Time was when the comedian Garry Shandling stood smack dab in the center of our cultural zeitgeist. Then his series The Larry Sanders Show ended its run, and aside from one feature film misfire, Garry seemed to disappear from the scene, inhabiting some semi-reclusive netherworld from which he surfaced for occasional stand-up/host appearances.
His influence, however, has been more palpable than ever (one could say that the entirety of Entourage, for example, is merely a group of Garry's kids taking Larry Sanders' meta-car for a joy ride). And recently, with the controversial release of his Not Just the Best of the Larry Sanders Show DVD (controversial since Larry Sanders fans are up-in-arms because this "best of" precludes the release of the entire beloved Sanders canon on DVD), Shandling has been suddenly ubiquitous.
On TV, he faced off with Jon Stewart, David Letterman and most memorably, Bill Maher -- while sandwiched between a bemused Sean Penn and former Dem rep Harold Ford, Jr. -- and, to use show biz parlance, killed, reducing each of these current Big Guy comedians to helpless hysteria. (On Maher's show, he followed an impassioned political diatribe by the very serious Mr. Penn with the observation that what he didn't like about America was "those computer pop-up ads." After the panel fell apart, "I'm going to let Sean handle the serious stuff tonight," Shandling continued, "because he's got the second home in Iran.")
Show biz parlance is the only language one can really apply when one is dealing with Garry Shandling, and in tribute to his peculiarly skewed POV, on the occasion of his welcome re-emergence out among us all, I offer:
[Another installment in the ongoing true life adventures of Periphery Man, who has had myriad peculiar encounters with celebrities, while not being a celebrity himself.]
Some years ago in the midst of my Los Angeles single life, I was dating a woman named Liz, and we discovered that one thing we had in common was a love of the acidic comedic creation of Garry Shandling that was then still in its first run on HBO. In The Larry Sanders Show, comedian Garry played comedian Larry, a latenight talk show host who seemed to be not unlike himself -- or at least, who presented a delightfully distorted version of the worst aspects of his actual personality.
One of the show's conceits was that in Larry/Garry's world, everything -- from the most private intimate relationships to the most trivial public encounters -- was ultimately about show biz. When you live in L.A., where any meeting between two human beings tends to have a business subtext, the pained laughter Larry Sanders elicited was the laugh of recognition. Both Liz and I confessed to having "Larry moments" on a fairly regular basis.
She had missed a few episodes of the previous year's Sanders. Happy fanatic me had the entire season on tape. So one Sunday night we got together at Liz's place to watch some Larry. The episodes are short (under half an hour) and one leads to another, so we must have socked away three or four doses of Shandling's peculiarly sunny cynicism before we realized that dinner had gotten away from us. We weren't quite sated on Larry, but our stomachs were talking as loud as the TV, so we reluctantly stopped the tape and hit the street.
Liz lived in Santa Monica and there was a decent upscale Italian restaurant within walking distance. As we approached the entrance of this clean, well-lighted trattoria on Montana, we could see that the place was full and humming. Once inside the front door I paused for a moment to assess table availability, and Garry Shandling emerged from the dining room proper, heading our way.
To make the sight all the more surreally confusing, his date, following close behind, was Linda Doucett, the actress who had played the role of his former girlfriend Darlene on the show. I was trying to get my mind around this (wait -- Garry's still seeing Darlene? I mean, Larry's with Linda --?) as Garry caught sight of Liz and I and addressed me with the friendly directness of an old acquaintance. "You'll love it," he said, indicating the restaurant, and as he drew closer, added in passing, like one comedian giving another the lowdown on a prospective audience: "Great crowd."
As it happens, I've been told that Garry and I have some passing facial resemblance, so maybe in subliminal recognition of my altar ego-like appearance, he assumed I was someone he did, could, should or might as well know. Or maybe he was just being "on," and not really seeing me at all. But at any rate, I instinctively smiled a thanks. Garry and his date swept past us. And I was left blinking at Liz in wordless incomprehension of how we'd left one TV set, only to walk onto another.
What are the chances?
Well, in Garry's world, it was evidently just another night.