The comedian, writer and actor Garry Shandling, who died in Los Angeles on Thursday aged 66, had backed away from the spotlight in the 18 years since the final episode of The Larry Sanders Show. But the influence of his most celebrated creation is still deeply felt.
Figures from across the comedy world paid tribute after the news of his death, among them Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane, who described Larry Sanders as “the greatest single-camera comedy of all time”. The series, which ran from 1992 to 1998, was set behind the scenes at a fictional talk show, and was the forerunner to some of the era’s most celebrated comedies. It pioneered the art of the cringe years before Curb Your Enthusiasm, and featured real celebrities playing skewed versions of themselves more than a decade ahead of Entourage.
It was also the first flagship original series made by cable channel HBO, before the advent of The Sopranos or Sex and the City. Just before his death, it was announced on Friday, Shandling negotiated a deal to bring reruns of Larry Sanders back to the channel.
Shandling’s impact was transatlantic. Ricky Gervais, who called him “one of the most influential comedians of a generation”, mined Larry Sanders for The Office and Extras. Stephen Merchant, Gervais’s co-creator on both, tweeted: “The great Garry Shandling’s work is such a touchstone for me that I was actually discussing him moments before I heard the sad news.”
Born in Chicago and raised in Arizona, Shandling moved to LA in the 1970s and got his show-business break as a writer for classic sitcoms such as Sanford and Son. In 1977, he was in a car accident that he later described as “a vivid near-death experience”. It inspired him to pursue stand-up comedy, and to create the comic persona that married crippling insecurity to seething narcissism which carried him through his TV career.
In 1985, he launched the semi-autobiographical sitcom It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, about a neurotic stand-up comedian, so self-aware that he knows he is a TV character and regularly shoots the breeze with the audience. But it was his experience as a stand-in host for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show that inspired his next move. He was twice offered a real late-night network talk show, but instead chose to create a fictional one.
Among the talent to emerge from the Larry Sanders stable were actors Jeremy Piven and Bob Odenkirk, stars of Entourage and Better Call Saul; comedians Sarah Silverman and Jon Stewart, who played Larry’s stand-in host long before he was the real host of The Daily Show; as well as Judd Apatow and Jon Favreau, now both Hollywood film-makers.
After Larry Sanders, Shandling withdrew from the public eye, devoting much of his time and energy to Buddhism, the faith that had sustained him ever since his car accident. He reportedly hosted weekly basketball games attended by some of the biggest names in contemporary comedy. He still made rare appearances on screen, including a cameo in Iron Man 2, directed by Favreau.
TMZ reported that Shandling made an emergency call from his home on Thursday before falling unconscious. He was taken to a hospital in Santa Monica, where he later died of suspected natural causes. As recently as last weekend, he retweeted a photograph of himself with Odenkirk and comedian Kathy Griffin. “Garry was a guiding voice of comedy,” Odenkirk said in a statement. “He set the standard, and we’re all still trying to meet it.”
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