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Judd Apatow Mines The Mystery Of His Mentor: Garry Shandling

Mar 26, 2018
Originally published on March 26, 2018 5:24 am

Judd Apatow was just a kid when he first saw the comedian who would change his life. He was watching The Tonight Show.

"Like a lot of people in America, I just thought: what a fascinating, hilarious, odd man," Apatow says. "And I tracked his career. Some kids would track baseball players and their averages. I would watch comedians and watch them develop."

Apatow grew up to write and direct hit comedies like The 40 Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up. But he owes a lot to the time when he worked as a young writer for Garry Shandling. And he's not alone: A long list of comics — Sarah Silverman, Conan O'Brien and Jim Carrey among them — give Shandling a lot of credit.

See, after those stints on The Tonight Show, Shandling became a comedy giant. He did standup and, as Apatow says "reinvented television two times."

First, there was the self-aware sitcom It's Garry Shandling's Show. And then with The Larry Sanders Show, Garry Shandling made a show about a show: about a late night host, ego, insecurity, real celebrity guests. They set the stage for many of the hits we love today: 30 Rock, The Office, Curb Your Enthusiasm.

So when Shandling died unexpectedly, just two years ago, Judd Apatow wanted to put the groundbreaking comedian in context.

"You know, for 25 years he was the most important mentor that I had," Apatow says in the documentary. "But in a lot of ways, he was a mystery to me."

Judd Apatow worked up a 4 1/2 hour documentary to tackle the mystery of this man. The Zen Diaries Of Garry Shandling, which premieres on HBO tonight, relies heavily on the actual journals Shandling kept almost all his life.

Deeply personal, they point to a man who behind the comedy was really a tortured soul — who never fully got over the loss of his beloved older brother, who had cystic fibrosis and died when Shandling was 10 years old.


Interview Highlights

On the dark sides of many great comedians, including Garry Shandling

I think a lot of people who have trauma when they grow up get hyper-vigilant, and they're trying to avoid pain by anticipating pain. And for comedians and creative people, they think, 'If I can make this performance and this film perfect, people will like me and I won't suffer.' ...

I just think when you get hurt, you become more sensitive. Artists who have injuries — sometimes they see more. They see the levels more; they have more empathy. So I never see it as darkness — I think they're tuned in to the human experience. And it's not everybody — there are certainly very happy comedians who are as great as the ones who seem more troubled. Jerry Seinfeld's a very happy guy — he's as great as anyone's ever been. Jay Leno is a happy guy.

If Apatow himself taps into darkness in comedy

I think that like Garry, I'm fascinated by life, you know? Here we are, what does this mean? What are we doing? What are we doing it for? I think the search for meaning is at the core of all creativity, and it's troubling. You know some people are just like, "Jesus has got me covered," and they're happy to their core. I know people like that, and then other people are like, "I don't know what's going on out there — I don't know how the universe works," and it really bothers them, and they spend a lifetime trying to make sense of this life.

There's a great page in one of Garry's journals near the end of his life where he says, you know: I should be grateful that I'm funny and for comedy, because it's a gift that I can give to people that helps them deal with this long, difficult life. I think that's the way a lot of us feel about it.

On the takeaways of reading Shandling's diaries

The ultimate lesson is a very simple one, spoken by [Buddhist guru] Ram Dass at the end of the documentary. He just says: It's all about living in your heart, not in your head. ... And he says: Comedy is good for spiritual work — it gets you there. He also said: It's all about loving awareness. And that is what I think Garry was ultimately exploring and trying to apply to his own life — that life really is just about loving people. It is about kindness. And we all step on each others' toes and beat each other up and it's a mess and we're scared of each other or we isolate. And what Garry was trying to do was use these diaries to constantly remind himself to reach out, to help, to mentor — to connect.

Justin Richmond and Shannon Rhoades produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Judd Apatow was just a kid when he saw the comedian who would change his life.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE TONIGHT SHOW")

JOHNNY CARSON: Would you welcome Garry Shandling?

GREENE: He was watching "The Tonight Show."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE TONIGHT SHOW")

GARRY SHANDLING: My sheepdog kicks when he sleeps, OK? Now, my friend said, that means your dog's having a nightmare. Now, what's a nightmare for a dog? Did you ever stop to think about it? What, he's drinking out of the toilet, and the lid falls?

(LAUGHTER)

JUDD APATOW: Like a lot of people in America, I just thought, what a fascinating, hilarious, odd man. And I tracked his career. You know, some kids would track baseball players and their averages. I would watch comedians and watch them develop.

GREENE: Now, Judd Apatow, not a bad comedian himself. He grew up to write and direct hit films like "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" and "Knocked Up." He owes a lot to his time working as a young writer for Garry Shandling. He's not alone. A long list of comics - Sarah Silverman, Conan O'Brien, Jim Carrey, they all give Shandling a lot of credit. Shandling was a comedy giant in stand-up, and...

APATOW: He also reinvented television two times.

GREENE: Yeah. Shandling had two shows on cable, "It's Garry Shandling's Show," and "The Larry Sanders Show," that set the stage for many of the hits we love today, like, "30 Rock," "The Office," "Curb Your Enthusiasm." And so when Garry Shandling died unexpectedly just two years ago, Judd Apatow wanted to put this groundbreaking comedian in context.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHANDLING: I think - is there anything else, Judd? Seriously? I'm writing jokes with my friend, Judd.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

APATOW: You know, for 25 years, he was the most important mentor that I had, but, in a lot of ways, he was a mystery to me.

GREENE: To tackle that mystery, Judd Apatow made a documentary that's almost five hours long.

APATOW: Well, 4:20. We can tell you it's slightly over four, more than almost five. (Laughter).

GREENE: All right. Whatever. It's good. It is called, "The Zen Diaries Of Garry Shandling," and it relies heavily on the actual diaries Shandling kept for most of his life. They're deeply personal and at times spiritual. Shandling often turned to Buddhist philosophy. It all points to a man who, behind that comedy, was really a tortured soul, having never gotten over the loss of his beloved older brother who had cystic fibrosis and died when Shandling was just 10.

APATOW: I think a lot of people who have trauma when they grow up get hyper-vigilant, and they're trying to avoid pain by anticipating pain. And for comedians and creative people, often they think, if I can make this performance or this film perfect, people will like me and I won't suffer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHANDLING: As long as I've been doing stand-up, I've talked about dating. Now I'm involved in a relationship 'cause I figured, hey, what could be worse than dating? So...

(LAUGHTER)

SHANDLING: You know, and I'm very loyal in a relationship. You know, any relationship. Even when I go out with my mom, I don't look at other moms. You know? I...

(LAUGHTER)

SHANDLING: ...I don't go, ooh, I wonder what her macaroni and cheese tastes like?

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: It feels almost cliche to say this now, but, it feels like the great comedians need to have some sort of dark side. And you talk about Garry Shandling's trauma. Why is that?

APATOW: I just think when you get hurt, you become more sensitive. Artists who have injuries, they see more. They see the levels more. They have more empathy. So I never think of it as darkness. I think they're tuned in to the human experience. And it's not everybody. There are certainly very happy comedians who are as great as the ones who seem more troubled. Jerry Seinfeld's a very happy guy. He's as great as anyone's ever been.

GREENE: What about you? You're seen as one of the comedy minds of our time. Do you tap into darkness when you're producing comedy?

APATOW: I think that, like Garry, I'm fascinated by life, you know? Here we are. What does this mean? What are we doing? What are we doing it for? I think this search for meaning is at the core of all creativity, and it's troubling. You know? Some people are just like, Jesus has got me covered. And they're happy to their core. I know people like that. And then other people are like, I don't know what's going on out there. I don't know how the universe works. And it really bothers them, and they spend a lifetime trying to make sense of this life. There's a great page in one of Garry's journals, near the end of his life, where he says, you know, I should be grateful that I'm funny and for comedy because it's a gift that I can give to people that helps them deal with this long, difficult life. I think that's the way a lot of us feel about it.

GREENE: Was it hard to make this film? Because I could see, you know, you clearly care about this man. You were exposed to his soul in many ways through these diaries. Was it tough?

APATOW: The hard part was getting going. I, you know, was very close to Garry for a long time, but there would be periods where we wouldn't talk that much. And when he passed away, I was very surprised. I was just caught off guard by it. And then when he was gone, I realized how much he meant to me and that he would be the person I would call if someone like Garry died. Like, oh, no, I lost the person that I reach out to. And when I started the project, I would read his diaries and sometimes just be so amused, and then other times just bawl with him for what he was suffering through. But I felt like his life was a lesson that he wanted to teach me and that he would want me to teach other people with.

GREENE: What's the lesson?

APATOW: The ultimate lesson is a very simple one, spoken by Ram Dass at the end of the documentary. He just says, you know, it's all about living in your heart, not in your head. And he says...

GREENE: And he's a religious leader, a Buddhist, we should say.

APATOW: A Buddhist guru. And he says, you know, comedy is good for spiritual work. It gets you there. He also said, it's all about loving awareness. And that is what I think Garry was ultimately exploring and trying to apply to his own life, that life really is just about loving people. It is about kindness. And we all step on each other's toes and beat each other up, and we're scared of each other, or we isolate. And what Garry was trying to do is use these diaries to constantly remind himself to reach out, to help, to mentor, to connect.

GREENE: Judd Apatow talking about his mentor, Garry Shandling, who died in 2016. Apatow's documentary, "The Zen Diaries Of Garry Shandling," starts tonight on HBO.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHANDLING: Before I leave tonight, I would like to leave you with this one thought. When I die, I want it to say - little epitaph on my gravestone to say, thank God I don't have to be funny anymore. But I know on the gravestone next to me, it's going to say, you never were. Thank you. You've been a terrific audience. Thank you. Good night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.