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Jewish Journal

What Planet is Garry Shandling From?

With his screenwriting debut, Shandling has more opportunity to explore alien angst


by Naomi Pfefferman

March 2, 2000 | 7:00 pm

Garry Shandling remembers the day he turned on the television set and discovered Woody Allen. It was a Saturday morning in 1966, and there was Woody on a children's TV show, explaining how baseball bats were made. "He said that originally, bats were made of halvah, and that after a batter would strike out, he would have to eat the bat," recalls the comic actor-writer-producer, wearing work boots, jeans and a gray silk shirt, untucked over his jeans.

"And I was just struck, like someone who sees a beautiful woman and says, 'One day, I'm going to marry that girl.' I just said, who is this person? He's the funniest person I have ever seen.' And I pursued his work. I became a fanatical fan."

The smitten Shandling bought all of Allen's comedy albums and listened to them over and over again. When one of Allen's early films, "Take the Money and Run," opened in 1969, young Garry was first in line at the theater. "I've probably seen all his early movies five or six times," Shandling, now 50, confides. "There's a wit to the way that he writes and an unexpected self-deprecation. I completely related to the kind of Jewish nebbish character he portrayed, because that is how I perceived myself."

It's an image that has helped to make Shandling one of the funniest men in Hollywood. Like Allen, he developed the comic persona, on and off camera, of an angst-ridden neurotic who is concerned about his appearance, his romantic liasons and his relationship with his parents. On two wickedly funny, now classic, deconstructionist TV sitcoms, he depicted characters who were self-obsessed and terminally insecure.

On "It's Garry Shandling's Show," which lampooned the artifice of sitcoms, he played a comedian who had the same problems with his hair and his love life as Shandling. On "The Larry Sanders Show," a sardonic parody of late-night TV talk shows, he portrayed an edgy, narcissistic late-night host. Celebrities like Jim Carrey and Jerry Seinfeld clamored to play themselves on "Sanders," which ran for six-seasons on HBO and was labeled the best comedy on TV. The show skewered the banality of late-night chatter and the hypocrisy of Hollywood, including the lengths that some performers will go to play in Peoria.

In one episode, a nosy reporter asks Larry if he is Jewish, and Artie (Rip Torn), the producer and Larry's caretaker, sternly replies, "We do not discuss Larry's religion around here."

"That is a poke at the fact that some people in Hollywood don't want to be thought of as 'too Jewish,'"Shandling says.

So was Sanders too Jewish? The actor smiles coyly. "The answer is, I'm not sure."

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