The unexpected death of Garry Shandling, who passed away on Thursday at the age of 66, is a loss that may not be immediately felt by the general public. Shandling wasn’t a hugely prolific performer over the last 15 years, chiefly recognizable to current audiences for his bit part in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as the corrupt Senator Stern. His most notable TV role in recent memory goes all the way back to 2000, where he played himself as Fox Mulder in the massively self-referential “Hollywood A.D.” episode of The X-Files.
But despite not being in front of the camera personally much in the last couple of decades, few figures share as much of an impact on how comedy has progressed in those twenty years. From Freaks And Geeks to Arrested Development to Curb Your Enthusiasm to The Office to Louie to 30 Rock, so many of the most highly regarded shows in recent memory are tightly interwoven with Shandling’s creative DNA. Shandling broke the mold of the situational sitcom, leading it to be more introspective, more technically audacious, and far, far more awkward than ever before.
Dissatisfied with the staid format of the traditional sitcoms he was working on—his early writing credits include episodes of Sanford and Son and Welcome Back, Kotter—Shandling decided to create his one in 1986’s It’s Garry Shandling’s Show. Breaking the fourth wall was an almost constant occurrence, with Shandling and the other characters well aware they were on a TV show, to the extent they’d walk into the studio audience during filming. It was the most ideal example of a show realizing its very format was a joke in and of itself, right down to its self-referential theme song whose singer outright admitted he was making it up on the spot.
If It’s Garry Shandling’s Show started tearing pieces off of the traditional sitcom framework, 1992’s The Larry Sanders Show gleefully swung a crowbar into it. Shandling filled in for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show at various points, but wasn’t interested in having a late-night show of his own. Instead, he opted to create a sitcom about the process of making those shows, and came up with a novel way to depict the process. The talk show portion was shot in the traditional four-camera video format, but behind the scenes switched to film, seamlessly toggling between the two to go from static energy to a more mobile and kinetic storytelling as soon as Larry encouraged/begged the audience “No flipping!” during commercials.
The switch in format also plated to the incisive style of comedy Shandling went for, mining the egos, quirks, and double-talk of the business for laughs. When the cameras were off, it became apparent just how phony, cruel, and painfully human everyone was, not only the crew but the various real-life celebrities Larry could get on his show. (A move that opened the floodgates for film and TV stars being willing to play darkly caricatured versions of themselves.) Larry Sanders was unafraid to cross any line, to abuse its characters and its industry past the point of no return, yet always to snap back to find the humor of it all.
And as the center of it all, Shandling created one of television’s most indelible characters. Larry Sanders set the template for David Brent of The Office and the fictionalized Larry David of Curb Your Enthusiasm, a massive egotist whose various neuroses turned him into a pile of contradictions. He wanted to be liked but hated getting close enough to people to earn their respect, had no interest in learning about others but was offended when he was kept out of the loop, thrived in front of the cameras and lost his bearings the instant they were turned off. It was almost shamefully easy for him to get into a tight spot, leaving him flailing as he fell back on his producer Artie (Rip Torn) and sidekick Hank Kingsley (Jeffrey Tambor) to get him out of it. Not once did the show ever try to make you like Larry, leading you to relish his mishaps over his successes.
As alienating as Larry could be, Shandling was the opposite, as he drew some of comedy’s best and brightest to his banner, and was always generous with his time and support. Judd Apatow, Peter Tolan, Steve Levitan, and Paul Simms all cut their teeth working on Larry Sanders, and cast members included Janeane Garofalo, Wallace Langham, Bob Odenkirk, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Sarah Silverman, and Jeremy Piven. That’s a murderer’s row of talent, all of whom owe something to Shandling’s gift for digging deeper, looking closer, and resisting the urge to flinch whenever he got close to something uncomfortable.
In one of Shandling’s final TV appearances, on Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee—an episode whose title “It's Great That Garry Shandling Is Still Alive” is unintentionally tragic after this week—Shandling offered his take on what a comedian’s body of work meant in the long run. “It doesn’t have any value beyond expressing yourself spiritually… it’s why you’re on the planet.” Looking at the body of work that Shandling leaves behind and the legion of shows and entertainers who took inspiration from his work, it’s hard to argue his expression was anything less than a rousing success.
As Larry might say, we may now flip. But we don’t want to.
Les Chappell is a freelance writer and contributor to The A.V. Club. He tweets here.