Paul F. Tompkins: Impersonating Garry Marshall Felt Like Spending Time With Him

The author, left, with Garry Marshall. Photo: Courtesy of Paul F. Tompkins

I loved Garry Marshall. The television shows he created in the '80s were the most deeply important entertainment of my childhood. Happy DaysLaverne & ShirleyMork & Mindy — it takes no effort at all to conjure, physically, the profound excitement I felt watching these shows in prime time. I remember sitting on the floor, too close to the TV, rapt. Fonzie was impossibly cool. Lenny and Squiggy were the perfect supporting weirdos. Mork, played by Robin Williams, was my introduction to improv, and my first real peek behind the curtain of television production; I had seen Williams riffing on The Tonight Show and soon put it together that certain scenes with Mork were not scripted. Oh, they're letting him just say whatever he wants for a little bit. This is two kinds of magic, and I am in on it!

I knew all of these wonderful things came from a man named Garry Marshall. I saw his name in the opening credits of every one of these shows. And because I devoured sitcoms — anything comedy, anything at all, as often as I could — I knew he also gave me The Odd Couple, that he had a hand in The Dick Van Dyke Show (a show set in show business!), and that sometimes he would even appear on the shows himself. From childhood, I knew exactly who Garry Marshall was and I loved him for what he gave me. 

I was an insecure, anxious kid, and I was drawn to comedy as a life preserver. Those half-hours of television were an invaluable escape for me. And they helped me out the next day, too, because my classmates had all seen these shows as well, and being able to imitate the characters and exchanges with some degree of accuracy made me special for a few moments. Those moments were crucial to my emotional survival.

When I grew up and chose a career, I chose comedy, just like Garry Marshall. I actually made a go of it, eventually getting to work in television — my childhood dream, inspired by those hundreds of Garry Marshall–produced half-hours, come true. Sometime around 2009 (maybe 2008?), Paul Scheer was hosting a live show at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre on Franklin Avenue in Los Angeles called "Director's Commentary," in which a bunch of improvisers screen a well-known movie and sit in the front row with microphones, pretending to be people involved in the film and providing fake anecdotes as the movie plays. Paul told me the film would be Pretty Woman and asked what character I'd like to play. For whatever reason, I felt like I could do a Garry Marshall impression.

As the movie started and I spoke my first words as "Garry," I immediately knew I was on to something. Talking like this guy was so much fun. I felt like I had a handle on him immediately. I didn’t actually get many laughs that night, because I was more into capturing the real essence of Garry Marshall than I was into making up ridiculous stories (which was, to be fair, the point of the show). Nevertheless, I’d discovered this was something fun I could do and looked for a chance to do it again.

A year (or two) later, podcasting came into my life in a meaningful way. Between my Pod F. Tompkast and Scott Aukerman’s Comedy Bang Bang, I was imitating Garry Marshall on a regular basis. It was always a joy to perform him as a character and to interact as him with other people. It made me feel good. My affection for him was deeply embedded in the characterization. I always felt enormously protective of him. Riffing on a podcast can take you down some weird roads, but it was important to me to never sell out the actual person that my character was based upon. He truly meant something to me.

I got to meet him, once. I am a cast member of a cartoon for grown-ups, BoJack Horseman, a show set in show business. In our second season there was an arc that saw BoJack, the title character, acting in a mainstream Hollywood feel-good movie to be directed by a genial hack named “Abe.” I received the script for the first episode in this arc and scanned the names of the guest cast. I couldn’t believe my eyes — Garry Marshall was going to play Abe and would be present at the table read. My heart swelled with excitement and my stomach turned with anxiety; I was thrilled at the prospect of getting to meet him and mortified at the idea that he might have heard that I do an impression of him.

When I arrived to the table read (late, as always), Mr. Marshall was already there. As soon as I saw him every inch of me felt charged with electricity. We read the script. Mr. Marshall’s character and mine did not interact in the script, and thank God, because I could not bring myself to look at him when I spoke, lest I see that he was looking at me. Immediately after the read ended, I forced myself to walk around the table and introduce myself.  As nervous as I was, I was instantly calmed because Garry Marshall was as Garry Marshall as I could have ever hoped for him to be. He said it was nice to meet me and told me I had done a good job at the table read. I asked if I could get a picture with him. Sure, whatevah ya want! We could do a selfie, whatevah! As I turned the camera around he explained to me that he was wearing a red sweater because he was on his way to a Christmas party in Burbank.

I was so relieved — of course he had no idea who I was! Why should he? Now I was meeting him as me, really me, not whatever version of me I project in professional circumstances. I was meeting him as a fan of Garry Marshall. The picture is kind of perfect — terrified of wasting his time, I didn’t take time to compose my face into any sort of flattering (in my view) mask, and so the expression on my face is my honest joy at meeting him. I can actually see my childhood self in the photo. At the time, I thanked him for the picture but I was, truly, thanking him for so, so much more. He gave me so, so much.

In that BoJack season two story line, we are, at first, meant to view Abe as a crass non-artist to be looked down upon. We are supposed to dislike his apparent cynicism: We’re better than him. But then we are shown that Abe is, in fact, very sincere about the traditional, crowd-pleasing studio pictures he makes — it never occurred to us that, because we don’t like them, because his movies are not “cool,” because he doesn’t agonize over the filmmaking process, that there could be a heart behind these movies. Garry Marshall was the perfect person to play this character, and was extremely cool to agree to do it. It’s easy to mock mainstream entertainment, to dismiss it as unimportant. But it was important to Garry Marshall. He was unpretentious and not at all self-conscious in his approach to film and television. He made entertainment for people. That was his job and that was his life. His work made a difference to me and no doubt will continue to make a difference to countless others. 

I will miss imitating him, because in a way, it felt like spending time with him. I’m just grateful I got as much Garry Marshall, both real and imagined, as I got.