Garry Shandling: True Lies

On ‘The Larry Sanders Show,’ talk-show brouhaha is turned into the funniest thing on TV.

Ideally, the first sentence of an article about Garry Shandling would set a provocative scene — such as Shandling calling his co-workers “fucking idiots” — before settling down to the more mundane details about the life of a self-referential comedian and sometime talk-show host, the same Garry Shandling who played a self-possessed comedian on the TV show It’s Garry Shandling’s Show and who now plays a self-absorbed TV talk-show host on the TV show The Larry Sanders Show, the same 44-year-old television auteur who has managed to turn selfness into a new TV form, the narcissitcom, without being self-indulgent and is now taking his act to the movies. But now it’s too late, because here it is, the second sentence already, and so far, Shandling hasn’t done anything like calling his co-workers “fucking idiots.”

“Fucking idiots,” Shandling says, looking at the phone messages on the desk in his office next to the Hollywood studio where The Larry Sanders Show is shot. The wall behind him is flecked with ideas for future Sanders shows on 3-by-5 cards: “Larry Dates Whoopi,” “Hank in Porno,” “Paula Gets Drugs for Larry.” Shandling, dressed in basketball sweats and grizzled with a 10 o’clock shadow, is pissed that a production assistant didn’t put through a call from his friend and fellow self-conscious comedian Albert Brooks. He suddenly looks across the desk. “You’re writing that down, aren’t you?” he says, a note of resignation in his voice. “Go ahead. Put it in the article. ‘Fucking idiots.’ “

Shandling looks deeply pained when he says “fucking idiots,” but that’s nothing special — Shandling looks deeply pained when he says just about anything, his large lips frozen in a grimace, his smallish, wincing eyes filling with ineffable sadness. It’s the face of a perfectionist trapped in an imperfect world.

“Garry’s never satisfied — he’s always trying to learn more and do better,” says Brad Grey, who has managed Shandling for the last 15 years as he has evolved from sitcom writer to stand-up comedian to TV-show star and creator. “He’s always scratching to be deeper.”

And it’s not easy. Shandling appears anguished whether he’s telling a dick joke to an audience of appreciative fans or, as host of this year’s Grammy awards, apologizing to Frank Sinatra for the show’s abruptly cutting to commercial during the chatty Chairman’s rambling acceptance speech. (“I didn’t see Sinatra before or after,” Shandling says, wincing, “though I did cut him off on the freeway a little earlier.”) In stand-up mode, Shandling will deliver a line like “I told my doctor my penis was burning, and he says that just means someone’s talking about it,” and the pain etched on his brow, a hurt that clearly runs deeper than the most insidious case of chlamydia, makes it funnier — it’s as if he were constantly apologizing for having nothing better to say. “He’s in such pain no matter what he’s doing,” says writer Alan Zweibel, who created It’s Garry Shandling’s Show with Shandling. “You always feel like he’s about to explode, that there’s all this stuff bubbling just below the surface. I sometimes look at him and say, ‘He’s such a mess.’ “

“He’s so full of self-loathing, it’s just hilarious,” says Janeane Garofalo, who plays Paula the talent booker on Sanders. “He’s so full of sheer self-hatred it’s a pleasure to work with him.”

“When I was a freshman in high school,” Shandling says, “there was a kid — this is absolutely true — who committed suicide the day after the seating plan was announced. I still have this awful, sickening feeling that when he found out he was sitting next to me, he just said, ‘I’d rather shoot myself.’ ” Shandling says this as he says almost everything: in a guarded, halting fashion. “I have a lot of good ideas that I can’t articulate,” he says. “That should be my motto: In my head, I’m very eloquent.”

After Shandling returns Albert Brooks’ phone call, which concerns a recent newspaper story about Brooks, he expresses sympathy for anyone who has to write an article about Garry Shandling — like this one, for instance. “I’m really sorry,” he says, wincing again. “I think most of what I say is just appropriate for captions, not really for any kind of intelligent dialogue.” But it’s not just the outside-his-head eloquence problem: Though Shandling has made a lucrative career by plundering his own experiences for laughs, from stand-up bits about bad dates to HBO shows about bad talk-show guests, he is intensely reluctant to reveal anything more about his life. “While I talk about my personal life in my stand-up, when I read about it, it feels like I’ve exposed myself too much. No one knows what it feels like until they saw it in print, to read something that is very private,” says Shandling, who, according to his writers, has a “big penis.”

“With anybody, there’s a line you draw between your material and your life,” says Zweibel. “And you’re even more guarded when you’re using material that’s autobiographical like Garry does, because you want to keep something that’s your own.”

This proverbial line between life and material is crossed regularly in the making of The Larry Sanders Show, a show about a talk show hosted by Larry Sanders, a somewhat tormented, self-centered comedian who is both a razor-sharp wit and a fan of penis jokes, a character who is different from Shandling in many ways. Like, for instance, well, uh … for starters, his first name begins with an L. “Larry and I are very different people,” says Shandling, whom Dana Carvey calls Ga-Larry. “He’s 43, and I’m 44.”

Despite these staggering contrasts, Shandling knows the world of The Larry Sanders Show so well that since its premiere, the show has been able to turn his experiences into comedy almost while he’s having them. Last year’s frantic search by NBC to replace Letterman in its 12:35 a.m. slot — during which the network reportedly offered Shandling $5 million a year before going with Conan “A Bargain” O’Brien — led directly to a Sanders episode about a search for a 12:35 host. In one scene from this episode, David Letterman, playing himself, confides to Larry that he’s offering his 12:35 slot to … Tom Snyder (big laugh line). Larry then proceeds to woo Snyder away from Letterman and CBS. At the time the episode was shot, this was a comic premise. One year later, it’s comic reality: Letterman has just persuaded CBS to hire Snyder for the slot.