All Garry Shandling needs is a little editing, a hint of a laugh track, and a reminder to always trust his gut.Garry Shandling’s long and varied career has seen him go from ’70s sitcom writer (Sanford and Son and Welcome Back, Kotter) to stand-up comedian and talk-show host to ’80s sitcom star (It’s Garry Shandling’s Show). But starring as the insecure protagonist of The Larry Sanders Show, which ran from 1992 to 1998 on HBO and for which Shandling also wrote, is how he really made his mark.
The off-the-cuff, laugh-track-free, documentary-style comedy centered on the backstage shenanigans of Shandling’s talk-show host and coworkers, among whom were his sidekick (Jeffrey Tambor) and his loyal executive producer (Rip Torn). While it was successful at the time, The Larry Sanders Show is even more relevant now, having set the stage for series like The Office, Curb Your Enthusiasm, My Name Is Earl, and Extras. The new Not Just the Best of the Larry Sanders Show (Sony Pictures, $50) DVD collection includes 23 top episodes handpicked by Shandling, plus loads of extras, including documentaries and interviews. The most intriguing of the bonuses are spontaneous sit-downs with his close friends — Sharon Stone, Tom Petty, and Jerry Seinfeld, among others. The interviews are a little awkward and a perfect accompaniment to a show that often made us squirm as it exposed the egos, ridiculousness, and illusions behind showbiz.
After watching the “Mr. Sharon Stone” episode, in which she and Larry go on dates, and the DVD feature, where you’re chatting with Sharon herself, it seems obvious that there was a real-life backstory involved in creating the episode.
I’ve known Sharon since acting class, for 22 years or something like that. Those personal interviews are meant only as a special feature on a DVD. They’re supposed to be underperformed and unrehearsed and not always entertaining, except for being real. That was the experiment — but also I think that those personal visits are the purest form of what The Larry Sanders Show was about, which is just people being, and then seeing what conflicts come up naturally. As a television series on HBO, we had to find a story and give it some pace. But certainly the distilled version would be these things, and I think these are progressed to a more awkward and voyeuristic form of The Larry Sanders Show. I think they’re something odd to watch.
That chat with Sharon, though awkward, is engaging, and it made me realize that you guys had dated before the Sanders episode was created. Isn’t this fascinating?
I don’t think it’s quite clear by the dialogue what all the circumstances and the baggage of our relationship is, other than that we’ve known each other a long time and that it’s very deep because it ties in to [our teacher] Roy London’s acting class. It ties in to a real, personal affection, and it ties in to an array of energies that people have when they’re together. I mean to be that ambiguous because it’s never clear exactly what that is, and yet it’s interesting to watch. That’s why I always say that subtext is more interesting to watch if it’s not verbalized. I think all those elements are not clear. When you asked me about the episode, I’m trying to remember how it came to mind. I’m not sure that the episode wouldn’t have been prompted by the fact that it’s a good story for Larry to have to date someone more famous than he is, not necessarily coming off any real-life event. I think that was the impetus for the story.
I got the vibe that you two had dated and that that particular episode was a good way for you to work through things, even if nobody else on the set or in the audience knew about that.
I’m going to be very coy, and purposely so, about what she said and what she indicated, other than to be thrilled that it makes you wonder, because that’s a stronger tack to take than to get more specific.
I love the episode with Carol Burnett, where you guys go to commercials and you’re all just sitting there, saying nothing.
That’s taken right out of what happens on these talk shows. I’ve been there as a guest, I’ve been there as the host, and that’s often exactly what happens. I think it’s one of the strangest circumstances in the world, because it says everything about what a talk show is. You’ve built up this chemistry with a person, but when the camera goes off, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the chemistry continues. You’re doing a job. Certainly that was well revealed on Larry Sanders. That doesn’t mean they’re bad people or anything — that’s just a professional job circumstance. Sometimes you don’t want to keep up the talking because you want to get it all on TV and want it to be fresh. Sometimes you don’t have anything to say other than what’s on the notes.
Are you pleased, as a comedian, to see comedy shows that don’t program viewers with a laugh track to tell them what’s funny?
I don’t have the objectivity or perspective to feel one way or the other. I know that in real life I’ve often been in situations where I’ve wished there were a laugh track — and I’ve never said that before, I promise you.
When did you want to have that laugh track?
About 10 minutes ago. [Chuckles] Oh, I’m sure in real life I’ve said a few things that I thought were funny that weren’t, and it would’ve been great. I could use some editing in my life too. A little editing, a little laugh track.
Editing is my job. And a little more advice from you.
And what advice can I give you? I’m open to all advice. You should tell me what advice you would give me, without thinking about what’s appropriate, because you may have something to say. What advice do you have to give me?
I used to joke that you should trust nobody, including yourself. But that’s bad advice. I would say trust nobody but yourself. Learn to trust your instincts more, and don’t let people make you second-guess yourself. I think you’ve stumbled on — and I’m not kidding — a core issue that I’ve worked on my whole life, which is trusting my instincts. The only time I get in trouble is when I have an instinct and don’t follow it, and that has gotten me into trouble every time. It’s like being a spiritual warrior, which is a warrior who makes decisions based on his heart. I’ve made plenty of decisions that were incorrect because somebody talked me into it and I didn’t trust myself. I don’t blame them. It’s hard to stick to your own instincts. That would be my advice to you, too: Trust your instincts. Calm your mind, don’t listen to all the chatter, and see what you feel, and make a decision based on that.