For a form that's already comedic, the sitcom has inspired an extraordinary number of parodies in the postmodern era. But none had the sublime wit and creativity of It's Garry Shandling's Show, the Showtime sitcom that constantly acknowledged—nay, flaunted—that it was a sitcom. The series gave respected standup and Tonight Show fill-in host Garry Shandling a cable showcase, one that eventually became the second-lowest-rated series on network TV when it was repurposed on FOX. That's where I discovered It's Garry Shandling's Show and felt as if I'd found a buried treasure. Like so many original series before and after it, It's Garry Shandling's Show was simply too offbeat for the mainstream. Now that Shandling's audience has widened somewhat due to his more popular HBO series The Larry Sanders Show, it's time for a reappraisal of this long-lost gem.
It's Garry Shandling's Show claims to be Shandling's life, with cameras on it. Garry lives in a three-wall condo in Sherman Oaks' Happy Pilgrim Estates; the fourth wall has been removed to accomodate a studio audience, who Garry welcomes into his home each week. Sometimes, the audience literally steps into Garry's home; in one memorable episode, Garry leaves the audience unattended (telling them to make themselves at home) and they creep down from the risers and have a party until he returns. Garry's neighbors include his "platonic friend" Nancy Bancroft (Molly Cheek) and the Schumaker family: Pete (Michael Tucci), Jackie (Bernadette Birkett), and teenage Grant (Scott Nemes). A bachelor, Garry attempts to date despite the imposition of a life spent on camera; he also troubleshoots the problems of his married best friend Pete—a nerdy Hush Puppies salesman—and his family. Barbara Cason played Garry's mother Ruth.
Inspired by previous sitcoms fronted by stand-up talent (The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show and The Jack Benny Program), Shandling and co-creator Alan Zweibel (Saturday Night Live) have Garry talk to the audience not only in opening and closing monologues, but throughout the show with humorous asides like "Just applaud and we'll go on to the next scene." The series is at its best when playing with its own (sur)reality, as when Garry has a conversation with his stage manager (who nervously reads his lines from a script), steps into his custom-made "It's Garry Shandling's Flashback Booth," or requests that time leap forward a few weeks to expidite the story (the latter involves dozens of newspapers being thrown at the star). Then there's the theme song, a hilarious spoof of those bygone themes that sung the premises of their respective shows. Garry's theme? "This is the theme to Garry's show,/The theme to Garry's show/Garry called me up and asked if I would write his theme song..." It never gets old, and Garry happily finds a new way each week to while away the "forty-one seconds" of the theme. And wait till you get a load of Garry's convertible.
The ironic relationship with the audience is what makes It's Garry Shandling's Show one for the ages. Its arguable failing is in its sometimes ordinary plotting, on which the postmodern tomfoolery is hung; the plots involving Pete, for example, tend to be typical '80s sitcom fare. And the strain on the writers can be felt as the show stumbles in serving its standard-issue regulars and adds characters or expands roles better suited to the series' wacky aesthetic: nosy, attention-seeking condo president Leonard Smith (Paul Willson, the MVP of the supporting cast); suave Scotsman Ian (Ian Buchanan), an hilariously fusty romantic interest for Nancy; Garry's manager Brad Brillnick (Bruno Kirby), a barely veiled caricature of Shandling's real manager Bernie Brillstein; and Mr. Stravely (Richard Fancy), an amusingly all-purpose hair-trigger boss-man.
Those looking for a "jump the shark" moment will find it when, in the fourth season, Garry marries Phoebe Bass (Jessica Harper), but even in these late half-hours, the show comes up with plenty of satisfyingly crazy spins on the standard sitcom of married life, not the least of which involves Garry and Phoebe meeting their elderly selves. For its various struggles, the Mr. Rogers-on-drugs tone of the series never fails, and the crack writing staff variously featured talents like Ed Solomon (Men in Black), Tom Gamill & Max Pross (Seinfeld), and Al Jean & Mike Reiss (The Simpsons); in the final year, Monica Johnson (Mother) comes on as a creative consultant. Above all, Shandling's own gift for improvisation charges each episode with energy born of his unpredictability, well honed in nightclubs and on the Tonight Show soundstage. Shandling showed his commitment by obsessively working on his acting with coach Roy London, who later directed some episodes of this series and The Larry Sanders Show.
And if you're not yet convinced that you're missing out on somrthing special, check out the guest list: Jennifer Tilly (as Garry's girlfriend Angelica, discovered on Love Connection), Jeff Goldblum, Bob Newhart, Chevy Chase, Tony Danza, Steve Allen, Paula Poundstone, Norm Crosby, Charlie Callas, Marty Allen, Dave Coulier, Edie Adams, Marcia Cross, Sheena Easton, June Lockhart , Florence Henderson, Jack Dodson (reprising his classic Andy Griffith Show role of Floyd the Barber), Susan Anton, Henry Winkler, Lionel Stander, Doc Severensen, Chris Isaak, Tony Orlando & Dawn, Vanna White, Chuck Woolery, Burt Convy, Bill Harris, Kurt Rambis, Lyle Alzado, Tai Babilonia, L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley, Roy Firestone, Charles Nelson Reilly, Connie Stevens, and Zsa Zsa Gabor as the Goddess of Commitment. Many guests put in multiple appearances, including Tom Petty, Rob Reiner, Carl Reiner, Martin Mull, Red Buttons, Father Guido Sarducci, Dom Irerra, Joy Behar, Dabney Coleman, and the series regularly hosted top character actors like Ian Abercrombie, Chris Mulkey, Christian Clemenson, Paul Feig, Ryan Stiles, Stuart Pankin, Roy Brocksmith, and Mark Blankfield.
Of the show's seventy-two episodes, a surprising number of them are unforgettable. First season highlights include "It's Garry's Problem, But It's JoJo's Show," which hilariously breaks its promise to showcase a contest winner, and "Fate," which brilliantly tracks Garry's efforts to prevent a disaster predicted by a psychic to occur in a later scene of the episode. Season Two's "The Schumakers Go to Hollywood" essays the bizarre proposition that two of the show's characters go on a vacation to watch a taping of the show on which they appear (another episode features a vacation to amusement park "Shandlingland"). "Killer Routine" finds Garry's opening monologue killing an audience member, and "Garry Falls Down a Hole" spoofs the 1987 "Baby Jessica" crisis. Season Three arranges a gleefully bizarre puberty-themed musical about Grant ("What's Happening to Me?"), the 1988 "Live Election Show," and a star-studded three-parter about a benefit to "Save Mr. Peck's," a vintage comedy club.
A few guest-star appearances were extra-special. Gilda Radner puts in her final TV performance, a funny and brave one, in the episode "Mr. Smith Goes to Nam" (in a typically weird juxtaposition of plots). Norman Fell pops in to advise Garry when his life suddenly becomes The Graduate in the episode "The Graduate." And then there's "The Last Show," in which Garry dies. Resurrected, Garry starred in two more episodes. On the way to the real series finale "Driving Miss Garry" (with Paul Winfield as Hoke and Dan Aykroyd reprising his Oscar-nominated role of Boolie), the show would also put up parodies of Lassie ("Laffie"), The Fugitive, and The Natural. There has never been a show quite like It's Garry Shandling's Show, but its unique brand of postmodernism paved the way for a new era of adventurous TV comedy.
Shout Factory has given comedy fans (another) gift in its outstanding 16-DVD set of It's Garry Shandling's Show: The Complete Series. Each season's episodes get spread across four discs, with plenty of newly produced bonus features. For a show of this vintage, the picture quality is not only surprisingly good but outstanding; though the show was shot and edited on video, the masters have been well-preserved and only very rarely betray a hint of video decay. Likewise, I have no complaints about the Dolby 2.0 sound, which ably reproduces the series' dialogue and music, with no distractions.
Across the sixteen discs are numerous segments of production footage called "'It Only Looks Easy' - Outtakes." These present fascinating raw footage of a given show's taping—if only we could see this type of footage from every sitcom! The set also includes eighteen commentary tracks, featuring Shandling, co-creator Alan Zweibel, and writers Ed Solomon, Tom Gammill & Max Pross, and Al Jean & Michael Reiss. The latter pair, commentary experts from umpteen Simpsons commentaries, are especially frank, though all of the commentaries offer interesting and funny reminiscences.
Season One's extras include "Getting There - The Road to the Show" (19:10), featuring new interviews with Shandling and Zweibel, and the Elephant Parts segments "Garry Dates Miss Maryland" (4:19) and "Garry Shandling's Car" (5:27), which show how former Monkee Michael Nesmith gave Shandling the opportunity to test the waters of the incipient It's Garry Shandling's Show concept.
Season Two comes with FOX promos and "'Being There' - The Cast Remembers" (26:05). This retrospective delivers new interviews with Shandling, Zweibel, Michael Tucci, Molly Cheek, Scott Nemes, Bernadette Birkett, Paul Willson, Ian Buchanan, director Thomas Schlamme, and co-producer Vic Kaplan.
Season Three includes "'Still There' - The Writers Remember" (26:18), with Shandling, Zweibel, Tucci, Nemes, Ed Solomon, Pross, Gammill, Jean, Reiss, Schlamme, David Mirkin, Kaplan, makeup artist Bruce Grayson, Cheek, and Birkett; the aptly named "Show & Tell with Tom Gammill and Max Pross" (7:46); and a few complete issues of Shandlines, the show's in-house newsletter.
Season Four serves up "'Try to Remember' - A Coversation with Garry and Alan" (19:49) and the brief profile "Bruce Grayson: The Man Behind the Brush" (3:19), about Garry's personal makeup artist and personal friend.
Topping it all off is a handsome package that includes the sixteen discs in eight double-disc slim cases, as well as a thirty-page color booklet. No self-respecting comedy fan can live without this terrific set.
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