Garry Shandling: The Fake-Host With the Most

The stand-up comic was a brilliant 'Tonight Show' substitute — and created one of TV's greatest egomaniacal talk-show hosts ever

Garry Shandling, star of 'The Larry Sanders Show' and 'It's Garry Shandling's Show.' The comedian passed away from a heart attack at age 66. Credit: HBO/Photofest

R.I.P. to the one of the all-time comedy greats, Garry Shandling, who died suddenly of a heart attack today. Shandling created one of the most unforgettable monsters in TV history on The Larry Sanders Show, the legendary Nineties cult sitcom where he played a late-night talk-show host with an all-devouring ego and not a glimmer of compassion. Talk about ahead of its time: It pioneered the whole whiplash-fast "room full of bitter adults abusing each other at the same time" bile of sitcoms like Veep or Arrested Development. Larry was a creature of the Hollywood smarm factory, surrounded by a nonstop toxic atmosphere: the whole ass-kissing, back-stabbing, ego-fluffing backstage menagerie.

Everybody on The Larry Sanders Show was a demented egomaniac; Larry was merely the most insufferable. Everybody hated him, though nobody hated Larry quite as much as Larry did. "I have a real problem," he ranted in one episode. "Twenty people could say they liked me, Artie, and I'm telling you I'd still be thinking 17 of them are lying, two of them probably have severe emotional problems and one of them is probably confusing me with Larry King."

Just watch him on the set with guest Robin Williams. During the ad break, they sit there uncomfortably, as Robin asks Larry if he should keep going with the jokes about his kid's penis. Jeffrey Tambor, as sidekick Hank, does what he can to make things worse by asking for an autograph. ("That's Mork with a K, right?") It's basic human vanity at its most naked and frail. Shandling made this character hilariously loathsome, but also vulnerable, because there's a little (or a lot) of Larry Sanders in everyone.

Part of what gave The Larry Sanders Show its bite is that Garry Shandling was very much a product of this smarm factory he was satirizing. He got his start in the 1970s as a writer on classic Me-Decade sitcoms like Welcome Back, Kotter (the "Horshack vs. Carvelli" boxing-match episode where the sweathogs learn a valuable lesson about courage) and Sanford and Son. He cowrote the fan-fave "Committee Man" episode where Fred G. Sanford is chosen to represent the businessmen of Watts on the mayor's community relations committee. ("Do you frequent the library?" "No, but I once had a freaky time in the back of a bookmobile.")

Shandling really made his name when he moved on to stand-up and became one of Johnny Carson's favorite comics, regularly standing in as guest host on The Tonight Show. His Eighties sitcom It's Garry Shandling's Show was perhaps too Eighties for the Eighties, with Shandling not just playing himself but routinely addressing the camera about what a terrible sitcom this was. The theme song went, "This is the theme to Garry's show / Garry called me up and asked if I would write his theme song." In one episode he invited the studio audience to make themselves at home in his apartment while he's away. (He's stepping out to take a Cub Scout to a baseball game, where a foul ball in the face ruins the kid's life.) When he returns he discovers the audience threw a party, trashed his place and stole his money. How did this sitcom manage to last four seasons? It was the Reagan era. And it was on Showtime.

But he really displayed his genius with The Larry Sanders Show, which became a word-of-mouth cult phenomenon on HBO in 1992, and has just kept getting more influential since then. Larry Sanders didn't look like other shows at the time — single camera, no laugh track. (Seinfeld looked like Happy Days in comparison.) The show-within-the-show was a scrupulously accurate reproduction of a painful after-hours schoozefest. The actual talk-show guests would show up playing themselves, whether that meant Gene Siskel and John Ritter getting into a backstage brawl or fighting with William Shatner on speakerphone.

What a crew: Rip Torn's producer Artie, Jeffrey Tambor's sidekick Hank, the then-barely-known Janeane Garofalo as the booker Paula. So many up and comers — Bob Odenkirk, Jeremy Piven, Sarah Silverman, Dave Chappelle — passed through for high-visibility appearances, while future legends like Judd Apatow honed their chops behind the scenes.

The Hollywood windbag playing an exaggerated version of himself has always been a TV staple, from Jack Benny and George Burns to Larry David and Louis C.K. Shandling brought loathsomeness to the character, yet also vulnerability, because there's a little (or a lot) of Larry in everyone. Larry wasn't merely a demented egomaniac — he was the kind who was so good at it, he built himself a private world where everybody was a demented egomaniac, so he never had to come in contact with any normals ever, which meant in a sense that he'd found himself a home. The cultural context of Larry Sanders, which ran through 1998, was the Nineties late-night wars of Jay Leno vs. David Letterman vs. Arsenio Hall (vs. eventually Chevy Chase and Magic Johnson and Jon Stewart ... there were lots of them). There was an unbelievably sacrosanct bubble of cultural hot air around the idea of the late-night chat-show host as some kind of cultural spokesman. Shandling took care of that.

In 1996 he appeared on the MTV Movie Awards, the year it was co-hosted by Janeane Garofalo, who became a star on The Larry Sanders Show. She introduced him simply with the words from an old song: "How do you thank someone for taking you from crayons to perfume? It isn't easy, but I'll try." It was a genuinely poignant moment. And then Shandling came out and punctured it by presenting the award for Best Sandwich in a Movie. He announced, "I'm a little nervous because I had sex with the turkey club when it auditioned for The Larry Sanders Show." Garry Shandling, ladies and gentleman. Goodbye to one of the true masters.

Garry Shandling died on March 24, 2016. Watch his remembrance here.