems, just as much as women. I wouldn’t want to have to marry either sex.
JEFFREY TAMBOR Hi, Garry.
SHANDLING Jeffrey, did you get to hear me just do a couple jokes?
TAMBOR I just did.
Q. Your characters on the show felt almost uncomfortably real. How much of your true selves were in those performances?
SHANDLING People always go, “What’s the difference between Larry and Garry?” The combination of Larry and Garry is: I know I have been saying I’ve got to come watch Jeffrey’s acting class for probably 8, 10 years or forever, and I haven’t made it, and I apologize.
TAMBOR Now who’s that talking?
SHANDLING That’s a combination. I really mean to come because I want to see it, and I forget.
TAMBOR So neither of you will be attending, is that correct?
SHANDLING We will both be attending very soon.Continue reading the main story
Q. Jeffrey, how were you cast on the show?
TAMBOR I was actually auditioning for something else, for Garry’s [producing] partner on “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show,” Alan Zweibel. It was just not right for me, but Alan looked at me and said, “Do you mind if I make a call to my friend?” Two days later I was in Garry’s office.
SHANDLING My side of that is: While he was fielding that, I was semi-tortured. Or was that an Oliver Stone movie?
TAMBOR I was up for that.
SHANDLING That was one of my favorites. It wasn’t an up ending, as I remember. And [a cellphone rings] I don’t even want to know.
TAMBOR It’s mine.
SHANDLING Was that Jamaican music?
TAMBOR I’ve made a lot of changes. We’ll catch up.
SHANDLING Yeah, you have dreads now. So, I was semi-tortured that we hadn’t found Hank, and I had put another actor through a real workout of trying to make him right. I did not know Jeffrey, but we were improvising a bit, and within the scene I made for the door, and Jeffrey took a chair and blocked the door. Our chemistry was immediately intact.
Q. Was it ever difficult when you were called upon to bring out the darker sides of your characters, or to come into conflict with one another?
SHANDLING “The Larry Sanders Show,” it’s actually about love, which would sound like a paradox at first. But if that love didn’t exist, the darker attitudes would not play. You would have a one-dimensional, cynical show, which I don’t think the show was.
TAMBOR When they would call, “Cut,” Garry had this gesture that he used throughout the years that we were together. It’s his palm extended towards you, and he looked at each of us, and it was sort of like, “Are you O.K.?” And each of us nodded, and he’d say, “O.K., print.” Basically, he was saying: Bring all you have. Bring all your good stuff, and don’t worry. Bring your mistakes too. Bring the dark parts as well as the light. A finished performance wasn’t required. An honest performance was required.
Q. One crucial member of the cast was Rip Torn, who played the hard-charging producer, Artie. What was it like to work with him?
SHANDLING He tried to rob the show twice.
TAMBOR Rip is Rip, and we were thankful to have him. He’s one of our legends and like any national treasure is to be protected.
SHANDLING With Rip he came in the first time, and his agent said he wouldn’t read. Weeks later it was just him and me in a room with no one else, and I said to Rip, “Could we read half of this together?” And he said, “I don’t want to read.” I said, “That’s totally fine,” and I pushed it to the side of the table. We talked for less than another minute, and he reached over and took the page, and he starts the scene. It’s like trying to describe a good date to a friend the next day. I had to say to HBO and everybody else, “Honestly, this is the best sex I have had.”
Q. It was never a secret that Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” was the primary inspiration for “Larry Sanders.” Did he ever give you feedback on your show?
SHANDLING I don’t recall Johnny saying anything specifically to me. But Peter Lassally, the producer of “The Tonight Show” then, told me that Johnny really liked the show. Peter Lassally would call me, “We have a saying here backstage, on tough days when things aren’t going right, and we can’t get a guest or any number of other circumstances: This is a Larry Sanders moment.” And he still does that, evidently, over at Craig Ferguson.
TAMBOR When I studied “The Tonight Show,” I saw two remarkable things. When Mr. Carson did his monologue, Ed was no more than 10 feet away, even though it seems like he’s across the stage. And he’s totally appreciative and laughs at every single thing. And then they went to commercial and they both turned, like ships of state, and they sat in dim light until they came back from commercial. And they sat in silence, like for 30 seconds. And I totally got the relationship.
Q. What made you decide to bring “Larry Sanders” to a close?
SHANDLING I think that the show had a natural, organic running time. I did bear the brunt of the running the show, besides being in it, and we probably should have done less episodes a season, certainly at the beginning. I remember sitting at the table, the last season, with Judd [Apatow, a “Larry Sanders” writer and producer] alone, we were rewriting a script at midnight, and I said, “Judd, you think the show goes another season?” And he said, “Garry, do you want to spend this summer with new writers explaining the characters again?” We had a situation in which the writers were leaving the show for other Brillstein-Grey shows, which became part of the issue of a lawsuit that’s in the past. I’m so proud of that last season that it seems right.
Q. What did you ultimately learn from making the show?
SHANDLING There’s probably a lesson for real life, which is that everybody needs to be our true selves instead of jacking it up and trying to make it faster and better, which is a reflection of the problem we’re having in the country right now. Forgive me while I say the most important thing, which is this country seemed to be doing better when “The Larry Sanders Show” was on. I don’t want to sound like a politician but the economy was O.K.