Comedian and actor Garry Shandling died on Thursday in Los Angeles. He was 66.
Though Shandling starred in numerous films and was well-known both for his standup and his awards show hosting gigs, his greatest legacy was in television, where he was instrumental in two of the best TV comedies ever made: Showtime's It's Garry Shandling's Show and HBO's The Larry Sanders Show.
It's Garry Shandling's Show is remarkable for the way it blew apart the fake structure of the '80s family sitcom, exposing the weakest parts of that façade (especially in its theme song) and poking fun at them.
But Larry Sanders was Shandling's true masterpiece, and in it, he and his collaborators (most notably writer Peter Tolan) created one of the defining comedy series of the 1990s.
Just ask David Duchovny.
How The Larry Sanders Show told stories about the growing acceptance of homosexuality
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.
Larry Sanders took this basic framework and pushed it to the heights of absurdity. Since its protagonist (played by Shandling) is a talk show host, the guy he's convinced is gay and has a crush on him is a major celebrity — David Duchovny.
Larry Sanders's greatest recurring theme was the naked need for approval that so many Hollywood celebrities have, expressed in the way that Larry feels fretful and anxious about nearly every aspect of himself — from his appearance to whether people like him. He lives the sort of life most people can only dream about, but he's preoccupied with the sorts of minor concerns that many would gloss over.
The great joke here, then, is that when Larry receives the kind of attention he's always wanted, it's from a man, and he's not entirely sure of Duchovny's endgame.
Duchovny, for his part, is incredibly game, and ended up appearing in three episodes, always playing a version of himself who was obsessed with Larry. Even if he wasn't gay, he somehow found Larry incredibly attractive, and the show mined that for comedy.
The Duchovny storyline shows how great Larry Sanders was at crafting jokes
What you'll notice from watching the clips above is that the joke isn't about someone being gay, as it was on so many of The Larry Sanders Show's contemporaries. It 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.
Simply being gay isn't inherently funny; trying to navigate a world where you know you're supposed to be okay with homosexuality but also aren't sure how to get to that place is funny. (And, for what it's worth, Larry Sanders had one regularly recurring gay character in Brian, played with acidic wit by Scott Thompson.)
That was the line The Larry Sanders Show walked so perfectly. It was enormously topical and satirical, especially when it came to show business itself. It frequently made mention of topics that were in the entertainment press at the time (as when Larry tried to get Ellen DeGeneres to come out), and its series finale was a self-referential loop, featuring a discussion of the real Garry Shandling as a terrible prima donna.
But it also always remembered that it could only talk about those topics insofar as they related to its characters. The jokes in Larry's opening monologue on his in-show talk show were always stale and a little hacky, the sorts of easy mockery of politicians and celebrities that we're used to seeing on such programs.
But when the series went backstage, following the characters to their offices and homes, it revealed the petty, vain, hilarious people they truly were. When they tried to be funny, they often weren't; when they were just being themselves, they were hilarious.
For that, The Larry Sanders Show became the first cable series ever nominated for a comedy series prize at the Emmys, as well as one of the finest shows of its era. If you haven't watched it yet, the DVD is readily available. (You can also purchase it for digital download.)
In an interview conducted a few years ago, Shandling talked about the only idea for a reunion that he had ever had, one that is strangely appropriate — if incredibly sad — at this point in time. I'll let you discover it for yourself.