Judd Apatow doc takes deep dive into Garry Shandling’s life
Comedian Garry Shandling’s untimely death, in March 2016, extinguished the brilliant creative mind behind groundbreaking TV classics “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show” and “The Larry Sanders Show.”
Shandling’s passing, at the too-young age of 66 (from a pulmonary thrombosis), left a complicated legacy: he was embracing yet distant, philosophical yet cutting, gregarious yet extremely private.
Few people felt they really knew what made him tick.
“There were aspects of his life he was struggling with, and part of working on this documentary was trying to figure that out,” says noted comedy writer/producer/director Judd Apatow, who takes a deep dive into his mentor’s life in HBO’s “The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling,” airing over two nights (Monday and Tuesday at 8 p.m.). “Zen” uses Shandling’s personal journals, home movies, audiotapes and recollections from Jim Carrey, Jay Leno, Sarah Silverman, David Duchovny, Kevin Nealon and ex-girlfriend Linda Doucett — among many others — to map the arc of the comedian’s life.
“All Garry cared about was honesty and the truth,” says Apatow. “ ‘Here’s my life, my struggles, here’s how I dealt with it, how I tried to evolve as a person.’”
Apatow grew close to Shandling while working on “The Larry Sanders Show,” HBO’s satiric comedy series about a neurotic, insecure late-night talk show host (played by Shandling) that ran for six seasons (1992-98), won a slew of awards and established the cringe-worthy comedy template for, among others, Ricky Gervais’ BBC series “The Office.”
“I felt that as close as I was to Garry, there was more to know that he hadn’t shared with me,” Apatow says. “He was always very sweet and giving but was also distracted and consumed, and you knew there were other things on his mind.”
Shandling’s diaries, spanning from 1977 to his death, provide a valuable peek into the comic’s complex psyche. “It’s so rare that you know exactly what somebody was thinking during most of the important moments of their life. It’s a real blessing when you can have that type of insight,” Apatow says of the journals, which came to light when Shandling was going to share them in another project that never came to fruition. “We realized that Garry was up for revealing parts of his journals,” says Apatow. “So I took that as sort of permission to use them in the documentary.”
The journals also reveal Shandling’s lifelong battle with finding closure over the passing of his beloved older brother, Barry, who died (from cystic fibrosis) when Garry was 10. Shandling’s parents, Irving and Muriel, rarely talked about Barry thereafter and kept Garry away from his funeral. Apatow unearthed a clip of the Shandlings being interviewed about Garry, when the subject turns to Barry.
“In that footage you see his mom refusing to talk about [Barry] passing away and the effect it had on Garry,” says Apatow. “And you realize, ‘Oh, she did that to Garry his entire childhood,’ so he was never able to work through that grief at a very important time in his youth. I do think it led him to being obsessed with the truth and presence and love, because at an important time of his life he didn’t get that the way he needed it.”
Apatow says he decided to make the documentary after Shandling’s memorial service. “When people spoke at the memorial they were so funny and insightful and his life added up to a very inspirational message,” he says. “People left and felt like they’d been through a religious experience.
“A lot of us were sad we didn’t know more [about Garry] and maybe we weren’t there for him or understand him as much as we would’ve liked to,” he says. “I feel Garry would like his life to be a lesson to other people, to help people. All he wanted was to use his pain and try to spread a very simple message, which is that we shouldn’t be all about egos — we should care more about connecting and loving other people.”