A new documentary about the show’s creator Garry Shandling shows how his humour was motored by darknessby Sameer Rahim / April 25, 2018 / Leave a comment
The 1990s were a golden age for comedy. Over here we had The Day Today, Alan Partridge, but also choice American imports. I don’t mean Friends, a show that has never made me so much as crack a smile, but the shows that nestled bizarrely in the post-Newsnight slot on a Tuesday night. At 11.15pm came Seinfeld. But that was merely a warm-up for the main attraction: The Larry Sanders Show, for my money still the best sitcom ever made.
HBO has just released a two-part documentary by filmmaker Judd Apatow, entitled The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling. Apatow got his big break with the creator and star of Larry Sanders and kept in close contact until he died in 2016 aged 66. Part one delves into the comedian’s hard upbringing—his brother died from cystic fibrosis when Garry was 10 years old; his mother never recovered mentally—and his 1980s hit, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, a self-reflexive comedy about a stand-up. Part two is about how he came to create his best work, and what it cost both him and those around him.
The “Zen” in the title refers to Shandling’s interest in Buddhism, and the self-improvement diaries he wrote to keep darkness at bay. That same darkness motored his humour. The Larry Sanders Show takes on the monstrous ego of the late-night talk-show host, his Hollywood guests and the team around him, damaged by having to attend to his every whim. “Does my ass look big in these pants?” is Larry’s refrain to his producer Artie (exquisitely played by Rip Torn.) Artie must always cheerfully insist that no, of course, his ass looks perfect.
As the documentary shows, Shandling took immense pains to get every joke burnished and every scene perfectly plotted. The stakes were high. In the early 1990s, NBC offered him $5m to take over David Letterman’s late-night slot. But he turned it down for a show about a talk show. He was vindicated: the show ran from 1992-1998, 90 episodes, with multiple Emmy wins.
For all the bitching and kvetching, The Larry Sanders Show tries to “tell the story of human beings.” As well as Artie there’s Larry’s sidekick Hank (Jefferey Tambor), a roiling mass of resentments masked with a false on-screen jollity; deadpan guest…