Garry Shandling made groundbreaking TV comedy by showing the things that are usually left off TV: The through-the-looking-glass meta-sitcom shenanigans of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, the backstage talk-show tumult of The Larry Sanders Show. We take such lack of a fourth wall for granted in 2018, but some of the most thrilling parts of the new HBO documentary The Zen Diaries Of Garry Shandling are the types of things Shandling staged for the camera: Outtakes from decades of television appearances, remnants of the “true” Garry Shandling that was the late comedian’s eternal quarry, captured for posterity on programs ranging from The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson to Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee. Directed by Shandling’s friend, colleague, and one-time protégé, Judd Apatow, Zen Diaries assembles a comprehensive (occasionally too comprehensive) collage from such footage, combining it with home-movies, broadcast clips, vintage audio, new interviews, and excerpts from the copious journal entries the comedian left behind when he died of a heart attack in 2016.
There’s no pretension toward documentarian objectivity here: Apatow is a frequent on-camera presence, and Zen Diaries takes the form of both a tribute to its subject and a facet of its director’s personal grieving process. It’s an ideal meeting of topic and filmmaker, an onscreen manifestation of the nuts-and-bolts comedy know-how and interviewing acumen displayed in his 2015 book, Sick In The Head. The deeper into the archives Zen Diaries digs, the more hand-written notes, B-roll, and prominent talking heads it displays, it’s evident that Apatow’s involvement has bestowed a level of prestige and access that anyone else’s Garry Shandling documentary might lack. The friendship and the film cannot be separated from one another, but the former was a source of as much mystification as affection for Apatow, and he channels both into Zen Diaries.
That match also smooths over some of the director’s most needling tendencies: The excessive runtime (four hours plus), the slack pacing, the no-footage-left-behind feeling of Apatow’s narrative films is essential to his aims for The Zen Diaries Of Garry Shandling. “You really can’t squeeze it all in under two hours without giving short shrift to everything,” Apatow told The A.V. Club, and even when a segment starts to feel logy, indulgent, or potentially inconsequential—like the significant portions of part two devoted to the production of DVD extras for The Larry Sanders Show—its importance reveals itself down the line.
And it’s not like Apatow’s closeness to his subject doesn’t turn Zen Diaries into hagiography. Long before the credits are rolling side by side with footage from Shandling’s memorial service, Zen Diaries contains a eulogy’s mix of unvarnished praise and honest appraisals of faults. Linda Doucett is on hand for the most emotional of the testimonials, detailing the hurt of her romantic relationship with Shandling, which ended with a nixed engagement and Doucett’s abrupt dismissal from The Larry Sanders Show. She sued for sexual harassment and wrongful termination, an imbroglio soon complicated by her ex-fiancé’s legal spat with manager (and Sanders producer) Brad Grey; Zen Diaries shies away from neither case. It’s as sincere in this pursuit as it is in highlighting the impact of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show or breaking down the behind-the-scenes collapse of What Planet Are You From?
The documentary shares that quality with its namesake notations. Written in punchy, scribbled prose, Shandling’s journal entries show a side to the comedian that even archival interviews cannot. Flashed onscreen in animated flourishes and read in voiceover (for longer passages) by Shandling acolyte Michael Cera, they are affirmations and aspirations, words that couldn’t be spoken out loud because their intended recipient was also their writer—or someone their writer was unwilling (or unable) to speak to. They’re the most precise document of Shandling’s spiritual practices, the neurotic koans of a Jewish kid from Arizona who started meditating while he was still in the desert and embraced Buddhist teachings as part of a lifelong pursuit to connect with the truest essence of his being.
Shandling is frequently shown with notes in hand, digging them out of a desk drawer at the top of Zen Diaries or being razzed by Jerry Seinfeld for their tattered, disorganized appearance. (An intriguing subtextual thread running through the documentary: Shandling and Seinfeld as a yin and yang of ’90s comedy superstardom.) They are both the impetus for the documentary and the documentary itself: Revealing, overflowing, personal, hilarious.
There’s nothing earth-shattering about what’s written on these pages. It’s a lot of elementary sentiments about truth, honesty, and the self wrapped up in Shandling’s various insecurities. Their profundity is of a quieter sort. They show an artist renowned for his ability to synthesize comedy from they ugly, cruel, desperate sides of human nature striving to be kinder. They peel back the curtain of his “effortless” stand-up style, to demonstrate the level of preparation and care that went into his work.
It’s a humility in which Zen Diaries ultimately frames Shandling. The documentary often resists the temptation to put him in one box or the other, but the writings, testimonials, and excerpts shape the image of someone who would never outwardly acknowledge the way he revolutionized the way we make and consume comedy today. Those points are never Apatow’s focus, and when they’re made, they’re made subtly. Surrounded by Simpsons merchandise, Al Jean and Mike Reiss reflect on their It’s Garry Shandling’s Show experience, and the influence its self-awareness had on the world of Springfield. Seinfeld casually brings up the Larry Sanders Show DVD extras as something that was on his mind during the development of Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee—the takeaway being that the modern fixation on comedians’ mindsets, from WTF to Apatow’s own book, stems partially from Garry Shandling wanting to give his fans some genuine incentive for owning Sanders on home video.
Does Zen Diaries need the interlude about the boxing gym Shandling opened with Peter Berg to get these points across? Probably not. But it’s part and parcel with Apatow’s (and Berg’s, Sarah Silverman’s, Sacha Baron Cohen’s, and Jon Favreau’s) effort to capture the most complete picture of someone who gave them the time and the push George Carlin once gave Shandling in the backroom of a Phoenix comedy club. Drag though it does, there’s enough illuminating substance and never-before-seen allure in The Zen Diaries Of Garry Shandling to reflect the words Shandling said dozens of times in the guise of his shadow self: “No flipping.”