By Edward Copeland
My memories of "It's Garry Shandling's Show." (yes, the title used quotes and a period) have always been fond ones, but have usually been of isolated moments and, of course, the hysterical opening theme song. When I started re-watching the series for this tribute, I realized that I probably hadn't seen any episodes since they originally aired. I don't remember it ever airing in syndication. Though it was heavily edited, even The Larry Sanders Show spent time in late-night syndication. So in the case of "It's Garry Shandling's Show.", that means I hadn't seen some of these episodes in 25 years (and some I'm not sure I saw the first time around). Another amazing SHOUT! Factory DVD box set not only provided the complete series but so many worthwhile extras that I felt it necessary to do two posts. Then, discussing the best episodes took up so much space that I had to split the tribute to the show's best episode into two parts, making for three total posts. This one briefly discusses the show's origin and then waxes nostalgic about my favorite moments in season one. The second post details the best of seasons two and three. The third part goes deeper into its development; the amazing behind-the-scenes talents that worked on the comedy and what shows they worked on before or after; and, more disappointingly, analyzes the show's slide in quality that began somewhere during its third season before it became an almost complete, unmitigated disaster in its fourth season — something its former writers are brutally honest about on commentary tracks. First, I celebrate what still makes me fond of "It's Garry Shandling's Show.", and what better way to begin than with that memorable theme song in a YouTube clip taken from one of the best episodes of the first season, "The Graduate."
After having success with a very funny Showtime special in January 1986 called The Garry Shandling Show 25th Anniversary Special, which pretended that Shandling had hosted a talk show for 25 years (with his sidekick Pete, played by Paul Willson, who would play Leonard Smith on "It's Garry Shandling's Show."), Shandling and original Saturday Night Live writer Alan Zweibel developed "It's Garry Shandling's Show." after friends suggested to Shandling that Zweibel would be his ideal collaborator, despite the two having never met. The only idea Shandling originally had in terms of what he wanted to do with the series was to break the fourth wall, meaning he would speak directly to the audience much in the way George Burns did on The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show. However, as they developed the show, they took the idea further than Burns ever did — through the course of the show, it wasn't just the fourth wall that would be broken, it would be the ceiling, the floor and just about everything else. It also wouldn't just be Shandling acknowledging that they were on a TV show, but all the characters and the studio audience would get to play along as well. (Though in instances when individual audience members spoke, they had to plant actors because of union rules and the fact that the person would then have to be paid.) Showtime loved the idea and agreed to a six-episode commitment of "It's Garry Shandling's Show.", with the show premiering 25 years ago today.
The first episode, "Garry Moves In," establishes the basic premise of the show. Shandling plays Garry Shandling, a fictionalized version of himself and also a standup comic, and he's moving into his new condo in Sherman Oaks, California. The division is called Happy Pilgrim Estates, (I don't recall the series ever revealing its name until an episode in the third season), though this isn't any ordinary condominium he's living in, you see, as it is set up very specifically, because Garry's life is televised (not constantly like The Truman Show, just once a week) and everyone knows about it — in Happy Pilgrim Estates anyway, and probably Sherman Oaks, and hell, wherever they need someone to be at home watching. Shandling planned to break the fourth wall, and it was done literally as his condo only has three walls. Where the fourth wall would go, it's left wide open for the cameras, with the audience's bleachers behind them. Garry began "Garry Moves In" as he did almost all of the 72 episodes, with an opening monologue explaining that he had sold his old place for $85,000, which really angered his landlord since he had been renting. What prompted his move was a breakup with his girlfriend who moved in with another guy. We meet the core original players. His next-door neighbor happens to be his longtime platonic female friend Nancy (Molly Cheek). Also living nearby (and I'm being vague because in some episodes their home appears to be in another part of Sherman Oaks and at other times they appear to live in Happy Pilgrim Estates) is Garry's best friend Pete Schumaker (Michael Tucci), the area representative for Hush Puppies shoes, and his 12-year-old son Grant (Scott Nemes). When we meet Pete's wife Jackie in the second episode, Garry will explain that we didn't meet her in this episode because she hadn't been cast yet. Like Jackie, other ensemble members would be introduced later.
In the premiere, after Garry has left for awhile, he returns home to discover that all of his belongings, which the movers had finished unpacking earlier in the day, have been stolen. "This is the ultimate insult. First my girlfriend moves in with another guy. Now my stuff moves in with another guy," Garry complains. He also has found himself smitten with the attractive cable installer (played by Shawn Southwick, who would later marry Larry King in 1997) and has been debating whether to ask her out. There is a very funny appearance by the late character actor Jason Bernard as Officer Sweeney who investigates the burglary. He asks if the condo's former owner might still have a key, but they decide it's unlikely that Vanna White stole Garry's stuff leading to Garry imagining an episode of Wheel of Fortune where contestants, back in the days they used their winnings to buy cheap crap, instead purchased Shandling's belongings (including his lucky underwear — which are briefs with a horseshoe on the front). Officer Sweeney doesn't just give advice about home protection: He also tells Garry that he shouldn't rush into anything with the cable installer until he's completely over his ex-girlfriend. When Garry gives his closing monologue, there is a man knocking on his patio doors. Garry explains that he is Lewis (Geoffrey Blake), however they ran out of time to introduce him in the premiere, but the audience would see more of him next week. Garry also tells him he's not sure yet if they've decided to keep his character, which seems prophetic but was probably truthful, because after those initial six episodes, Lewis disappears, never to be mentioned again. While "Garry Moves In" is pretty funny and a good start, as are the next two — "Grant Gets Broken," which does introduce Bernadette Birkett as Jackie Schumaker, and "Garry Throws a Surprise Party," which adds the late Barbara Cason to the ensemble as Garry's mom Ruth — there must be some unwritten television rule that it's the fourth episode when a new series takes off, and that was the case with "It's Garry Shandling's Show." Before we discuss that fourth episode, a couple of notes on the second and third installments, each with moments that up the show's eccentricities and increase the involvement of the studio audience. In "Grant Gets Broken," when Pete, Jackie and Nancy are discussing whether Garry is responsible enough to watch Grant while the Schumakers go on a trip, the couple wonder where he is. Nancy tells them he is hiding behind the cameraman, talking to him. In "Garry Throws a Surprise a Party," Garry is planning a surprise birthday party for his mom and he gets the entire audience in on the act so that when Ruth comes in and the lights come on, the 500 audience members join the characters in shouting, "Surprise!" Unfortunately, Ruth collapses from a heart attack. This also is the episode where we first hear that Ruth prefers to call Garry "Bubba."
That fourth episode, "Foul Ball," surprised me. Not because I enjoyed it so much or that it was the point where the series really hit its stride, but because watching it again felt as if I was seeing it for the first time. My other favorite episodes had stayed with me for the past two decades, but "Foul Ball" played as if it were a lost gem I'd missed somehow, though I don't think that can be possible as it marked Paul Willson's first appearance as Leonard Smith, the annoying president of the condo owner's association and the last of the original core ensemble. Leonard enters, as he often did, asking Garry what the story of that week's episode was going to be. When Garry informs him that he and Pete are going to take Grant and his scout troop to a baseball game, Leonard criticizes the idea and suggests that he's going in for a vasectomy, and that would make for a more riveting episode. "Sounds like a two parter," Garry responds sarcastically. Then, in the biggest use of the audience yet, Garry invites them to come down to his condo while he's gone to the game and enjoy themselves, saying he's left snacks. Once they're gone, a woman gingerly steps on to the set and then motions for the others to join her. Soon, audience members are wrecking the place, dancing to loud music and making out on the couch until the first woman, who has been keeping watch at the patio doors, tells everyone that they are coming back and the audience hurry backs to their seats. Garry has to give them a talking to later when he learns that they also went into other condos, and some of his stuff is missing. First though, they must deal with the big concern: A foul ball came Pete's way but not only didn't he catch it, it smacked him in the face, making him a laughingstock for TV sportscasters and embarrassing Grant, who takes a ribbing from his fellow scouts. It's the first episode that's funny from beginning to end and marked its ascendancy to its own form of quirky perfection.
Following "Foul Ball" came the show's first undisputed classic and its first parody of a movie or TV show in "The Graduate." The episode starts with an unnamed network executive announcing the news that "It's Garry Shandling's Show." had been picked up for 12 more episodes, so the cast members open bottles of champagne (though I don't know why Lewis is so happy since after the next episode, he's gone) and have a mini-party, which includes Garry's mom Ruth's friend Mrs. Robertson (the late Bibi Besch). Garry, however, is having what he calls "a midseries crisis" (which you can tell from the YouTube clip at the top of his post) and lets the others celebrate while he goes to his bedroom to stare at his plastic fish and listen to the theme song. When it's over, Mrs. Robertson comes in and asks if Garry could drive her home because her husband is out of town for an indefinite period of time. He's reluctant, but she tosses her keys in the fish tank. What this means in the larger sense for the series is that this is the episode where they introduce Garry's car, whose license plate reads IT'S GARRY SHANDLING'S CAR. In fact, throughout the course of the series, I had forgotten how many things had his possessive label on them. There were IT'S GARRY SHANDLING'S CAMERAS used to tape the series, he'll sometimes wear IT'S GARRY SHANDLING'S APRON, etc. He drives Mrs. Robertson home where he just walks into her living room through the missing wall while Mrs. Robertson unlocks her front door and enters the set that way, causing Garry to go around and enter through the door. Once inside, Mrs. Robertson tosses her keys into her own fish tank. Soon, the seduction starts. ("I haven't felt this uncomfortable since my high school gym teacher hit on me," Garry tells us.) We get an homage to the famous shot from The Graduate where Anne Bancroft arches her leg, showing her garter to a shocked and nervous Dustin Hoffman, only in this version Garry informs the audience that we're lucky he's looking at us, given the options he has at that moment. Later, Ruth informs her son that Mrs. Robertson's daughter Elaine (Bader Howar) is coming back from Berkeley and he should ask her out. Garry always found Elaine cute, but Mrs. Robertson makes a point of warning Garry that he better not ask out Elaine or she'll tell her about them. He asks Nancy what he should do when he gets an expected visitor — Norman Fell. Fell says he was watching at home and thought that since he was in The Graduate, he might be able to help. Garry and Nancy both express skepticism since they don't recall him in the movie and Garry asks who he played. "I was Dustin's landlord," he answers. Garry tells Fell he's confused — Fell was the landlord on Three's Company. Fell puts in the video of his scene and proves it to Garry who decides he's going to go out with Elaine anyway and they have a great time. Later though, he can't get Elaine on the phone and he drives to her house (his car breaking down on the way as you'd expect) and runs there but no one is home. He stops and asks the stage manager where Elaine is, who then checks the script and says that she is with Mrs. Robertson at Garry's place. They cut to Garry's living room where Nancy is trying to stick up for Garry and Elaine refuses to believe her mother's lies, when Garry appears at his patio doors, rapping on the glass and calling Elaine's name. As Elaine runs to him, Mrs. Robertson yells, "But he's a comic!" She tries to stop Elaine, but Nancy tackles Mrs. Robertson and Elaine goes out the patio doors and kisses Garry. Elaine asks Garry to forget about her mom: "She got burned by The Smothers Brothers." Norman Fell reappears carrying a large wooden cross, telling them that everyone in the movie got one after filming wrapped, so Garry uses it to jam the patio doors as he and Elaine drive off in the sunset. If you ever get a chance to see this episode, stay through the end credits — they save a final punchline for then as well. Flawless from beginning to end.
The last of the initial six was another great one. Called "It's Garry's Problem But It's Jo-Jo's Show," it stemmed from a contest Showtime held where someone won a chance to appear on the show, only Garry got distracted by Nancy's visiting friend Morgan (Christine Kellogg) who tried to seduce everyone in sight. The final seven minutes of the episode are in this YouTube clip and pretty much sum up the highlights I would have written about. Stay through the credits.
Now, nearly all of the episodes for the remainder of the first season, all of the second and several in the third remain either wonderful examples of the show’s innovative and loony nature or at least had moments worth mentioning. However, if I devoted as much space to all of them as I’ve done to the first six, this could be the longest piece ever. (At least what little I have to say about the fourth season I’m saving for the third post.) So, from here on out, I’m going with highlights, some longer than others.
The first season finale played with the show-within-the-show concept even further. Garry, tired of being a one-dimensional comic character, decides to move to New York to play the title character in a new police drama which gives the episode its name, "Force Boxman." He invites his friends over to watch previews for the show before he begins his cross-country drive. He doesn't sell the condo — just in case Force Boxman doesn't last — but instead sublets it to Red Buttons, which means, you guessed it, the series transforms to "It's Red Buttons' Show." The problem for the always insecure Garry, who stops at a diner as he's driving to New York, is that Red proves to be more popular in terms of both ratings and among Garry's friends. As Garry watches sadly how much Nancy, the Schumakers — even his mother — seem to enjoy being with Red, he gets so homesick that he decides to quit Force Boxman before it ever airs and rushes back to Sherman Oaks. Everyone is surprised to see him, but glad nonetheless. Garry takes Red aside and sheepishly asks if there might be a role for him on the show, but Red tells him not to be silly; this was his show to begin with, if he wants to come back. "You started it," Red says. "All I did was come in and make it funny." "It's Garry Shandling's Show." is saved to return for a second season.
As I mentioned, I couldn't cover all the best in one post, so we're heading to another for seasons two and three. One first season episode I didn't mention because it was one of the weaker ones, "Sarah," did have another great moment that played with the medium, so that's where the art below comes from. As Garry ends his closing monologue, comedian Blake Clark enters through the patio doors in fatigues with a rifle and says he's there to kill Garry. The picture freezes as you see below with the words TO BE CONTINUED, until Garry breaks the freeze and says that they can't stretch this show's story over another episode and that it's not like he's going to be killed because that would end the show. But in the case of this post, the TO BE CONTINUED is accurate.