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Monday 20 January 2020

Obituary: Garry Shandling, comedian

US stand-up comedian who broke new ground with his television series 'The Larry Sanders Show'

KING OF COMEDY: Garry Shandling was revered in show business and inspired Ricky Gervais and Sacha Baron Cohen. Photo: AP
KING OF COMEDY: Garry Shandling was revered in show business and inspired Ricky Gervais and Sacha Baron Cohen. Photo: AP
Independent.ie Newsdesk

Independent.ie Newsdesk

Garry Shandling, the American comedian and actor, who has died of a heart attack aged 66, plundered his own neuroses to create a comic persona ­- vain, self-centred and riddled with anxiety - which he exploited brilliantly in The Larry Sanders Show, a fly-on-the-wall-style spoof about a chat show and its egomaniacal host.

The series inspired a new form of self-referential, realist comedy that would be developed by British comic performers such as Ricky Gervais. "Without comedy as a defence mechanism I wouldn't be able to survive," Shandling said.

Garry Emmanuel Shandling was born in Chicago on November 29, 1949. His father ran a print business and his mother a pet shop. The family moved to the dry climate of Tucson, Arizona, because Shandling's older brother suffered from cystic fibrosis; he died when Garry was 10. The event had a profound impact on the comedian's life.

Shandling did not at first aim for show business but after school studied electrical engineering at the University of Arizona, switching to marketing and eventually working at an advertising agency in Los Angeles. He studied creative writing for a year and, having received encouragement from the stand-up comic George Carlin, began writing sitcom scripts. In 1973, he sold one to Sanford and Son, the American adaptation of the BBC's Steptoe and Son. He sold material to several sitcoms, but found writing formulaic jokes frustrating.

In 1977, he was involved in a car accident and while recovering decided to live the life he really wanted to. As a stand-up comedian he rose quickly. He did not do "shtick"; he was dead-pan and his jokes sometimes took a few seconds to roll around an audience before detonating.

By 1981, he was a regular guest on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show. Carson enjoyed Shandling's work and the young comedian might have taken the presenter's chair when Carson retired. But Shandling wanted to explore deeper themes, and was aware of the destructive effects of fame.

"The whole world is show business now,'' he said in 1998. "Everyone wants to be famous. They think being famous will change their life. I'm here to tell them that it doesn't.''

Shandling, in effect, turned himself into a sitcom character, first on It's Garry Shandling's Show, about a sitcom star supposedly playing himself and then, in 1992, on The Larry Sanders Show (HBO and BBC Two).

Larry Sanders was set backstage at a late-night television chat show much like Tonight. Shandling was the highly strung host who is tactfully protected from network interference by his vodka-swilling producer Artie (Rip Torn).

Much comedy derives from Sanders's interactions both with Artie and with his insensitive "sidekick", the announcer Hank Kingsley, played by Jeffrey Tambor.

Each episode was built around a work day and preparations for the arrival of a special guest. Real film-star guests playing themselves would willingly undergo the required humiliations, to rich comic effect. The tone was that of a documentary or "reality" television programme. Most of all, Shandling/Sanders himself was the wellspring of the humour; the scripts specialised in the comedy of insecurity, toe-curling embarrassment and the ever-present fear of unravelling under the pressures of performance.

The Larry Sanders Show gained a devoted cult following in Britain and Ireland and its techniques were taken up by writers and performers such as Ricky Gervais, Armando Iannucci and Sacha Baron Cohen.

Among the staff writers on the show was Hollywood's current "king of comedy", the writer and director Judd Apatow. It went off the air in 1998, the year it won a Bafta, and Shandling himself an Emmy award for writing.

Shandling appeared in films, such as Town & Country (2001) with his friend Warren Beatty and Iron Man 2 (2010), but never enjoyed the same success again. He became a mentor to younger comedians and in recent years he worked with Apatow and Baron Cohen, helping them sharpen up their scripts.

He was a revered figure in his world. "Nice guys finish first," he would say. "If you don't know that, then you don't know where the finish line is."

Garry Shandling died on March 24


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