Saturday, September 10, 2011
How did you like the tribute to Garry's show?
By Edward Copeland
What's fascinating about diving into your past via episodes of a television series you remember fondly but have had no contact with in decades is knowing that you've changed, but the show hasn't. The moments of "It's Garry Shandling's Show." that I've treasured the most tend to retain what I liked originally, but watching the entire series in a compressed period of time really exposes its flaws. Hearing so many of the creative people echo my thoughts in commentary tracks that sometimes are brutal in their honesty made me feel that this particular side of a look back at the show required a separate post. If you missed the first part, where I discussed the show's ingenuity and my favorite episodes of season one, click here. For my favorite moments in season two, click here.
Before getting into the creative slide of "It's Garry Shandling's Show.", I thought it would be worthwhile to remember what scripted series on pay cable looked like when this show premiered 25 years ago today. At the time, it was Showtime's second original sitcom following Brothers, which premiered in 1984 and ran through 1989, and starred Robert Walden (Rossi on Lou Grant) as the owner of a bar trying to deal with the fact that his youngest brother (Paul Regina) has come out of the closet. Though HBO would eventually become the pay cable channel most associated with original series, their only sitcom venture to this point was the football comedy 1st & Ten, which also debuted in 1984, and ran for seven seasons with many incarnations and cast changes, including some seasons starring O.J. Simpson. Still, in the beginning, it was little more than an excuse to add nude women to the channel much like its thriller anthology The Hitchhiker, since its debut in 1983, was more about sex scenes than stories. Prior to those shows, both networks tended only to attempt scripted series of the sketch variety such as HBO's Not Necessarily the News and Showtime's Bizarre hosted by John Byner and co-created by Bob Einstein (best known now as the hilarious Marty Funkhouser on Curb Your Enthusiasm), which introduced Einstein's Super Dave Osborne character.
Now that I've watched or re-watched all 72 episodes of this series, I'm even more certain than I was in this tribute's first part that, not only has it been decades since I've seen the episodes I recall most fondly, but that many of the episodes, particularly in the mess that is the fourth season (something some of the show's writers openly acknowledge on commentary tracks), I never saw at all, since I was in college by that time, and I bet I'd given up on "It's Garry Shandling's Show." by then. My memory probably had chosen to block this out and only remember the show's early days of brilliance and innovation, forgetting when the series' nose-dive began. Plus, my memory of the six seasons of greatness that Shandling came up with soon after on The Larry Sanders Show made even the best of "It's Garry Shandling's Show." resemble an amusing trifle by comparison. I have to be honest: When I looked back at my notes on some episodes I watched just within the past few weeks, neither the titles nor my words registered details that reminded me what happened in that show. However, the series' importance can't be ignored even if it didn't maintain its initial level of excellence. That's because in many ways "It's Garry Shandling's Show." serves as a bridge between television's past, present (as in the mid- to late '80s) and future, not only in form but behind-the-scenes personnel as well. Between creators Garry Shandling and Alan Zweibel, Shandling actually had more experience when it came to writing situation comedies since that's how he started before he decided to become a standup comic, penning episodes of Sanford & Son and Welcome Back Kotter. In a way, "It's Garry Shandling's Show." resembled a half-hour sitcom version of an hour-long network series that premiered the year before — Moonlighting, which similarly broke the fourth wall and could change its format from week to week. I've already mentioned its link back to Burns and Allen, but in some respects it foretold the coming of Seinfeld. Two of its writers and later producers, Tom Gammill and Max Pross, who came from writing for Late Night With David Letterman, would go on to be writers and producers on Seinfeld, but even the premise of "It's Garry Shandling's Show." bears some resemblance to the later megahit. Garry Shandling plays a fictionalized version of himself, a standup comic, on a show that truly could be said to be about "nothing" and, as in the early days of Seinfeld, Shandling opened and closed each episode with a monologue, only instead of it being in a comedy club setting, he'd perform it for the audience in the "living room of his condo" in Sherman Oaks, California.
Others who worked on the show at one time or another who spanned generations of television comedy included veteran director Alan Rafkin, who directed every episode of the first three seasons of "It's Garry Shandling's Show." except for the last three episodes of the third season, and whose credits included work on The Andy Griffith Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, Get Smart, M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show and many, many more, including an Emmy win for One Day at a Time. The legendary writer Sam Denoff, who died in July, served as a supervising producer in the second season. Actor-comedian-writer Jack Burns, who early in his career was part of a comedy act with George Carlin, and wrote The Muppet Movie, served as executive story supervisor in the first season and wrote its first really great episode, the fourth installment, "Foul Ball." In the final season, Albert Brooks' frequent writing partner Monica Johnson, who died last year, was a creative consultant and wrote two episodes. Merrill Markoe, David Letterman's one-time longtime girlfriend and a writer on both of his NBC shows as well as the attempt to revive Laugh-In in 1977, penned the "It's Garry Shandling's Christmas Show" episode that aired Dec. 17, 1987, which included a gag where Garry had to turn his living room upside down to search for a missing watch that was very reminiscent of Letterman's "360 Degree Rotation Show" from the NBC Late Night show on Dec. 8, 1986, though Markoe had left the Late Night staff by August 1986.
Of the younger crop of writers on the show or those who passed through and went on to bigger success later, in addition to the aforementioned team of Gammill & Pross, the show also welcomed the team of Al Jean & Michael Reiss, who had previously written for the short-lived cult fave Sledge Hammer! In a funny story on a commentary track, they tell how, while they worked on that show but before they were on staff at "It's Garry Shandling's Show.", Shandling was running himself ragged by being one of two regular guest hosts for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show while working long hours on the sitcom. As a result, he often didn't have time to stay fresh on the news, so Jean & Reiss would sneak jokes to him at his real Sherman Oaks condo in the wee hours of the morning, scared to death that their Sledge Hammer! boss Alan Spencer would find out and fire them. Later they leaned that Spencer was doing the same thing. (One thing I learned that I didn't realize was the set for Shandling's condo was for the most part designed as an exact replica of the real place where he lived in Sherman Oaks at the time.) During the summer hiatus between the third and fourth seasons of "It's Garry Shandling's Show.", Reiss & Jean got work on a new upstart animated series called The Simpsons and they stayed with it through 2001. Gammill & Pross also would work as producers on The Simpsons, though they didn't come on board until 1999. One of Jean & Reiss' bosses at The Simpsons, co-creator and executive producer Sam Simon, passed through "It's Garry Shandling's Show." as a creative consultant and co-writer of three episodes in the second season, though Simon could hardly be called a newcomer since his TV sitcom credits stretched back to Cheers, Taxi and even episodes of Barney Miller and Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. Another of the main writers, Ed Solomon, came with his main credit being the screenplay for Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, and he later wrote Men in Black. Many of the writers mocked writer-producer Jeff Franklin (previously a writer-producer on Laverne & Shirley and Bosom Buddies) for choosing to leave early in the second season to head a new family-oriented comedy for ABC, but Full House probably made him richer than all of them except Sam Simon. Of course, many episodes were written by Zweibel and Shandling, who had final call on the scripts no matter who wrote them. One person who didn't write any episodes but appeared as a whacked out character in the fourth season was none other than Paul Feig. On the show, he appears three times as the loony Chester, half-brother of the girlfriend (and later wife), Phoebe (Jessica Harper), that Garry gets that season. Feig still acts, but his writing is really what we treasure. He created the irreplaceable Freaks & Geeks and has directed episodes of many other TV series including Mad Men, Undeclared, The Office and Arrested Development. Earlier this year, he helmed the feature film Bridesmaids. The series was executive produced by Shandling, the late Bernie Brillstein and Brad Grey. Though Shandling and Grey later had legal fights, Grey also produced The Larry Sanders Show and The Sopranos.
In one of the interviews on the DVDs with Zweibel and Shandling, Shandling admits that the wacky tone of the show sort of grew organically. There hadn't been a grand plan to toss in crazy plot devices such as the way they played with time, like having Garry sit on his couch and suddenly be struck by a pile of rolled up newspapers, after which he'd say, "Two weeks have passed." The idea for Garry to have a tiny car came about when Zweibel just said at one point, "What if Garry had a small car that he drove from set to set?" These things added to the hilarity in the beginning as long as there was an underlying story that worked, but by the fourth season when Garry suddenly had a fly hat that turned him into the size of the insect so he could literally be "a fly on the wall," it just seemed to be an act of desperation because the episode's story wasn't working. In one of the commentary tracks, Ed Solomon admits that many of the writers "were ashamed" when they had to resort to devices and liked it better without the gimmicks. The freedom to do just about anything, Shandling says, meant that each week it felt as if they were re-inventing the wheel. Those out-of-nowhere moments in the first couple of seasons really added to what made the show so much fun. The car always worked and the way they accounted for time lapses were clever in the beginning, but by the time Garry had a "Flying Clock" (get it? "Time flies") to move things along in a fourth season episode, instead of laughing you were more likely to roll your eyes.
While the fourth season was more or less a complete loss, the show truly started losing steam in the latter part of the third season after two nearly peerless seasons. There were the inexplicable problems in the two really good years that seem to come with a lot of series, such as airing episodes out of order for no apparent reason. Now, in the case of "It's Garry Shandling's Show.", continuity wasn't really a concern the way it was when a series such as Homicide: Life on the Street did that and characters would be referred to as dead before the episode aired telling the audience they died. However, viewers could still tell as Scott Nemes, who played young Grant Schumaker, injured himself and had to use crutches, which would appear in some episodes, disappear, then reappear again, much like the year on The Larry Sanders Show when Janeane Garofalo's hair bounced back and forth between blonde and brunette. Zweibel and Shandling agreed during the third season that the show seemed to be in a rut and decided that in the fourth season, Garry needed to get a girlfriend who eventually would become his wife. On one of their commentary tracks, Al Jean and Michael Reiss are quite open about how they and most of the other writers on staff thought it was a bad idea, taking a certain pride that 20 years later (from the end of the series until they taped the commentary), they turned out to be right. I got confused whether it was Jean's voice or Reiss' who says it, but he describes it as looking like "a hack move by a conventional show." That's how the decision was made to add the talented Jessica Harper as interior decorator Phoebe Bass. Again, I can't be sure if it's Jean or Reiss who said this, but he describes Harper as always looking sad and unhappy to be there between takes. It probably didn't help that inside jokes started being sneaked into the show referring to the fact that in real life Harper was married to top Fox executive Tom Rothman. In the most blatant example, they had taken actor Richard Fancy (Mr. Lippman at Pendant Publishing on Seinfeld), who had been the all-purpose boss or bureaucrat (at the DMV or a travel agency), and turned him into the network president Mr. Stravely. In the fourth season episode where Phoebe's half-brother Chester (Paul Feig) talks him into giving him a TV show, Stravely insists that he work in a role for his new wife Edie Adams. (In another Stravely moment from the first episode of the fourth season that coincidentally foresees a Seinfeld storyline, Stravely objects to the idea of Garry getting a girlfriend and suggests that he add a butler character instead.)
Jean and Reiss also blame the show's eventual airing on Fox as well as Showtime as part of what ultimately doomed the series. It showed first as reruns in 1988, but eventually to the point that Fox caught up, though the network killed it in March 1990 and Showtime continued to air some new episodes after that. Prior to that, the creative team behind "It's Garry Shandling's Show." didn't worry about ratings or where commercials would go. In that same commentary track, they recall Zweibel coming to the set one day lamenting that in the Nielsen ratings the show ranked 99 out of 100 shows. You could even tell by the way Garry the character spoke to the camera that he had regrets about the way things had gone, saying things such as "If you've been keeping up with the show and I assume that you haven't," or during another fourth season episode, declaring in a scene, "People are at home switching the channel right now." In fact, in some episodes it could hardly be called Garry Shandling's Show because he seemed to make sure to have as little to do with it as possible, making brief appearances at the beginning and end of two episodes when he was supposed to be opening for Guns 'N' Roses, and in the second-to-last episode appearing at the opening in a hot tub and shutting a TV off, not to reappear until after the final credit had rolled and he switched it back on, realizing he missed the entire episode. (Stravely complains when he goes off with Guns 'N' Roses, saying he has a show to do, and that the network was nice enough to let him off to perform Gypsy but they never bought the maternity leave story.) Zweibel does commentary on the fourth season episode "Family Man," which is the only thing he's ever directed, and the episode that contains that flying clock that allows Garry to speed up time, though it's accidentally set for years instead of minutes. The premise is that Garry wants to speed up the time it takes to get the results of Phoebe's home pregnancy test but instead he goes far into the future where they have teenage children. Zweibel admits that all the tricks they did at this point were no longer a novelty and complains that they didn't really put their own twist on the time travel idea, making it appear like just another sitcom. The funniest part of the commentary is that the storyline has Garry and Phoebe's future son really depressed and thinking his life is worthless, so Garry brings him back to witness the day they found out Phoebe was pregnant with him so he can see how excited they were. Garry goes inside to celebrate with Phoebe and the future son waves from outside (with the flying clock in his hand), and Zweibel on the commentary obsesses about what happened to him, wondering how he get back to his own time. That episode does have one of the funniest fourth season lines, since it was clear by then that it would be the last season, when Garry says the first thing he's going to do when the show ends is put that fourth wall back up.
Of the 19 episodes in the fourth season, there were two episodes that almost worked: the 17th episode, "The Last Show," which was intended to be just what its title suggests, and the final episode, "Driving Miss Garry," which simply was a broad spoof of the movie Driving Miss Daisy with Garry taking the Jessica Tandy role. First though, two photos that are worth showing from other fourth season episodes. The first: When Garry mentions private things about Phoebe on a morning talk show, she becomes publicly humiliated and gets asked personal questions by a woman played by Linda Doucett (Shandling's real-life girlfriend then and for several years, including when she played Darlene on The Larry Sanders Show), who says she would "never date a comedian." The second: To try to stop a fight between Phoebe and his mom over wedding plans, Garry reads them a fable about a time when a man named Howard brought peace to Happy Pilgrim Estates, and it's none other than Howard Sprague (Jack Dodson) from The Andy Griffith Show.
Apparently, what messed up "The Last Show" was that the actor originally hired to play the condo complex's new gardener, Lucas Death, turned out to be nothing but trouble and had to be replaced at the last minute by Stuart Pankin, the same actor who in an earlier episode had played Garry's brain. Also, the episode's director, Shandling's revered acting coach Roy London, had never directed a sitcom before, creating more problems. Otherwise, for such a meta-series, this would have been a great ending. At a meeting of the condo homeowners association, the homeowners vote to change the name of Happy Pilgrim Estates to Nelson Mandela Estates. Leonard then introduces the new gardener who isn't just named Death, he IS Death and he's come to collect Garry since the show is ending. Garry doesn't believe him, wondering if he's there for his mom since she's older, but no, he says it's Garry. Garry phones Bob Newhart, who shows up in split screen from his Newhart set. At first, Newhart does one of his phone routines until Garry reminds him that he's on the other end of the line so he doesn't have to do that, but Newhart confirms that he knows about Lucas Death because Newhart is also ending, and he's toast as well. Death finally convinces Garry as he shows him his body on the floor. They have his funeral which includes Dabney Coleman and Tony Danza, who breaks down because he kept blowing Garry off about making an appearance on the show. Coleman tries to talk to Garry's manager Brad (a recurring character the late Bruno Kirby had been playing) about taking him on as a client. After the funeral ends, it shows Garry back on the couch telling the audience that he's not really dead but he just thought that would be a good way to end the show, when an angry Mr. Stravely comes in, complaining about him leaving the coffin after they'd arranged for those guest stars. He tells Garry that now he owes the network two more episodes. Garry says he's out of ideas, but Stravely tells him to do a talent show or a movie spoof. He doesn't care. (The next episode, "The Talent Show," might be the absolute worst episode they ever did.)
What ended up being the final episode, "Driving Miss Garry," almost seems to have nothing to do with "It's Garry Shandling's Show." since it doesn't even have that 41 second theme song we've come to know and love. Instead, just a few months after winning the Oscar for best picture, they were able to license Hans Zimmer's actual score for Driving Miss Daisy. The episode begins much like the movie — only Garry drives his little car in reverse when he meant to go forward, destroying his kitchen. Then, in an even more amazing casting coup, mere months after his Oscar nomination for supporting actor, Dan Aykroyd shows up as Boolie, who is supposed to be Garry's brother, and brings with him a driver named Hoke (the late Paul Winfield). (Hoke's best comment as he drives around town: "Don't any of you folks have walls on your houses?") It pretty much follows the Daisy template, but sadly the regulars get left on the sidelines. The spoof does make some changes, such as having Hoke, once Garry teaches him to read, pick up The Autobiography of Malcolm X and become more assertive. When Boolie visits again, Hoke says he deserves a raise above $80 a week (apparently Billy Crystal's family has made a nice offer) and gets Boolie to give him a salary of $200,000 a year. Boolie tells Hoke not to let anyone know how much he makes. "I only pay Pete fifty thousand a year to be Garry's best friend," Boolie says. They age Hoke and Garry (complete with white wig) and Hoke feeds him. The ending is sad because the regular Garry thanks everyone for watching then rides by all the sets in his car waving at all the cast members. That's how the series ends.
What presented the biggest problem to the series in terms of being able to sustain itself over the long haul is something that Shandling, Zweibel and all the writers who contribute commentaries to the DVD set admit, even when discussing the classic episodes. While they had a talented cast of performers from the beginning in Molly Cheek as Nancy, Michael Tucci, Bernadette Birkett and Scott Nemes as the Schumakers, Barbara Cason as Garry's mom Ruth, Paul Willson as Leonard Smith and a good addition in the third season with Ian Buchanan as Ian, not to mention Shandling himself, with the quirky nature of the show, character development wasn't going to happen so the only character who showed any growth during the four-year run would be Nemes' Grant, and that was thanks to puberty, not writing. It's another reason that the fourth season threw everything so off-kilter. A show with crazy objects, minicars and which had a premise where it was a TV show in which everyone realized they lived in a TV show wasn't built to suddenly transform into a relationship comedy. It also did a disservice to the characters who'd been there since season one. Trying to build Phoebe from girlfriend to wife in a compressed amount of time left the other characters on the sidelines during most of the fourth season. On the infamous commentary track I keep referring to, either Jean or Reiss said that as outlandish as the show could be, most of the ideas were inspired by things that really happened to Shandling, but by the third season, his life was the show, so those stories didn't come as easily. As one of the writing team members said, "No wonder it took 20 years to reach DVD. It just wasn't that good." I wouldn't go that far. Those early episodes mostly hold up. There is one conversation in a fourth season episode, where Garry goes to meet Phoebe's family and talks with her father, Gil (Edward Penn), that I thought was sort of telling.
GIL: Tell me about your show.
GARRY: It's about my life.
GIL: You must have an interesting life.
GARRY: I really don't — it's been a stumbling block for the whole series.
Labels: 80s, Albert Brooks, Animation, Aykroyd, Carlin, Carson, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Dabney Coleman, HBO, Homicide, Larry Sanders, Letterman, Oscars, Seinfeld, Shandling, Tandy, The Simpsons, The Sopranos, TV Tribute