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Garry Shandling Was a Pioneer of Meta TV Comedy

It’s a very sad day for comedy of all types. If you hadn’t heard, legendary comedian, writer, actor, and just general genius of laughter Garry Shandling has passed away at the age of only 66. Most younger people today probably wouldn’t know Shandling’s name, or maybe just know him as the turns-out-to-be-Hydra Senator Stern in Iron Man 2 and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. But his contribution to comedy, and specifically television comedy, is up there with people like Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, Tina Fey, and Ricky Gervais – because he influenced all of them.

In the mid-’80s, when the stand-up comedy boom was still booming, Garry Shandling was among the brightest of minds and, as with many comedians of the day, he was looking to get into television. He’d already written for shows for a number of years in the ’70s, including Sanford and Son and Welcome Back, Kotter, but he wanted to do it his own way. He wanted to do weird stuff, meta stuff, self-reflective stuff, which major networks like NBC were not at all prepared to allow. Luckily, there was the burgeoning premium cable sphere that just needed programming. Showtime came to Shandling and told him he could do whatever he wanted as long as it was a 30-minute comedy show.

Thus, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show was born.

As you can see from this opening titles sequence, the show was very unlike most of what was on TV at the time. Garry played a fictionalized, exaggerated version of himself, a neurotic, self-absorbed stand-up comic who had a platonic girlfriend and weird neighbors and friends with whom he could talk. A very, very normal set-up for a TV show, but he made the studio audience a part of things, talking to them throughout, acknowledging that they were the audience and this was a TV show, and they would even impact the course of events some times. And even the theme song is just a guy singing about how he’s singing a theme song to It’s Garry Shandling’s Show.

The audience, as I said, would participate in the show and even interact with the actors on stage. Really, only Garry would acknowledge the audience and the artifice of the show, but when you get rolls thrown at you, it’s hard to pretend that didn’t happen.

It’s Garry Shandling’s Show ran for 71 episodes between 1986 and 1990 and was a critical and niche hit. The episodes were even shown on the fledgling Fox TV network which just needed programming, which is how a lot more people (like my tiny child self) became aware of Shandling’s very strange brand of humor.

Shandling had also some comedy specials for Showtime, including this fake 1986 special called The Garry Shandling Show: 25th Anniversary Special, presented as a talk show celebrating its 25th anniversary (as you might guess) but it wasn’t a real talk show and never had been. Shandling was just making fun of shows like The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson which he’d guest hosted a few times and would lead to his next big outing on TV.

In 1992, Shandling moved to HBO for a brand new series, just as meta and esoteric, but this time specifically focusing on the world of late-night talk shows. The Larry Sanders Show was half fake late-night show, with real celebrities playing self-deprecating and often ridiculous versions of themselves opposite Shandling as the titular Sanders, Jeffrey Tambor as his Ed McMahon-type sidekick, and Rip Torn as his foul-mouthed producer. These were filmed before actual studio audiences to simulate the late-night experience. The other half of the show was mockumentary behind-the-scenes, often ad-libbed or improvised, antics of the crew and writers in the production.

The Larry Sanders Show was a huge hit for HBO, running for 89 episodes over six years. It earned 24 major awards including three Primetime Emmy Awards, five CableACE Awards, four American Comedy Awards, two British Comedy Awards, two Peabody Awards, a BAFTA Award, and a Satellite Award, plus a further 86 nominations. Shandling himself finally won an Emmy, for writing, in the show’s final season.

Without both It’s Garry Shandling’s Show and The Larry Sanders Show, there’s no way we’d have such beloved hits as 30 Rock, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Community, and The Office. Shandling’s pushing of the television envelope, playing with the format and the things you could get away with, and playing up the artificiality of the medium remain highly influential, and above all, still super super funny.

Garry Shandling did a lot for comedy, and did it in a lot of different ways, but his work on TV remains his crowning achievement. He’ll be missed, and his legacy will never be forgotten.

Shandling was just on You Made It Weird back in January, which you can listen to here.

Do you have any memories of either of these shows? Share them with us in the comments below.

Image: Home Box Office

Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor and a film and TV critic for Follow him on Twitter!

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