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Zen and the Art of Garry Shandling
HBO's The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling
Comedy is art. But not all comedians are artists. As Judd Apatow’s two-part documentary The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling proves, Garry Shandling was one of the great artists.
The two-part HBO documentary is a comprehensive study on Shandling and clocks in at over four hours. Director Apatow, as a student and long time friend of Shandling, offers up this documentary as the penultimate eulogy.
Lest you be confused, the name of the documentary is not ironic. Apatow uses direct quotes from Shandling's diaries, in his handwriting, to illuminate the inner workings and struggles of not only the artist as a comedian but also the artist as a human. And regardless of career, success or status, these diaries prove that life is a Sisyphean endeavor.
Part One focuses on the first part of Shandling's life. This includes his childhood and the loss of his brother to cystic fibrosis to the beginning of his comedy career; a career that started after an encounter with George Carlin, who encouraged Shandling’s writing and provided him with the chutzpah to move to Los Angeles. The first part also highlights Shandling’s Hollywood beginnings as a successful sitcom writer (Sanford and Son and Welcome Back Kotter) to his early attempts, and ultimate triumph, as a stand-up comedian to the groundbreaking It’s Garry Shandlings Show.
Part Two details The Larry Sanders Show years, its success, and the latter part of his life. If you’re looking for the salacious parts, you’ll find them in this second half. Wisely, Apatow doesn’t avoid them, he tactfully addresses them. More importantly, he presents them, as they should be considered, as events that occurred in his life but are not part of his life. It’s an important distinction.
While Garry Shandling may never be considered one of the edgy comedians, like Richard Pryor; he was no less of a genius. Shandling was a nuanced comedian who crafted his art to be universally accepted. Even after all these years, he still has one of my favorite jokes; “I have a mirror on the ceiling in my bedroom. It says ‘objects are larger than they appear.’” Writing, and pulling off, a G-rated penis joke is nothing if not genius.
The generosity and kindness George Carlin showed Garry Shandling turned into a lifetime of Shandling “paying it forward”. He served as consigliere and mentor to a virtual who’s who of modern actors, comedians, writers and directors that lasted until his unfortunate death in March 2016.
Garry Shandling's influence in modern comedy is omnipresent and The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling shows us why. It proves definitely that Shandling was much more than a gifted and influential artist and comedian; he was a kind and giving human being who never stopped. Never stopped working and never stopped helping.
Is Judd Apatow’s The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling on HBO worth four hours of your time? Yep, even if you have only a passing interest in comedy.
Garry Shandling, left, and Judd Apatow, in the documentary.