While Shandling was resigned to fill short roles as a crotchety politician in his later years in movies such as Iron Man 2, as well as in the upcoming Captain America: Civil War, most fans will likely remember him best for his brilliant ’90s HBO series, The Larry Sanders Show.
Pulling a relatively short run of just six seasons from 1992 to 1998, the hilarious insider series about a diva talk show host represents a watershed moment in comedy history, setting the blueprint for multiple series to follow, including everything from Curb Your Enthusiasm to 30 Rock, and dozens of other meta-style comedies in between.
Shandling entered the comedy scene in earnest in the late ’70s, reportedly after he experienced a near-death experience in the form of a car accident at the age of 27 (via The Hollywood Reporter), which prompted the then-writer to try his hand as a full-time performer. He made a name for himself on the circuit, performing at LA hotspots like the Comedy Store. Over the years he worked his way up the ladder, eventually becoming a stand-in for Johnny Carson, as well as the star of his own meta sitcom on Showtime, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show.
But it was Shandling’s knockout performance as the flawed host of a fake late-night talk show that propelled him into the halls of comedy legends. The hilarious ensemble for the show included brilliant performers like Rip Torn as Sanders’ producer/handler, Arthur; Jeffrey Tambor as his Ed McMahon-esque sidekick, Hank “Hey Now” Kingsley; as well as a litany of other performers from Janeane Garofalo to Jeremy Piven. In its six-year run, the show broke new ground on a regular basis.
Along with its regular players, the series was famous for hosting a revolving door of A-list celebrity guest stars appearing on the “show within the show,” including big actors of the age like Sharon Stone, Roseanne Barr, and even David Letterman. But it was what happened behind the scenes of the Hollywood farce that made the show a true classic.
Episodes included all the debauchery you might expect from an inside look at a celebrity with major Hollywood clout (and serious narcissism), with meta-moments galore as Sanders tried to sleep with his guests, settle petty scores with other celebrities and staff, and attempt to top “rivals” such as Letterman and Jay Leno. There was even an entire episode following Sanders’ desperate (and constantly thwarted) attempts to relieve himself between commercial breaks on his talk show — to no avail.
While meta comedy; inside explorations into the world of show business; and crass, dark humor are as commonplace today as laugh tracks and multicamera sitcoms were in the early days of television, it was Shandling and his brilliant writers, co-stars, and producers that helped to blaze that path.
Today the world mourns the loss of a visionary comedian, and a damned funny guy. Safe travels, Mr. Shandling. And “no flipping!”
Updated 3/25/2016: It has reportedly been determined that Shandling died of a massive heart attack.