Gary Shandling: Innovation Remembered
Gary Shandling was a comedy pioneer pushing sit-com a little further in a golden period in the early nineties. He was best remembered for ‘It’s Garry Shandling’s Show’ and ‘The Larry Sanders Show’ – both of which innovated the tone and direction that sitcoms might take. Ricky Gervais said of Shandling ‘one of the most influential comedians of a generation’.
It’s Garry Shandling’s Show ran on Showtime and Fox from 1986 to 1990. The Networks allowed him to experiment in a format that allowed Shandling to play himself, speaking directly to both studio and TV audience. An influence that may have been picked up from George Burns (George Burns show 1950-58 CBS) and sometimes tried elsewhere with less success such as ITV’s 1977 show ‘I’m Bob, he’s Dickie’ (Bob Monkhouse & Dickie Henderson) where the structure didn’t work. Billy Crystal commented ‘Garry Shandling was one of the most brilliant people I have ever known’.
The Larry Sanders Show (HBO 1992 – 98) featured real celebrities playing versions of themselves, a show within a show format, something that has since been used in all sorts of programmes such as ‘Entourage’, ‘Extras’ and ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’. The behind-the-scenes footage on The Larry Sanders Show was shot in a documentary style with hand-held cameras following the action, this method eventually given the name ‘mockumentary’ something that would be employed in ‘The Office’ and ‘Modern Family’. Shandling was nominated for 18 Emmy Awards for the Larry Sanders show and won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series in 1998, along with Peter Tolan, for writing the series finale. The New York Times described him as ‘a comedian who deftly walked a tightrope between comic fiction and show-business reality’.
Shandling, was born in Chicago, with parents who worked in the retail business. He studied electrical engineering at the University of Arizona, but was always keen on comedy, receiving encouragement from George Carlin after managing to get material to him. He moved to Los Angeles in the 70’s, working in Advertising while creating sitcom scripts, going on to write episodes of ‘Sanford and Son’ and ‘Welcome Back’, ‘Kotter’, before eventually moving into stand-up comedy, where he became a name on the L.A. comedy circuit, working among others the Comedy Store. He made a successful stand-up performance on ‘The Tonight Show’ starring Johnny Carson and became a frequent guest-host on the show, being rumoured for a time to be the leading contender to replace Carson. His personality as described by ‘The Atlantic’ – ‘as at times neurotic, brittle, and anxious, but always blisteringly funny and original’.
Shandling’s humour was often self-deprecating with the frequent subject of was his sex life, or lack of: “After making love I said to my girl, ‘Was it good for you too?’ And she said, ‘I don’t think this was good for anybody.’”
John Cleese a personal friend said, ‘Larry Sanders was wonderful, and at my daughter Cynthia’s wedding he made the funniest bad taste speech ever given.’
Gary Shandling died at the age of 66, in Los Angeles hospital on Thursday 24th March 2016 after an ambulance had taken him from his home on a medical emergency.
Matthew Willetts MA is the Director of Comicus who has over 35 years experience in television, film, theatre, and comedy club/cabaret entertainment, working as a performer, screenwriter, producer and agent. He lectured at Southampton Solent University in Comedy, Screenwriting, Television, Theatre & Radio. Matthew can sometimes be seen and heard on TV & Radio and often quoted in the national press and media publications. As well as speaking regularly at festivals and industry conferences, he has been a judge at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and the Montreux Television Festival.