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Iron Man 2’s Garry Shandling on Conan, Leno, Tiger

Garry Shandling is back — as sharp and hysterical as ever, as we happily discovered in this interview for the magazine this week. He’s been called back to action in Iron Man 2, but he had so much more to say — about Tiger Woods, Hugh Hefner, Conan, Jay, and more — that we couldn’t fit it into our pages. So here’s the extended cut. Welcome back, Garry. We hope to see much more of you.

Hi Garry.
You don’t mind if I talk on the cell? No. I like to talk on the cell when I do interviews. That way, I double my chances of getting brain cancer: from the cell phone, and from the questions.

Well, I’ll do my best. Maybe if my questions are bad enough, the brain tumor will give you some sort of superpowers. You are in Iron Man 2
How long have you been a reporter?

Eleven years. I hear you’ve been acting for a while too.
I started acting class in 1983 with a man named Roy London. So that’s, yeah, a while.

So how the hell did you end up in Iron Man 2?
I knew Jon Favreau a bit. But it turns out he saw me on Tavis Smiley, which is a show on public television—

Yes, I’ve heard of it.
… Talking about politics. Then I was in Hawaii. Jon Favreau called. He became like a human being and a director approaching me in a human way. He told me: “This is not the time to withdraw.” Sometimes I just disappear.

I’d like to think that your role is kind of like a comedic superhero called back to fight.
It was like that, actually. I’d just finished wrapping up the It’s Garry Shandling’s Show boxed set. It was like a grueling flashback to my life in the mid-eighties … I’d just finished getting rid of all the stuff I did in my past when Jon approached me in a human way. I was hanging around in Hawaii, which I do a lot of — sometimes I just disappear. And he told me, “This is not the time to withdraw.” And to work as an actor with Downey and Rockwell and Cheadle — that’s what Jon wanted to give me as a gift to get me going. I really had a good time . Having a good time is not something that’s common for me …

What happens when you don’t have a good time?
When I don’t have a good time, it’s usually because there’s a stiffness that stifles creativity. I would ask you as a writer, if stifles and stiffness are forms of the same word? For me, with that stiffness comes stifling — and then there’s no way to have creative moments that transcend the script — but the cast was so good and they were given that latitude …

So it sounds like you’re going to be acting more. You’re not heading back to Hawaii?
I’d like to do more acting. If I do go back to Hawaii, I’ll just act like I’m in Hawaii. I’ll still be working on my craft. People will ask, “Did you fly to Hawaii?” I’ll say, “No, I’m acting like I’m in Hawaii.” Or, I don’t even need to go: “I’ve got my acting chops up, I can just act like I’m in Hawaii wherever.”

In the film, you play Senator Stern. It’s your first big blockbuster action movie. Were you nervous?
At first, it was like three pages, and we talked about it and by the time I sat down with Robert Downey, it was twelve pages. Then it was fifteen pages. I’m at the beginning of the movie and at the end of the movie, so my fear was that the other actors would screw up the middle part and the audience would forget who I was. That’s what a lot of people try to do: wrap the work around me so that it starts strong and ends strong. And the last scene is the power position. Without me, the closing credits can’t start.

True. I suppose you could filibuster.
I could filibuster — and then no one would see their name at the end, so I had a lot of leverage.

How did you get along with Robert Downey Jr.?
He has an enormously self-deprecating sense of humor. I think I have a good self-deprecating sense of humor. It’s a beautiful standoff to see. Like, “This is how much I hate myself.” Then, “No, this is how much I hate myself.” He’s nimble. The first day, Robert sat down next to me and said, “Where’d you grow up?” I said, “I was born in Chicago, raised in Arizona, and then I moved to Los Angeles.” He said, “That’s so interesting, I was born in New York, I moved to L.A., and then I went for rehab in Arizona.” He had a little smile on his face. I thought, “This is a guy I get … “

There couldn’t be a better time to play a sleazy politician.
Yes. And Senator Stern doesn’t need to be a Republican or Democrat. He’s just happy that he is on TV, grilling Tony Stark. You shouldn’t forget that Senator Al Franken exists. So it’s not such a leap for a funny person to play a senator in a movie. People said Franken had no real experience, but I still stand by the fact that he’d been on television more than any other senator ever had, and that’s a major attribute. Very few politicians serve themselves well on TV and yet they try and try and try. Al Franken has that one licked. But that first day was confusing to me because I had misunderstood. I thought they were doing Anchor Man 2. When Robert first began the scene, I said, “Where’s Will?”

And Senator Stern grandstands, right?
Here’s the irony: Tony Stark has privatized the best defense weaponry in the country, and President Obama is talking about privatizing the space program. Toyota could eventually end up going past the moon because it can’t stop. One day we could have a space program in the private sector and history will be changed because the urgent call made to the control center is: “Houston, we have a problem with the floor mats.”

Did anything not go well?
We had a little disagreement, because I thought Iron Man 2 should end with me saying, “I am Senator Stern,” The same way he said “I am Iron Man” in the first one.

So what’s next for you?
Well, Jon would ask me to come and just watch the scenes, and ask what I thought. Or I’d just try to walk into the frame while it was being filmed. And Jon involved me in all aspects of the movie, even the special effects. Now I’m learning how to make a romantic comedy with special effects during all the sex scenes.

Like aliens? Or explosions?
I think maybe an orgasm creates a circumstance that threatens the existence of the universe. Or they get sucked down a black hole.

It does sometimes feel like that.
You know, eventually the universe is going to collapse, and fall back on itself. That should be a real-estate disclosure by the way. Every real-estate contract should say: “Under the understanding that the planet itself will one day explode.” It’s a helluva place to build. There should be a metaphysical warning too: “Hey, you’re buying this understanding that it doesn’t really exist. According to quantum physics this is all just energy, so don’t complain later. Everything’s flowing and changing. Nothing is solid, except for your payments.”

Any ideas for an Iron Man sequel?
I proposed Iron Lung 3, where the Jewish guy is the hero and he has respiratory problems, but he’s still able to solve the problems of the world because he flies around in an iron lung. If I can’t sell that, I don’t know …

What’s your take on Jay and Conan?
I think that speaks to all the corporate problems in America that we’re seeing in the Senate hearings on Wall Street: Human beings are treated as objects in our society. I don’t think anyone wins in those circumstances. Neither were treated like human beings.

In a way, I guess, you could say that NBC was like Goldman Sachs: publicly betting on Conan but privately hedging on Leno?
Jot that down what you just said! That is the American way. The failure of the American people is that they have bought the lie that the American way is an honest way. It never was, never has been. It has always been about doing just about anything for money: finding loopholes, skirting the law, breaking the law. I think American business is really guided by a Godfather mentality. To be surprised about all this is as naïve as saying, “The mafia wasn’t honest?” I’m not surprised an ounce, I find myself laughing at CNN stories about Goldman Sachs. That is the American way, the freedom to do whatever you can, until you get get caught.

Like Tiger Woods.
Yes. The similarity you’re going for is that what we have in our society are money addicts. They are addicts, and if you know anything about addiction, you know you cannot trust an addict. Nothing is more important than the next fix, and for them, it’s the next dollar. It’s ludicrous to think that you’re going to put money in front of an addict and expect them to do the right thing. But the culture is to blame. We the American people, Garry Shandling and Logan Hill and anyone living in America. We’ve got to stop to understand what kind of culture we’ve created and allowed to blossom: a culture of addiction. Everyone’s consumed with drug rehab shows and Tiger Woods, but they’ve skipped money addiction. We’ve been enabling corporations and Wall Street. And maybe an addict has to bottom out in order to see the truth. Each person needs to take responsibility for going along with it. I guess what I’m trying to say is that it’s my fault.

Wow. Vote Senator Stern! And, speaking of money, what do you think of Hugh Hefner donating $900,000 to save the Hollywood sign?
Well, I think the investigation we need to do before we go any further is to find out exactly which letters he bought — and then work backwards and try to see what he’s spelling out.

I’m just guessing, but maybe he was attracted to those two huge O’s?
You know, I’m sure it was those two O’s. Or maybe just the wood part.

Anything else you’d like to tell me about Iron Man 2?
One last thing: I guess we found out that Iron Man can’t fly through ash. The world premiere was supposed to be in London, but we had to have it in L.A. because of the volcano. So, really, that’s all the next villain needs to throw his way: Ash.

Iron Man 2’s Garry Shandling on Conan, Leno, Tiger