The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 150,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down).
Today, Garry Shandling is probably best known for being the creator of two of the most important television shows in modern TV comedy: It’s Garry Shandling’s Show and The Larry Sanders Show. Each series broke new ground in very different ways, whether it was Garry Shandling’s way of breaking the fourth wall and having character’s openly acknowledge the fact that they were on a TV show, or Larry Sanders’ method of finding humor in painfully awkward scenarios that inspired such shows as Curb Your Enthusiasm or The Office.
Garry has been relatively less prominent since the end of Larry Sanders, popping up occasionally in such films as Iron Man 2 or The Dictator. As a result, it can be easy to forget that he started as a standup comedian. He still performs in LA and tours occasionally, but his name isn’t associated with the craft the same way a Jerry Seinfeld is. However, before the TV shows, Garry Shandling wasn’t just a standup: he was one of the biggest there were. On March 18, 1981, after seven years of performing, Garry appeared on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show for the first time and became a regular performer, eventually working his way up the ranks to become a fill-in host for Carson until 1985.
Shandling’s on-stage personae was one of a man who was unable to understand the world around him, but despite his lack of luck with women, interacting with other people, and his own parents, he still manages to remain a little optimistic about life. On-stage, Garry was full of anxiety and seemed a little paranoid of the people around him that seemed to have the world figured out. This viewpoint would later be transplanted into his late-night counterpart Larry Sanders, but in 1984 when he created his first standup special for Showtime entitled Garry Shandling: Alone in Vegas, Garry found a unique way of spending some quality time one-on-one with the audience at home.
Looking at the resume above, it’s clear that Garry doesn’t like to do things the way people would expect him to. His first standup special is no different. The first fifteen minutes feature no actual standup; instead, Garry speaks directly to the camera, as he later would in It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, convincing us to come along with him to Vegas after his “girlfriend” Pattie refuses to come along just because she’s seeing a new guy, Dave.
These first 15 minutes serve as an extended introduction to Shandling’s world, but are ultimately very different from the standup performance that comprises the bulk of the special. During the sketch portion, Garry is able to sprinkle in his downtrodden personae, such as when he calls Pattie from the hotel phone and has this one-sided exchange: “Oh, hi. Dave? Is Patty there, Dave? She’s right next to you. No, don’t wake her, Dave. I’ll call back.” However, the ability to play with film, rather than simply be on stage for the full hour, allows Garry to create some larger, more visual jokes. For example, when Garry is on the plane, about to take off, he looks down at the safety instructions and sees this:
Or when he arrives in Las Vegas and goes to pick up his luggage, he has to pick a number and hope that his luggage lands on that number on the carousel that is designed to look like a giant roulette wheel. (He doesn’t win). To really hit home his “unlucky in love” personae, later in the special we see that Garry has gone to great lengths to find a girl to accompany him, putting up a marquee outside his hotel room that reads: “Garry Shandling in Room 2204.”
The special is also a good excuse for Shandling to do something you can’t easily do in a traditional standup hour: bring out a friend. Desperate for some female attention, Garry pays a visit to his fellow Tonight Show fill-in host, Joan Rivers. Like every other woman in the special, she is not at all excited to see Garry, who she is immediately able to identify by his “wimpy knock” on her door. The scene between them is short and sweet and jumps immediately from her letting him in (“Do I have a choice? Who dumped you this time?”) to them filing their nails together, as Garry wonders aloud why women aren’t interested in him. Joan tries to bolster his self-esteem: “I don’t get it, Garry. You are so good looking, you have nice hair, your eyes are great, you act like you’re fun on a date, you’ve got a great sense of humor. You dress well, you’re charming, you’re tall, you’re straight…” Garry cuts her off: “So, if you were single, you’d date me?” Joan responds immediately: “Never.”
Before watching this special, with the exception of a smattering of brief clips of him performing on The Tonight Show, I was mostly unfamiliar with Shandling as a standup. What surprised me the most was his fast-paced delivery. Having only this snapshot of a performance to judge him by, there’s a chance that this pacing is due to the fact that the first 15 minutes of his special is comprised of the filmed portions, but his standup is filled to the brim with jokes, delivered at a machine-gun-like pace. Within just a few moments, at one point Garry transitions from a piece of material on his parents, to talking about a bowl of wax fruit, to the differences between the ways in which men and women use the bathroom.
Like the portion of the special that preceded it, the standup is also dominated by material reflecting Garry’s lack of luck with women. He talks about taking a date to Disneyland and trying to look macho on the merry-go-round when there are only swans available to sit on. He talks about the fact that he read that it was erotic to rub oil on each other and so he has two cans of Mobil oil on his bed stand. He talks about driving a woman home from a date and wondering if there is going to be sex involved later, and if so, if it’s going to involve him.
Though there are a few jokes that feel a bit dated today (for example, when he wonders if when a dog sees a human using the toilet if they get upset, since they drink out of there), the majority of his material stands the test of time. With his desire to go above and beyond the traditional framework of the standup special, Garry Shandling: Alone in Vegas serves as the perfect preview of a much larger and more diverse body of work. We see his comedic sense of humor gel and develop as Garry walks through his path, taking him from sitcom writer to standup to sitcom writer/star. In 1984, Garry may have been a long way from Larry Sanders, but he was certainly walking down the right path.