Garry Shandling, the comedian, has co-created and starred in two television shows over the course of his career. Each played with the conceptual physics of the medium itself, and skipped back and forth across the dotted line that divides the actual from the fictional. Each featured Shandling as a comedian somewhat less successful than himself, if possibly no less insecure. And each was born in premium cable and helped establish it as a venue for quality work long before Tony Soprano first decided to see a psychiatrist.
The second of the two series, "The Larry Sanders Show," which ran on HBO from 1992 to 1998, starred Shandling as the talk-show host he might have actually become if the success of the first series, "It's Garry Shandling's Show," hadn't led him to decline an appointment as one of Johnny Carson's official "Tonight Show" alternates. (The other was Jay Leno.) "Sanders" was one of TV's best shows ever; its documentary feel and difficult hero set the tone for a generation of cable (and, more recently, network) comedies, few of which have managed -- or attempted -- to be as real.
"It's Garry Shandling's Show," which ran on Showtime from 1986 to 1990 (and for some of that time was also broadcast by Fox), was something else again, a three-camera sitcom as Luigi Pirandello might have imagined it -- embracing, exposing and pulling apart the conventions of the form. (The show's aesthetic is reflected in its opening theme: "This is the theme to Garry's show / The opening theme to Garry's show / This is the music that you hear as you watch the credits"). If it was not as nuanced or consistent as "Sanders," and too weird to be really influential, it was ambitious in its own way, and mostly very funny. And as of today, its four-season, 72-episode run is available on DVD.
Here Shandling plays a comic named Garry Shandling who is and is not the person playing him. He addresses himself in often rapid turn to the studio audience, to the camera and to the other actors. And while this triple consciousness is unusual for a sitcom, it's precisely how a talk show divides his attention: guests, studio audience, people at home. So when one episode actually morphs into a talk show (with Tom Petty, recurring as himself, among the guests) it's just a matter of arranging the bodies on a couch. Yet only Garry is allowed to live in this multiple space -- when guest star Gilda Radner drops by one day, he chides her for looking at the camera: "I'll bop you."
If this were a senior thesis instead of a DVD review, I might write that the show deconstructed situation comedy or was postmodern in its meta-fictional self-awareness. But that is just a fancy way of saying that Shandling and co-creator Alan Zweibel pulled back the camera an extra step, not just breaking the fourth wall but dollying back through it to include the studio and all the people in it -- the audience itself became a character. If there had been a way to somehow show the "people at home," they no doubt would have been on-screen as well. Instead, we get to watch Garry watch himself watching himself watch himself on television. "You have to learn that there's more to life than just life," Garry tells his neighbors' son (Scott Nemes). "This is a TV show. Look, there's a camera and everything."
All sorts of things happen here. A live election-night special (Bush versus Dukakis) features "Soul Train" host Don Cornelius as an analyst-announcer, possibly just to let Shandling say "Oh, Don," as Jack Benny addressed his own announcer, Don Wilson, on "The Jack Benny Program" -- this show's nearest ancestor. Reaching puberty becomes the occasion for a musical. Howard Sprague (Jack Dodson) of "The Andy Griffith Show" moves in next door and charms everyone with his folksy ways. ("Sheriff Taylor's Aunt Bee used to tell us people are less for judging others," he says.) The cast visits Shandling Land, a theme park based on Garry's quirks and obsessions.
And yet for all its abstractions, it's a warm show. Where Larry Sanders keeps the world at arm's length, the Garry Shandling of "It's Garry Shandling's Show" is at the center of a supportive, if sometimes troublesome, group of friends whom he supports and troubles in turn. The humor is cerebral, but -- unlike "Seinfeld," say -- it is cerebral with heart. And where episodes of "Sanders" would often go out on a moment of discomfort -- the dominant note for clever comedies over the last decade -- "Shandling" likes a happy ending, sincerely, and without irony.