Of the many many TV shows over the years that were about TV shows, Garry Shandling didn't just co-create and star in the very best, he starred in two of the very best.
Shandling, who died suddenly today at 66 (as first reported by TMZ), was not only co-creator (with Dennis Klein) and star of the trailblazing HBO comedy The Larry Sanders Show, about the narcissistic, self-loathing host of a late night network talk show, but earlier co-created (with Alan Zweibel) and starred in It's Garry Shandling's Show, an incredibly self-aware sitcom (originally airing on Showtime, and later rerun on FOX) where Sanders broke the fourth wall, went into the studio audience, and had a theme song so meta, it puts Abed on Community to shame:
You can trace an entire generation of TV comedy to Larry Sanders. Not only did powerhouse writer/producers like Judd Apatow and Steve Levitan take early jobs there, but its cynical, biting, relentlessly uncomfortable sensibility influenced countless shows made by its admirers, including Arrested Development, both versions of The Office, and 30 Rock. My old partner (and future co-author) Matt Zoller Seitz summed up the show's genius better than I can in this 2010 essay:
If one were to make a list of the most influential TV series that almost nobody watched, HBO's The Larry Sanders Show would be at the top. During its 1992-1998 run, it never got the industry accolades fans felt it deserved, and although it routinely ended up on critics' year-end Top 10 lists, it got a meager handful of Emmy nominations and just three awards, a paltry number for a series that was often called the best thing on TV. And it rarely drew more than a couple million viewers per episode, a decent number for a premium channel in the pre-Sopranos era, but puny by broadcast network standards.
History, on the other hand, has rendered a glowing verdict. Created by actor-writer Garry Shandling and Dennis Klein, The Larry Sanders Show changed the look and feel of TV comedy. Its influence was felt almost immediately, and its impact continues to resonate. Although it wasn't the first half-hour series to strip-mine the comedy of embarrassment, affect a laid-back, naturalistic style, or do without a score or a laugh track (except in the talk show sequences), the program's combination of these elements was so distinctive that they amounted to a new template-one that subsequent programs borrowed and customized. From actor-writer-producer Ken Finkleman's seriocomic Canadian series The Newsroom through the British and American versions of The Office and NBC's current hit 30 Rock, which often feels like Larry Sanders played at double-speed, the series evokes that apocryphal line about Velvet Underground: Three thousand people bought their first album, and every one of them started a band.
Shandling's performance as Larry Sanders was completely committed, though brimming with so much neurotic pathos that it's not the kind of thing that lends itself well to clips. (As one of HBO's earliest scripted series, produced by an outside studio, it's not available on HBO GO or HBO NOW, nor is it on any of the other streaming services right now, but Amazon has the complete series DVD for the ridiculous price of $20.49.) He was, however, brilliant at reacting to the insanity of those around him, whether fending off the uncomfortable advances of frequent guest David Duchovny:
or his many interactions with the great Jeffrey Tambor as Larry's craven sidekick Hank Kingsley:
The scene I unsurprisingly find myself gravitating towards on this lousy day, though, is one where we don't hear Shandling speak at all. It's from “Dead Dogs and Gym Teachers,” an episode of Freaks and Geeks, and a scene drawing on the childhood of Apatow, who idolized Shandling and credits him for helping launch and shape his career:
This one hurts, folks.