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Peace, Love and Dick Jokes: Judd Apatow on ‘The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling’

Director talks about how combing through his comedy mentor’s archives inspired moving, hilarious tribute documentary

Garry Shandling doc expanded from print

Judd Apatow on his doc 'The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling' – and how his mentor's philosophy of peace, love and dick jokes taught him everything.

LARRY WATSON/HBO

Garry Shandling had just paid for a tuna-melt sandwich when a dark one-liner about the human condition – about his human condition, anyway – popped into his head: “I was born in hospice.” He liked it, maybe enough to use on stage, but with no notepaper available, he jotted down the joke on his tuna-melt receipt and stuffed it in a pocket. On a recent morning in Los Angeles, Judd Apatow reads from the receipt and grins. “That’s pretty good,” he says. 

Almost two years ago, Shandling died of a heart attack at the age of 66, and Apatow, his longtime pal, collaborator and mentee, became the steward of his personal archive – an enormous, disorganized trove of which this receipt represents just one minuscule fraction. “Garry saved everything,” the director explains, “but he just chucked it into boxes and then chucked those in storage and closets. He wasn’t sentimental with his memorabilia. He had all his awards in this little case next to his washer and dryer!”

Apatow is at his office, amid stacks of boxes and tables covered edge to edge with Shandling’s stuff. Here’s a Fifties-era iron-on patch announcing membership in The American Junior Bowling Congress; here’s a script for Iron Man, which Shandling had a cameo in; here’s a notepad from just before Shandling’s death, filled with proto-jokes about ISIS and Matthew McConaughey; here’s a diary from 1978, when he was starting out in stand-up. He flips through its pages and stumbles on a fascinating passage: “‘Saw Andy Kaufman last night. Although he was funny and unique, there was nothing to hold his act together. It wasn’t anchored to anything. It wasn’t anchored to him.’ He writes this way about a lot of comedians,” says Apatow. “He wants to know who Andy is.”

Who was Shandling? When Apatow first began poring through this archive, in 2016, he did so in the spirit of an amateur detective. As he puts it in his new documentary The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling: “Garry was a mentor to me, but in many ways a mystery to me.” That movie, which will make its two-part debut on HBO next month, featuring pages from the archive and recollections from a litany of Shandling’s friends and acolytes, including Jim Carrey, Jay Leno, Bob Saget, Sarah Silverman and Sacha Baron Cohen. Shandling was notoriously hard to satisfy, and could on occasion become unhappy with fellow comedians, girlfriends and collaborators – always on the alert for signs of fakery and betrayal. “I was very proud of the fact that I got along well with Garry for a long time, because it was difficult,” Apatow says – so imagine his surprise when, during research for the documentary, “I opened up the journals and found a page where he listed everyone who’d disappointed him that year. And I was number three!”

Garry Shandling and Rip Torn, who played 'Sanders' producer Artie on HBO series

Shandling comes off in the film as thoughtful, prickly, anxious and kind, especially when taking younger comics under his wing later in his life. Many of the stand-ups and relatives in Zen Diaries point to a dark side that seemed to drive him – and sometimes drove him away from others. “Garry used to say, ‘People very rarely speak the truth to each other, and when they do, it’s a big deal,'” says Apatow. “‘Most people are presenting themselves the way they want to be seen and you’re not getting to the core of who they are.’ That’s what he found most interesting in his comedy — exploring the way people behave and why. And that’s part of what I wanted to understand about Garry. We all loved him, but he seemed to behave in certain ways as a result of wounds we didn’t understand.”

Shandling took laughs seriously: Interested in Buddhism since his mid-twenties, he regarded joke-telling as a method of self-discovery. There was something oxymoronic to this – show-biz ambition and quests for egolessness would seem at cross purposes – which Shandling himself acknowledged. “Getting into show business comes more or less from some core dysfunction, where you say, I wanna be seen,” he once told his friend Jerry Seinfeld. But whether Shandling was telling jokes about penis-size or creating two landmark cable sitcoms – the self-reflexive It’s Garry Shandling’s Show and pathos-rich Larry Sanders Show – his goal was to strip the artifice from his work in pursuit of what he deemed authentic feeling and, through that, inner peace. His journals are full of entries reflecting this Zen-inflected yearning. One reads that, “There should be no attachment to being good. There’s no good or bad. Only what you are.” Another, written before his first appearance on Carson: “Become one with The Tonight Show.” Another, in a grimmer register, declared that, “If you’re not on TV, you don’t exist.”

The film begins with old home movies, painting a portrait of Shandling’s childhood as a happy one that turned tragic at age 10, when his older brother, Barry, died at 13 from cystic fibrosis. “I never had a conversation with him about it, but when I interviewed people, a few said, When Garry’s brother died, they didn’t talk about him anymore,” says Apatow. “That was an approach some people took back in 1960. They didn’t have the psychological education to know how to deal with it, so they just moved forward. His cousin told me he couldn’t remember it ever being brought up, their entire childhood.” 

Garry Shandling in in1980

As work on the film progressed, “I found a diary entry where Garry was very upset that he was never allowed to go in and say goodbye to his brother, and that his mom didn’t want him to go to the funeral,” Apatow says. “It’s not in the documentary, but I found out later that one of her parents died and she got very, very upset, and didn’t want that to happen again in front of Garry. The result was that Garry wasn’t given a way to work through his grief.” The director theorizes that Barry’s death became something like the organizing trauma of Shandling’s life and work, and while the documentary emphasizes the importance of Shandling’s complicated relationship with his mother, the emotional climax of the film centers on the discovery, tucked away in one of the journals, of a letter that Garry once wrote to Barry – an attempt at saying goodbye that they weren’t able to have as kids.

One of the main pleasures of Zen Diaries, however, is the chance to read personal scribblings and hear private audio in which Shandling works out the nuts-and-bolts of making people laugh. “Use everything you’ve got to be funny,” he writes early on. “I could still use more of myself. More faces, more voices, more characters, more attitudes.” He observes that he needs to improve his “space-work,” and we learn that he went so far as to enroll in dance classes to command stages with more grace. In an entry that appears onscreen, Shandling instructs himself to “do comedy not for the sake of fame and fortune, but because it is what god does through you.” Soon afterward, we see footage of him in a comedy club, saying, “I decorate my bedroom with dollhouse furniture so my dick looks bigger than it is.” When I mention this juxtaposition to Apatow, he laughs. Shandling understood, he says, that “sometimes, God wants you to tell a dick joke.” 

Check out exclusive footage of Shandling’s stand-up from ‘The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling,’ premiering March 26th-27th on HBO.

Check out exclusive footage of Shandling’s stand-up from ‘The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling.’

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