It’s Horrible That Garry Shandling Is No Longer Alive

Posted: September 7, 2017 in Uncategorized


Today is I believe the 532nd day since the passing of comic Garry Shandling at age 66. It’s been roughly a year and a half and typing that last sentence still deeply effects me. To be truly saddened by the death of celebrities I’ve never met and or even seen perform in person is an extreme rarity for someone such as myself.

After I killed for my 2 1/2 nerve-wracking, exhilarating minute debut at the Goonies comedy club Thursday night open mic in Rochester, MN oh so many February’s ago, I unceremoniously ended my set with an apology. I  half-mumbled “That’s all I got” and then just literally ran off the stage, out the stage door, down the stairs, out the front door before finally stumbling into a snow-covered alley. Struggling for breath in the winter air, I felt simultaneously both high and sick. I was hooked and I knew I would be chasing that high forever.

I’ve learned a lot since then. For starters, don’t swallow a whole week’s worth of Bupropion and Adderall all at once and then chase it down with Jack and Cokes. Especially if it’s right before you hit the stage. (Apparently you should listen to your shrink when they warn you to actually read the medicine bottle labels and don’t try to “make up” for days you forget to take your crazy pills.) But a lot of what I learned early on about joke writing and character creation can be credited directed to the late great Mr. Shandling.

Like any self-respecting English minor nerd, I worked at the public library and Barnes & Noble. (Cheateau Theatre, R.I.P.) Like all my previous obsessions (journalism, drumming, Abraham Lincoln, etc.) I resolved to immediately learn everything I could on the subject. I checked out every book I could on stand-up and back-ordered everything else. 75% of them represented time wasted from my life I can regretfully never get back. Like everybody else, you realize the only real way to get any better at stand up is stage time. However, five titles* genuinely helped me out early on: Lenny Bruce’s “How To Talk Dirty and Influence People,” Bill Maher’s “True Story,” Jay Sankey’s “Zen and the Art of Stand Up Comedy,” Steve Martin’s “Born Standing Up” and Garry’s “Confessions Of A Late Night Talk Show Host.” (Runner Up: Richard Belzer‘s “How To Be A Stand Up Comic”)


A fake late-90’S bio written in his Larry Sanders alter-ego with the help of ghost-writer David Rensin, it’s literary significance initially appears to be somewhere on the level of “Wayne’s World: Extreme Close Up.” However, like Garry’s hair, first impressions can sometimes be deceiving.

Before, I was just a comedy groupie. The writing in these five coffee-stained paperbacks helped me decipher the secret unwritten code of comedy clubs:

  • Always shake the host’s hand immediately after they introduce you and again before you exit.
  • Pull the mic out and move the microphone stand away after your initial opening line, wait for the 1 minute warning light and then move the stand back to the center of the room and put the mic back in before telling your last 30 second bit.
  • No matter what, always do all of your time and never a second over.
  • Always have an exit strategy and never ever perform anywhere that doesn’t have two un-obstructed fire exits.
  • Always count your money before you leave the club.
  • If the bartender or waitress or even just busboy are physically in the room during your set, you still technically have an audience.
  • Remove any cultural reference that will time-stamp your bits to ensure a longer shelf life.
  • Never steal a joke: you will always be found out and no one will ever let you live it down.
  • You can call each other every name in the book but “hack” is fighting words.

Lenny‘s book has this heart-breakingly beautiful passage where he proposes a party phone line where lonely people could be connected to each other. (In other words, he basically invented the Internet in 1965.) Bill‘s thinly-veiled roman clef opens your eyes to the fact that, boiled down to their essence, there’s basically only five type of male comedy acts: poop, sex, race, weight and politics. (In 1994, this was a groundbreaking revelation.) Jay lets you in on the fact that the game is tragically rigged for randomized failure. It doesn’t matter if you’re Brian Regan, 10 years in at the height of your creative powers. Everyone eventually bombs: it’s just a question of when.  Martin‘s tome is unquestioningly the masterpiece of the pile, connecting how the ukulele he used at a part-time, after-school theme-park gig eventually became an integral part of his show to illustrate that you will use every part of your past to make your present.

At the time, newbie me was inspired by Shandling/Sanders’ humble beginnings in Mound, MN. (He’s actually from Arizona, dumbass. Satire. SAAATIIIRE.) At the time I first cracked the front cover, I only vaguely knew of Shandling as someone who used to do funny things on cable channels I wasn’t allowed to watch at the time. In time, I eventually realized how truly influential “The Larry Sanders Show” became: Judd Apatow‘s entire career, Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge character, HBO becoming more than just boobs and boxing, “30 Rock“, Aaron Sorkin’s walk-and-talk schtick, “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Seinfeld,” “The Office“, etc.

Larry Sanders in turn led me to the fourth-wall-leveling “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show,” which still gets my vote for funniest TV theme song of all time: Singer Bill Lynch explains Garry called him up and asked if he can write his theme song, asks what the listener thinks of it so far, etc. 

I vaguely remember coming across a study at some point where scientists picked dozens of one-liners past and present and attempted to determine what joke got the most laughs across all demographic categories. If memory serves me correctly, the clear winner by far was Shandling’s:

A man went to his doctor and told him “My penis is burning” and the doctor said “That means someone is talking about it.”

Sadly, today most people probably reference him, if they remember him at all, as Senator Stern from the Iron Man franchise. Some obituaries dutifully remembered him as one of the few stand up’s to flagrantly cross the Comedy Store picket line during the LA comedians ill-fated 1979 strike. The legend goes that Mitzi Shore never considered Shandling good enough for prime-time spots, but that all changed the moment he became her #1 scab star.   

He cameod in everything from “Zoolander” to “The X-Files” to “The Dictator.” Garry was the best interview Pete Holmes has done to date and his small part in the criminally underrated “Mixed Nuts” was truly inspired. On balance, the less said about “Over The Hedge” the better.

I recently re-read Amy Wallace’s excellent 2010 GQ piece again before finally getting around to watching Shandling’s episode of Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee.” I put it off because I knew it would make me tear up. I was right. It’s truly moving, and not just because of Garry’s in-retrospect-foreboding aside about wishing a boxing referee instead of a doctor could be the one to officially pronounce him permanently down for the count.

Shandling never married, never had children. Like a lot of other men who chose this path (myself included), he instead threw himself completely into everything else: opening for Buddhist monks, learning ham radio, etc.  

I loved how Larry Sanders always weaved together fact and fiction, blurring the lines to create truly awkward, chaotic confusion everywhere he went. “Ellen Or Isn’t She,” where Ellen DeGeneres is debating publicly coming out as lesbian, but then ends up having a weird one-night stand with Garry instead. “Broadcast Nudes,” where Garry’s real-life fiancée is asked to pose for Playboy, which she ended up doing IRL at that time. Or how the set of “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show” meticulously recreated his actual off-camera apartment down to the lamp.

“Confessions Of A Late Night Talk Show Host” is the textbook definition of a murder-your-grandmother-to-get-on-a-sitcom character personified, a ruthless-yet-insecure role cemented for eternity. Sanders = Shandling and visa versa. Shandling showed all of us how to get everyone to pay you handsomely to pretend to show them how to properly demolish their fourth walls. How to never take anything seriously. How it’s possible to show authentic vulnerability while somehow also hiding your true self in plain sight. His career is an insanely intricate sleight-of-hand magic trick worthy of Andy Kaufman’s greatest Tony Clifton pranks. Garry Shandling is still dead and Earth is a less funny planet to live on without him.   

*Edit: I fully acknowledge my top authors are all straight white males, mostly wealthy Jews. I recognize it is not my place here to point out why that group of people seem to be better joke writers than everyone else. As a straight, middle-class Caucasian dude who grew up idolizing Robin Williams and Bill Hicks, it’s entirely possible their words spoke to me more than others because their experiences were more immediately relatable. Later on, I also definitely gained a lot of practical insight the second go-round on Judy Carter’s “Stand Up Comedy: The Book” and “The Comedy Bible.” Ok, I’ll shut up now before I dig this hole even deeper than it already is.

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