Posted in: Interviews, Television

It’s Garry Shandling’s Interview (with Sean Axmaker)

Earlier in 2009, Shout! Factory released one of the greatest TV comedies of all time. It’s Garry Shandling’s Show was created for Showtime in 1986, back before pay cable had established a reputation for original programming. As such, it never really became well known to the general public but it’s reputation among TV writers and creators was huge. The self-aware sitcom lampooned the very conventions it both embraced and turned inside-out in, and its savvy understanding and creative play with the form echoes through such subsequent shows as Malcolm in the Middle, 30 Rock and his own brilliant follow-up, The Larry Sanders Show, which was HBO’s first original “must see” program. Rumor was that everyone in Hollywood tuned in to see that savagely funny satire of show business.

Its Garry Shandlings logo
It’s Garry Shandling’s logo

I interviewed Garry Shandling by phone in October of 2009, in advance of the DVD release of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show (see my review of the set here), but our conversation wandered all through his career and even touched on his love of boxing. In fact, Shandling came to the phone interview directly from a sparring session in the ring.

Apart from the honor of interviewing such a creative mind and a funny man, I had the good fortune to make Shandling laugh a couple of times and I was so thrilled to have him say to me, “That’s funny,” that I left those moments in the interview. What I left out was all the times he made me laugh. That would simply have been repetitive and redundant.


This is Garry Shandling. Am I twenty-four minutes late?

I believe so.

I apologize. I have a good reason, which you’re welcome to write if you want. I just came in from boxing. I box three or four days a week, I actually go into the ring and spar and train, and we went a little long, and frankly, and hilariously, I got home just at about four o’clock, but I looked like a guy who’s just finished a fight and lost and needs about a gallon of water and so I was just trying to recover before I called you.

Perfectly understandable. We don’t want you to look like you’ve just arrived from the ring for this interview.

(laughs) I always marvel at how those professional boxers can actually have any conversations with the guys who walk into the ring because I’m just focused on coming out of this haze of what goes on in the ring. Really, it’s such a sharp, intense focus. And physically draining.

How long have you been boxing?

I’ve been doing it for about seven years. It’s changed me physically and psychologically because it’s sort of a metaphor for life. You’re just one on one in there with somebody else and there’s no fakery involved. My boxing trainer once said to me, ‘Whoever controls the breathing in the ring, controls the fight.’ And I immediately passed out. (laughs) We go in there and train and you always learn something about yourself or about people. There was some guy in there today who was pretty big, he was 6″5′ and I think he plays hockey professionally, and when you hit his it was just like hitting a wall.

What’s in your DVD player?

I have the first episode of my friend’s series, Californication. David Duchovny, who’s a good friend of mine, sent me the first four episodes. They’re not on the market yet so I could be one of those horrible guys who bootlegs my buddy’s DVDs for people who want to see the third season. He sent me those and said, “What do you think?” And they’re fantastic! I think his third season is better than either of the other two seasons. That’s actually what’s in my DVD player. Otherwise, let me see what was in before that. Conceivably it was When We Were Kings. I watch that between other DVDs all the time. I’m just fascinated by what it takes to go into the ring, what it takes to be yourself in ring and the courage to understand that, for the most part, taking a punch is the same as giving a punch, and I think that’s a lot about life: just be patient and do what you do. Otherwise everyone’s rushing around making the world crazy and wondering why it’s crazy.

Curiously enough, I interviewed David Duchovny for this column after the first season of Californiation.

We’re very close. He gives me creative feedback, I give him creative feedback. I had looked at the series when he did first start and I thought he was fantastic and gave him some notes and he watches what I do and he’ll give me notes and I think this third season accomplished something that he set out to do as an actor, which I can’t describe because it’s too professionally personal of what he was working on and I think his work is fantastic, better than ever.

I look forward to it. I get Showtime and HBO for the original programming. In fact, I first subscribed to HBO specifically so I could get The Larry Sanders Show. I was managing a video store so I had access to all the movies, but that was the only way to see your show.

You know, when Quentin Tarantino worked in the video store, he used to come and watch It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, he used to watch the tapings. I don’t know how many he was at and I never really talked to him at length about it, but he was a fan of that first series and I think relative to Larry Sanders, as you can see, this is quite a different show. This is how I see it, looking back on it, it gives me a chance to see the arc of my work and career to this point and my arc as a person, which is that It’s Garry Shandling’s Show is really the beginning of really just being funny. I look back on this and to me it almost looks like looking back at a college play that I did. But it’s very funny and you can see that it’s not Larry Sanders and it’s actually quite a different character than Larry Sanders and it was halfway through the last season of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show that I realized that I wanted to do something that had more texture to it in terms of human behavior and that’s what sent me into The Larry Sanders Show. So I think this is the jumping off point of a lot of my creativity. I don’t know if you see it that way or not, but looking back on it like a yearbook, that’s how I saw it.

I only saw a few episodes when it was originally on, when Fox picked it up, and oddly enough the very first episode I ever saw turned out to be the pilot. I didn’t realize that until I started watching the DVDs and recognized the show.

It was on Showtime and Fox and then it was on something like American Airlines flying to Europe, and I realized very quickly that more people said to me, “Hey I saw your show on the airplane” than they did either on Showtime or Fox. But if you go from that to Larry Sanders to now, and Jon Favreau just asked me to do these scenes in Iron Man 2, and that was the most fun I’ve had since I did Larry Sanders, so I think that’s where I’m headed, is to do more of that which makes sense in a way. I’ll continue doing stand-up but I really liked doing the scenes in Iron Man 2 enormously. So if you go from that beginning DVD to Iron Man 2, it’s quite a different developed artist, I think. I hope.

When you did It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, there was very little original TV programming being developed for pay cable and the little that was being done didn’t have the cache that it does now, in the wake of The Sopranos and Six Feet Under and your own The Larry Sanders Show, which established the idea that you could do something different and unique and challenging on pay cable. On Showtime you created a sitcom that I imagine you could not have gotten produced on the networks.

Garry shares everything with his audience
Garry shares everything with his audience

No. At the time of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, I was guest hosting The Tonight Show and NBC wanted me to do a series and I met with them about doing a sitcom and I described this show to them. I said I want to talk to the camera and want to play a comedian and they were very uncomfortable with both of those ideas. They said, “No one talks to the camera because the audience likes to feel like they’re looking in,” and I said, “Using that theory, you should change the news broadcasts so that anchors are talking to each other so it feels like we’re just looking in.” And then they said, “And we don’t think anyone would understand a comedian’s life.” At the same time, Showtime and Peter Chernin, who was the head of Showtime and deserves the credit, said “I’ll let you do any series you want.” So Al (Zweibel) and I wrote that script and they thought it was really funny and went with it. We never had any interference and I think that was the beginning of some awareness that you could do some things on cable that might stretch the form a bit.

I listened to the commentary that you and Al Zweibel did for the pilot episode and you discussed that in fact there was a time when it wasn’t so uncommon for an actor to speak to the audience, like on radio and early television, when George Burns would look to the audience and share an aside with the audience like a stand-up comedian in his own show, but it had been completely forgotten. It’s Garry Shandling’s Show doesn’t just embrace that aspect, it pushes that to the point to where you acknowledge and play with all of the sitcom conventions. I like the “Oh, I feel a dissolve coming on.”

That’s right. That is the right stuff, that’s the stuff that sets it apart. It’s one thing to talk to the camera, which other television comedians have done and Woody Allen did it in Annie Hall, which was most of my influence, really, but it was what I said and how I continually noticed and made comments on the conventions of the series. So by the time the maid was going to be deported and she asked if I would marry her so she could get her green card, I could turn to the audience and go, “Oh no, this is the one where I marry the maid.” Because to me it was all stock and I had already written regular sitcoms, I had written on Sanford and Son and Welcome Back, Kotter, and I wasn’t interested in writing a regular sitcom. So I painted myself into a corner because I said, “Well, let’s really break all the rules, and then we didn’t hire sitcom writers. The writers we hired were either from Saturday Night Live or had worked on talk shows or The Simpsons and we realized we still needed to write stories, conventional stories, to some degree. So I was the one who was left being the dad saying, “No, no, we have to have a story.” So it still turns out that, even with all the technique and all the gimmicks, that the best episodes were those with story.

In the commentary on the pilot episode, you and Alan Zweibel try to come up with a definition of the show. The term “anti-sitcom” is mentioned, and I remember the show being described, I don’t know by who, as a “stand-up sitcom.”

That’s closer. I remember the person who called it an anti-sitcom and that is incorrect, because that show is not anti anything. Stand-up sitcom, Alan sometimes calls it a fourth-grade play… I find that it is hard for me to describe. If I was describing the show to someone who hadn’t seen it, I’d say it’s almost like a British show, it’s almost like a kid’s show and it’s almost like a stoner’s show. Stoners and kids come up to me and say, “I love that show.” So I think it’s just that it was sitcom that played with the conventions and where the character was conscious that he was on TV, as was everybody who was on, and I think that was the trick that Larry Gelbart, may he rest in peace, first noticed, was “How in heck do you write a story, and the characters are aware that they’re playing out the story, and yet you’re still interested?” Because usually once a character is aware of the story, the audiences drop out, but we made that work as a part of the show and it was a fun layer to be able to play with. If I was to think of it now, it’s almost like getting a sitcom on DVD, we were ahead of the commentary thing. It’s almost like my talking to the camera was a commentary that you would find on the DVD of that sitcom.

I’m only into the second season of the DVDs right now…

Please don’t overextend yourself.

… but I think the “live birth” episode in the second season is brilliant, the way it turns your apartment into a talk show set and you become the host of a sitcom The Tonight Show.

That’s one of my favorite ones and I remember, that’s my story and I remember saying, let’s do this where it just turns into a talk show. That episode had Tom Petty, and I remember calling Tom and saying, “We’re doing an episode where Pete and his wife are having a baby, they’re going to have it on the show but it’s delayed, and so we need someone to fill and Tom would play a next door neighbor,” and he just said to me, “Oh, I could play ‘Waiting’.” And it’s a perfect song for what the episode’s about. I only looked at a dozen or so episodes as we were pulling out clips and outtakes and I did look at that one and there’s many ways you can tell the show is older but I held up Tom’s album as opposed to his CD.

I have a record collection and yet that image startled me because I’ve become so used to seeing CDs pulled out on talk shows.

And then there was that joke that I didn’t write, I think it was Ed Solomon that wrote it, that as I was taking the cellophane off it, I said, “Always take the cellophane all the way off because thin kids could get in there and suffocate.” It was a writer’s show, everyone just wrote funny stuff. Larry Sanders was deeply thought out and layered, based on real human behavior and conflict. This show, I think, is just being funny and certainly trying to be different. But anti-sitcom is not the right word. I would say it’s pro-choice.

You recorded it in front of a live audience at the same time that you incorporated the audience into the fabric of the show, certainly you talked to them. Did you shoot it straight through like you do in a traditional sitcom?

Yes, we shot it straight through. There’s no film in It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, it’s all video. Is that what you meant? The Larry Sanders Show was a mix of film and videotape so it was very complicated, we had eight cameras on the set at one time, but this show was all taped.

I was watching the outtakes and I loved seeing how you kept the spirit of the show even in a flub. You would make the outtake an aside to the audience just like any scene in the show.

Yeah, yeah, I noticed that too. Don’t forget, it’s twenty-two years ago for me and so I look back on it as a part viewer, part writer, part actor, because you see it in front of a live audience. That happened all the time, what you see there happened all the time. It’s only a matter of how many outtakes they were going to put in the box. We would constantly change lines because, again, the idea of the show was to be funny so there weren’t that many emotional underpinnings to the scenes, so you could just play with the lines a lot more, and since there was a live audience there, I was doing two things. In between takes I would keep the audience alive and going, so that they would be happy and enjoy it, and also so they would stay fresh for the taping of the next scene because an audience is really helpful in adding energy to the show, and thirdly, I enjoy the audience, I have a lot of fun playing to an audience. I was looking at it one day when Shout! Factory was pulling out outtakes, I was just kind of sitting watching them pull them out, actually, I wasn’t so hand-on in this process, I went in a couple of days and watched and, man, I could see I was having a lot of fun and, again, you see me just choosing to be funny, and if you just knew me from Larry Sanders, you would be confused because in that show I’m depicted as Larry Sanders, who is a character, and Larry does not have as much fun. So you get an idea that Garry Shandling is not Larry Sanders, that was a character. As is this Garry Shandling, which is slightly a caricature of me. But some of those outtakes are more authentic, I think, and I was just having fun.

In the commentary, Alan Zweibel says that the characters of the show were based on the dynamic between you as a single guy and a stand-up comedian and Alan as the married man with kids, as played by Michael Tucci. How much of the character is pure fabrication and fiction and how came from your personality and your life. Or at least how much do you care to confess to?

I think once you get involved writing that show, it takes on a life of its own, and I would have to pick and choose very carefully the moments anywhere that really reflects me. And I think there’s very few places where Michael Tucci reflects Alan Zweibel. However, Alan and I write really well together, so anytime we’d write me or Michael, it’s easy for us to shift, we can write the story of someone who’s married and someone who’s single and someone who’s wondering if the grass is greener on the other side, but I would have to go almost scene by scene. In other words, the characters took on a life of their own. What we as writers bring to it is our lives and it all infuses it, but we also had a staff of really funny guys that would just suggest jokes or scenes that we would do that there was no way that they could be from anybody’s life, really.

Are you telling me that you didn’t really help Richard Kimble escape? That’s disappointing. You just broke the fourth wall for me.

(laughs) That’s funny. You really helped me there because I was really struggling for an example. No, I never really helped Richard Kimble escape and I guess we could go down a list. There was never any amusement park named after me.

There goes my vacation plans.

That’s funny. (laughs)

I’m a big fan of Shout! Factory. They’ve done a tremendous job on a lot of DVD sets.

That’s why I wanted them to do this and I think they may do Larry Sanders when we’re done with this. I think we’ve got the rights from Sony to finally put out every episode because I’m very aware that those have been so spaced out. The plan is, and it wasn’t anybody’s fault, is for Shout! Factory to release all of the Larry Sanders episodes in the proper order, season by season, because I know fans of that show have never gotten the whole works and that’s because of business circumstances. Again, I want to say, Sean, for me, in this moment as I speak to you and having just shot, in August, for Iron Man 2, that you can see the growth of my work to go from this to Larry Sanders to that and with everything in between, both good and bad, that has continued to where I’m at now, which by that I mean much older. (laughs) I think this is the last thing out of my garage to be sold. I think there’s a couple of specials but otherwise this pretty much wraps up the garage sale and then I feel free to move on. There was such energy put into these shows that I really am happy to get them out on DVD and then move forward because I’m really proud of both of those shows.

They are both landmarks. They broke ground and brought tremendous creativity to a familiar form. I watch very few sitcoms, it’s a genre that personally doesn’t really interest me much, but I watched Larry Sanders religiously and when I watch 30 Rock, I see the echoes of your shows. I interviewed Ricky Gervais a couple of years ago and he said that The Office was inspired by American shows and The Larry Sanders Show in particular.

He’s always been very kind about that.

But does he give you residuals?

(laughs) That’s funny. But does he give me residuals? You can have me say that in your article if you like, which would be followed by… Now this could be misinterpreted, but when you think about it, the other real innovator was O.J. Simpson, because there was no slow speed chase on TV until O.J. Simpson. No one every thinks of that and I’ve always thought he should get 10% of every other slow speed chase that’s ever done. There was never one before anyone looked at the TV and thought, “Oh, I never about driving slow.” We know he has his personal problems and all that, but when you just get down to his artistry, that was his. The slow speed chase did not exist on TV until O.J. Simpson. Now maybe that speaks for TV. (there is much laughing on both ends of the phone) I wouldn’t want to be the judge of that.

Thank you very much for your time. You made my day by saying that I was funny. Twice. That alone made the interview worth it. Just for that, I’m going to publish this.

(laughs) I wish you could put your own quote in at the end of that. “Thank you for saying I’m funny, just for that I’m going to publish you.” And that’s what The Garry Shandling Show is about: a self-awareness of what the process is. That’s why what you’re saying works, because you and I are doing an interview yet we’re acknowledging that we’re doing an interview and also talking completely straight.

I’m doing a very short version of this interview for MSN, but I have my own site and I’ll run the uncut interview as, “It’s Garry Shandling’s Interview.”

“With Me.” And then you should put your name. You have my permission.

Well thank you.

Have fun.

Thank you very much.

Goodbye Sean.