As a kid I watched a lot of sitcoms even though I felt like they insulted my intelligence. And, let’s face it, most of them, even the smart ones, did. The idea that the same group of usually “average” people would spend most of their time in one location, usually a living room, making witty remarks at each other is pretty ridiculous. Even the smart ones required a pretty large helping of suspended disbelief because the cast and crew know the biggest joke is the one in plain sight: the idea that this spectacle is supposed to be real. And then one night I tuned into a sitcom that took a sledgehammer to the fourth wall. Actors spoke into the camera and there were even cutaways to the audience. It was one of the rare times I could watch a sitcom knowing the laughter wasn’t canned. With It’s Garry Shandling’s Show Garry Shandling was a sitcom emperor who came out saying, “Yeah, I know I’m not wearing ‘new clothes’. I’m naked,” and invited everyone to laugh.
Some other comedians or actors couldn’t pull it off. They’d either be too sharply sarcastic to sustain the joke or they’d fall prey to the cheap sentimentality that got into other sitcoms. Shandling was a comedic alchemist who could be sharply satirical but likable at the same time. My favorite moment of the show was when Jeff Goldblum was the guest star. Shandling says his “neighbor’s son” is such a huge Goldblum fan “he’s seen The Big Chill fifteen times, he’s seen The Fly seventeen times, and he’s seen almost all of Transylvania 6-5000.” It was hilarious and I’m also pretty sure it was improvised because Goldblum seemed genuinely surprised.
It’s that same alchemy that I think makes Shandling’s film What Planet Are You From? an underappreciated romantic comedy classic. He took an overwrought comedy cliché—the differences between men and women—and broke it down. If you really think it’s as simple as men are from Mars and women are from Venus, Shandling seemed to be saying, you must not be from this planet. Roger Ebert called it “an exercise in feel-good smut” but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Shandling was trying to elevate the most lowbrow kind of humor. Some other comedians wouldn’t have been able to pull off the gag of a hyperactive alien penis, but I think he succeeded because of his comedic alchemy which was so unique I have to wonder, what planet was he from?
Hail and farewell Garry Shandling.