Thursday, 24 March 2016

Garry Shandling: the standup who changed the sitcom forever

The creator of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show and The Larry Sanders Show gave US comedy two of its most original series and influenced everyone from Judd Apatow to Larry David and Ricky Gervais


Garry Shandling: ‘He pushed the envelope in terms of the tone and direction that sitcoms can take’ Photograph: Evere/REX/Shutterstock

Thursday 24 March 201622.27 GMTLast modified on Thursday 24 March 201622.29 GMT

Garry Shandling, who died today at the age of 66, doesn’t have the name recognition of superstars such as Jerry Seinfeld, Tina Fey or Larry David, but without him none of the landmark shows they created might never have existed. Shandling was a standup, host and comedy writer, but his legacy will really be felt in the two sitcoms that he made – It’s Garry Shandling’s Show and The Larry Sanders Show – both of which pushed the envelope in terms of the tone and direction that sitcoms can take.

Garry Shandling, groundbreaking comedian and actor, dies aged 66

It’s Garry Shandling’s Show ran on Showtime and Fox from 1986 to 1990, when both were still nascent forces on TV. They were the only places brave enough to let Shandling experiment with a show where he plays himself, a comedian named Garry Shandling, and often spoke directly to both the studio audience and the audience at home. Though this is a trick employed by George Burns when Shandling was younger, all of the characters on the show knew that they were on a sitcom. It’s the sort of meta comedy that now pervades the likes of Community.

The first show about nothing was never huge with audiences but was nominated for four Emmys and was a hit both with critics and comedians who used what Shandling was doing and sanded off the edges, creating shows that might have tested very poorly with audiences but became huge mainstream hits, such as Seinfeld.

The success of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show and Shandling’s stint as the “permanent guest host” of The Tonight Show while it was hosted by Johnny Carson set him up perfectly to create his masterpiece, The Larry Sanders Show. This time Shandling was playing the vain and difficult host of a late-night talk show. The HBO sitcom, which ran for six seasons from 1992 to 1998, took viewers backstage to see just how awful and bumbling the people that are behind the talk show’s velvet curtain can really be. While it was never as absurd as 30 Rock, it paved the way for the show about a 

FacebookTwitterPinterest Mo Meta Blues: Garry Shandling in The Larry Sanders Show Photograph: Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

To add that special ingredient that made it special, The Larry Sanders Show featured real celebrities playing versions of themselves, something that has since been employed in all sorts of shows such as Entourage, Extras and, of course, Curb Your Enthusiasm. A famous example is when David Duchovny plays a gay version of himself that is obsessed with Larry in the series’ last episode (which in the It’s Garry Sandling’s Show tradition was about Larry Sanders’s final episode).

The Larry Sanders Show not only blended fact in fiction but the behind-the-scenes footage was shot in a documentary style with hand-held cameras, something that would be taken on by everything from The Office to Modern Family.

The Office and its ilk also share the tone and pathos that Larry David made acceptable and palatable for modern comedy audiences. Like the bar on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Larry Sanders’ office was full of awful people lying, cheating and stealing their way to success or, more often, failure – like when Larry gets embroiled in a tabloid scandal because his PR rep told him to lie about pushing a woman over in a supermarket. “It taught me that flawed characters can be compulsive viewing – seeing them squirm and get their comeuppance,” Ricky Gervais said about the show in 2010. Also in 2010, the Guardian’s Andrew Pulver said, “This is where it all began. The whole postmodernist, self-reflexive fact-fiction sitcom thing – loudly claimed by the likes of Alan Partridge, Entourage, Curb Your Enthusiasm and 30 Rock.”

Another direct influence was on Hollywood heavyweight Judd Apatow, who worked as a writer and producer on the show and made his directorial debut with the episode Putting the ‘Gay’ Back in Litigation in the show’s final season. “One thing Garry used to say that had a big impact on me was that the show was about people who loved each other but show business got in the way,” Apatow said on the DVD extras for The Larry Sanders Show. He also talked about how the difficult schedule and Shandling’s demand for excellence made him better when he made his first show, the cult classic 

Freaks and Geeks


FacebookTwitterPinterest Garry Shandling during his time hosting Tonight with guest actor Martin Mull Photograph: NBC/Getty Images

Though it never had a Game of Thrones-sized audience on HBO, Larry Sanders was the network’s first Emmy bait, receiving 56 Emmy nominations over the course of its run and winning three, one for Shandling and Peter Tolan for writing the series finale, one for Todd Holland for directing it, and one for Rip Torn, who played the show’s producer Artie.

Even for those who have never seen either of Shandling’s shows and only know him for his appearances in the Iron Man movies making a few cracks at Tony Stark’s expense, the innovations that he pioneered in comedy can still be felt every time we turn on the tube. TV was never the same after him, and it won’t be the same without him.

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