He Died on Purim: On Garry Shandling, Smallness, Self-Deprecation & The Meta-Schlemiel

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The running joke that Garry Shandling used to make is that – although he was a guest host on The Tonight Show several times and had his own TV show on HBO (The Larry Sanders Show) – no one ever heard of him.   He referred to his stardom in terms of its opposite. Instead of making him likeable and famous, it didn’t change a thing.   Despite the fact that he is famous, he can’t stop thinking of his smallness and non-existence.   He did this all, so to speak, within a space that he created which was oriented toward making the public into a kind of Jewish family.   It was his smallness and his insecurity about fame, which he shared with us, that, to be sure, makes his comedy so Jewish.   He can’t seem to be liked, but we tell him he’s wrong. We like him but on the stage, his character and his characters tell us that we’re wrong. Its this irony, which is present in many a Jewish household, that makes his performances so endearing.

I’d like to share a few clips and my thoughts on them which touch on this double-take on smallness and greatness.

On the Tonight Show (1981), Shandling tells many jokes relating to small things: family, animals, being single, and babies. He points out how he is a single guy and discusses his odd view of babies. Shandler (comically) discloses how little he knows about children but, at the same time, he is one. He can’t seem to be independent.

Shandling betrays his smallness when he talks about having a dog. His venture into understanding why dogs move their legs in the evening while sleeping makes him wonder about the meaning of a dog’s dream. Is the dog a bachelor like him? Is he in flight?

Touching on the family, he discusses his father walking around half naked or eating too much. Like many a Jewish father who has eaten too much, Shandling tells us about how he unzips his pants and how, one day, they fell off in a restaurant in front of the family and people in the restaurant.   This family shaming keeps him, in some way, linked to his family and somehow stunts him from being a “man.”

He ends his monologue by recalling an experience he had with his dad at Disneyland.   He can’t get the songs he hears from his day at the amusement park…out of his head. He is still, in other words, caught up in his childhood experiences and memories – the small things that make up our interior life.

On another occasion of Gary Shandling guest hosting “The Tonight Show,” he starts off his opening monologue noting how small he is.

“The Tonight Show has had many guests. I’m not Jay Leno, Billy Crystal, I’m not Bill Cosby….I’m not Betty White…alright I’m Betty White….Ok…Its good to be back here and face this…pressure….”

The self-deprecation in this opening has a brilliant punch line.   He tells a joke about the World Series happening in NYC while they are taping in LA. But the show, since it is taped and earlier, won’t get to NYC for another few hours and after the game. Its daylight savings time so…he says “I actually don’t really exist now. I want to congratulate both Boston and New York….from a human standpoint I sort of hope the Mets win.”

In another appearance for the Tonight Show, he turns back to the routine on being a sexual schlemiel:

I went out with some friends to a restaurant and a waitress came on to me and she said, “would you like desert,” and you know they don’t say that to everybody. And so I talk to her, we go out, I pick her up at her house and she’s wearing a leopard skin top….and this leopard had huge boobs.

To make himself small and childlike he notes how, on the date, he accidently orders from the kid’s menu (“Captain Andy’s Toddler Platter”) “because its not always clearly separated.”

From here he turns to the topic of sexual foreplay and tells a joke about oysters, oiling up the other person, and asks himself: “am I doing this right?” He plays on the schlemiel’s sexual innocence. Unlike a “real man,” the schlemiel is stuck in his family-like existence.  He doesn’t know how to have sex: “It’s good for a woman to express her needs in bed….and this woman said, ‘Get off me! Now I know what you like.’

Shandling tells us that women are so disappointed by having sex with him that they, so to speak, want their money back. “I have a grocery store camera in my room. Because the girl might steal something after being disappointed.”

“I make love with my eyes open because I don’t trust women” who might steal something as a compensation for his unsatisfying sexual performance.

Johnny Carson discusses the topic of marriage with him reinforcing the sexual schlemiel image that Shandling is developing.

“I don’t think I would have sex with lots of women (if I got married), I don’t have a lot of sex now.”

In “Gary Shandling, Alone in Las Vegas” ( 1984) there are more sexual schlemiel jokes. In fact the pilot opens with one.

On phone with “Patty,” his “girlfriend,” we hear the conversation that betrays the fact that he wants to appear as if he isn’t a sexual schlemiel:

“Can you bring a boyfriend?!”

“Will you come for money?”

The twist is that “I” will be alone in Las Vegas can “you” (the viewer) come?  This is a moment of the meta-schlemiel.  We know that he may not get “lucky” with women, but we like him.  Like many a child-like schlemiel, he’s endearing but not sexy.

There is an endless play of wanting sex but not getting it – but when it happens, its short.

A prostitute visits Shandling in his Las Vegas hotel and says, “When you want to grow up and ride the range…give me a call.”

Sanders responds, “I haven’t gone horseback riding since I was a kid.”

The regression to childhood is, once again, prominent.

There is one sexual failure joke after another. In the second episode, there are great takes with Joan Rivers that speak to the sexual issue.

In the first scene, Joan says she knows Gary’s knock because it’s “whimpy” (2:22)

Rivers says that Gary is good looking, successful, funny, but there is something about him that women aren’t attracted to.

What is that something? Is it the fact that he is a schlemiel?

He acts as if he’s happy with his likeability and that there is nothing wrong. But that’s the twist: we know its not. He is not sexually, “big,” he’s small, childlike, innocent, un-knowing.

In the Larry Sanders Show – Season 1, episode 11- we see a return to the “likeability” theme with all its attendant insecurities.

Richard Simmons shows up. He is, as we all know, a figure of self-confidence. He comes on to the set and lends support to Hank, Sander’s co-host – who is losing weight. Sander’s is the most doubtful but he isn’t aggressive.   However, there are notes.

He is concerned about ratings (6m) and ponders the advantages of quantity over quality. How can he sell out and get higher ratings? Is it worth doing what Arsenio Hall does? He wonders (7:30m) if he is “likeable”

At home we see he is self-conscious with his wife and needs her support: “I’m a nice guy honey, right?”

Her: “In your own way you’re likeable.” (8m)

“People watch your show (partly) because you’re an asshole. We’ve talked about this”(9m).

Is the kind schlemiel really aggressive or is everyone else?

Although he is “great,” he feels small and Insecure.  He tells us that that “I want to try that focus group” (its a “likeability issue”).

Richard Simmons -the image of self-confidence  pops in (16m) – and provides contrast. But when the focus group analyzes his show (17m-19m) they talk about his body parts, who would be better to invite, etc. They don’t seem to be interested in Sanders. But the fact of the matter is that he has a show on TV with good ratings. The ratings, however, are not the best. He isn’t known by everybody. And that’s the subplot: he’s really an ordinary guy – nothing special – a schlemiel.

He tells a joke disclosing how little he thinks others think of him: “twenty people would say they like me, and I’m telling you that seventeen of them are lying…two of them have severe emotional problems, and one of them thinks I’m Larry King.”

His manager: “The sooner you start liking yourself, you won’t care what other people think.”

Sanders: “Then I guess I’m totally fucked.”

The final punch line of this episode happens when a Richard Simmons look alike shows up in the back of the show and says he likes Sanders. He tells Sanders who – in turn – tells a joke, but he doesn’t get it and thinks he’s being made fun of. And in the end, even the one guy who really likes him thinks he’s an asshole.

There is a great interview between Shandling and Bob Costas where he talks about how he decided to do “stand up” after his car accident. The choice: “life is short…would you rather be sitting in front of your typewriter writing sitcoms (he was writing for Sanford and Son etc) or do stand up?”

He is just as self-deprecating here as he is elsewhere. He really is frustrated with what he thinks is his inability to truly entertain people. (“I don’t think I’ve reached my potential in standup” -3min.)

He tells Costas that he would think that he should give the audience its money back for a bad night of comedy. The punch line: “when I want to give back the money, however, their gone “(4:42).

“I felt guilty about being paid.”

He admits that he gets “rusty” (5:13) but, “on the other hand, I get bad at it when I do it too often. I get into formulas….Its a fine line between working too much and working too little.”   His balance is to stay creative but what makes his comedy relevant is the fact that it is geared toward making the viewer comfortable with his discomfort. It has, as I mentioned above, the feel of a Jewish family.

With Costas, Shandling talks about how he makes guests comfortable on this show. He tells us that he “senses” the interviewed and cues into them: “Once the interviewer can sense the perspective of the interviewed, things can get worked out.” He doesn’t know the perspective; like a person attuned to hospitality, he feels it.

Regarding Shandling’s career, Costas asks a good question: “What would you have become if you didn’t get your show?”

I love how Shandling muses on the possibility. It speaks to his sense of how TV may be in contradiction to everyday life and one must be careful with desiring to be seen on the screen. “I have a fear that if I was on television every night…you know…I have a saying that the only thing odder than being on TV everything is wanting to be on TV every night.”

Shandling doesn’t want to create a “false veneer.” And he didn’t. His comedy speaks not only to his private insecurities about being “big,” it also speaks to his sense of being small and being a part of a family. His discomforts about bigness are ours. His failings are close to our own. And they have a very Jewish flavor to them since they remind us that smallness is something that we can’t run away from. In fact, it may be redemptive to see the small man’s names in the lights while (in reality) he’s still small.

Shandling died on Purim a time when the small man and the small people become victors. But, as many Jews know from history, this greatness of the Jewish people is always something that comes and goes with time.  Jewish history following the Purim event tells that sad tale.  The acute awareness that Purim was a unique moment in history is like Shandling’s acute awareness that his stardom was a once in a lifetime thing. It was unique. But it can’t be for real. It’s the one thing he can’t come to terms with. After all, how could anyone like me? The irony of his question is that he knows better than any of us that….no matter how much of a schmuck you are or appear to be…you, Gary Shandling, are still a part of a small…comic family.  You are endearing to us although you may not be endearing and rejected by many characters on your show.  The schlemiel you gave us was a meta-schlemiel.   He may be small, but in our memory he is big.

May your memory be for a blessing!

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