Obituary: Garry Shandling, comedian

Garry Shandling, a comedian who deftly walked a tightrope between comic fiction and show-business reality on two critically praised cable shows, died last week in Los Angeles.

Garry Shandling . Picture: AP
Garry Shandling . Picture: AP

Garry Shandling, comedian. Born: 29 November, 1949, in Chicago. Died: 24 March, 2016, in Los Angeles, aged 66.

TMZ, the celebrity news site, reported that Shandling had a heart attack.

Shandling, who began his comedy career as a writer and went on to become one of the most successful US stand-up comics of the 1980s, was best known for The Larry Sanders Show, a dark look at life behind the scenes of a late-night talk show. It ran on HBO from 1992 to 1998.

Shandling’s Larry Sanders was the host of a fictional show within the show, interviewing real celebrities playing themselves in segments that were virtually indistinguishable from real talk shows such as The Tonight Show. (Shandling had frequently substituted for Johnny Carson as the Tonight Show host.)

But the show was mostly concerned with what happened when the cameras were off, especially the interplay among Larry, his bumbling announcer and sidekick (Jeffrey Tambor) and his mercurial producer (Rip Torn).

The Larry Sanders Showwas the second show by Shandling to take an unorthodox approach. The first, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, seen on Showtime from 1986 to 1990, freely admitted that it was a show, with Shandling often breaking the fourth wall by speaking directly to the audience.

Garry Emmanuel Shandling was born in Chicago on 29 November, 1949, and grew up in Tucson. His father, Irving, owned a print shop; his mother, Muriel, ran a pet store. An older brother, Barry, died of cystic fibrosis when Garry was ten.

He became interested in comedy at an early age but put his show-business ambitions aside to study electrical engineering at the University of Arizona. In his junior year he wrote a monologue that he managed to get to George Carlin, who encouraged him to pursue a comedy career, but that was still a few years away.

After moving to Los Angeles in 1973, he worked in an advertising agency while writing and trying to sell sitcom scripts. He sold one to the producers of the hit Redd Foxx series Sanford and Son in 1975 and went on to write three more scripts for that show and one for “Welcome Back, Kotter” before trying his luck as a stand-up comic.

His rise was rapid, and in March 1981 he reached what at the time was considered a milestone in any comedian’s career: an appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. His name is Garry Shandling, Carson told the audience that night. “You’ll hear a lot about him.” Before long, Shandling had become a frequent guest host.

His comedy was dry, self-deprecating and sometimes a bit absurd. A frequent subject was his sexual prowess, or lack thereof: “After making love I said to my girl, ‘Was it good for you too?’ And she said, ‘I don’t think this was good for anybody.’”

Offered his own series by Showtime, Shandling created It’s Garry Shandling’s Show with former Saturday Night Live writer Alan Zweibel. As suggested by its title, and by a theme song that began, “This is the theme to Garry’s show.”

The series simultaneously adhered to sitcom conventions and mocked them by admitting that the characters were just actors on a set ­reciting dialogue.

It’s Garry Shandling’s Show ran for four seasons on Showtime and was also briefly rerun on the Fox network. It was nominated for four Emmy Awards and won four CableACE awards. Not long after it went off the air, Shandling was back, this time on HBO, with a show that crossed the line between show business and the real world in a different way.

Playing a talk-show host who was, as Jacques Steinberg wrote in The New York Times, “a too-close-for-comfort amalgam of Johnny Carson, David Letterman, Jay Leno and Jack Paar,” Shandling offered a jaundiced insider view of the television business.

Shandling’s Larry was egotistical and anxiety-ridden. His producer, Artie, was ruthless and deceitful. His sidekick, Hank, was eager to please and almost completely ­clueless.

In its six seasons, The Larry Sanders Show won near-unanimous critical praise and numerous Emmy Award nominations. And the real world of Garry Shandling intersected with the fictional world of Larry Sanders more than once.

Actress Linda Doucett, who played Hank’s loyal assistant, was in real-life Shandling’s fiancée. She was fired after they broke up and sued Shandling for sexual harassment and wrongful termination. That suit was eventually settled, as was Shandling’s lawsuit against Brad Grey, his former manager and an executive producer of the show.

When CBS lured David Letterman away from NBC in 1993, a year after The Larry Sanders Show had debuted, by giving him a show that would directly compete with The Tonight Show, NBC offered Letterman’s former time slot to Shandling. He turned down the job. It went to a virtually unknown writer named Conan O’Brien.

Shandling’s profile was never again as high as it was during the Larry Sanders years, but the show’s influence has been lasting. 30 Rock borrowed its unblinking warts-and-all look at how television is made.

Its influence was also felt in less obvious ways. David Chase, the creator of The Sopranos, once said that The Larry Sanders Show “inspired me to want to do something really good for television.”

Shandling continued to appear on TV talk shows, notably Jay Leno’s Tonight Show and Craig Ferguson’s Late Late Show, and occasionally acted in movies, including Iron Man 2 (2012) and Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014). In both he played a US senator.

Shandling, who never married, leaves no immediate survivors.

Just a few months ago, Shandling was a guest on Jerry Seinfeld’s popular Web series “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” in an episode eerily titled “It’s Great That Garry Shandling Is Still Alive.”

Eighteen years earlier, Seinfeld had praised Shandling’s comedic instincts. “Comedians all wait around to hear things that they can use,” 
Seinfeld said in 1998. “With Garry, it’s like being in a boat with a guy who’s constantly reeling in fish.”

l Copyright New York Times 2016. Distributed by NYT news syndication service