From the DVD Shelf: It’s Garry Shandling’s Show Season One
For as long as I can remember I’ve been hearing and reading about It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, the innovative sort-of-sitcom comedy show that Garry Shandling created and starred in on Showtime from 1986 to 1990. I adored The Larry Sanders Show (Mr. Shandling’s second TV show, which aired on HBO from 1992-1998), and when I began getting into stand-up comedy, during the years that Larry Sanders was airing, it became clear to me that Garry Shandling was a fellow of uncommon creative genius. I’ve long wanted to check out Mr. Shandling’s first show, but there was no easy way to get ahold of those episodes — until now! Last year, the fine folks at Shout! (whose exceptional TV on DVD sets I have often praised on this site) outdid themselves with the release, not just of one season, but of the complete series of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show. My good buddy Ethan Kreitzer (who wrote a phenomenal write-up, last month, of an Albert Brooks appearance that he attended — it’s a great read, you should take a look if you haven’t read it yet) was kind enough to lend me his copy of the set (and he’s been VERY PATIENT with me as the months have gone bye!) so I could, finally, see what everyone has been talking about.
It’s Garry Shandling’s Show is a wonderfully playful version of a sitcom, created and produced by people who clearly grew up watching and loving sitcoms. From the characters’ personas to the look of the sets and lighting, the show is packed full of familiar sitcom tropes. But that’s entirely the point. Throughout these early episodes, the show has great fun constantly exposing all of the silly conceits and traditional devices used by TV comedies. Those conceits and devices are mocked, but what’s so endearing about It’s Garry Shandling’s Show is the way that the mockery is all done with love. If I got the sense that Mr. Shandling and his team of writers HATED sitcoms, and just wanted to expose how stupid and fake they are, I think that would get old very quickly. But it’s clear that Mr. Shandling and his crew LOVE sitcoms, and the sense that they’re all absolutely tickled to be in a sitcom of their own comes across loud and clear.
What also comes across loud and clear is that Mr. Shandling and the show’s team are far too creative to be beholden to the way sitcoms usually are. Indeed, they blow apart the form with enormous relish. (I’m reminded of the creativity shown by Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David when creating Seinfeld, and the glee they took in doing everything their own way.) My favorite episodes of season one of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show are those episodes when the show gets really wild and crazy with all the things that we usually accept without question in TV comedies.
The first episode to really go there is episode four: “The Graduate.” The episode’s story is a hoot: Larry goes on a date with a beautiful woman named Elaine, but (no surprise to anyone who noticed the episode’s title) winds up in the sites of Elaine’s mother, who tries to seduce him. This very silly riff on The Graduate is a lot of fun, but what really made the episode stand out for me was the way the show handled the moves between locations in the episode. Garry drives Elaine to and from their dates in his “car” — which is actually a little studio cart made up to look like a car. (How else could Garry drive around in the indoors studio where the show is filmed?!) Garry uses the car to drive Elaine around — and the show gets a big laugh (from me at least) — in those journeys lasting just 2 seconds as all Garry has to do is to scoot from one set to the next. But the best moment in the show comes when Garry drops off Elaine at her house. She stays “in character” — walking from Garry’s “car” around to the side of the set, where the front door is, and then she walks through the door into her living room. But since the whole living room set is obviously wide open — so the cameras and studio audience can see what’s happening inside the house — Garry just walks right into her living room set without going through the door. What took me several sentences to describe takes about one second of screen time, but it’s such a clever idea that it truly made me sit up and take notice.
(The gag with a little studio cart made up to look like Garry’s car recurs several times during the season, most notably in the episode “Grant’s Date,” in which Garry agrees to chaperone his friend Pete’s young son, Grant, on a date with a popular girl from school. The two kids go to a drive-in movie, and the way the show creates a drive-in theatre on stage in the studio is that we see several cart-cars just like Garry’s, while the other rows of the drive-in consist of increasingly tiny models of cars and people, creating a forced-perspective effect of scale. The whole thing is hilariously fake but, again, that’s entirely the point.)
Another stand-out episode from season one is “Fate,” in which a psychic warns Garry that something terrible will happen to Nancy (Garry’s “attractive but non-threatening platonic neighbor”) on her upcoming date. Garry tries, of course, to alter fate to help Nancy — a task made both easier and harder by the fact that Garry, and all the characters, have the script to the episode and so know exactly when and how events will unfold! The episode also boasts a great guest appearance by a hilariously deadpan Ian Abercrombie (who played Mr. Pitt on Seinfeld) as the voice of Fate.
In the later part of the season, the episode “Laffie” plays not just with familiar TV tropes but with the plots of actual old TV shows, as the show puts together a terrific Garry Shandling version of a Lassie episode. Larry finds a beautiful collie who he immediately bonds with and names Laffie. Keeping a pet is in violation of his condo rules, and his neighbor Leonard Smith (played by Paul Wilson, a man familiar to any Cheers fan) threatens to report him — but when Leonard gets his foot stuck in the rail of a train-track, Laffie may be the only one who can save him from being killed by the oncoming train. You can see that particular plot twist coming a mile away, but of course that’s half the fun. I also found myself laughing — no matter how many times they repeated the same gag — at the way a whistled “Laffie” theme-song would play any time Garry said Laffie’s name.
“Dial L For Laundry” is another stand-out episode. Garry meets an alluring, mysterious woman in the laundromat, and begins a torrid affair. But will her jealous boyfriend derail everything? The woman is played by Claudia Christian (who would go on to star as Commander Ivanova on Babylon 5) who gives a terrific, Kathleen Turner inspired performance. (It helps that, in a great joke, smoke fills the set any-time she’s around.) But the real stand-out guest star from that episode is Rob Reiner, who appears as himself. The joke here is that Rob Reiner has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the episode’s story and, indeed, spends the whole show washing Garry’s dishes.
Season One has a few weak spots. There are some rough patches as the show worked to find it’s rhythm. Lewis, Garry’s ladies-man friend, is introduced as a member of the ensemble, but after a few very-brief (and not that funny) appearances in the first few episodes, he disappears never to be heard from again. There are also a few episodes that just don’t work, the most notable being “Pete Has an Affair,” in which Garry’s geeky, straight-arrow friend Pete is revealed to have cheated on his wife. It’s an out-of-left-field development for the character, and I will admit to feeling somewhat uncomfortable at how that serious issue was basically just played for laughs in the episode. And not-that-funny laughs, I must say. The whole thing was painfully awkward rather than funny, and the everything’s-back-to-normal resolution at the end of the episode (in which Pete’s wife forgives him and the family is reunited) feels completely unearned and ridiculous. I expected the show to make a joke out of the usual pattern of TV shows to return every character back to the status quo at the end of each episode, not matter what outlandish scenarios transpired beforehand, but that joke never came.
But the biggest weakness of the show, over-all, is that when viewed today one can’t help but notice how dated it has become. Next to some of my favorite modern comedies of recent years (shows like Arrested Development, or even shows like Parks and Recreation, the early seasons of 30 Rock, etc.), in some ways It’s Garry Shandling’s Show seems like a relic from another time. The episodes are extremely leisurely paced, and composed primarily of long scenes taking place in just a few different sets/locations. It’s a far-cry from the fast-paced, rapidly edited TV comedies of today! So many other shows that came after It’s Garry Shandling Show (like the afore-mentioned Seinfeld, Arrested Development, and many others) took what It’s Garry Shandling’s Show began and pushed things even further, to the point that most of the TV sitcom cliches that It’s Garry Shandling’s Show plays with would be totally unfamiliar to a TV-viewer of today! Judd Apatow (who would collaborate with Mr. Shandling as a writer on The Larry Sanders Show) comments on this in the booklet that accompanies the DVD set. He writes: “The decades that followed are filled with successful comedies that are clearly inspired by all of the breakthroughs [It’s Garry Shandling’s Show] produced on a weekly basis.” There were some times, when watching season one, when I respected the creativity of an idea that was clearly ahead-of-its-time, more than I actually found it to be fall-out-of-my-chair funny.
But without question, ahead-of-its-time is the best possible description of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show that I can muster. From the terrifically meta opening theme-song (“this is the theme to Garry’s show, the opening theme to Garry’s show, Garry called me up and asked if I would write his theme-song…”), to the silliness that always unfolds behind the closing credits, this is a show that lead the way for so many others to follow. And while, for me, there was nothing in season one of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show that could rival the comedic (and dramatic) heights of the magnificent The Larry Sanders Show, I am thrilled to have finally had a chance to watch the first season of this very funny, extraordinarily innovative TV show. I can’t wait to move on to season two!