Garry Shandling, a great comedy writer who became a greater stand-up and begat two of the greatest most influential TV sitcoms, has died suddenly. Shandling was 66. The Los Angeles Police Department confirmed the sad news today.
Shandling had just done some major interviews with other comedians at the start of 2016, appearing on Jerry Seinfeld’s webseries, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, as well as sitting down for a two-hour session of Pete Holmes’ podcast, You Made It Weird.
Shandling, born on Nov. 29, 1949, in Chicago, and raised in Tucson, started his career in advertising before selling a spec script to the hit sitcom Sanford and Son in 1975. He’d go on to write multiple episodes of Sanford and Son and Welcome Back, Kotter, before he ever pursued stand-up. Shandling shifted gears career-wise after almost dying in a car accident. He was so new to stand-up in the late 1970s that he crossed the picket lines when comedians struck outside The Comedy Store in West Hollywood.
But even a decade earlier, while still a teen in Tuscon, he knew he wanted to be in comedy. So much that he drove two hours to Phoenix in 1968 in the hopes of meeting George Carlin.
As Shandling recalled to GQ magazine for a 2010 profile: “He was standing by the bar. I said, ‘Hi, Mr. Carlin. My name is Garry Shandling, and I wrote some routines for you.'” Carlin was polite. He wrote all his own stuff, he said, but if Shandling would come back tomorrow, he’d look his jokes over and they could talk. Shandling drove home to Tucson, then turned right around the next day and came back. After that night’s show, Shandling recalls, “he takes me into the back room, which is like the clubs where I work now, and there’s my material on his little table with marks on it.” Carlin walked him through the twenty or so pages one at a time, and then he said, “You’re very green, but there’s something funny on each page.” Very earnestly Carlin added: “If you’re thinking of pursuing this, I would.”
And he was a hit as soon as he made his first appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in 1981.
Shandling’s self-deprecating, self-effacing charm struck such a chord that he appeared several more times with Carson and also subbed for him, before recording his first special in 1984 (“Alone in Vegas”), then co-creating the innovative It’s Garry Shandling’s Show with Alan Zweibel in 1985 for Showtime. It later also aired edited versions on the new FOX network. It also blew down the fourth wall and talked straight to the audience. Even the theme song was self-aware and easy to sing along.
Shandling followed that up by creating a meta-commentary on late-night TV talk shows, just as the genre was exploding into the so-called “late-night wars.” The Larry Sanders Show ran for six seasons on HBO in the 1990s and mixed satire with reality to great new heights, and also helped catapult the careers of many of Shandling’s supporting actors and actresses.
The funny flirtation with David Duchovny even spilled over to The X-Files, where Shandling played himself playing Fox Mulder.
In 2000, Shandling wrote and starred in the movie, What Planet Are You From?, directed by the late, great Mike Nichols. He also appeared in two of the Marvel Comics movies this decade as a U.S. Senator, in both Iron Man 2 and Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
He also stood front and center, presiding over the Grammy Awards from 1990-1995, and twice as host of the Emmy Awards, in 2000 and 2004.
Here he was five years ago on The Green Room with Paul Provenza, matching wits with his former employee Judd Apatow, as well as Ray Romano, Marc Maron and Bo Burhnam.
“The whole world is confused because they’re trying to be somebody else. To be your true self it takes enormous work. Then we can start to look at the problems of the world, but instead ego drives it, ego drives the world, ego drives the problems. So you have to work in an egoless way. This egolessness, which is the key to being authentic, is a battle -and it’s a battle that has to be won before we’re worried about the economy.”
Rest in Peace, Garry Shandling.