As a stand-up comic in the late ’70s and early ’80s, Garry Shandling specialized in jokes about his vanity and his luckless love life, cut with a bit—just a bit—of a self-conscious wink. His jokes were reasonably funny, but as with fellow stand-up David Letterman, Shandling’s material was to some extent about what’s funny, and why we laugh at jokes that may be stale or corny. No wonder, then, that Shandling, like Letterman, ended up sitting behind a late-night talk-show desk. When Shandling guest-hosted The Tonight Show in the Johnny Carson era, he subtly mocked any TV format that would let someone as gawky as himself become a star. Later, he made that mockery more overt, in a 1986 Showtime parody of late-night anniversary specials, and then in the HBO classic The Larry Sanders Show.
Between those two projects, Shandling headed up four seasons of the Showtime sitcom It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, a curious mix of postmodernism and homage, starring Shandling as a stand-up comic surrounded by a full complement of wacky friends and neighbors, all fully aware that they’re living inside a TV show. It’s Garry Shandling’s Show is like Seinfeld plus fourth-wall-breakage (though it pre-dated Seinfeld by three years), or like The Burns & Allen Show crossed with the more self-referential episodes of Green Acres. What set Shandling’s show apart was Shandling himself, and his ability to spoof sitcoms while living comfortably inside one. The complete 72-episode It’s Garry Shandling’s Show DVD set features lots of moments where Shandling looks into the camera and says something like, “Here’s where we are in the story,” but what’s remarkable is the way he gives these contrivances an extemporaneous feel, as though he were constructing his sitcom’s reality on the fly.
On one of the DVD’s commentary tracks, Shandling claims that he and co-creator Alan Zweibel adopted the “Garry talks to the audience” conceit to cover for their inability to write plausible dialogue, and to expedite the exposition. That certainly explains the early episodes of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, which play like Shandling’s stand-up act, only with co-stars helping act out the jokes. On the whole, Garry Shandling’s Show isn’t as rich as Shandling’s masterpiece, The Larry Sanders Show; the comedy is intentionally lame at times, and the whole show has a dated late-’80s look and feel that takes some getting used to. But after Shandling and Zweibel learned how to make the best use of their concept, Garry Shandling’s Show often approached real brilliance. Consider the season-one finale, in which Shandling moves away to star in a New York cop show, and Red Buttons takes over his sitcom. In less than 25 minutes, the episode skewers faux-tough action series, transitional TV episodes, and Borscht Belt comedy, but it also celebrates the inherent entertainment value of all three. Not so much radical as wry, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show reaffirmed the power that hoary show-business forms have to bring order to the chaos of modern life.
Key features: Outtakes, interviews, and selected episode commentary by Shandling, Zweibel, and some of the other writers and cast members.