*Image taken from the internet and is likely copyrighted
It’s not very often that I see or hear something on a school night (or a work night as the case may be) that keeps me up this late writing about it. However, I just finished the 2nd straight night of watching the moving, in-depth documentary on HBO, The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling. The documentary was lovingly prepared by Shandling’s close friend and Hollywood “big shot” Judd Apatow who is not only a stand-up in his own right (I saw him skewer Bill Cosby in a fantastic routine), but also a director, producer, and writer of great renown. Apatow was not only a friend of Shandling’s but was mentored by Shandling from the time Apatow interviewed Shandling when the former was in high school. Apatow has unprecedented access to all of Shandling’s notes, diaries and archives and it makes for a compelling story.
It might seem odd that a classic rock/drinking blog like B&V would pause from it’s usual fare and take the time to discuss a comedy legend. But for us down here at B&V humor and comedians are almost as important as rock and roll. In the 70s one could argue the real rock stars were comedians. What a generation of comics… Robin Williams, Steve Martin (who I saw live at Kemper Arena, yes a stadium), David Letterman, Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld, almost the entire original cast of SNL (John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Dan Aakroyd, Bill Murray) and of course, Garry Shandling. That generation of comics took up the mantle of Richard Pryor and George Carlin and took comedy to new heights. The epicenter of all that humor was The Comedy Store in Los Angeles. What a scene that must have been.
The 2-part documentary isn’t all laughs. Shandling was a truly tortured soul. His life was really framed by the loss of his brother when he was only ten. His mother didn’t even let young Garry go to the funeral because “she didn’t want him to see her cry.” He got no closure, no chance to grieve. To describe his mother as “doting” with Garry after the loss of his brother is a polite way to describe her smothering behavior. No wonder he never married or had kids… After college at the University of Arizona, where he studied engineering, Shandling began writing. He moved to Hollywood and very quickly ended up writing episodes for Sanford and Sons and Welcome Back, Kotter. Shandling’s vision of comedy as art was too broad to be confined by the formulas necessary in sitcom television and after being hit by a car and almost dying, he made the decision to go into stand up comedy. The rest as they say is history…
His career kept gathering momentum until he finally made his first Tonight Show With Johnny Carson appearance, which was the brass ring for any comic at the time. It’s clear how much Carson thought of Shandling when you watch the clips. It’s hard to overstate what a big deal it was to impress Carson. After that Shandling’s stand-up career took off. Along with Leno he was named co-guest host for Carson but eventually bowed out of the gig as he found nightly comedy too confining. By then he was already working on his own show, the groundbreaking It’s Garry Shandling’s Show. He eventually also turned down replacing David Letterman when Dave moved to CBS to compete with Leno. After a five year run on his first show, Garry went on to do a second historic show, The Larry Sanders Show set backstage at a fake talk show. And since this is a rock and roll blog, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention I saw both Tom Petty and Warren Zevon on that show… In the documentary he’s also pictured with Ryan Adams, which surprised me. Shandling’s record collection must have been a lot like mine…
What is so special about this documentary is that it centers on Garry Shandling the man, not just the comic. Yes there are funny clips, but you see how important Zen and his spirituality was to Shandling. He saw comedy as a way to explore the truth of who he was. He brought an intelligence and thoughtfulness to his comedy that you don’t see/hear every day. The man was extraordinarily generous with his time and mentored so many people – Apatow, Kevin Nealon, Sarah Silverman. He truly was what Buddhism calls a bodhisattva. He held pick-up basketball games at his house every Sunday with comics and show biz types that were the stuff of legend. He was obviously beloved by his friends which surprisingly to me included David Duchovny.
That’s the fascinating thing about this documentary. Shandling was such a dichotomy of a person – at the same time, a comic/artist bent on applause and success and in parallel a spiritual searcher looking for the Zen ideal of calm, peacefulness. Those things seem so incongruous to me… Many of the shots start with hand written notes Shandling made to himself – “be yourself,” “let go,” and several other Buddhist themes run through his journaling. While he was a friend and mentor to many, he was also a mercurial artist, who had a lot of conflict in his life. Being a perfectionist is it’s own kind of torture… trust me, I married one. It’s all such an amazing portrait of a complete person struggling to make sense of life, career and love. You come away regretting not only his loss, but it’s hard not to wish you’d known the man. He was a special talent.
I loved this documentary. We should all have a friend like Judd Apatow, who does an amazing job with an obviously beloved subject. And lets be honest, I’ve never heard so many great dick jokes… Beyond that, I was moved to tears toward the end of the nearly four and a half hours. It’s really worth the time commitment. If you’re a fan of comedy or Garry Shandling, this is a must-see documentary.