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'Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling': The Grownup Who Invented Modern Comedy

Judd Apatow reveals the heart and mind of Shandling in his HBO documentary

Garry Shandling during The Comedy Festival - Honoring: Jerry Seinfeld - Green Room at Palace Ballroom at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, Nevada, United States. ***Exclusive*** (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc for HBO LA)
Actor and comic great Garry Shandling at the 2005 Comedy Festival in Las Vegas.
Jeff Kravitz/Film Magic

Where to Watch: HBO

Premiere: March 26, 8 p.m. ET, on demand starting March 27

Stars: Jim Carrey, Jay Leno, Garry Shandling, Sarah Silverman

Garry Shandling, who died at 66 in 2016, revolutionized comedy twice, with the subversive anti-sitcom It’s Garry Shandling’s Show and the backstage talk-show satire The Larry Sanders Show, which legitimized HBO, paving the way for The Sopranos and Game of Thrones. Now HBO repays the favor with a two-part documentary, The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling (March 26-27), drawn from his amazingly smart diaries, classic footage and interviews with comics. His protégé Judd Apatow, 50, who directed and produced the film, tells AARP about the founding father of modern comedy.

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Shandling was the grownup who launched today’s top talents, from you to Conan O'Brien to Jon Favreau (Iron Man). But what can we learn from his life?

He had a very natural human story that most people go through: You have certain wounds in childhood and overcome them, you try to succeed, then you start aging and you have to figure out what your life meant. And Garry decided that what was important was to give back and to try to be closer to people, and laugh and forgive. He didn't want to chase success anymore; he decided to give it back to other people.

Judd Apatow, director, and Garry Shandling (Photo by John Sciulli/WireImage)
"The 40-Year-Old Virgin" Los Angeles Premiere - After Party
Judd Apatow, left, director of "The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling," with Shandling in 2005. Shandling died in 2016.
John Sciulli/WireImage

He comments on his own life in his amazing diaries, full of brilliant jokes but also serious thoughts about life that we should all be thinking about.

A lot of his diary is about accepting where he was at: “Grow old gracefully, learn to become a mentor gracefully. Learn to let go. This is all a dream. Don’t take it so seriously.”

But boy, did he take it seriously. He got famous overnight in maybe the greatest Tonight Show guest comic debut in history. His gag about his girlfriend moving in with another guy was great: “So I dumped her. Because that’s where I draw the line.”

He also did that joke about the mirror above his bed with the sign that says “Objects in Mirror May Be Bigger Than They Appear.” Everybody noticed that thing, but he made the perfect joke about it.

Not only did he triumph as a guest, he got to host Johnny Carson’s show. Most comics would’ve killed to take Carson’s job, but when he had the chance, he didn’t want it.

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He was always trying to break new ground — if he felt like he couldn't top himself, he’d lose interest. He was more interested in the people on The Tonight Show than hosting The Tonight Show. So he did The Larry Sanders Show, about an imaginary talk-show host. He wanted it to feel like a documentary about the world behind the scenes, as a way to explore human beings and how they behave. He said it was a show about people who loved each other, but show business got in the way. He was satirizing the need for fame and success and how it separates people.

Shandling’s life was shaped by an adored brother who died young. How did that affect him?

It made him go on a search of authenticity. He was very interested in the idea of being present — Buddhism was an interest of his — and the loss of his brother made him seek new connections, and want to explore the ways people have trouble connecting. His mom became obsessed with Garry, and became overcontrolling so he wouldn't die, too. Garry [spent] a lot of time alone in his room watching comedians on TV, and that's where he discovered his interest in comedy. I think comedians use humor as a defense mechanism to survive.

What’s one specific great piece of advice he gave you? Didn’t he suggest the ending of The 40-Year-Old Virgin, which grossed $177 million and made Carell and you huge stars?

He kept saying that when Steve Carell’s character finally has sex, it’s better than his friends' sex, because he’s in love and they’re not. I said, “I can’t show the sex!” He said, “Well, you have to figure out a way.” One day he said, “Maybe he could sing a song and say it that way.” And that’s the end of the movie.

Your documentary has lots of insightful interviews, but the dominant voice is Shandling’s own voice in his remarkably literary diaries. What was he telling himself — and could we benefit from that advice?

He rarely complains in the journal. It’s like a voice speaking to his more neurotic voice, talking himself down, reminding him how he should look at things and how he should feel. He got caught up in his mind too much. The journal says, “You miss a lot by thinking,” and constantly tells him to get to a place where his mind is empty. He said about his first Tonight Show appearance: “You just clear your head when you sit down next to Johnny Carson, all your preparation will serve you. When the time comes, you'll think of something funny.”