How Heartbreak Helped Garry Shandling Find His Comedic Voice The comic, who died Thursday, told Fresh Air that it took him years to develop a style — and then he got dumped. "That was really the beginning of the Garry Shandling dating years in stand-up."
NPR logo

How Heartbreak Helped Garry Shandling Find His Comedic Voice

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/471795179/471877475" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
How Heartbreak Helped Garry Shandling Find His Comedic Voice

How Heartbreak Helped Garry Shandling Find His Comedic Voice

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/471795179/471877475" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. Comedian Garry Shandling died suddenly in Los Angeles yesterday of an apparent heart attack. He was 66. Shandling was best known for "The Larry Sanders Show," a comedy which took viewers behind the scenes of a fictional late-night talk show. Here's a classic scene. Shandling, as Larry Sanders, is speaking with his sidekick, Hank, played by Jeffrey Tambor. He's annoyed with Hank's signature line.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW")

GARRY SHANDLING: (As Larry Sanders) You know, Hank, I was just wondering why you say that hey now thing.

JEFFREY TAMBOR: (As Hank) What do you mean?

SHANDLING: (As Larry Sanders) Well, it's just something that you used on the show and now you're starting to use it in your personal life, and it's an affectation of some sort, isn't it? Did you ever say hey now as a kid?

TAMBOR: (As Hank) No, I probably didn't. But I said hey...

SHANDLING: (As Larry Sanders) Yeah.

TAMBOR: (As Hank) And I said now - at different times, but, no, I never put them together till later in life. So in that sense, it's part of my personality.

SHANDLING: (As Larry Sanders) You know, Hank, this isn't easy for me, but, would you mind not doing it on the show anymore 'cause frankly, I'll tell you the truth...

TAMBOR: (As Hank) Wait a minute. Are you telling me that when you do your - you do this, that isn't the same affectation? That isn't the same as my hey now?

SHANDLING: (As Larry Sanders) There, you just said it again and, you know, I asked you not to say it.

TAMBOR: (As Hank) I can't say it offstage either?

SHANDLING: (As Larry Sanders) It doesn't even exist. Use hey now in a sentence, Hank.

TAMBOR: (As Hank) Hey now, that was real funny.

SHANDLING: (As Larry Sanders) You know what, Hank? It's not even in the dictionary, hey now.

TAMBOR: (As Hank) OK, OK. This is how I use hey now in a sentence, OK? You say, and of course, my sidekick, Hank.

SHANDLING: (As Larry Sanders) And of course, my sidekick, Hank.

TAMBOR: (As Hank) Hey now.

SHANDLING: (As Larry Sanders) Hank?

TAMBOR: (As Hank) That's a sentence.

DAVIES: Gary Shandling began his TV career writing for "Sanford And Son" and "Welcome Back Kotter." In the 1980s, he starred the Showtime sitcom "It's Garry Shandling's Show," which now seems like a satire of the reality TV phenomenon that followed, by having Garry pretend to live his life while followed by a camera crew. He appeared many times on "The Tonight Show" as a guest and fill-in host for Johnny Carson, but gave up a shot at being Carson's permanent replacement to do "The Larry Sanders Show." We'll remember Garry Shandling today with two interviews. First, our TV Critic David Bianculli spoke with Shandling in 2007. They started with a clip from Shandling's first performance on "The Tonight Show."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE TONIGHT SHOW")

JOHNNY CARSON: As I said, this is his first time so make him feel welcome. Would you welcome Garry Shandling?

(MUSIC)

SHANDLING: Thank you, thank you. Wow, that's very nice. I'm so excited to be here. I had a great day. I went to the bank earlier today, and...

(LAUGHTER)

SHANDLING: Have you gotten your free pen yet? These are free. I...

(LAUGHTER)

SHANDLING: You just yank these things and they pop right out and...

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Well, you know, there's never going to be anybody as important to comics as Carson was. That platform just is never going to exist ever again, and I'm wondering what your own favorite personal moment was as a performer on "The Tonight Show," as a guest and then as a host, what you treasure the most.

SHANDLING: Look, my first "Tonight Show" was just one of those things. I mean, seriously, a cosmic, meant-to-be, coming together circumstance. You walk out there to do your first "Tonight Show," is the audience going to be hot? Are you going to be on fire? It's like an athlete, are you going to have your moves at a peak? You know, I work in the moment so if it starts to ignite then I start to ignite. And it just took off. It was just a set that took off, and when I was done, I remember hearing Johnny say - well, first of all, he thanked the talent booker on the air, which is just...

BIANCULLI: Wow.

SHANDLING: ...Shocking. He actually turns and he says, thank you, Jim - which was Jim McCauley, who saw me at the Comedy Store - and then he just said into the camera, you're going to hear a lot about about that guy. And anything has topped that in terms of being a comedian - and while that's about ego, there's something much more about it.

There's something about the fact that it was just meant to be and you could feel it in the room. There was a place where the audience broke into applause and Johnny fell off his chair, and you know, I'm not that funny. I'm not that funny. I mean, I have my moments, but boy, it was packed with emotion, and I think that's what - that's what I'm about. I felt emotional about it. I was backstage and I - it was just a goal of mine, and I was really sort of lost after that because I really was just aiming to do "The Tonight Show," and I always wanted to guest host "The Tonight Show." And this is really important...

BIANCULLI: Why?

SHANDLING: ...What I'm going to tell you. I don't know, and I'm not kidding.

BIANCULLI: (Laughter).

SHANDLING: I'm not kidding. I grew up in Tucson, Ariz. I don't come from any show-business background. I didn't study theatre. I wasn't a performer. I'm a shy-guy writer. That's how I came to LA and wrote "Sanford And Son," which we'll talk about in a second, and then what happened is, I started to do stand-up and I guess I watched "The Tonight Show."

I wasn't a performer. i'm a shy guy writer. That's how I came to LA and wrote "Sanford And Son," which we'll talk about in a second. And then what happened is I started to do standup, and I guess I'd watched the Tonight Show. And what's weird is I said to my agent at the time - I had done my first Tonight Show. It went well.

BIANCULLI: As a guest.

SHANDLING: As I said, as a guest.

BIANCULLI: OK.

SHANDLING: So I say to my agent, is there any, you know, shot that I could guest host? And she said get that out of your mind. Just get it out of your mind. That's never going to happen because Letterman was the last person, which was probably two or three years prior to that. And they're not going to have any new guest hosts, so just don't think about it. It's not in the cards. It just isn't - it's not possible. I am - I do not like anybody putting limits on what anybody wants to do in their life. I would never say never to anyone. It's - these are really important issues to me as a human being and creatively. If someone said, you know, is there - I'm thinking of doing this or that, I'd say, man, you got to go for that. It sounds like that's what you want to do. She said just get it out of your head. And about two months later, the phone rang, and they said Albert Brooks just canceled. He was supposed to guest host the Tonight Show tomorrow night. And I'm getting chills as I tell you this because it was just the weirdest moment. And they said that Albert Brooks has canceled, and they want you to do it. I have - I can't remember the last time I had a reaction where I froze. I was panicked, and I thought, I've got - OK, I mean, my hands were shaking because I said yes. And I'd probably guested five times at that point. I'd guested five times, and I went to the - one appearance I went to the couch and made Johnny really laugh because Carrie Fisher was on before me, and she was talking about her parents, Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher. And then when I came on, I sat down, and I said, maybe you know my parents, Irving and Muriel Shandling.

(LAUGHTER)

SHANDLING: And Johnny knew that that was funny on two levels, you know? And I get this call, and I'm thinking to myself - and I noticed that my hands are shaking and my palms are sweaty - but I say to myself, OK, be nervous now and then get to the work. And so the first time I guest-hosted, it just went fantastically, and I had to go back and look at the tapes. I don't look at my old stuff - I can do a hundred jokes now - but the fact is I don't look at my old stuff. And there - I did for this DVD. I had to look at me hosting the Tonight Show. And it spooked me when I saw how comfortable I was for the first time because I'd never hosted anything. I wasn't a TV performer. It's just natural for me, I guess.

DAVIES: Garry Shandling speaking with David B. Cooley in 2007. Shandling died yesterday in Los Angeles. After a break, we'll hear some of Terry's 1992 conversation with him. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And today we're remembering comedian Garry Shandling, who died yesterday of an apparent heart attack. On "The Larry Sanders Show," Shandling played a talk show host who didn't try to hide his neurotic insecurities. Here's a scene from the final season. Larry's been on vacation but has been watching Jon Stewart guest host the show. When he returns to the office, he's worried that Stewart might have been more popular than he is. Artie, his producer, meets him in the hall. Then they're joined by Larry's sidekick Hank.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW")

SHANDLING: (As Larry Sanders) Would you please tell me what were Jon Stewart's ratings?

RIP TORN: (As Artie) Well, guest hosts always gets the better rating because he's on only once a month. No one has time to get sick of it.

SHANDLING: (As Larry Sanders) So what are you saying, they're sick of the regular host? Is that what you mean?

TORN: (As Artie) No, I'm saying I'm sick of Jon Stewart.

SHANDLING: (As Larry Sanders) Now that's what I thought you meant. That's all I was asking.

TAMBOR: (As Hank Kingsley) Larry, Larry, thank God you are back. I have to tell you, when I'm out there with you, I feel young. I feel alive. But when I'm sitting next to Jon Stewart, I just feel like a wet burlap bag full of monkey [expletive].

SHANDLING: (As Larry Sanders) Well, that came across.

TORN: (As Artie) Excuse us, Hank. Larry has more important matters to address himself to.

TAMBOR: (As Hank Kingsley) Why don't you let Larry speak for himself?

SHANDLING: (As Larry Sanders) I've got more important matters to address myself to.

TAMBOR: (As Hank Kingsley) See, fine? See, then I understand. I just needed to hear that from Larry.

DAVIES: That was Jeffrey Tambor as Hank, Rip Torn as Artie and Garry Shandling as Larry Sanders. Terry spoke with Shandling in 1992 after the first season of "The Larry Sanders Show." Shandling had car trouble that day and couldn't get to the studio, so he spoke to Terry by phone.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: OK, so you can imagine what went through my mind when I found out that your car wouldn't start. In your talk show experiences, have you ever had that happen - where someone doesn't show up, and they say their car isn't working?

SHANDLING: No, it is the flimsiest excuse, isn't it? It would be better to say my dog ate the car, I mean, or something. It sounds like one of those horrible high school excuses.

GROSS: (Laughter). So what kind of car do you drive that's giving you this trouble?

SHANDLING: The worst story than that - what it is exactly is my girlfriend bought - yesterday bought a Range Rover. And I said to her, well, you know, a Range Rover in California - you know, it's a four-wheel drive vehicle, you know, and, you know, I guess she figures, you know, in case it starts raining she can't get to that audition in time or something, you know?

GROSS: (Laughter).

SHANDLING: So it's a four-wheel-drive. For me, it's a slightly affected car, although they're very nice cars. And it's hilarious because she bought it yesterday, and it's brand new. And then she was going to drop me off at the studio. And the car wouldn't start. So not only have I missed this opportunity to go directly to the studio, but simultaneously, she's been on the phone screaming at the car dealer saying, well, you know, Garry Shandling missed an interview, which of course meant far less to them than she'd hoped.

GROSS: So listen, this talk show, you've done the talk show for real, you know, guest hosting on "The Tonight Show." And now you're doing a parody of it. On some of the episodes, there's a lot of tension between what's happening off-camera and what's happening on camera. I mean, there's one in which you're fighting with your wife, you know, kind of backstage. And then you have to keep running back on the air and being really affable. Has anything like that ever happened to you in the time that you really hosted?

SHANDLING: That particular thing - that particular thing has never happened. I have had - I have been in a relationship where right before I went on stage - and this is what I took the moment from - it was many years ago, when I was getting ready to go on stage at The Comedy Store. And my girlfriend at the time said, you know, I really want to discuss our relationship. And I said, well, OK, but I'm on in two minutes. Well, she said, there's never a good time to talk to you, is there? And we really were having an argument my right before I went on stage.

And then actually, that kind of thing never stopped. I was hit by - this is not a joke - I was hit by a car about six months after that. And I was in the hospital with all these tubes connected to me. And she came to the hospital. And I was on the critical list. And she said, I really want to talk to you about our relationship. (Laughter) And I was like on Demerol at the time. And I said, well, you know, I don't think this is the right time. But anyway, it sounds like I probably was very shut down and not communicative. But I was. And she just picked the wrong time. So we took that element and made a show out of it.

GROSS: Boy, I hope she wasn't thinking that you would do anything to get out of talking about the relationship. You'd do stand up. You'd get into a car accident - anything to avoid that discussion.

SHANDLING: I never thought of it that way. But I guess when I joined the astronaut program...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: When were you old enough to stay up late enough to watch "The Tonight Show"?

SHANDLING: Well, you know, I am one of those kids who became aware of comedians at a very early age. It was very odd that at the age of 10, I had memorized the Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks "2,000 Year Old Man" routine, and I was listening to that album. And I used to watch Don Rickles on TV, and oh, you know, I remember staying up late and watching Jack Paar when I shouldn't have been and Steve Allen when I shouldn't have been. So starting very early, I was very tuned into the world that I'm in now.

GROSS: But you ended up in college studying engineering and marketing.

SHANDLING: I was an electrical engineering major for three years.

GROSS: So why did somebody who loved comedy so much go into engineering?

SHANDLING: Well, you know, I was in Tucson, Ariz. That's where I grew up. And you don't - and my parents are not in the arts. And so it wasn't like it when I was 15 or 16, anybody encouraged me to go and be a comedian or to be in show business. And I had no real inputs in that direction. There were no clubs. There were no - I mean, I remember driving to Phoenix when I was 17 or 18 to see George Carlin work in a small club. That was the first time I'd ever been in a small kind of club before - nightclub. My parents used to take me to Las Vegas, where I saw - I remember Don Adams was working in Las Vegas.

GROSS: "Get Smart," yeah.

SHANDLING: "Get Smart" was getting popular. And I remember Don Adams telling old jokes. I was, like, 12 years old. And I went, my God. I thought to myself, he's doing old jokes. How can someone do an act with jokes that are old jokes? I remember thinking that when I was 12 years old. And I was aghast. I assumed that everybody wrote new - their jokes. I didn't know you could go to a joke book. And that's what a lot of those guys used to do.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SHANDLING: So I was tuned - really tuned into that. And then my second or third year in the engineering department, I got very frustrated. And I sat down with myself and had a soul-searching conversation with myself and said, you know what I'd really like to do is see if I can write comedy. And I just made a decision then when I was 19 or 20, you know, I was pretty old to move to LA after I graduated. I switched my majors and said, I'll see what happens. And I moved to LA stone cold, didn't know anybody, didn't know how to go to about it, and really started from scratch.

GROSS: So what's the first move that you made once you got there?

SHANDLING: Well, I started hanging out at The Comedy Store watching comedians. The Comedy Store had just opened. It was 1972. And I just watched and watched. And I had a job as an advertising copywriter at the time and watched and watched. And then I took a writing class at UCLA - a comedy writing class at UCLA.

And I met a guy whose father was a comedy writer. And we started talking. And we ended up writing a script together that he gave to his dad. And his dad said, God, this is really good. And he gave it to an agent. And I just kept meeting people here and there. And finally, I wrote a script for "Sanford And Son" that I got to the producers. And they loved it. And they hired me. They said, you should you write a couple of scripts for us this season. I was 23.

GROSS: So the first...

SHANDLING: Or 24 I think.

GROSS: So the first TV show you worked on was "Sanford And Son."

SHANDLING: Yes.

GROSS: It must have been strange to be a white guy from Tucson writing a black sitcom.

SHANDLING: You know, they were all white writers. And I was just - I just did a little luncheon with Keenen Ivory Wayans, who of course, created "In Living Color." And we were sitting next to each other. And he didn't know that I'd written for "Sanford And Son." And he couldn't stop laughing.

He literally couldn't stop laughing for five minutes when I said, you know, I started on "Sanford And Son" and just looked right at him. And he said, my God, you know, things have really changed because it was primarily white writers that wrote that show.

GROSS: When you started doing standup, did you have a sense of who you wanted to be on stage, you know, like, what aspects of your own personality you really wanted to bring out for your stage persona?

SHANDLING: It was really a nightmare. I had no idea who I was when I started. And I was frightened to death and had no natural performing skills. I'd never performed before in my life. And to be thrown onto the standup stage is an experience that you cannot fathom until you're actually there because there's no place to go, and everyone's looking at you. And you can't even see them because of the lights. And yet you have to manage to start talking and be funny on top of it. And at the beginning, I think I did - I wrote material that was very much influenced by Woody Allen, who's my favorite.

And I used to do very offbeat jokes that sounded like I was reading them. And it took years to develop a style. And actually, what happened is I was involved in a relationship. And the girl left me, and I was very hurt, very hurt. And I had to go up on stage. And I finally just turned to the audience and said, this girl left me. I said - well, I said what happened is she moved in - she moved in with another guy. So I dumped her because that's where I draw the line.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SHANDLING: And - and so that was the beginning. That was really the beginning of, you know, people - of the Garry Shandling dating years in standup that came out, you know, because I realized, oh, I started to really spill my guts about being hurt. And people really related to it. And it just was one of those things. It was in a nightclub in Dallas. I really remember it very well.

DAVIES: Garry Shandling speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 1992. Shandling died yesterday in Los Angeles. He was 66. After a break, we'll hear from the director and screenwriter of the film "Carol," which has earned six Academy Award nominations. I'm Dave Davies. And this is FRESH AIR.

Copyright © 2016 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.