Garry Shandling, the beloved creator of the groundbreaking sitcoms It’s Garry Shandling’s Show and The Larry Sanders Show—and no, the titular similarities are not coincidental—died on Thursday after an apparent heart attack. He was 66.
The consummate comedian’s comedian, Shandling may never have reached the cultural ubiquity of his friends Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, and Judd Apatow, Hollywood’s current comedic directorial king who got his start as a staff writer on The Larry Sanders Show. (That show, it should be noted, was hugely influential at the start of HBO’s major rebranding in the ’90’s from an also-ran dumping ground for second-rate movies to a prestige original content powerhouse.) But his influence is almost impossible to overstate. In remembrance, Jeffrey Tambor, his co-star on the “phony docudrama” The Larry Sanders Show, called Shandling his teacher, adding, “He redesigned the wheel of comedy and was the kindest and funniest of geniuses.” Steve Martin lauded his “beautifully unpredictable mind.”
Anybody who went on to have a career in comedy worked on one of Shandling’s initial projects; like when only 100 people bought the first Velvet Underground album, but then every one of them started a band. Shandling himself worked as a writer on Sanford and Son and Welcome Back, Kotter. He helped launch the careers of talents like Ben Stiller, Alan Zwiebel, Janeane Garafolo, Tambor, Bob Odenkirk and Apatow. More than that, he pioneered the brand of semi-autobiographical meta-reality that has come to dominate the current moment of prestige comedies in a way that would have been unthinkable back in 1986, when It’s Garry Shandling’s Show first premiered, perplexing mainstream audiences.
In a 2007 Interview with the New York Times, Shandling talked about the inspiration for his comedic inspirations.
His comedic awakening came in his early teens, when he watched “Hot Dog,” a children’s show that, in this particular episode, featured an appearance by Woody Allen. “Here he is, this kid in Arizona, he’s not in New York,” Mr. Shandling recalled, “and while being Jewish, he’s not at all Jewish in the traditional sense, of a noisy Jewish household. And suddenly he sees Woody Allen, and he relates.”
In a time when sitcoms still adhered to the set-up punchline, set-up punchline rhythms that has been around since General Electric still attached their brand to the titles of every show on television, Shandling skewered the conventions of the sitcom itself: satirizing the conventions of the form (most famously with the show’s celebrated tongue-in-cheek theme song); breaking the fourth wall; playing a fictionalized version of himself as a stand-up comedian often at odds with the absurdity of the world around him. Without Garry Shandling, there would have been no Curb Your Enthusiasm, no Louie, and perhaps, not even Seinfeld. (I’ll give you a moment to gasp at the comedic paucity of this terrifying hypothetical world.)
That his passing should come so prematurely almost feels poetic, somehow: in death, as in his art, Garry Shandling was sadly ahead of his time. But the comedy world would be a very different place had he not been there to shape it. This has been Garry Shandling’s show; the rest of us are just working on it.