Make jokes about your impending death long enough, and sooner or later you’re going to be right. It will be tremendously spooky, and unfortunately you won’t be around to see the reactions. The joke, for once, will be on you.
Garry Shandling, who died yesterday at the age of 66, filmed an episode of Jerry Seinfeld’s "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee" back in November that released in mid-January. The two old friends drove around Hollywood reminiscing in a pristine 1979 Porsche 930 Turbo, stopping in at The Comedy Store (where they both got their standup starts) and visiting Seinfeld’s old New York City backlot. The episode was titled “It’s Great That Garry Shandling Is Still Alive.”
Shandling’s continued existence on this Earth was not the focus of the entire episode, but mortality was a recurring theme. He even expressed a wish for his own funeral: “What I want at my funeral is an actual boxing referee to do a count, and at five to just wave it off: ‘He’s not getting up.’” At The Comedy Store, where Shandling’s name glowed in neon alongside of Sam Kinison’s and Robin Williams’s, Shandling remarked, “It’s like every other person has passed away.” “Personally or professionally,” Seinfeld added. After leaving, talk of David Brenner’s death led to talk of Robin Williams’s suicide, which Shandling remembered like this: “I was sitting there watching CNN anyway, and they broke in and said ‘Robin Williams killed himself’ and I sat there and I was frozen, this is totally true, I was in that kitchen of mine, then Wolf Blitzer says ‘63 is so young!’ And then I looked up with a little hope.” He went on for a bit in this vein, before Seinfeld closed: “You have to die in your 60s for them to say ‘boy, he was young.’”
Garry Shandling made subversive comedy in the sense that you weren’t always even sure that it was comedy. Sometimes he went so far that you weren’t always even sure that HE was sure that it was comedy. Eventually he made you laugh just from the pressure of not knowing whether you were supposed to or not. His forms were intricate, comedic inception, a sitcom about a sitcom, a late night talk show parody that was well, an actual late night talk show. Shows within shows, jokes within jokes. They were comedies that inspired generations of comedians.
In a 2010 interview with GQ, he talked about wanting to take things even further. "The direction I'm going in is eventually you won't know if it's a joke or not," he said. "What I want to happen is that I talk for an hour and the audience doesn't realize it is funny until they're driving home." What he wound up doing seemed even larger than that, going from doing comedy routines to turning the routine into comedy. Living in quasi-retirement, he picked up boxing and basketball and embraced the tenets of Buddhism, surrendering (perhaps gratefully) to the concept of impermanence.
His final story before the credits of "Comedians in Cars" is about telling a joke to the Dalai Lama, one that the American monks in the room got immediately, but the Lama needed explained. When he got it, he laughed. Which, of course, allowed Shandling to what he always did best—turn the joke on himself. “That’s what you want to do, you want to get a three-minute gap from when you tell the joke to when you get the laugh.”
The episode’s post-credits is where things got truly spooky. He told of getting a CT scan from someone who’d given him one before, someone who was glad to discover he was still alive. “Because I was watching the news, and it seems like if you had passed away I would have heard about it on the news. And I said ‘well, I don’t know man, I don’t know if they would have broken in or anything.’”
Boy, he was young.