Next time you ponder the question "Why does so much network TV look the same?" consider the case of comedian Garry Shandling.
Shandling's managers brought NBC an idea for a sitcom starring the stand-up comic, who frequently appears as guest or host on the network's "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson."
Their concept was different from most recent network comedy fare. Shandling was not to play a bartender or an ad man or a TV or radio executive, all popular trades on the tube.
Nor would he have to come from another planet, a ploy that had allowed at least one comedian, Robin Williams of ABC's "Mork & Mindy," to work his stand-up routine into a sitcom format.
Shandling was to be himself. His TV job would be the same as his real-life job: standing in front of the cameras and making people laugh, with some help from actors playing his friends and neighbors. Each week's story would revolve around a situation that he says is "a slight exaggeration" of his real life, as is his stage routine.
But NBC turned it down, and in subsequent conversations so did executives at ABC and CBS, according to Bernie Brillstein, whose company manages Shandling.
So, beginning next Wednesday at 8:30 p.m., "It's Garry Shandling's Show" will appear on the pay-cable channel Showtime, which has given a berth to such network hopefuls or castoffs as "Brothers" and "The Paper Chase."
To eyes untrained in the laws of commercial TV executivehood, "It's Garry Shandling's Show" looks funny, breezy and engaging.
It also has what would seem to be all the prerequisites for success with the hip viewers and family audiences that NBC, in particular, has wooed. Shandling's show, while often mocking sitcom convention, features (a) a sensible but lovable female neighbor, (b) a nerdy but lovable best friend with marital problems, who is also father to (c) a goofy but lovable 12-year-old boy and (d) a hip but lovable other best friend.
Why did Shandling fail the networks' litmus test?
"They wouldn't do a 'fourth-wall' show," Brillstein said, referring to Shandling's frequent asides directly into the camera.
On TV, Shandling does what George Burns did 35 years ago on "The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show"--he "breaks" the "fourth wall."
That extra "wall," bounded by the front of your TV screen, is one that is repeatedly hit with the comedic wrecking ball on ABC's "Moonlighting." That show has gone so far as to having the camera shake its head "no" to star Bruce Willis on one episode.
Shandling's use of the technique, however, is integral to the show.
For example, he kicks off the first episode by welcoming viewers to his new apartment.
On Episode 2, taped last week on a rented sound stage at KABC, he appears in a bathrobe and explains to the camera that, since the story concerns his friend Pete (Michael Tucci), he was just going to relax and read a book.
On Episode 3, Shandling invites the studio audience to come down from the bleachers and sit in his living room. That way, the script has him explain, the furniture won't go to waste while he and Pete go to a Dodger game.
NBC's response to questions about Shandling's show is that the fourth-wall technique was not the problem. "Garry Shandling is a very talented guy," said Warren Littlefield, the network's senior vice president for programs. But he said, "We didn't think the material was strong enough to carry Garry in prime time."
(ABC and CBS declined to confirm or deny that they had been pitched the Shandling show.)
Yet Shandling is virtually inseparable from his material. As longtime manager Brad Grey said, the show "is all rooted in Garry." The living-room set is "a mock-up of Garry's home" in the Sherman Oaks hills, Grey said, right down to the earth tones and pool table. The lucky horseshoes over the bed, Grey said, are a theatrical conceit.
But Shandling said even his frequent references to a lousy social life are "true to life."
"My comedy is organic," he said, while pacing a cramped office on the KABC lot. As an example, he pointed to a subplot in Episode 1 that has him dating a pretty cable-TV installer who turns out to be vacuous. "That date is taken from a real date," he said. "I have trouble finding the girl of my dreams."
Ironically, Grey said, NBC and its "Tonight Show" helped meld Shandling's real-life and stage personality into one. "It played a big part in his coming out and being Garry , being himself."
Whatever NBC's reasons for passing on Shandling, Showtime benefits by having a show that is "hopefully, a little bit ground-breaking," said Peter Chernin, executive vice president.
"What we're looking to do in the sitcom business is first and foremost be entertaining, but also put a little top spin on it," Chernin said.