If Brecht had ever written a sitcom for US television in the 80s, then he surely would have created It’s Garry Shandling’s Show. From direct address to the audience to ‘action’-interrupting songs to hyper-real performances to stage directions being part of the plot. Shandling et al employ every device available to not only shatter the fourth wall but also render redundant every other room divider ever built.
For most of us in the UK, Garry Shandling is better known by his other ‘persona’, Larry Sanders, from the aptly titled The Larry Sanders Show. Much has been said and written about just how flippin’ great it was and, yes, it was, but what came before such an iconic and perfect series?
Well, here for your delectation is Garry’s first outing (well, actually it’s not. He appeared countless times as guest host on The Tonight Show) in It’s Garry Shandling’s Show. Starting way back in 1986, this little nugget has much in common with its more lauded bigger brother, though its roots are firmly rooted in the good old fashioned sitcom.
The 80s were about as formulaic as you could get with US sitcoms (UK ones too, for that matter) but sitting there in the Showtime schedule crying out against it all was Garry Shandling. At first glance, Garry and Co. may seem like they reek of the Eighties, but within minutes you’ll see they’ve inherited some punk attitudes from CBGBs and have deconstructed the eff out of the genre.
But just how do they do this?
Well, apart from Garry turning to the audience and having a chat every now and again, all the characters are fully aware that they are on a television show (often referring to events they weren’t a part of but, like us, watched). The audience themselves are frequently involved in the shenanigans just as we, the viewers, are ‘in’ on the gags. Occasionally, they’ll read stage directions from scripts or get the exposition out of the way in seconds, most amusingly in an episode starring Ian Abercrombie (once Elaine’s boss, Mr Pitt, in Seinfeld and now the voice of Palpatine in The Clone Wars) who announces each scene and, in that very Brechtian way I highlighted at the start, informs us what is about to happen. ‘Meta’ does not cover it.
Intertextuality is taken to a new level in The Graduate, a pastiche of the iconic Mike Nichols film. Aside from the usual story references and Simon & Garfunkel songs, the cast is enhanced by an actor who actually appeared in the 1967 film, Norman Fell. And then, to further push the radicality (is that even a word?) of what Shandling & Co. were doing, they then watch his scene from The Graduate and dissect it. Remember, this is 86, when the TV landscape was a different kettle of ball-game. They even manage the prescient move of featuring a live cooking section in another episode.
The only downside to Shandling’s comedy is its contemporaneousness. There are numerous name-checks to people whom I have no idea who they are (the audience clearly do, though) so one does feel a bit left out for some gags. But that’s where the negatives start and end.
You’ll fall in lurve with Garry’s constant insecurities about his hair, gasp at what can only be called bestiality (of a sort) and be genuinely nerdily impressed when Claudia Christian and Rob “Currently residing in the ‘Where are they now?’ file” Reiner pop up in the same story.
There, and I didn’t even mention Sean’s Show. Damn!
As you would expect of a television show that’s approaching its 25th anniversary, there isn’t much in the way of extras but what is here is gold. Dug out from the archives are two snippets that detail the genesis of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, both featuring what are essentially stand-up bits transformed into sketches with the big-lipped one chatting to the camera throughout.
Adding context to this is the doc Getting There which concentrates on how Shandling and writer Alan Zweibel got together and created the show. Thankfully, it looks like there will be more to come on future sets as this installment finished all too quickly for my liking.
Along with some so-so outtakes, there are some even more so-so commentaries (five in total). Shandling pops up but adds little as he seems to remember almost nothing about the episodes on show. Fellow writers are drafted but these are a real missed opportunity and I hope the producers see fit to liven up the proceedings for future releases. With no insight and only a few laughs, they’re hardly worth the listen.
All told, though, this set is a must if you’re a fan in any way of The Larry Sanders Show. In fact, if you’re a fan of TV comedy in any manner then this set will not fail to amuse.
It’s Garry Shandling’s Show is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.