Shandling's two series were groundbreaking deconstructions of typical sitcoms

By Alex Heigl
Updated March 25, 2016 11:00 AM
Credit: Albert L. Ortega/Getty

Garry Shandling‘s sly, subversive wit and meta take on the vagaries of showbiz truly made him a comic’s comic. It’s no surprise that the bulk of tributes that poured him for him upon news of his death Thursday were from his fellow comedians.

But his talent is hardly a commodity that can only be appreciated by comics: Here are eight of his best moments that anyone can enjoy.

His Tonight Show Debut

Shandling had been a writer for Sanford and Son and Welcome Back, Kotter before he turned to standup comedy, spending three years on his routine before debuting it on The Tonight Show in 1981. Johnny Carson loved it so much he invited Shandling to guest-host the show.

It’s Garry Shandling’s Show

It’s hard to overstate exactly how groundbreaking the four-year, 72-episode run of this show really was. Fourth-wall-breaking, meta-humor may be everywhere these days, but in 1986, it was anathema to mainstream television, and Shandling fearlessly dove into the breach, skewering conventional comedic sitcoms at every turn. You can trace the lineage of Seinfeld, Louie, Community and a dozen other modern comedies from this show.

Garry Shandling: Stand-Up

Shandling already had a standup special to his name by this point – 1984’s Garry Shandling: Alone in Vegas. But this special, taking place in 1991, right after the end of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show and before The Larry Sanders Show contains some of the comic’s most acerbic and self-skewering jokes. Re: The demise of his first show, Shandling says, “The show was four years long, just like college and it prepared me for absolutely nothing, just like college I went to the unemployment office, they said, ‘What are you looking for?’ I said, ‘Something about a half-hour a week.'”

The Larry Sanders Show

Shandling’s magnum opus is this savage deconstruction of a late-night talk show. Its cringe-tacular take on the ins and outs of running a show – Shandling mined his Tonight Show appearances for material – offered awkward silences, a relatively unlikeable main character and deliberately uncomfortable scenes. In that way, it’s a direct line to everything from The Office to 30 Rock. Interestingly, Shandling reportedly turned down NBC’s offer of David Letterman’s 12:30 a.m. slot when Letterman left, presumably because he was more interested in skewering the talk show world than bending himself to it.

The David Duchnovny Storyline on The Larry Sanders Show, Specifically

Writing at Vox, Todd VanDerWerff explains the genius behind the Larry Sanders Show storyline wherein David Duchovny (playing himself) is incredibly attracted to Sanders. “The ’90s were a time when gay characters were becoming more prevalent on television, but nobody quite knew how to tell stories about said characters, which led to lots and lots of scenes where the joke seemed to be that someone mistakenly thought the main character was gay – not that there’s anything wrong with that [The storyline] targets Larry – for being so uncomfortable with Duchovny’s attention but also finding it flattering on some level. It targets Duchovny – for satirizing his heartthrob image. And it targets traditional codes of masculinity – for insisting there’s something weird about two men being really good friends.” And for managing to do that so effectively, it remains one of Shandling’s triumphs.

His Charlie Rose Appearance

Shandling’s 1998 appearance on Charlie Rose is something of a meeting of the minds. He and Rose confess to a mutual admiration of each other’s work, but that doesn’t stop Shandling from basically doing his bit throughout the entire conversation, though it’s peppered with some truly fascinating, affecting stories, including how being struck by a car in 1970 led him to quit Welcome Back, Kotter and turn his energy to standup.

His Relationship with Conan O’Brien

Shandling and O’Brien shared more than a seeming “we’re in on the joke” approach to comedic celebrity. When O’Brien was legendarily yanked from The Tonight Show, he went to Hawaii for a vacation. As a total coincidence, Shandling was staying at the same hotel, and the pair spent the entire vacation together, with Shandling helping O’Brien deal with what he’d assumed was a devastating professional setback. “I was at a real low point, he counseled me, he cheered me up, he told me jokes, he told me about philosophy, he talked to me about how there are bigger things in the world and I was going to be fine,” O’Brien recalled Thursday.

Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee

This longer exploration of Shandling’s appearance on Jerry Seinfeld’s show is worth reading, but it should suffice to say here that Seinfeld is laughing so hard at one point that he drops his utensils.