Comic who made satires of talk shows

Garry Shandling hosting the 56th annual Primetime Emmy Awards in Los Angeles, California, in 2004.
Garry Shandling hosting the 56th annual Primetime Emmy Awards in Los Angeles, California, in 2004. PHOTO: REUTERS

Garry Shandling showed what it was like behind the scenes of a late-night talk show

NEW YORK • Garry Shandling, a comedian who deftly walked a tightrope between comic fiction and show-business reality on two critically praised cable TV shows, died on Thursday. He was 66.

He was taken from his Los Angeles home to hospital, where he was pronounced dead, the police said. Shandling, who had been relatively healthy, suffered an apparent heart attack and called 911 for help himself, his publicist said. He added that the comedian had no history of heart disease.

Shandling, who became one of the most successful stand-up comics of the 1980s, was best known for The Larry Sanders Show, a dark look at life behind the scenes of a late-night talk show. It ran on HBO from 1992 to 1998.

His Larry Sanders was the host of a fictional show within the show, interviewing real celebrities playing themselves in segments that were virtually indistinguishable from real talk shows such as The Tonight Show.

The show was mostly concerned with what happened when the cameras were off, especially the interplay among Larry, his bumbling announcer and sidekick (Jeffrey Tambor) and his producer (Rip Torn). As tender as it was cynical, it was a show about friendship and betrayal and loneliness - the King Lear of talk-show satires.

The Larry Sanders Show, often cited as a groundbreaking precursor to shows such as Curb Your Enthusiasm and 30 Rock, was the second one by Shandling to take an unorthodox approach.

In the mid-1980s, he starred in It's Garry Shandling's Show, a deconstructionist sitcom (created with former Saturday Night Live writer Alan Zweibel) where he played a stand-up comic who constantly interrupted scenes by talking to the audience about being in his own show.

Garry Emmanuel Shandling was born in Chicago on Nov 29, 1949, and grew up in Tucson. His father, Irving, owned a print shop; his mother, Muriel, ran a pet store. An older brother, Barry, died of cystic fibrosis when Garry was 10.

He became interested in comedy at an early age but put his show- business ambitions aside to study electrical engineering at the University of Arizona. After moving to Los Angeles in 1973, he worked in an advertising agency while writing and trying to sell sitcom scripts. He sold one to the producers of the hit Redd Foxx series, Sanford And Son, in 1975 before trying his luck as a stand-up comic.

His rise was rapid and in March 1981, he reached what at the time was considered a milestone in any comedian's career - an appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.

"His name is Garry Shandling," Carson told the audience that night. "You'll hear a lot about him." Before long, Shandling had become a frequent guest host.

His comedy was dry, self-deprecating and sometimes a bit absurd. A frequent subject was his sexual prowess, or lack thereof: "After making love, I said to my girl, 'Was it good for you too?' And she said, 'I don't think this was good for anybody'."

Offered his own series by Showtime, Shandling created It's Garry Shandling's Show with Zweibel. The series was nominated for four Emmy Awards and won four CableACE awards. Not long after it went off the air, he was back, this time on HBO.

In its six seasons, The Larry Sanders Show won critical praise and many Emmy Award nominations. And the real world of Shand- ling intersected with the fictional world of Sanders more than once.

Actress Linda Doucett, who played the loyal assistant of Larry's sidekick, was in real life his fiancee. Fired after they broke up, she sued Shandling for sexual harassment and wrongful termination. That suit was eventually settled, as was Shandling's lawsuit against Brad Grey, his former manager and an executive producer of the show.

The show's influence has been lasting. 30 Rock borrowed its unblinking warts-and-all look at how television is made; Curb Your Enthusiasm embraced its use of celebrities to play versions of themselves that were perhaps only slight exaggerations.

Its influence was also felt in less obvious ways. David Chase, the creator of The Sopranos, once said The Larry Sanders Show "inspired me to want to do something really good for television".

Shandling continued to appear on talk shows, notably Jay Leno's Tonight Show and Craig Ferguson's Late Late Show, and occasionally acted in movies, including Iron Man 2 (2012) and Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014).

He never married and leaves no immediate survivors.

Just a few months ago, he was a guest on Jerry Seinfeld's popular Web series, Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee, in an episode eerily titled It's Great That Garry Shandling Is Still Alive. Eighteen years earlier, Seinfeld had praised Shandling's comedic instincts.

"Comedians all wait around to hear things that they can use," Seinfeld said in 1998. "With Garry, it's like being in a boat with a guy who's constantly reeling in fish."

In 2007, nine years after The Larry Sanders Show went off the air, Shandling spoke to The Times about his post-Sanders life.

"It's very similar to - what is it? - the seven stages of grieving," he said. "First there's the shock. Now I'm going to head for something funny here. Then there's denial, acceptance and" - he paused - "masturbation."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 26, 2016, with the headline 'Comic who made satires of talk shows'. Print Edition | Subscribe