Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday and the start of our series on the best episodes of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show (1986-1990, Showtime), an early cable sitcom and an important chapter in the genre’s evolution. I’m happy to report that the entire series has been released on DVD.
A neurotic stand-up comic is aware that he’s a character on a television sitcom. It’s Garry Shandling’s Show stars GARRY SHANDLING as Garry Shandling, MOLLY CHEEK as Nancy Bancroft, SCOTT NEMES as Grant Schumaker, and MICHAEL TUCCI as Pete Schumaker. Regular guests this season include GEOFFREY BLAKE as Lewis, BERNADETTE BIRKETT as Jackie Schumaker, BARBARA CASON as Ruth Shandling, and PAUL WILLSON as Leonard Smith.
There are two different ways to examine It’s Garry Shandling’s Show and I’m going to indulge in a bit of both. The first involves crediting the series for launching a wave of convention-busting metatheatrical television comedies that would go on to influence the state of the sitcom today — in ways both subliminal and overt. The second involves recognizing the roots of the show’s seemingly revolutionary design in works of the past, thereby contextualizing the series as existing in an organic moment within television’s own history. (But this ain’t a thesis, so I’ll give you the TV blogger version…) Yet before we can do any of that, we need to understand the series itself… which isn’t an easy feat. The concept of the show has Garry Shandling playing himself: a comedian with a television sitcom who is always aware, and makes the audience aware, of their mutual acknowledgment of each other. In every moment we see, Garry knows that he’s on a sitcom, a fact that influences the weekly stories either entirely from the premise up — like when Garry leaves the series and is replaced by Red Buttons — or in the individual story beats, such as Garry’s direct dialogue with the audience, his ability to make time pass or regress with ease, and the playful use of the soundstage itself as a fluid space where one can ride a miniature car from scene to scene. To say the show breaks the fourth wall is an understatement; it’s more apt to say that the show’s very premise is the fourth wall — and what that means in TV world.
Okay, that’s the show in a nutshell (and to try a more explicit explanation would make my head explode), so now it’s appropriate to acknowledge how the series paved the way for other sitcoms to which we look as being more influentially unconventional, like Seinfeld, which also centered around a stand-up comic playing a version of himself and challenged the genre’s notions of storytelling, specifically where it finds conflict — in the (almost surreally) trivial, and The Larry Sanders Show, Shandling’s second, more critically lauded sitcom, which aimed to satirize industry tropes and figures by blurring the lines between fiction and reality with a sense of irony that no popular sitcom today exists without. In both cases, along with the many hits they each spawned (such as Curb Your Enthusiasm, to name one), we find the seeds of a lot of this creativity planted within It’s Garry Shandling’s Show. Although neither were as wacky — Seinfeld rejected TV story conventions but without breaking the fourth wall, and The Larry Sanders Show toyed with the wall but created a universe intended to be based in reality — the rebellious nature of the comedy, the evident air of exploration, and the willful manipulation of the audience’s idea of the medium’s own self-awarness acts as the thematic connectors. In fact, many of these aesthetic choices will factor into discussions we’ll be having over the course of the next year, and it’s to this series we’ll point for cementing these “out there” ideas as worth exploring — even though, for reasons we’ll be discussing over the next few weeks, most of the more fundamentally anarchistic elements will be smartly rejected in favor of a faux realism that’s less dissident, but more creatively sustainable. (Hold this thought for later…)
But this sense of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show as having a specific legacy should come as no surprise, for many of the creative folks behind this show would go on to other “subversive” works. While Shandling, of course, would move on to The Larry Sanders Show, writers like Max Pross, Tom Gammill, and Larry David contributed scripts to It’s Garry Shandling’s Show before moving on to the mega-hit Seinfeld. And future writers Al Jean and Mike Reiss, along with creative consultant Sam Simon, all went on to greater acclaim in the revolutionary phenomenon known as The Simpsons. Would those shows have happened without It’s Garry Shandling’s Show? Probably (especially given the creation of FOX, which had its own disruptive ambitions — to be discussed soon with regard to Married… With Children — and would have been non-traditional anyway), but the idea of this show serving as a training ground for these talented individuals before they moved on to better, brighter series is a potent one, seemingly justified by both the metatheatrical themes explored in all of these works and the raw, lack of polish that comes to typify It’s Garry Shandling’s Show. Now, I’m not really going to discuss the show’s flaws here (even though they’re ingrained in the series and its premise from day one), because it makes more sense to do so in weeks ahead, when the problems impact our enjoyment. But for this discussion, there’s always both a lack of focus in this show’s scripting and an unshakable sense of giddy naiveté by all involved, and one gets the feeling that this is merely a playground where wild ideas are being cultivated — but without a wise teacher to referee and sort through what crazy fun ideas are working and what crazy fun ideas aren’t.
I attribute this stylistic lack of control to several factors. First, this was only Showtime’s second successful sitcom, making it among the first series comedies ever broadcast on cable television, so there’s a palpable sense of freedom that, as in some of the newer “frontiers” of today (digital platforms), acts as both a blessing and a curse. (I’ve always believed that the tension between creative producers and business-minded executives is necessary in the creation of a successful television product, but I digress…) This dynamic between Showtime and the show’s two creators, Shandling, a stand-up comic who was then best known for being one of the regular replacement hosts for Johnny Carson, and Alan Zweibel, who wrote for the first five seasons of Saturday Night Live but had no sitcom experience, allowed the two freer reign to explore their purposely non-conformist aims. Their comedic sensibilities, specifically the late night sketch-oriented style of humor (quick, ultra-knowing, and laugh-driven), is very prevalent on It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, and its existence here also helped mainstream these ideas in future situation comedies (everything from Seinfeld to 30 Rock). Yet even though the guys were intentionally non-traditional, I must also note that the show doesn’t aim to deconstruct the genre in total. On the contrary, these people love television (and let’s note that stalwarts like Sam Denoff and Earl Pomerantz were guidance-giving consultants) — and this love shows in every random cameo, all the playful parodies, and throughout the series’ overarching desire to create a piece that’s more about exploring the medium’s form than it is about deriding its content.
And this brings us to a discussion about the show’s roots, for as much as this series wants to be different than the rest, its very construction is a valentine to sitcoms of the past. Much was written at the time about Shandling and Zweibel being inspired by the works, in particular, of George Burns and Jack Benny. In the case of the former, Garry, like George, steps out of the scene to address the audience, has an omnipotent sense of the story that allows him to narrate the happenings, and, as Mr. Burns could do later in his run, is able to watch “the show” from his own personal television. As for the similarities to Jack Benny, the elements are more ingrained in the writing — it’s the similarities to the sheer lunacy that transpired in the funnyman’s halcyon radio days, where the show was one part patter, one part music, one part sketch, and one part sitcom. This hilarious “anything goes” aura that Benny’s show used to help build its characters and, in my opinion, create the situation comedy as radio was giving way to television, has led writers like Larry Gelbart to term this show “Jack Benny on speed.” And I think Gelbart is absolutely right, as Shandling’s show embraces the joyful theatricality that allowed Benny and his cohorts to exist within both sides of the figurative fourth wall — but this time, going broader, bolder, and bizarrer in notions that are more foundationally applied instead of just situational. The trick for this show is finding enough substance (read: character), or supplanting it with something of equal merit, to allow this emboldened structure to remain supported. That’s something Benny’s program always did, but can this be done “on speed”?
Meanwhile, let’s note that It’s Garry Shandling’s Show is far from the decade’s only radical work, and the reason we see more experimentation and genre-bending in television of the late ’80s is that so much of the era was constructed around conformist fare. (We’ve talked about this idea quite a bit in the past six months, and with regard to shows that were conceived far more traditionally than It’s Garry Shandling’s Show.) This would seem to illustrate that this series’ reputation as a big-time disrupter is exaggerated, but I think this is only half-true. Although the series often doesn’t get enough credit for trend-setting, we should remember that its existence is not an atypical surprise. Yes, it was ambitious, unique, and too “out there” for, say, NBC in 1986, but the climate of ’80s TV was already flirting both with fourth-wall hijinks (remember Moonlighting?) and radical structures as a means of combating the standardized tripe that, rightly or wrongly, was defining the otherwise superior The Cosby Show and its lesser domestic compatriots (like Family Ties and Full House, which, ironically, was created by Jeff Franklin, who contributed several scripts in this show’s first season). So Shandling’s show was just a bold addition to a narrative that was already being formed — one that involved folks like producer Bernie Brillstein, who had previously worked on the deliciously different Buffalo Bill and would go on to The “Slap” Maxwell Story, both of which were genre-hopping. Of course, because this series was more extreme, hindsight has proven it maybe more influential… both overtly, in the kind of material that it would encourage over the next few years from newbies like FOX, on which Shandling’s show was syndicated during its original run, and subliminally in that aforementioned sense of irony, which was really popular in sitcoms of this era and then came back in full force in the mid ’00’s with shows like Arrested Development and The Office.
It’s Garry Shandling’s Show arose out of a specific television culture that was developing as a reaction to the industry’s mainstream rules and ideas, and was predicated on experimentation with increased freedom. This freedom had creative effects on the landscape that would prove both positive and negative, and as It’s Garry Shandling’s Show was one of the first to rebel without any inhibitions, this series offers the opportunity to see ideas (some new, and some old-but-made-new) that either work and will be reinforced over the next 30 years (mostly in tone), and those that will be quickly abandoned and seem unique to the show (mostly in mechanics). So, with the series understood, I briefly want to address the specifics of this first season. Showtime initially ordered six episodes, and despite a strong pilot, the show doesn’t really settle into itself until the fifth excursion, which we’ll discuss below. An additional 12 were ordered for a total of 18, but only 16 ended up produced. After the initial hiatus between episodes six and seven, during which one regular (Lewis) was dropped and another was prepared for more frequent use (Leonard), the show enters into perhaps its most creatively fertile period — a stretch that will last through the next year. (More about the supporting cast, and how they function in this period, next week…) As a result, the second half of this season helps to comprise what I’d call the show’s “golden era,” meaning that the series has a strong identity and is regularly able to deliver material that fits its premise and satisfies its audience. (There’ll be more about what this means next week too…) So if you’re looking to get into the show, this particular post is worth noting, for I have picked eight episodes that I think exemplify this season’s strongest. For new fans, this list will give you a place to start. For seasoned fans, there might be a few surprises.
Here are my picks for the eight best episodes of Season One. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Note that every episode this season is directed by Alan Rafkin.
01) Episode 1: “The Day Garry Moved In” (Aired: 09/10/86)
Garry moves into his new condo, dates the cable woman, and finds his furniture stolen.
Written by Alan Zweibel & Garry Shandling
The series’ debut episode is probably among the most focused of the entire run, and although the executive producers themselves have expressed the opinion that it’s too stiff in comparison to all that followed, I have to note that the script does exactly what it needs to for introducing the audience to the show’s sensibilities without immediately alienating them. For this reason, I think it’s actually among the smartest and best crafted of the first season. It’s certainly going to get wackier from here, but most of the hallmarks — the elimination of the fourth wall, the surprise cameos (Vanna White), the love of television (the Gilligan’s Island bit is divine), and the Benny-ish writing (like the Lewis moment) are all in place. Great episode for beginners.
02) Episode 5: “The Graduate” (Aired: 10/08/86)
Garry is seduced by Mrs. Robertson, even though he prefers her daughter.
Written by Alan Zweibel & Garry Shandling
Although I praised the pilot above, many feel — as do I — that this is the installment in which the series really finds its identity, and the interesting thing is that it comes in a script structured entirely as a film parody (can you see the obvious shades of The Jack Benny Program?), which usually don’t make for the show’s best offerings. But this is clearly the best in that variety and it’s precisely because the episode is less about the parody and more about what the show brings to the parody — particularly a delicious sequence, soon to become a trope, in which Garry rides from set to set in a tiny little car. It’s these little things that not only define the show’s most reliable sources of comedy, but also come to make this episode, especially, a classic. And in addition to the elevated number of laughs — better than anything else this season — TV lovers are going to delight in the bizarre cameo appearance of Norman Fell, who was in the actual film version The Graduate. Could this be a height never again reached? No, there’s a few more that manage to be as delightful, but only a few. Seminal excursion — don’t miss it.
03) Episode 10: “Fate” (Aired: 02/13/87)
A psychic predicts disaster during an upcoming scene, which Garry tries to prevent.
Written by Ed Solomon
Writer Ed Solomon noted on the excellent DVD release by Shout! that he felt this episode was too much about the metatheatrics instead of a solid narrative. While that will be a valid complaint with episodes in seasons ahead, I think the newness of the show’s concept justifies all the tricks we see here, which are far more clever and story-supporting than Solomon gives them credit for being. There are a lot of delightful moments, chief of which is Ian Abercrombie, best known as Elaine’s boss Mr. Pitt on Seinfeld, as the pompous narrator who notes scene transitions and spars with Garry, who arouses the narrator’s ire when he changes the script to prevent a predicted tragedy. It’s like Bewitched, only with fewer rules. Another important outing.
04) Episode 11: “The Morning After” (Aired: 02/20/87)
Garry uses his Flashback Booth to find out what happened the evening before.
Written by Jeff Franklin & Alan Zweibel
This is yet another important outing for the cultivation of the show’s own mythos, as this is the entry that first introduces the concept of the Flashback Booth, which allows Garry a more formal device to manipulate the way his show plays with time. For all the kookiness of other regular tricks, this one actually exists in a sphere of logic (as opposed to Garry’s simply saying “two weeks have passed” — which is more disorienting, because time doesn’t pass in an actual plot point). This is actually one of the more story-heavy installments on today’s list and I don’t think it’s among the funniest highlighted here, although, again, it’s one of the series’ most definitive and another essential outing for newcomers. Bold and unique — perfect for Garry.
05) Episode 12: “Sarah” (Aired: 03/06/87)
Garry goes out on a date with his ex-girlfriend.
Written by Mac Brandes
Seinfeld fans take note — this is the sole episode of the series credited to Larry David (or rather, his alias, Mac Brandes), and at the risk of seeming repetitive, I consider this yet another absolute classic. In fact, this is the only real MVE runner-up on today’s list, and given that this is a strong season for the series, that’s actually high praise. Even without knowing who’s behind this script, I think you’ll note an elevated number of laughs and a seemingly effortless relationship that the writing has with the show’s fourth-wall maneuverings. In fact, although the episode boasts a structured story, the proceedings come across as one long sketch, for the metatheaticality is always exerting itself as a fundamental part of the show’s identity. In this sense, it’s quite pure.
06) Episode 14: “Dial ‘L’ For Laundry” (Aired: 03/20/87)
Garry falls for a woman in the laundromat, but she has a jealous ex.
Written by Tom Gammill & Max Pross
Another milestone for Seinfeld fans, this is the first script credited to Gammill and Pross, two of Jerry’s show’s most prolific scribes. As with many of the previously discussed entries, the episode’s relationship with the series’ established tone and sense-of-self-awareness permeates throughout the entirety of the narrative, and with such ease that it occasionally seems like mastery. Of course, not everything works, but because the show is having such fun, and the writing currently offers something unlike anything else on TV, there’s an infectious liberty for both the show and the audience. Also, more classic TV love comes from the truly wacky appearance by Rob Reiner, who riffs about his time as Meathead and even serves the story!
07) Episode 15: “Dinner With Garry” (Aired: 04/03/87)
Garry fixes his mother up on a date with his internist.
Written by E.J. Purdum
In all honesty, I’m a fan of Barbara Cason’s work here as Garry’s mom (we’ll talk more about her and the other members of the ensemble in Season Two’s post), because she brings the show an air of authority that helps to ground the surrounding lunacy. She also develops with “Bubba” the show’s most realistic bond. The problem with episodes in which she gets a lot to do is that they often are more traditional. We see that evidenced here within the rather routine story of Garry fixing his mom up and her waiting for the man to call her back. But the show livens up the proceedings with a Busby Berkeley musical number (it’s hysterical), jokes about Lisa Bonet, and a terrific sequence in which Garry takes the story TWO years ahead. What fun!
08) Episode 16: “Force Boxman” (Aired: 04/10/87)
Red Buttons takes over the show when Garry leaves to do a cop drama.
Written by Jeff Franklin & Ed Solomon
It’s Garry Shandling’s Show closes out its first season with an installment dedicated to satirizing the television industry. The premise, of course, is hilarious, as Garry leaves his show for a network cop drama — a trailer for which he treats the audience (must see) — and is replaced on his current show by comedian Red Buttons, who quickly ingratiates himself with the rest of Garry’s cast. The kernels of the story — jealousy and feeling replaced — are relatable, but the mechanics are all about comedy, TV, and the making of both, and that’s precisely what this show offers. This isn’t the funniest episode of the season, but it’s oh-so-memorable, and it’s one that could only have happened on this series. And that’s what makes it such a valuable excursion.
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “Garry Met A Girl Named Maria,” which utilizes a familiar sitcom story but riffs on it deliciously (the closest to making the above list), and “Laffie,” a fairly cute parody of Lassie.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season One of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show goes to…..
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the second season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!