For someone with few professional credits to his name, Garry Shandling’s impact on the world of comedy has been vast. And his sudden passing on Thursday at the far-too-young age of 66 will likely have an equal impact as his fellow comics and actors rush to praise his work and a new generation is introduced to his droll, self-deprecating stand up and the two peerless TV series that he created and starred in—Showtime’s It’s Garry Shandling’s Show and the still-brilliant The Larry Sanders Show for HBO.
What will we see as a result of us looking back in the wake of Shandling’s untimely death? By and large, it will be an unblinking glimpse into the mind of someone who spent his entire life and career wrestling with his ego. He understood the instinctual need that we have to seek the approval of others. Shandling went about feeding it every time he took the stage at The Comedy Store, the famed club in L.A. where he got his start in the late ‘70s, or at any of the other stages that allowed him to tread their boards. But he often used that time deflating his self-image by exposing his fumbling attempts at sex and dating and his seeming inability to fit in with the world, all for laughs.
You felt for him and fell for him because he looked so natural and so uncomfortable up there. Just look at his first TV appearance on The Tonight Show. While you couldn’t remove that joyful grin from his face, behind his eyes was this look that said, “I gotta get out of here.” That spirit made him perfect to fill in for Johnny Carson when the regular host took ill or was on vacation. He was a natural at rolling with the punches of a rehearsed interview, but drew out plenty of fantastic unscripted moments as the guests did their best to comfort him or fall under the sway of his unusual charm.
That same yin yang/push pull of the desire to strip away one’s ego while simultaneously engorging it with laughs and applause is what drove not only his creative pursuits but his spiritual yearnings as well. Shandling meditated regularly and, as writer Amy Wallace put it in her brilliant 2010 profile on him for GQ, “while he stops short of calling himself a Buddhist, he is a serious student of dharma.” He was a living embodiment of the Biblical quote that the “spirit is willing but the flesh is weak,” a notion that he magically found a way to work into his comedy routine:
“I’m getting into self-realization. I went to a bookstore yesterday and I said, ‘Do you have Zen and the Art of Archery? The guy said, ‘No, we don’t have that.’ ‘Well, do you have Frankl’s study of existentialism?’ ‘Uh, no, we don’t have that.’ ‘Well, then just gimme a Hustler.”
Shandling’s most perfect expression of his understanding of human nature, and his own struggles with his place within it, came out through the six seasons he produced of The Larry Sanders Show. It was a brilliant gambit that he and co-creator Peter Tolan came up with: to use the figure of a late-night talk show host to slyly comment on this strange urge that all of us have to bathe in the spotlight while begrudgingly sharing it with anyone who might help keep the beam trained on us. The view isn’t much better behind the scenes either as each episode presented us with dozens of people suffering from delusions of grandeur and willing to toss their friends overboard if it meant advancing their careers or lives in some infinitesimal way. It was a brutally funny show, but if you didn’t see some of yourself in at least one of the characters within it, you weren’t watching closely enough.
Sanders seemed to settle something within Shandling’s ego as his pursuits since the sixth and final season wrapped in 1998 have been relatively modest. He tried his hand at screenwriting (the awkwardly entertaining What Planet Are You From?), he hosted awards shows, and took the occasional acting gig, including a recent memorable turn as a corrupt senator in Iron Man 2 and, briefly, Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Otherwise, Shandling was content to just remain mostly in the background, playing basketball or sparring with friends or advising his fellow comics and creators on their projects. He seemed wholly at peace with his place in the universe…which is why it was such a shock that he was ripped away from us with no warning.
While he remained in the shadows, comedy fans were always hoping that he’d do more than lob tweets into cyberspace, that he’d prove himself as an actor like his buddy Albert Brooks has done recently or come up with another brilliant idea for a series or even a film that would subtly encourage us to question our actions and engage in some self-examination for the sake of our spiritual growth. Who knows? Perhaps his death will in some way do that very thing. We’ll just need some time to lament this huge loss first.
Robert Ham is a Portland-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can find more of his writing here;.