Comedian Garry Shandling, best known as the cocreator and star of HBO’s The Larry Sanders Show, passed away Thursday, March 24, 2016. According to TMZ, the cause of death was a heart attack. In 1994, he sat down with R. Daniel Foster to discuss talk shows, the L.A. dining scene, and Hollywood hypocrisy.
Garry Shandling sits at his desk wiping out profanities that his writers had once again scratched into the sand of his desktop Zen garden. He goes on a rant, fuming, “I don’t think they wrote dirty words in the Buddha’s Zen garden, DID THEY?” The scene seems ripe for HBO’s The Larry Sanders Show, a behind-the-scenes spoof of TV talk shows in which Shandling plays the neurotic host. On the wall are plot lines for the third season’s episodes: “Larry Dates Ugly Women,” “Larry Gets Own Clothing Line,” “Larry Wants a Child,” Larry Dates Whoopi,” and Larry Gets a Face Lift.” Such shallowness doesn’t get much more profound, especially when celebrities like Dana Carvey, Billy Crystal, Roseanne Arnold, Hugh Hefner, Teri Garr, Ed McMahon, Jerry Seinfeld, Robin Williams, and David Letterman turn up in parody guest spots on the deconstructionist show, where Sanders—along with the obsequious sidekick “Hey Now!” Hank Kingsley (Jeffrey Tambor)—mocks their hypocrisy cue card for cue card. It’s Shandling’s insider view, honed from having worked stints as a sitcom writer, stand-up comic and regular guest host of The Tonight Show, that gives such an edge to his vinegary skewerings and has made the show such a hit with Industry types and audiences alike, who recognize the truth behind the jokes.
You have called your show “profoundly shallow.” Why would viewers be interested in that?
Well, a city like Los Angeles is sort of one big talk show. At restaurants, I’ll often bump into people I know in the business. Either I play the host and they’re the guests or it’s the other way around. It always seems to be this strange panel format with a lot of small talk. But it accomplishes what it’s supposed to.
Which is a certain social shallowness. [Laughs.] Occasionally you bump into someone you know, and like, on a talk show, you feel that person should immediately start to sing or play an instrument. And here’s the downside of real life: When the conversation gets boring, you can’t just say, “Okay, so you’re going to do another number for us, right?”
Why are talk shows such breeding grounds for hypocrisy?
People are pleasant on the air, and then you hear what they really have to say behind the scenes. At least on my show, we explore human behavior and dysfunctions in a real way.
Do you think the conversation we’re having is hypocritical?
Well, I’ll let you know when we get to the point where I think it’s hypocritical. There—there’s one right there.
Well, I’m trying to get you to say witty, erudite things you haven’t told other writers.
I think there’s an artifice involved in what you and I are doing. But let’s keep close tabs on it and come up with a tally for hypocrisy, shallowness, and artifice. So far, I’ve been honest with you, and I think you, on the other hand, have lied to me and are purely using me.
So, why does this business need to be so phony?
Because it’s riddled with insecurity. It takes a lot of courage to trust your own opinion, let alone have one. You often see people maintaining an escape route for themselves—which means giving an opinion, and then, once the door is closed, changing that opinion to cover their own ass.
Sounds like politics.
Yes, very much like politics. In fact, I would say that people now believe politics is more like Hollywood. After all, one has to be elected the same way one has to sell tickets.
You’ve also said you often feel like an outsider in this business. Is that how you survive the hypocrisy?
I feel outside not from a career standpoint but an emotional one. I don’t feel very “show-bizzy.”But I’m probably a hypocrite, because I also go to trendy restaurants and have my show-biz moments, most of which I regret the next morning—like a bad hangover.
Do you have the same behind the scenes problems with celebrities who appear on your show that you put in the scripts?
We have our share of people who say they want to do the show, and yet when we call them, they don’t. I’m impressed by those who are genuine and down to earth, like Alec Baldwin, who was recently on. I’m shocked by others who have a sense of self-importance. Because of their insecurities, they bring attitude.
What one celebrity would you most like to have on the show?
Woody Allen, only because I’m a gigantic fan and have been enormously influenced by him.
Mocking the celebrities must present enormous difficulties for you at times.
It’s hard to know how far you can go. Each person has their own number on the sensitivity meter. It’s not a mean-spirited show, and I’m not out to hurt anybody. I often think, Would I want that joke to be made about Garry Shandling? For anyone who’s reading this and has misunderstood me, I would like to apologize.
You have said that many comedians use jokes to cover up their emotional lives. Could you elaborate?
My shrink could. I try, in therapy, to still joke around my problems. It falls on deaf ears.
What’s underneath the jokes?
A struggle. That’s what I’m trying to show in Larry. He’s not very self-aware, but he’s going to be forced into it because he’s continually unhappy. We’re toying with the idea that he’ll have a breakdown in the last episode. He can’t leave his house because he’s so addicted to pills. That would be a jumping off place for the next season. Keep in mind there’s nothing interesting about a man in this sort of pain. I’m desperately trying to separate myself right now from saying that’s how I see myself. Because I also have elements of that.
What do you struggle with?
I really struggle with making life work. I struggle daily. And I often feel that life is great, and I smile—it’s just not a never-ending smile.
You have a certain amount of angst?
Sure. As I have been more honest in my work, I’ve let that angst show through and it has made my work better. But if there’s a show-biz cliché I fit, it’s that I’m in my 40s and still trying to figure out what I want my life to be. I thought I would surely have out figured out by now.
Isn’t that the point, that you never will?
Yes, life is a process, and that’s what you have to enjoy. Maybe you’re right, and that’s what I will ultimately learn. I should give you $150 for this hour. You seem to laugh more easily than my therapist. But life has its surprises—perhaps I’ll be the next lead in Sunset Boulevard, because I can really sing. I have a very wide range. And I pray Andrew Lloyd Webber reads this—he’ll never have any problems with me.
Thank you, Norma. So how did we fare on the hypocrisy-artifice-shallowness scale?
We’re a 10 on hypocrisy, 10 on artifice, and 10 on shallowness. I want to congratulate both of us. And I’m not just saying this, but I have never done an interview where there has been a solid 10 across. And honestly, really, we should go out and celebrate in a very shallow way.