Judd Apatow announced on Twitter that he’s working on a documentary about the life and work of the late Garry Shandling. I’m happy about this, and I hope Apatow makes a great movie. Garry Shandling was a uniquely talented writer and comedian. He always made me laugh and think, and he deserves every accolade Apatow might bestow upon him, in telling his story.
Of course there already is a great documentary about Garry Shandling. It’s called “It’s Great That Garry Shandling Is Still Alive,” and it was made by Jerry Seinfeld. It also happens to be Season 7, Episode 4 of the web series, “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” posted January 20, 2016, two months before Shandling died in Los Angeles, at the age of 66.
I rewatched “Garry Shandling Is Still Alive” not long after reading the news of Shandling’s death. I was convinced then, as I am now, that the episode was a farewell, and Seinfeld and Shandling knew it when they made the show. The result is a lovely, funny, touching 20-minute film which should be viewed by anyone interested in the great American comedy produced in New York and L.A., in the 1980s and 1990s.
. . .
At the beginning of the episode, when Shandling first greets Seinfeld, Garry hugs Jerry and blurts out that he loves him. Seinfeld, rigid and unemotional, seems surprised by what Shandling says and does. When I first watched the show, I thought Seinfeld left that part in because it’s somewhat funny – Seinfeld’s stiffness, I mean. But a viewer must really be paying attention in order to notice Seinfeld’s reaction to the embrace (his face is barely visible).
I think it may have been left in for another reason: Seinfeld knew Shandling wasn’t well. After all the two men go out of their way to explain Shandling’s poor appearance. It’s an undiagnosed hyper parathyroid gland, Garry says, and the symptoms mirror the symptoms of being an older Jewish man. Puffiness, lethargy, wanting a divorce even though you’re not married. Pretty funny.
The episode meanwhile nimbly presents Garry’s biography: electrical engineering major at the University of Arizona, writing for “Sanford and Son,” starting his stand-up career at The Comedy Store in L.A., first appearances on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” and the creation of “The Larry Sanders Show.” Garry and Jerry visit their old haunts, including the TV production lot where they both worked, at the same time, in the 90s. “We used to run this town,” Seinfeld says, as they leave a studio building.
There is a genuine, loving warmth that pervades the entire episode, but it goes deeper than that. At one point Seinfeld, in a rare moment of self-pity, talks about the comedian David Brenner’s death and laments the loss of all the material Brenner spent years working on. Life and comedy, you see, are painfully ephemeral. In response Shandling tries to explain, in his best Buddhist manner, the value of their common vocation. “That material, and your material, is purely a vehicle for you to express your spirit. And your soul. And your being. And that’s why you’re fantastic.”
But Seinfeld isn’t buying it. “So, it doesn’t have any value beyond that?”
Shandling is incredulous. He sarcastically agrees with Seinfeld. Yes, he says. “It doesn’t have any value. Beyond you expressing yourself spiritually – in a very soulful, spiritual way. It’s why you’re on the planet! God, open up the sunroof! What year is this?” It’s another very funny exchange and an interesting moment, because Jerry wanted and, I think, needed Shandling to convince him of this.
. . .
Seinfeld rightly abhors sentimentality in his work. What might have appeared as nostalgia the first time I saw “It’s Great That Garry Shandling Is Still Alive” is really, I think, an attempt by Seinfeld to put Shandling’s career in context. The title of the episode is a play on Garry’s trademarked kvetching, but it was also given that title out of a sense of defiance perhaps, and with an irony that is apparent only now.
Seinfeld’s documentary is a proper valedictory, one friend to another, one great performer to another, and thankfully we all get to see it.
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