Thursday, April 21, 2016

Cultureshark Remembers Garry Shandling

This is long overdue, but I am not going to pass up the chance to talk about Shandling just because it's been a few weeks since he died. Of course, being a "Cultureshark Remembers" post, it's actually going to be about me, so let me say first of all that Garry Shandling was an all-time great, a hilarious comedian who helped bring us two of the best television programs ever made. My personal favorite Shandling trademark: The pained facial expression he would give, often to the camera, either in reaction to another performer or sometimes just to his own joke.

Of those two of the best television programs ever made, I think "It's Garry Shandling's Show" is somewhat neglected these days. "Larry Sanders" deserves its prominent role among those in the know, but Shandling's 1980s sitcom was just as good and possibly just as influential. There is a certain kind of self-referential comic sensibility that I think is often credited to "The Simpsons," among other places, but I remember watching Shandling as a kid and being blown away by it: the breaking the fourth wall, the constant send-ups of television conventions, the sense that anything could happen. All of it was within a format that allowed for a sitcom story of some kind to unfold.

"Burns and Allen" featured plenty of talking to the camera, but it was more than that on "It's Garry Shandling's Show." Not only did Garry acknowledge the viewer, but he also addressed the studio audience, even involving them in the story. The cameramen, people with cue cards, grips--all were part of the environment and liable to be part of the action. Combine this exciting landscape with Shandling's standup persona and sharp writing, and you got a classic. I loved it.

My dad loved it, too, and for a while, we actually had Showtime--I think for the "Honeymooners Lost Episodes" as well as for Shandling, but Garry was certainly a highlight.  And let's face it, there wasn't a whole lot going on in Showtimeland back then. At some point--my memory is hazy on this part--my dad must have figured, "Eh, you know, Showtime kind of bites. Let's get rid of it, and then in 25 years when 'Ray Donovan' is invented, we'll sign up again."

However, the young FOX network picked up the show in some kind of shared deal with Showtime and put it on late Sunday nights. It started at 9:00, but by the end of its run, it was airing at 10:30 PM, which is pretty damn late for a network sitcom.

This may be the reason why: It's ratings stunk. I don't have access to anything other than my fading memories of old Nielsen ratings layouts in "USA Today" (Remember how great the Life section was back then?), but my recollection is that I looked each week to see how Shandling was doing and always saw it languishing near the very bottom of the list. Sure, it was the fourth network, sure it had unenviable timeslots, but it was one of MY shows, and nobody was watching it.

It was one of my first lessons that quality television will not always be supported by the masses. Nowadays I can see why such an unconventional show might not be a massive hit, and I can even get that Shandling himself might not have been a long-term mainstream prime-time kind of star. But back then, it was a crushing blow. Didn't people like good stuff? How could they not be checking this out? Was it because everyone had already seen it on Showtime (I actually ruled that out immediately)?

Garry Shandling brought a lot of joy and laughter into my life over the years, but he also taught me the pain of advocating for quality underappreciated work. At least the series got an excellent, if extremely expensive, DVD set from Shout Factory a while ago. Still, it seems telling that though a new HBO deal for "Larry Sanders" was announced right after Garry's sudden passing, all is quiet on the "It's Garry Shandling's Show" front. I'd love to see Shout TV bring it back.

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