The final moments of The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling, Judd Apatow’s two-part documentary on his friend and mentor, are essentially a stand-in for the whole movie.
After the credits have already started rolling, we see footage from Shandling’s memorial service and witness the eulogies given by a lifelong friend (Kevin Nealon), a former student (Apatow), and a representative from the final phase of Shandling’s life (a Buddhist monk from Shandling’s temple). Punchlines are let loose that only really work if we, too, have spent a lifetime in Shandling’s orbit—Nealon drops a really solid one about Anthony Pellicano, the private investigator who tapped Shandling’s phone (more on that later)—which is essentially what Apatow has attempted to do for us.
Maybe that what all biographical documentaries attempt to do. But what distinguishes The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling from other HBO documentaries like Bright Lights (another film about very recent deaths) and Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck (another film that animates its subject’s notebooks in order to guide us through their life, though Montage of Heck didn’t feature Michael Cera as the voice of Cobain) is the eulogistic presence of Apatow himself, who populates the talking head segments in person, coaxing Shandling’s life from the people who knew him best. In fact, The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling is the eulogy Apatow would have presented that day, had he the time and resources. You could say the film is Apatow’s ideal eulogy: filled with cameos and four-and-a-half hours long.
This approach is resonant and sincere—a better meditation on death and comedy than Apatow’s own Funny People, anchored, as it is, in the real-life tension between Shandling’s arrogance and lack of pretension. A good eulogy does not lionize the deceased or fetishize their darker qualities. A good eulogy embraces the contradictions that made them the person we loved, and thanks them for stopping by. And yet, all we seem to do these days is lionize, fetishize and liberally diagnose—with all artists, but specifically with comedians.
It should be clear, at this point, that our obsession with a comedian’s perceived internal ‘darkness’ has either served to attribute their creative accomplishments to that darkness for our benefit or allowed that comedian to get away with some pretty external darkness for a long, long time. The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling feels like a remedy to that myth because Shandling himself feels like a remedy to that myth. I think he became a little bored by darkness. Apatow certainly flirts with both the urge to lionize and the urge to etc. etc. over the course of the film (his attempts to position much of Shandling’s life as a response to the death of his brother feels slightly narrative and neat, though the discovery of a devastating letter Shandling wrote to him decades later makes its own compelling argument). Still, he never fully gives over to that impulse. Shandling makes it difficult for him. He was a man with similar suspicions about himself.
Shandling achieved fame as a stand-up in much the same way everyone else did in the ‘70s: frequent appearances on Carson’s Tonight Show. Unlike most others, he was Carson’s regular pick to guest host the show, and was therefore quickly tapped as Carson’s heir apparent. After juggling his duties as guest host with his duties as the creator and star of Showtime’s groundbreaking, experimental sitcom It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, he notably walked away from real late night TV entirely in order to create The Larry Sanders Show—HBO’s breakout hit and a vessel through which Shandling could pour all of his misgivings about fame, show-business and himself into his alter ego: a neurotic talk show host existing alongside scores of real celebrities who came to mock their own public personas. The second part of The Zen Diaries covers the triumphant Sanders years and the public controversies they spurred. Shandling was involved in an ugly lawsuit with his longtime manager Brad Grey over Grey’s opportunistic treatment of his association with Shandling, an ugly incident involving the firing of his fiancé Linda Doucett from Sanders following the dissolution of their engagement, and an ugliest incident involving the aforementioned wiretaps, confirming Shandling’s paranoia surrounding the legal troubles with the man he thought was his best friend. Either surprisingly or unsurprisingly, depending how you look at it, each incident served to propel Shandling’s American life into a second act as a Zen master to Hollywood comedians—coaching their lives and careers via weekly basketball games at his Los Angeles home.
Apatow is clearly devoted to Shandling and to his memory, but not at the expense of the other people with whom he shared his life. Most notably, Shandling and Doucett’s relationship to the young Judd Apatow was inherently parental, though the point of contention around which their own relationship fell apart was Shandling’s reluctance to start a family. Apatow includes both Doucett’s tense reunion with Shandling for the Larry Sanders DVD release, years after she rightfully sued for wrongful termination, and his own reunion with her years after that. These conversations both lean into and away from the myth of Garry Shandling. Apatow and Doucett are more than on the same page about Shandling’s shortcomings as a partner. But he understands why she’d still think of him as a soulmate anyway. We, the audience, cannot admire him for the choices he made. We also can understand the origins of his ignorance about his own workplace. Apatow spends a lot of time walking this line, and making sure Doucett—silenced in the scandal as it was unfolding—gets the chance to speak.
There was a hipsterism to loving Garry Shandling the way I did when I was a teenager. My parents kept the Larry Sanders DVDs up in the phone cabinet when I was a kid so I wouldn’t watch them by accident. This gave the show power. I could reference it in a room of adults and I thought I perceived myself going up in their estimation afterwards (this wasn’t actually happening, but that’s how being 15 works). We all get a few years of discovery where we feel like we’re stitching the pieces of pop culture together and figuring out how it all happened for ourselves. For me, being able to see the tendrils of Sanders’ influence across every other subsequent sitcom I loved—its satire of show business warping into 30 Rock, the rhythms of its discomfort informing both Offices, its stances on ego, ambition and failure echoing in I’m Alan Patridge, Party Down, Slings and Arrows—felt like I was consulting a kind of modern comedy ur-text.
Because of this, my active frustration with how thoroughly he seemed to have dropped off the map and his lack of presence in the lives of the people I was growing up with was extremely annoying. My attempts to explain the relevance of the show to my friends became a recurring joke. The knowing “ahhh” I made when he showed up in Iron Man 2 was met with a well-deserved “shut the fuck up.” But it was ultimately not that different from the way I loved Louis C.K., or Woody Allen, or… You get the idea. I felt these people had a better, clearer read on reality than I did, that they felt the burden of that perspective, and that this made their lives difficult. That is the appeal of these comedians, especially for young men who fancy themselves similarly afflicted. But that hero-worship comes with an enormous cost. No disrespect to Shandling’s memory, but these days, all I want to do is resist that hero worship, no matter who it’s directed at.
So when I remember feeling like “if only Shandling would make a third show, then my friends would get on board with this,” it means something when Apatow says “we all became his third show,” in reference to the scores of writers, directors, actors and comedians Shandling counseled during his last years. He feels like an artist worth admiring because he knew the glory of that third show wouldn’t reflect back onto him. He feels like a comedian worth admiring because he decided there might be more important things than being a comedian. He feels like someone whose ability to buy out of his own hype is all the more impressive for having previously bought into his own hype so thoroughly, if also reluctantly.
Yes, I’m only human. And Apatow is still a showman at heart. So when he ends the first part of the film with a Larry Sanders cliffhanger, I’m still going to react like he just teased a new Infinity Stone or something. But I also think it means something to have a documentary about a late artist hold itself like a eulogy, to find a way to be loving without becoming reverent and to recognize an artist’s mistakes without glorifying those mistakes as part of their process.
Graham Techler is a New York-based writer and comedian. You’d be doing him a real solid by following him on Twitter @grahamtechler or on Instagram @obvious_new_yorker. A real solid.