Garry Shandling: Where Does TV End and Where Does Reality Start

Garry Shandling is probably the most hidden major player in the history of TV. No other person could claim equal amounts of influence on both Seinfeld and The Sopranos. The (post)modern age of TV begins when Showtime debuted It’s Garry Shandling’s Show in 1985.

The time was very different. IGSS was only the second original sitcom ever produced by a premium cable network after Showtime’s Brothers, a show that’s currently impossible to find but was the first sitcom centered around a gay protagonist. Both shows need to be pressed in decent numbers on DVD but haven’t (an amazing looking complete series box set of IGSS was released several years ago, but unless someone with $400 lying around wants to buy me a copy, I’m hanging onto my off-the-air copies from the original airings.) The effect on future shows of IGSS is incalculable-the only analogy I can think of is the impact of the 80s British invasion on superhero comics.

The central conceit of IGSS is that it’s about a guy named Garry Shandling. He’s a comedian. He has a sitcom on TV. He knows he has a sitcom on TV. He even talks directly to the studio audience. When he leaves his “apartment” sometimes he invites them up to hang out in his living room while he’s “gone” (re: walked over to the next set on the soundstage while we see the soundstage.) In a series of elaborate parodies, Shandling takes us through the history of scripted TV up to that point, with a short but hilarious detour into a parody of The Graduate. Nothing is sacred. There are no rules. Characters frequently discuss their own shortcomings or expectations as sitcom characters, not with any pretense they’re real people.

The direct addresses to the audience are the obvious precedent to the standup comedy bits peppered throughout Seinfeld. The anarchic tone and kid-who-just-got-a-bunch-of-toys-and-is-having-the-time-of-his-life feel is second only to Ernie Kovacs. The tone is generally cheerful and light. You get that infectious feeling of a person who doesn’t think they’ll necessarily get another chance to make something on TV-we’re just sort of following whatever thing Shandling thinks they might not let him do later.

The strongest seasons are the first two, predominantly because of this kid in a candy store vibe. The third season is the weakest as it indulges Shandling’s love of pre-Lenny Bruce comedians for a dire 3 episode sprawl toward the end, but the 4th makes a decent comeback and marries Garry off. Fascinatingly this is the only really or fake wedding ceremony Shandling would ever be a groom at. His true love was television and even that marriage was a rocky one.

Shandling is best known now for the HBO sitcom The Larry Sanders Show, which debuted pretty soon after IGSS ended. The two sitcoms seem about as unlike in construction as one can imagine, at least at first glance. The complete embrace of artifice in IGSS gives way to realism in the acting and cinematography. There’s no laugh track. The stationary 3 camera set up gives way to possibly the first ever single camera sitcom ever made. The cameraman is frequently going backwards on roller skates so as to capture people conversing up and down a hallway in a more naturalistic manner-in fact, any “walk and talk” shot you’ve ever seen on a workplace sitcom owes its genesis to Larry Sanders. The acting strives for realism. There’s a comedy of awkwardness, characters and moments that rejects the “we’re going to shove jokes into a chamber play” style of sitcoms that were…all the sitcoms until then. Give or take.

Shandling reveals himself to be a triple threat-he can write, he can direct, and he can act well enough to hold his own with Jeffrey Tambor and Rip Torn, no easy feat. Yet his romance with TV seems to sour over the show’s run. We start seeing moments of drama and discomfort as Shandling realizes he’s one of the few comedy writers who can convincingly write those sorts of moments. He follows characters and trusts they will be funny; he never sacrifices the truth of the character for a laugh. All of this is unheard of in a US sitcom to that point.

Yet, in the construction of The Larry Sanders Show, it’s clear Shandling’s preoccupations didn’t change, just his methods. The show, which follows the behind the scenes drama of a fictional late night talk show called The Larry Sanders Show, uses a combination of low quality broadcast tape and grainy 16mm film, making the scenes when Larry is on TV look vastly more polished than any of the shots of Larry in the office or outside world. In some sense, Larry Sanders is the closest thing you could have to a real life version of the Garry Shandling of IGSS-a man who lives on and for TV, whose life bleeds in and out of TV, a man who knows he’s on TV. Larry can’t seem to have sex without watching himself on TV during the proceedings. Strangely fictionalized versions of celebrities make frequent guest appearances for the first time on a sitcom even though this has since become a trope and was used by shows all the way from Curb Your Enthusiasm to Bojack Horseman.

Yet over the course of 6 seasons, the tone of the show sours and becomes increasingly dark and cynical. Shandling was probably getting worn down. Starring on, writing, and running a TV program for 10 years straight would get to anybody. He broke up with his real life girlfriend, the woman playing Hank’s secretary, around season 3. I’m imagining it wasn’t a smooth break up given that she’s replaced in the next season as Hank’s secretary with Scott Thompson from Kids In the Hall. The show nonetheless barrels on.

In making Larry vain and not particularly likeable and being powerful enough to be a dick, by having him get addicted to pain pills, etc etc etc, Shandling lays the groundwork for the HBO anti-hero 9 years before The Sopranos aired. And more importantly, Shandling lays out clearly the potential inherent in subscription TV-one has to remember the bulk of HBO programming at that point was stuff like Taxicab Confessions, boxing matches, 3rd run movies, and softcore porn. The idea that it was the place to make “prestige” TV would’ve been considered insane before then.

But when Larry Sanders ended, Shandling went into semi-retirement. He’d make talk show appearances occasionally, wrote and appeared in a middling movie about an extra terrestrial who starts dating, but didn’t do any TV writing for the rest of his life that I’m aware of. His last filmed project was a series of lengthy face to face interviews with the cast of The Larry Sanders Show for its DVD release.

In most peoples’ bodies of work, I wouldn’t bother talking about DVD bonus features, but these interviews resemble the DVD bonus feature genre in general as much as any of Shandling’s shows represented TV up to that point. There’s a lot of crying. There’s a lot of awkwardness. It gets deep. We see Shandling’s John Cassavetes streak that was hidden in plain sight all along. And he got to show the value only he could see in a seemingly disposable form one last time.

8 thoughts on “Garry Shandling: Where Does TV End and Where Does Reality Start”

  1. a show that’s currently basically impossible to find but represents the first sitcom centered around a gay protagonist

    There was “Soap” with Billy Crystal and a short lived series with Tony Randal (where the Christian right made the producers back down and simply make him asexual).,_Sidney

    There was also Three’s Company, where the protagonist is straight but pretends to be gay (wink wink nudge nudge).

    It’s really weird. I forgot sometimes just how important TV and the media was to define what’s “real” for Boomers and Gen Xers. There are times when I feel spiritually more like a late millennial, someone who’s always lived in the decentered world of the Internet. I forget sometimes that before 2000 to “Get on TV” or to “Get on the Radio” used to be like having your worth as a human being recognized.

    1. I considered Billy Crystal, but I’ve seen Soap and pretty much his whole character arc is him miraculously ending up knocking up then having to marry a woman. We never see him in a relationship or actual romantic situation with a man, whereas, at least from what I can find about Brothers, it starts with the guy being gay and he’s just…gay.

      1. This clip from the Tom Hanks film That Thing You Do circulated widely after Adam Schlesinger died of Covid-19. It really captures what I remember from my childhood. Getting on TV or getting on the radio was a BIG, BIG deal. Hanks is a Boomer evoking Boomer nostalgia but I think it was even more intense for Gen Xers. You pretty much grew up inside the TV box. Reality means “those people on the screen” not “my own family.” I think there was even a term called “Brady Envy,” which meant resenting your parents for the fact that your childhood wasn’t more like the Brady Bunch. Hearing yourself on the radio, even if you were destined to be a one hit wonder, meant that for one brief shining moment capitalist alienation was put on hold and you could live in the reality of corporate popular culture. In the 90s, of course, you got talk radio, and then the Internet. Finally in the 2010s you get social media, where you not only get narcissistic reaffirmation but instant gratification of narcissistic reaffirmation, and EVERYBODY gets it. But these days that narcissistic reaffirmation is like your 1000th shot of heroin. You no longer feel any effect but you still need it every day.

        1. Oh yeah, and Robert Ashley discusses that in my favorite passage from all of Perfect Lives. I think I transcribed all of it in my review of Part 4 of that. Paraphrased from memory: “If you are a part of industry, it is possible you can be liked because it is only then you are actually real.”

    2. Never actually saw an Three’s Company. My 70s TVQ is weak, tho I finally saw an episode of The Love Boat a week ago. That was…I mean, my expectations were suitably low, and I walked away thinking “you know…there was love, there was a boat. be satisfied with whatcha got.”

Leave a Reply