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It’s Garry Shandling’s Shpiel

What the late comedian can teach us about Purim

Dovid Bashevkin
February 24, 2021
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
The more you are Garry and the less you worry about the song you’re singing the more you’ll be yourself.
—Garry Shandling

Garry Shandling’s television debut on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show was four years before I was born. His first sitcom, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, debuted when I was 1 year old. His magnum opus, The Larry Sanders Show, began in 1992 and ran for six years, so even if I had HBO (I didn’t), I undoubtedly would not have been allowed to watch it. During my prime years of comedic fandom, Shandling had already drifted into relative obscurity, spoken of mostly by the elder generation of comedy fans with veneration and longing, but if you weren’t paying close attention (I wasn’t) it’s possible you may have never even heard of him.

Shandling died five years ago, on March 24, 2016. I only discovered him two years later, with the release of Judd Apatow’s 2018 HBO documentary The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling. I fell in love with his comedy, his self-deprecatory style that always made sure that instead of politicians and celebrities, he was the punchline for his jokes. I watched and rewatched the documentary, and I began to pay attention to his philosophy. I’m a rabbi and an educator, but I’ve always felt a certain kinship with the worldview of comedians—biting, authentic, scrambling against the assault from life’s misery and difficulties when all you’ve got to fight back with is a plastic spoon. And so I began to dig deeper into Shandling’s life. One thing I found quite striking is that Shandling’s yahrzeit was, on the Hebrew calendar, the 14th of Adar. Garry Shandling, the philosopher’s comedian and the comedian’s philosopher died on Purim 5776, the holiday celebrating Jewish laughter and absurdity. And it was through Purim that I developed a new appreciation for Shandling—and it was through Shandling that I saw Purim anew.

I had post-partum depression when I was born—isn’t it usually the mother? I looked up—I still remember this—and said, oh no! They’re Jews.

Shandling was born in 1949 in Chicago to a Jewish family and grew up in Tuscon, Arizona. His parents, Muriel and Irving, were Reform Jews—his grandfather Jacob Shandling was from Lithuania and remained Orthodox his entire life. His older brother, Barry, died when Garry was 10 years old, a tragedy that remained with him for the rest of his life. His relationship with his mother was complex; she was overbearing, and seemed to have a bit of a vicarious affection for Shandling’s life and career. “My mother is deeply conflicted,” Shandling mused. “She wants grandchildren, but I don’t think she wants me to have them with another woman.” Judaism was a recurring theme in Shandling’s comedy though most frequently the target of blame for his ever-present neuroses and self-criticism. When his gentile friends would ask if Jews go camping, Shandling joked earlier in his career, he’d respond, “We do, it’s just catered.”

Shandling, as Jewish as he was, was drawn to a Buddhist practice, particularly the thought of Thích Nhất Hạnh. As fellow Jewish comedian Sarah Silverman aptly explains in the documentary: “It’s not because he’s Zen—it’s because he was in desperate need of being Zen.” Like many Jews, and as considered in countless books and articles, Shandling was drawn to the spiritual surrender that Buddhism offers. There is an inner passivity and transcendence that attracts many Jews to Buddhism, a respite perhaps from what the ceaseless sociological ambitions of diasporic Jewry and the detailed Talmudic attention to everyday rituals they remember from their childhood. Shandling, like many Jews attracted to Buddhism, never renounced his Jewish identity. If anything, his impatience with Jewish practice might qualify as quintessentially Jewish. Yet, even as he clearly searched for spirituality in other avenues and addresses, there is a fatefulness in realizing that the very values he sought are the very values embodied on his yahrzeit, Purim.

On Purim we read Megillas Esther, the one book in the Jewish canon in which the name of God is entirely absent. Ibn Ezra has a rather mundane explanation: The Megillah was originally mailed as letters. So as to avoid any desecration, they omitted God’s name. It is interesting thinking of the Megillah as originally a letter; it is still read as such, rolled up like private correspondence intimately unfurled the moment it is received. Shandling’s inner life was transmitted in a similar way—diary notes that later served as the basis for the documentary, hence the name Zen Diaries. Other books of the Torah read sometimes like op-eds or perhaps a long-form essay, or even sometimes true crime narrative nonfiction. But the Megillah is different—there’s no explicit prophecy, no obvious miracles, no voices from heaven. God does not appear in the story of the Megillah because, much like our actual personal lives, God is discovered—so if you don’t search, He remains absent.

All my journey is to be authentically who I am. Not trying to be someone else under all circumstances. The whole world is confused because they are trying to be someone else. To be your true self takes enormous work. Then we can start to look at the problems of the world. Instead, ego drives it. Ego drives the world. Ego drives the problem. So you need to work in an egoless way. This egolessness which is the key to being authentic is a battle.

God’s apparent absence in the Purim story is a reflection of sorts on what it means to participate in a story. Normally, when we watch a story, we only pay attention to the characters depicted—actors, supporting actors, background. The Purim story, however, sensitizes the reader—through this most obvious absence—of the other roles involved in a story: writer, director, cinematographer. An effective movie director is never on the screen, but the entire performance is in essence a tribute to their presence. They remain obscured, however, behind the fourth wall of the production. What has become known as breaking the fourth wall is the acknowledgment that the entire story is, in fact, a product of someone else’s design. That’s part of the reason why it has become a common custom to wear costumes on Purim, a not-so-subtle reminder that we are always to some extent playing a role, and our real authenticity lies beneath. And breaking the fourth wall, recognizing the very revelation the story is by design concealing, is the recurring theme throughout Shandling’s work. His debut television show, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, was built on this very premise, whereby the actors throughout acknowledge they’re on a television show, openly incorporating the audience’s presence into the performance. This continued in more subtle ways in his later work as well. The Larry Sanders Show is an elaborate unveiling of the behind-the-scenes drama and personalities that constitute the carefully curated world of talk shows. Even his later efforts, notably his interviews for the DVD extras for The Larry Sanders Show, seem desperate to capture the normalness and magic of everyday scriptless conversation within the confines of the camera. Whether it’s his famous interview with Ricky Gervais or his lesser known appearance as the first guest on Howard Stern’s short-lived talk show on E, Shandling simultaneously critiques the very performative medium he is a part of. “The only thing worse than being on TV every night,” Shandling deadpans, “is wanting to be on TV every night.” To watch Shandling is to watch someone wrestle with his own self-consciousness of his self-consciousness, grasping for the possibility, however futile, that we can act naturally even in the presence of a camera. Because the moment a believer—which Shandling very much was—stops seeing God as a fellow actor, we are only left with the foreboding awareness that we’ve been on His stage the entire time.

Shandling: That material and your material is purely a vehicle for you to express your spirit and your soul and your being.

Jerry Seinfeld: It doesn’t have any value beyond that?

Shandling: It doesn’t have any value beyond you expressing yourself spiritually in a very soulful spiritual way. It is why you are on the planet. God!—open the sunroof, what year is this?

It’s hard to find a moment where the story of the Megillah turns. From the beginning of the story, King Ahasuerus and Vashti, the appointment of Queen Esther, the ascendancy of Haman, the restless of the king and the subsequent parade for Mordechai, the eventual handing of Haman from the very gallows he prepared to kill the Jews—each ominous step contains part of the exilic doom as well as the eventual redemption. There’s no clear moment—a burning bush, a split sea, an entrance into Israel—that divides the story into a before and after. Without the clear presence of God, each moment is transformed into another aspect of God’s revelation or, better yet, the realization that He was never all that concealed. The intoxicating narrative of Purim allows us to sing “blessed is Haman and cursed is Mordechai” because once we realize that we are all vehicles in a larger story, the differences between hero and villain become moot—we’re all just playing a part.

Shandling had many villains in his life. His manager manipulated him, he was phone-tapped by an unscrupulous private investigator, he was plagued by various health problems, some of which were only belatedly diagnosed, until his eventual passing. In his diary he wrote, “Let go. Forgive completely.” He stopped analyzing the script his life gave him and allowed himself to surrender to the moments in front of him. “Do your comedy not for the sake of fame and fortune,” he wrote to himself, “but because it is what God does through you. You are merely a vehicle.”

Maybe your comedy is a natural gift to be given to others with joy to help them through this impossible life and you sharing it, with no desire of getting anything.

“And who knows,” Mordechai cautions Esther in one of the most pivotal scenes of the Megillah, “if you have ascended to royalty for this very moment.” God is never revealed in the Purim story, but his presence is found in the way people look toward the presence and potential of others. After facing the absurdity of a day of Jewish annihilation transformed into a day of Jewish celebration, realizing that we all along have been a part of God’s stage direction, we learn how to see godliness in others. This ultimately was the revelation within the final act of Shandling’s life. “Give more, give what you didn’t get, love more, drop the old story,” he writes in his diary. “Become old gracefully. Become a mentor gracefully.” As the curtains began to close, Shandling turned his critical, self-conscious gaze into an outward graciousness, reading his friends’ scripts, organizing basketball games, and serving as a parental figure for many comedians and writers. On Purim we send mishaloach manos, celebratory food for friends, and matanos l’evyonim, gifts for the poor. Once the fourth wall drops between the actor and the director, it also vanishes between fellow actors.

Garry died without a wife and without children. It’s unclear if anyone ever said Kaddish for him, though his lifelong friend and first cousin Michael Shandling told me he lights a candle for him every year on March 24. I think Purim is the perfect tribute to Garry Shandling and a fitting yahrzeit to remember his values. We say Kaddish as a means of sanctifying God’s name even in the face of tragedy and difficulty. And as we eke through this impossible life, Shandling and Purim remind us that even in the face of difficulty, the possibility of authentic joy can still be found in the rubble of our imagined narratives. If only we stop critiquing the script and instead surrender to it and help others fall in love with it.

Dovid Bashevkin is the Director of Education at NCSY and author of Sin·a·gogue: Sin and Failure in Jewish Thought. He is the founder of 18Forty, a media site exploring big Jewish questions. His Twitter feed is @DBashIdeas.