Garry Shandling is one of the most innovative and influential comedians of all time. However, when Shout Factory released the entire Larry Sanders Show on DVD in the winter of 2011—concurrent with IFC’s decision to rerun the entire series—it seemed to set off a “Garry Shandling renaissance” that has carried over for the past 2-3 years; buoyed by Garry’s ever-bizarre and hilarious Twitter feed.
No matter how staunch of a Shandling supporter you’ve been over the years, you have to concede that there has been a certain heightened re-appreciation of his talents over the past few years. As a child of the 90’s I was slightly too young to appreciate Larry Sanders when it originally aired, so to me, Garry Shandling was the slightly odd-looking version of Jerry Seinfeld. It wasn’t until I was given the DVD set Not Just the Best of Larry Sanders during college that I was truly initiated into the world of Garry Shandling.
And that is a unique world indeed. Though, amid all the praise heaped on Larry Sanders in this “Shandling renaissance,” there seems to be a lack of attention paid to the show that paved the way for Shandling’s greatest achievement; the show that perhaps more than anything else truly exhibited the heart of Garry Shandling’s comedic sensibilities. Of course, I’m talking about It’s Garry Shandling’s Show.
The very first episode — actually, the very first scene — of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show tells you everything you need to know about the entire series. In fact, you can even watch it above and then read this to see if you agree. The first scene shows Garry walking into an empty apartment carrying a moving box. He is met by applause from a live studio audience. Garry addresses the audience directly and welcomes them to his show, immediately breaking the fourth wall. He launches into a story, which borders on stand-up, about how he just broke up with his girlfriend. The audience laughs and then, after he finishes the story, he excuses himself to go to the bathroom and walks offset while the show’s theme song (sample lyrics: “This is the theme from Garry’s show/the opening scene from Garry’s show/Garry called me up and asked if I’d write the theme song). When the theme song ends, Garry returns to the center of the set and says immediately, “That was some theme, huh? How many of you got up and danced to it?”
From our current television landscape, this kind of “meta” approach to a sitcom seems somewhat superfluous. Nowadays, we just want an engrossing drama or comedy that sucks us in and makes us want to “binge watch”; that makes us take stock of or escape from our lives. We don’t necessarily want to watch a show (Community and 30 Rock aside) that actively questions the television viewing experience. Besides, we already have our Twitter timelines for that.
Yet, at the time, this kind of presentation was a revelation. There are a variety of bizarre gags throughout the show’s four seasons. However, there are two that I find to be the most memorable. In “Foul Ball,” the show’s third episode, Garry attends a baseball game with his neighbor Pete Schumacher and his son Grant. While they are out, Larry allows the studio audience to come down and hang out in his “apartment.” At the end of the episode, Larry reveals that someone from the audience stole seventy-five cents and asks that they return it. When a man does so, Garry promptly has him arrested as the end credits roll. In “Going, Going, Gone” from Season Three, Garry is supposed to have Sheena Easton (talk about a dated reference!) on his show as a special guest. However, Garry has signed up to be part of the Little Brother program and he promised to take his “little brother” to a baseball game, so he has to cancel the special guest. While Garry is at the game with the kid, the audience decides that they are being ripped off and decide to go home. Garry finds out and leaves the kid on his show with Sheena Easton, while he goes to the audience’s apartment to beg them to come back. When Garry enters the audience’s apartment, it is a furnished apartment with riser seats where every audience member sits, watching TV. Garry shows them that Sheena Easton is on his show, so they decide to come back.
Besides toying with the idea of an audience, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show also took on the very nature of “special guests” and played up an essential element of Garry Shandling’s comedic appeal — the fact that Garry Shandling ties to an old sense of “show business.” In a three-part episode, “Save Mr. Pecks,” from Season Three, Larry has to save Mr. Pecks’ comedy club from going out of business. So, he recruits a variety of special guests to appear at a benefit show at the club: Steve Allen, Dabney Coleman, Paula Poundstone, Rob Reiner and Chevy Chase. The main conflict over the course of the three episodes is that Mr. Peck won’t speak to legendary comedian Red Buttons due to an old feud, so Garry has to get him to perform at the benefit.
Now, in 2013 most people under thirty have no idea who Red Buttons and Steve Allen are. The fact that people in the audience are clamoring for Red Buttons (a comedian already fairly dated in the late 1980s) feels completely alien to a modern viewer. However, Garry Shandling operates in a unique space. He was a cutting edge comic voice in the 80’s and 90’s, able to tie innovation to his “show business” upbringing as a writer for 70’s sitcoms like Sanford and Son and as one of Johnny Carson’s go-to guest hosts. When you watch the “Save Mr. Pecks” episode, you truly feel the appreciation that Garry had for the prior standard bearers in television comedy. An appreciation you feel even as—in the Season Two episode “No Baby, No Show”—Shandling pokes fun at the notion of a “special guest” when he casts Tom Petty as his neighbor who borrowed hedge clippers, and then subsequently makes Petty sing for the audience.
Shandling’s understanding of the sitcom craft was on display as well. The main ensemble characters on the show are Garry’s strictly platonic female neighbor, Nancy; his neurotic best friend and neighbor Pete Schumacher (as well as Pete’s son Grant and his wife Jackie); and the nosy, slightly unctuous, condo board head, Leonard Smith. In other words, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show set the blueprint for the main characters and character dynamics of Seinfeld — well, minus a “Kramer.” Seinfeld towed a little closer to the lines of the conventional sitcom with its subversiveness, but that show’s origins emanate from broken rules of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show.
In the end, though the broken fourth walls, sight gags and show-biz reverie leave you with a warm giddy feeling, the show does not completely resonate in the way that the highest-level television should. And that’s why, as Shandling has often said, Garry decided to dig deeper and use realism and a more “method” approach when he went about making Larry Sanders. We all know how great that show is, how well it reveals pain and truth. And today, with shows like Louie, we know all too well how far pain and truth go in making transcendent comedy.
However, comedy is also made of sight gags and giddiness, which can be pretty enlightening and influential in their own right.
Matt Domino loves the NBA and writes fiction in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared in various places and he runs a blog called Puddles of Myself.