Better widen the opening to those Christmas stockings: Today is the street date for It's Garry Shandling's Show: The Complete Series. If you only know Shandling from The Larry Sanders Show or his recent guest appearances on shows like Real Time with Bill Maher, you should check out this brick-sized, all-in-one boxed set of Shandling's brilliant first series (available here from Shout! Factory).
The stand up comedian, who established himself as Johnny Carson's permanent guest host in the mid-'80s (along with Joan Rivers), played with convention and broke the fourth wall with this clever series. Each episode basically de-constructed the sitcom, a well-worn genre overdue for a creative cleansing.
The series, which debuted on Showtime in 1986 (and was picked up by Fox in 1989), was basically about Shandling's actual life. He starred as a neurotic ("How's my hair?") stand up comedian who was making a TV show, and basically took viewers along as the show was performed. The set was modeled after Shandling's own Sherman Oaks condo at the time. Molly Cheek, Michael Tucci, Scott Nemes and others played friends and neighbours but Shandling would even reach into the bleachers and involve studio audience members in storylines. Some famous guest pals of Shandling occasionally dropped by, including Rob Reiner, Martin Mull, Jeff Goldblum and, touchingly, Gilda Radner in what would be her final TV appearance.
One funny episode had Shandling out of town and Red Buttons taking over his apartment. When Shandling came back, everybody--the studio audience, the cast--liked Buttons better.
Shandling was on Live! With Regis and Kelly Tuesday morning and explained how he took inspiration from Woody Allen's Annie Hall for the series. Shandling was fascinated with how Allen spoke directly to the camera, breaking the "fourth wall" (something George Burns did with great effect on Burns & Allen back in the '50s). He took that simple idea and tore the wall completely down with It's Garry Shandling's Show, even goofing on theme songs with the barely composed, "This is the Theme to Garry Shandling's Show."
The comedian knew the turf and how to work under it. Shandling had been a writer on conventional '70s sitcoms like Welcome Back, Kotter and Sanford and Son. He was bored with the three camera, studio audience format and wanted to shake things up with this show and bring viewers into the process, doing things like taking a golf cart ride the few feet between sets. As the late, great Larry Gelbart said at the time, Shandling "exploded the genre and made art of the debris."
As usual with Shout! Factory series releases, there is plenty of commentary, both on individual episodes and in eight separate documentaries. Still There--The Writers and Crew Remember features Shandling along with his amazing writing staff, many of whom went on to prominence on Seinfeld, The Simpsons and Saturday Night Live: Alan Zweibel, Al Jean, Michael Reiss, David Mirkin, Max Pross and Tom Gummill.
There are even outtakes, quite cheeky when you consider that the entire series played like it was a collection of outtakes and rehearsal footage. What they do provide is a glimpse into how much room Shandling provided for everyone to improvise.
All 72 episodes are included in the collection, spread out over the 16-DVD set. You can see this show's impact on shows like Seinfeld, The Bernie Mac Show, Family Guy and especially Curb Your Enthusiasm--and, of course, on Shandling's next show and masterpiece, Larry Sanders.
Recommended to anyone who is creating television today or wants to study how it evolved--or just wants to laugh out loud.