The fair quality of current premium channel comedy programming notwithstanding, it’s hard to resist watching It’s Garry Shandling’s Show with a distracting degree of skepticism. The unequivocally meta concept of the sitcom isn’t too distant from the more audacious cult hits of today, but its critical and commercial success in spite of, and maybe even due to, its postmodernist slant seems virtually unprecedented and almost certainly irreproducible. Here was a hit show where all characters, especially the protagonist, were fully aware of and frequently referenced the superficial nature of their on-stage personas, toying in a Stoppard-like fashion with the distinction between player and role, as well as setting and stage. Were audiences—and I shudder entertaining the thought—smarter in the ‘80s? Were marketing agencies more adept at making challenging entertainment appear palatable in 30-second spots? Or was Shandling simply lucky?
One crucial point is that while the program may have been a surprising success (compare its four-season run on Showtime and voluntary cessation, for example, with the unceremonious treatment Mr. Show received from HBO in the ‘90s), its mindset was more a sign of the experimental times than a trend-bucking smash. The mid-to-late ‘80s included the zenith of David Letterman’s subversively snide past-bedtime antics, as well as a wealth of creative misfires from steadily rising “pay” movie channels like Cinemax; fans are still angling earnestly for a DVD release of Chris Elliot’s “Action Family” special, another exemplar of the self-effacing, genre-mocking zeitgeist of yesteryear. So perhaps a more likely explanation for the strong cult following of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show is that Shandling himself entered the project with enough star power to pull off the daring plum of a premise. An occasional understudy for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, he was hardly unknown, and through most of the reflexive wackiness on display, the writers were wise enough to use Garry’s perpetually perplexed personality as an anchor.
A lumpy hybrid of the proscenium late-night format (occasional guest stars would even drop in to help along storylines, most notably Norman Fell, Jeff Goldblum, and Tom Petty) and the multi-stage, live-in-front-of-a-studio-audience situation comedy, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show closely resembled a manic tour through a working studio (much like those offered at the Universal backlot) with the titular celebrity acting as befuddled, rib-tickling guide. In retrospect, the sitcom was more inventive than truly groundbreaking: Woody Allen had been reaching through the fourth wall and molesting film audiences for almost a decade, countless TV vehicles for stand-up veterans like George Burns and Jack Benny had poked pinholes in the garish artifice of their productions years before, and even Moonlighting, which ran concurrently on ABC, contained complaints from characters about “network” interference and budgetary limitations. What Shandling and Alan Zweibel contributed to this tradition, however—and it is, indeed, a tradition, perhaps even a Semitic one—was an ostentatious sense of transparency, most classically realized in scenes where characters walk directly from one set to another without crossfades to obscure conjoining alcoves of designer detritus and studio equipment. It wasn’t just a “show about a show” as The Larry Sanders Show would become; it was a show about the show-making process, the primetime equivalent of a telephone encased in clear, circuit-revealing plastic.
Curiously, however, the constant reminders of fakeness—such as the catchy, prosaic theme song entitled “This Is the Theme to Garry’s Show,” or the claim in episode two that one woman wasn’t included in the pilot because she hadn’t yet been cast—draw us closer into Garry’s world rather than acting as Brechtian distancing devices. We never quite grow to love the supporting characters as much as we should, partially because their ability to speak directly to the audience is confusingly capricious. If the show had one major failing point, it was a maddening indecisiveness in the details of the triangular relationship between Garry, his co-stars, and their lookers-on; though this, too, was often parodied, most powerfully in an ouroboros-structured episode where two supporting actors travel to Los Angeles and join the audience of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, thereby suggesting that a series off-kilter existential rules govern the program’s universe. But as every object at the crew’s disposal makes clear with wholly unnecessary, nearly zen-like labels (It’s Garry Shandling’s Camera!), it was Garry’s show, and it clunked and soared with the emotional resonance Shandling was able to achieve. This is also perhaps the reason for the noticeable decline in quality between the end of season three and the start of season four, when the program abruptly introduced a stage girlfriend (and eventual wife) for the main character; though a noble attempt at ribbing another standard shark-jumping cliché of scripted TV, the relationship diluted Garry’s attention toward and interaction with the audience.
Indeed, what makes the high watermarks of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show—such as an erudite, episode-length spoof of The Graduate—so heartily entertaining despite their datedness is a naggingly thought-provoking philosophical dimension to the content, one that ultimately comments most incisively on the sacrificial role of the performer in society. One can easily view the set of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show as a kind of Sartre- or Beckett-inspired purgatory where comedians are ruthlessly judged, and ensnared by, the quality of their material and the intimacy of their delivery. Every time Garry complains about how poorly the program is going, it’s a moving metaphor for show business; what’s implied is not that success in the media cages you, but that the desire to be funny, and to be acknowledged as such, is a grim, cruel, psychological hell. As comedy these moments are gut-busting, but metaphysically they’re the creepiest satire of sitcom-isms this side of David Lynch’s “Rabbits.” Watching Shout! Factory’s DVD set I empathize whole-heartedly with Garry: The mind-warping experience of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show would convert anyone to Buddhism.
It's Garry Shandling's Show was shot using the same Karl Freund-pioneered three camera setup as any other sitcom, and Showtime's use of inexpensive videotape to facilitate that sturdy technical structure hasn't aged well. Still, Shout! Factory has done an admirable job cleaning up the source material-compare this DVD to that of the first season of Newhart from the same era-and, even while upconverting to 1080p, the quality is more than watchable. In fact, aside from some uncontrollable color trails, the image is surprisingly pristine for a mid-'80s TV show. The sound is also clean enough that one might decide to rip an audio copy of the Turtles's belting out Garry's theme song for occasional rotation in iTunes.
Predictably, with 16 discs there's more Garry here than you could ever want or need, so in a way it's lucky that full-season DVDs of The Larry Sanders Show are taking so long to hit the shelves. But no one knows niche like Shout! Factory, and releasing this massive one-stop shopping package in time for the holiday season was undoubtedly the shrewdest approach to It's Garry Shandling's Show. That having been said, none of the special features (including a hefty booklet, several audio commentaries, outtake reels, and a gaggle of well-produced featurettes) are essential, per se, but none are a waste of time either (with the possible exception of the outtakes, though even those offer a piquant gander into the joke-smithing process). The commentaries, most by Garry himself and head writer/producer Alan Zweibel, are quite frank in their self-assessments; even more than 20 years on it seems as though Shandling hasn't forgotten a single botched pun or missed punch-up opportunity. Along with the nostalgic featurettes-the best of which gathers bittersweet testimony from the writers, some of whom (Al Jean, Mike Reiss, and David Mirkin, for example) went on to achieve further geek glory at The Simpsons-one gets the impression that looking back upon It's Garry Shandling's Show isn't an entirely pleasurable task for its progenitors. There's an acute sadness looming over the set, as if those who toiled on the program at the time expected that it might last forever. Seeing Shandling now, it's easy to imagine him wincing at every gag about his character's vanity. After all, one only gets so many chances to fuss over a full head of hair before, as with the lucrative thickness of one's career, things begin to thin out.
This set is comprehensive enough to get lost in, but if postmodern sitcoms with a sharp Faustian undercurrent are your thing, you won't mind.