From the Archives: ‘Oddball perfectionist’ Garry Shandling on his constant quest to improve his craft

Comedian Garry Shandling performs in 1995.

Comedian Garry Shandling performs in 1995.

(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Comedian Garry Shandling has died. He was best known for his work on “The Larry Sanders Show,” which aired on HBO from 1992 to 1998, as well as “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show,” which aired on Showtime from 1986 to 1990. This article was originally published in the Los Angeles Times on Aug. 27, 1995.

OK, from the outset, let’s get the obligatory Garry Shandling Angst out of the way: “Are you about to make fun of me? I can go with that and I’d respect you if you did.”

Later, he suggests rescheduling the interview. Something wrong? “No, I’m just feeling ... unsure.

Even later: “Let me put this simply -- I am always shocked when someone important knows who I am or recognizes me. And then speaks to me. I’m further shocked when they continue to speak to me after I’ve spoken to them. And when a conversation ensues, after about five minutes I get very self-conscious and excuse myself.”


And still later: “I don’t want to talk about my personal life. If I do, I’ll end up reading about it, and that’s when it will really hit me. And honestly, it’ll ruin my Sunday.”

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This being Garry Shandling, there is plenty more misery where that came from, but those few words set a large chunk of it aside.

He is physically incapable of taking solace in the fact that his series, the bone-cutting dissection of Hollywood hypocrisy known as “The Larry Sanders Show,” has received ecstatic reviews each of its four seasons on HBO, that it’s won a Peabody Award and is the only comedy on cable TV that routinely edges out far-higher-profile network shows when Emmy nominations are announced, and that many people think he’s a capable actor.

Certainly, his persona as the sardonic wit riddled with insecurity is part of his charm. His smile fades so easily into a grimace that it’s tough to tell them apart. It’s what his friend Jeff Cesario, a fellow comedian and an executive producer on “Dennis Miller Live,” calls “the last-kid-in-dodgeball expression”-- betraying the chilling realization that he’s about to get absolutely pounded.

Though “The Larry Sanders Show” opened its fourth season last month with its characters discussing the difficulty of keeping their talk show fresh, the series itself refuses to adhere to any formula. The season premiere offered an inspired take on the O.J. Simpson trial, while the second episode mocked the homophobia of Larry’s sidekick Hank (Jeffrey Tambor) when he unknowingly hired a gay assistant (Scott Thompson, replacing Linda Doucette, who left the series after she and Shandling ended their off-camera relationship). Episode 3 offered a poignant portrait of Larry’s scabrous producer Artie (Rip Torn), and the fourth toppled headlong into sheer farce.


“You never, ever feel like he forces anything,” says Cesario, who appeared in the fourth episode. “It just seems to be so organic, what he does, how he thinks. He really likes to feel the depth of every character; he wants to know what they’re truly feeling. And yet he nails the jokes. When he edited that episode, he not only got every joke in the script on screen, he created three or four more, just by the way he edited it.”

“He is the quintessential perfectionist,” says Brad Grey, Shandling’s manager, adding that it’s that tireless perfectionism that would ill suit his client in the world of the crank-it-out, just-fill-in-time-between-commercials mind-set of much network TV.

“There was a commercial route to go, which would [result in] much greater financial success. But he does the show on HBO with total freedom. ... He has a philosophy toward his career that he lives by, and it works. His work speaks for itself. The trade-off is well worth it. The audience is less than if he was on a network, but that’s also fine. Not every show has to have that mass audience.”

(Indeed, whereas most celebrity romantic woes receive screaming tabloid coverage, Shandling’s appeal is so rarefied that one of the first reports of his breakup with Doucette came from Washington Post TV columnist Tom Shales.)

One element that constantly delights and surprises viewers is how the show is able to get bona fide celebrities to make fun of themselves. What confessional is to the Catholic Church, “The Larry Sanders Show” is to Hollywood, a forum in which folks can come clean and reveal their foibles. This year alone, Chevy Chase mocked his ill-fated talk show, Ryan O’Neal referred to a stormy past by saying, “I’m not a hitter anymore,” and Roseanne played her usual larger-than-life self, tormenting the Sanders backstage help.


Still, when dealing with the egos that permeate the entertainment industry, Shandling and his writers must approach their subjects with supreme diplomacy.

“It’s an extremely delicate process because no one wants to be made fun of, and I try to be really protective of that,” Shandling says. “I do not think this is a mean-spirited show in any way. There’s a level of satire in which, if one gets it, then they’re willing to play with that. This show allows an opportunity for some people to play themselves in a way that they haven’t been able to do before. I think everybody who’s done that has had fun on the show.”

David Duchovny, star of “The X-Files,” appeared this season as a guest on Larry’s show who when his on-air time is truncated throws a tantrum one second and begs to return to the show the next. He explains the process: “You get a call from the writers and producers, and they kind of feel you out. They don’t ask you outright, but I said immediately, ‘I’d like to be a real a------.’ They said, ‘Good. We like when people play a-------.’ I said, ‘The more a------ the better. I want to take it to new heights.’ ”

In the episode, Duchovny demands a fruit basket from the show. “All of that was added on after they saw I was willing to be a jerk,” Duchovny says, adding that “Sanders” is his favorite show on the air. “Garry obviously knows what’s funny. Things like that happen in the moment. That’s why the show is so great. I’ve seen people I’ve never liked as actors, but on this show, I think they’re great.”

Not everyone is as willing a sport as Duchovny, though.

“I think all performers have a fear of doing a project that they’re not in control of and they’re not sure how they’re gonna come across and there’s a very fine line,” Shandling says. “One step over that line and you can be saying something negative about someone in the wrong way. I hope there’s a moderate amount of trust that’s been built up from seeing the show, that they realize that we’re not trying to pull the wool over someone’s eyes and get them in here and screw them. That isn’t the idea at all.

“I’ve never approached anyone with a piece of material that they’ve been offended by,” he continues. “Unequivocally. As odd as that sounds. I have had people say, ‘Aw, I don’t want to refer to that movie’ or ‘I don’t want to discuss my marriage,’ but it’s like any script you look at where they suggest changes. Guests can change anything they want that makes them uncomfortable.”


Despite its cachet as a place where stars can prove they have a sense of humor -- or, perhaps, because of it -- Shandling says the show still has problems booking guests. “We laugh sometimes because it becomes like a regular talk show where we have trouble getting a big-name guest,” he says.

An upcoming episode has Larry fretting because he has to ask a friend, Jeff Goldblum, to do a show.

“I’ve had that happen to me many times in the course of this show,” Shandling says. “I called him and said, ‘We have an episode we think you’d be great in,’ but I made it clear to him that I would respect him more if he turned me down. In fact, I sent Jeff a script once before and said, ‘I think you would be wise not to do this.’ And he said, ‘You’re correct.’ ”

Someone else who has proved to be an elusive quarry is singer Natalie Merchant. Note cards on the wall of Shandling’s office describing plot lines include many concerning Larry’s social life (Larry dates Whoopi, Larry dates Xuxa, you name it); perhaps the most incongruous reads, “Larry dates Natalie Merchant.”

“I’m a big fan of hers and we always wanted to do a show about what really happens backstage when you see someone hug a singer,” Shandling explains. “We’ve been trying to get her on the show for some time and have had no luck. And I really don’t know the reason, but I respect her enormously -- for declining to do this show. It only makes me a bigger fan. I’m sick that way.”

Shandling also seems a bit demented in his acute criticism of his acting. Certainly, the two Emmy nominations for best actor in a comedy and the fact that critics said he stole every scene he was in in the movies “Love Affair” and “The Night We Never Met” mean something?


“But I see my work,” he says. “I’m sure I don’t bring an enormous amount of objectivity to it, but I watch my work and often flinch.”

“He’s a really fine actor,” counters Duchovny. “He’s not just a comic who acts, like Jerry Seinfeld, Tim Allen or Roseanne. He listens to what the other actors are doing, his reactions are real and vulnerable, he’s hysterical. He has no idea how awesomely talented he is.”

Has Grey, Shandling’s friend and advisor for 15 years, ever been able to persuade his client that he has talent? “I can’t say that I have.”

Shandling studied acting with the late Roy London, who was such an influence that he still holds onto a newspaper story about his mentor, and considered quitting acting after London’s death in 1993.

“The deficiencies I have in my acting are deficiencies I have in my own personal makeup, and I’d like to conquer those,” Shandling says. “Maybe I should just start studying with Anthony Robbins.” He laughs. “That’s what it sounds like -- I really just need some big self-help course.”

Shandling often slips something disarmingly honest and personal into his conversation, then backs off it with a joke. At one point, he became particularly contemplative: “In my generation, I’ve seen this very frustrating transition from the late ‘60s, when I was sure that our society would become more evolved and more caring and more loving, into what is really a more business-driven society than ever. Certainly, all these mergers indicate that. I see trouble ahead if we don’t get back to some basic humanity.”


But it’s not long until he’s confessing on a more basic level: “There’s nothing I love more than a good penis joke. And if you leave the word joke off that sentence, you’re going to get a completely wrong idea of me.”

Likewise, Shandling will occasionally return to his roots on the stand-up stage, though, predictably, for reasons most performers can’t fathom.

“I will go back to a club and do a few nights, just walk on when nobody knows I’m there,” he says. “Occasionally in an isolated spot, I purposefully push the envelope and see how far I can go; ultimately, I lose the audience, and I like the uncomfortable feeling of being in that hole and challenging myself to have the courage to stay there.

“I also enjoy putting my hand over an open flame and holding it there. ... I like to think when I play a club, while I don’t always entertain the audience, they certainly feel better leaving because they’re not me.”

Right now, however, Shandling must pick his next career move. His “Sanders” contract ends this season, and after four years on this show and four on the Showtime/Fox series “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show,” he isn’t sure he can survive another season of TV. Unsurprisingly, making the decision is tearing him up.

He might instead opt to star in a movie he has co-written about an alien who visits Earth, tentatively slated to begin production early next year with “Sanders” director Todd Holland behind the camera. It’s supposed to take place on the water, Shandling says, but “we may not be able to afford to shoot it all on water, so there will just be puddles here and there.”

Another project consuming his time is Larry Sanders’ autobiography. “It’s really a parody of those tell-all books,” Shandling says. “The working title of my book was ‘Far From an A------: The Larry Sanders Story.’ And I was told that they couldn’t put that book title in Kmart. I delayed the book, because now I’m confused -- am I writing the book to be sold in Kmart or am I writing the Larry Sanders story?”


Shandling is acutely aware, however, that the viability of such a book plummets if he doesn’t return for another season of the series.

“How am I going to balance all these things and not compromise creatively any of them?” he asks. “Because I just can’t do that. That’s the painful part. If I could only allow part of myself to get a project done and not care quite so much, I would be able to do more.

“Sometimes I start to think I’m an oddball perfectionist of some sort, and I don’t think that’s the case.” A pause. “Although I would like to reread that last sentence and possibly restructure it.”

He enumerates the pros of returning to the series: “This is a sensational situation creatively. Also, if I did another season and I knew for sure that it was my last season, the arc of that season could be very interesting because it would involve Larry being pushed out of his show, ultimately culminating with him hopefully talking with Jack Kevorkian.

“The cons are that I may do other things and feel like I don’t want to get back in this grind. The frustrating part of the show is week after week, things slip by that, were everyone more awake and more alert, we would catch. If we had more time. Certain things slide by, and that’s part of the compromise of doing weekly television. The first episode, you can spend the first three months of the summer getting ready for. The second episode, two months. The third episode, one month. By the fourth episode, you’re down to two weeks, and by the fifth episode, you write in five days and shoot it and everything’s rushed.

“It is a particularly strenuous grind for me, because I struggle to get better as an actor, I struggle to get better as a writer, and I participate in the editing and so forth and so on to the point that I don’t have much free time. I would like to spend some more time editing my life.”


Shandling smiles, this time less uncomfortably, perhaps because he’s being so honest. “Which needs a lot of editing. I still haven’t got the final cut of my real life yet.”

But he can’t resist tacking on the joke: “I’d like to sweeten my life too. While I don’t believe in adding canned laughs to a television show, I do believe in adding canned laughs to my real life. Believe me, if there was a way to do it where you wouldn’t see the guy following me around adding the laughs, I would do it.”

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