from the archives

Garry Shandling and Ricky Gervais’s Epic Sparring Match

Photo: YouTube

Judd Apatow’s two-part documentary on Garry Shandling, The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling, was released this week on HBO, and it is, in a word, beautiful. In several more words, it attempts to paint a complete picture of a man who seemed to refuse to allow anyone to ever see the whole thing. It digs deep into Shandling’s extensive diaries and seems to leave no stone unturned, interviewing friends, former lovers, family, and employees, and scraping every project the man touched for insights, whether it’s as his alter ego Larry Sanders or the voice of a turtle in the 2006 animated film Over the Hedge. Judd clearly loves his late mentor but isn’t afraid to present Garry Shandling the man, warts and all.

One incident that is certainly more of a wart than a triumph was his appearance on a short-lived series of specials called Ricky Gervais Meets … in which Ricky Gervais would spend time interviewing a comedy hero of his, discuss the business, appreciate each other’s work, and show some clips. The first installment with Larry David was broadcast on Channel 4 in January of 2006, and on December 25 of that same year a Christopher Guest sit-down aired, and on the following night, one with Shandling was shown. Before we dig into this episode, I’m going to go ahead and tell you that according to an anonymous source speaking to The Independent, the reason the show was short-lived was because “the Shandling experience put him off for good.” Two other episodes filmed that year featuring John Cleese and Matt Groening remain unreleased.

Gervais gives us his version of the encounter through his show, but through a few outside sources, you’ll also get to hear Shandling’s perspective on the meet-up as well. So buckle up for a wild ride, grit your teeth, and watch as Ricky Gervais Meets Garry Shandling.

The show begins with Gervais, pre-interview, having his makeup done, talking about how excited he is to meet Shandling. He also asks an off-screen crew member if it would be insulting for him to tell Shandling that the comedian has always reminded him of Bingo from the Banana Splits before stating that “of course it’s fucking insulting!” (If you’re not familiar, click the link to see a picture of the character. It’ll come in handy later.) But this little bit of ribbing is surrounded by praise from Gervais calling Shandling “brilliant” and his work an “opus.” On the drive to Shandling’s house, where the special is to be filmed, he wonders aloud what Shandling’s like since he doesn’t “do a lot of these things” and hopes that he’ll be funny in person, before, in a prophetic turn, he begins poking fun at himself for complaining about meeting one of his comedy heroes before he’s even done it.

Gervais arrives at Shandling’s house before Shandling does and spends a little time exploring the man’s house, examining his living room, opening his fridge, and riffing on the contents. Suddenly the man of the hour appears, carrying his keys and wearing sunglasses. As Gervais turns toward him, Shandling speaks his first words to Gervais and greets him, saying, “Why did you ruin that moment by looking?” Gervais is obviously a little confused and confident that he’s doing a bit, but this line of questioning continues long beyond the point of comedy. Shandling says, “Before I shake your hand and say hello …” and continues to hash out why Gervais spoiled a moment of comedy Shandling had in his mind for his entrance into the kitchen. Immediately Gervais is on his heels, nervous and concerned that he’s offended his guest/host. When they finally do shake, Shandling softens and smiles in a way that seems to say he was just kidding, but unfortunately for Gervais, this might be the most positive interaction they have in this special.

Shandling tells Gervais he’ll be ready to get into it in a moment, once he puts his contacts in, and Gervais quips, “We can get this. This is dynamite.” When Shandling begins to put his contacts in, right there in the kitchen, Gervais is shocked. “Don’t do it over the sink! What if it goes down the plug hole?” Shandling’s head slowly turns up to meet Gervais’s. “What are you, controlling?” he says, and gives him a look that would have made lesser men burst into tears. Discussing this moment with Sanders co-star Jeffrey Tambor in his documentary, Apatow describes this as “a little eye into a gear that Garry had when his anger came out and when he felt abused in some way.” Tambor nods his head, grinning. “Ricky [has] this series of eyes that was going ‘Where am I? What’s going on? I am scared.’”

Gervais is literally cornered at this point, trying to look casual but failing as he leans on the corner of Shandling’s kitchen counter. He asks Shandling to follow him out to the garden so he can show him something and, no doubt eager to leave the awkward encounter in the kitchen behind him, starts walking. Shandling, instead, just watches him leave. Gervais makes it into the next room, realizes he’s alone, and laughs his trademark cackle. Shandling asks, “Where is your sense of what’s going on? You just kept walking. I wasn’t behind you.”

Why don’t we take a moment and let Shandling explain his perspective on what happened with this incredibly awkward introduction. In an interview with GQ in 2010, Shandling discussed the Gervais interview and was apparently quite relieved to do so. In 2006, Shandling was in the midst of compiling extras for his DVD release of The Best of Larry Sanders and since Gervais had cited the show as an influence, he reached out to interview Gervais for the DVD. These extras were different from most DVDs and included an assortment of interviews with people who had appeared on Sanders, ranging from Alec Baldwin, whom he interviewed while literally boxing him, to Linda Doucett, Shandling’s former fiancée, who played Hank’s assistant until she was fired from the show when the couple ended their real-life relationship, in one of their first conversations since the split.

In an interview with the Archive of American Television, Shandling explained that he wanted those extras to go further than Sanders had, saying that they could never be shown on television but were perfect for a DVD extra, being more real than reality television. It was Shandling’s understanding that they would be filming the low-key interview for his extras first, followed by Gervais’s special because in terms of energy, as Shandling put it, “You can’t get up and then go down but you can go down and then come up.” Arriving home and realizing that this hadn’t been communicated, Shandling was annoyed not with Gervais but with the producers for not doing their job. Rather than interrupt, he decided he was going to maintain the low-key energy he needed for his piece and try to pull Gervais into his energy. “We both became locked into the shows we were each doing, and it became a bit of a boxing match,” he told Amy Wallace of GQ. “Because he’s trying to get me to do the show that he needs, and I’m trying to get him to do nothing. I was trying to pull Ricky into the moment.”

Things go a little smoother once Shandling and Gervais make it out to the garden. Shandling talks about how he broke into comedy through Sanford and Son, stand-up, appearing on and eventually hosting Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show, and It’s Garry Shandling’s Show. You can see Gervais relax. Things are smoothing out, and one has to assume, his next move is one that is an attempt to connect through ribbing. We the audience can see what’s happening, though, as Gervais begins to tell Shandling that earlier in the day he had joked about his resemblance to Bingo from The Banana Splits. Gervais realizes before he even completes his thought that this was an awful move. It starts taking him longer and longer to explain, and even he can tell that he is watching a slow-motion car crash that he also happens to be a participant in. Shandling has no idea who Bingo is, and for some reason Gervais doubles down and asks if he has the internet. While they wait for someone to return with a photo of the character, Shandling offers to get Gervais a jacket. Gervais agrees but points at Shandling’s own jacket and says with a smile, “Not like that one, though.” Shandling does not laugh. Instead he just sighs, “Oh boy …”

Shandling is gone and a crew member arrives with a photo of Bingo. Gervais laments, “I can’t show him that … He’s going to be so insulted.” “Good luck!” says the crew member, walking away from the condemned man.

Shandling returns with a stack of jackets and Gervais puts one on. Gervais points out Bingo on the page and Shandling stares for a moment before deadpanning, “Oh! I’m sorry, I thought it was an insult. I’m complimented!” Gervais has been given a stay of execution.

It doesn’t last.

Gervais brings up his recent interview with Larry David, who described Jewish humor as “a lot of complaining.” Shandling slowly turns his head toward Gervais, who continues, “I should have done that in the form of a question.” After a brief discussion of Jewish humor, earthquakes, and boxing, Shandling brings up Gervais’s Extras and his observations about Gervais’s sense of humor centering on Holocaust jokes and the disabled, and “the side of life that you choose to explore. You with a Nazi helmet on, you see, is funny enough, with that smile … And I’m sure that you’re not happy casting any Jews for your show.” He then stands up from his chair and looks down at Gervais. “That’s the feeling I get. I get the feeling that you’re not comfortable around Jewish people.” Gervais looks up and asks, “Are you Jewish? You’re not Jewish …” Larry takes this at face value and begins to explain that he was raised as a Jew when Gervais stands up, mirroring Shandling. “Good one on you,” Shandling responds as Gervais laughs. “Are you happy now?” “Yeah,” Gervais says. “Okay, good. Make sure you cut where it looks like you won,” Shandling says as he turns and walks back toward the house. Gervais laughs once again.

In The Zen Diaries, Apatow recounts the way Shandling described this encounter with Gervais. “Garry said that on some level he was creating some sort of moment that was awkward and in some sense teaching Ricky Gervais to be present in his performance.” The documentary then shows some footage that was not used in Ricky Gervais Meets … in which Shandling asks Gervais if they can take a minute without thinking. Gervais eagerly wants to facilitate this for Shandling but doesn’t understand. He touches Shandling’s arm and says, almost frantically, “What do you mean? Tell me what you mean. No, no, I don’t — What do you want me to do?” “We’re taking a break,” Shandling says. “Don’t even think.” Shandling is basically trying to meditate with Gervais and exist in the moment. He’s trying to bring Gervais into the low-key energy he talked about in interviews years later, and Gervais just wants to please and do right by his hero. “Are you saying you want to take a break?” he asks. “No,” Shandling responds, then stands in silence for eight seconds before Gervais jumps back in. “I’m thinking. I’ve got to be honest, I can’t not think.” “I see it in your work. It’s valuable in your work. Do you know how valuable not thinking is in your work?” Gervais doesn’t know what to say.

This moment, cut from the final version of Ricky Gervais Meets … doesn’t necessarily change the way Shandling comes off in the special, but it does illustrate Shandling’s point that he would make to GQ years later. In fact, in a very similar way, he ends up imparting some of this same Buddhist philosophy to Amy Wallace, the writer of the piece. In the process of discussing the Gervais encounter, she tells Shandling that she’s now questioning the nature of an interview: “the seeming need for straightforward answers, and the stress that arises when such answers do not come.” Shandling responds, “You want to know what the world is about? No one knows what to think. If we could just embrace not knowing for a second, we might have a chance. It’s all right not to know … Just calm down a minute. I give you permission to not know. That’s the key. Only from there can come answers.”

Shandling is suddenly transformed from a grumpy celebrity hell-bent on torpedoing an interview into a figure like the wizened Jedi Master Yoda, who initially plays dumb and gives Luke nothing but trouble in order to illustrate a much larger point. He was implementing the Socratic method in what was supposed to be a fluffy interview.

Somewhere down the line, Shandling and Gervais hashed all this out. In the Archive of American Television interview, he described running into Gervais after he hosted the Golden Globes, and Shandling walked through Gervais’s routine with him and complimented him, saying Gervais’s never been better than he is right now. Looking back on the strange interview, Shandling admitted that it might have been better had he stopped things and explained what was happening, but “I’ll be damned if something didn’t happen. I love the guy for sticking to his game, and I stuck to mine and it was, you know …” He paused and searched for the right words. “An experiment.”

Ricky Gervais Meets Garry Shandling is at different points funny, painful, and cringe-inducing in a way that mirrors the comedy that Larry Sanders and The Office pioneered. The only difference is, once the credits roll on this show, everybody stays in character. Some might say the lesson to take from the experience is “never meet your heroes,” but a better one might be “live in the moment and embrace the unknowable.”

Or, at the very least, “don’t rely on producers to communicate your schedule.”

Garry Shandling and Ricky Gervais’s Epic Sparring Match