Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday and the continuation 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 note 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. Recurring players this season include BERNADETTE BIRKETT as Jackie Schumaker, BARBARA CASON as Ruth Shandling, and PAUL WILLSON as Leonard Smith.
After creatively discovering itself in the middle of its debut season, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show opens its second year as the most daring and original comedy on television. The episodes highlighted below, along with those from the latter half of the season prior, constitute the best of this show’s entire run, making this year, in particular, the “Golden Age” of this not-so-long-lived series. From an editorial point-of-view, I’ll break my own fourth wall and tell you that it’s always harder to craft commentary for the best year of a series than for the worst, because defining success requires more abstract thinking (“lightning in a bottle,” as the cliché goes) than for more concrete and pinpoint-able failures (often: “premise-driven, not character-driven”). This remains true for It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, and asking for a brief summation of why the second season is the series’ best may elicit a response as such: there are more hits than misses. Now let’s figure out why. Because the show’s knowingly disruptive devices are now established to both the writers and the committed audience, the series has a firmer control of its own identity and doesn’t have to grope around in search of one. And, not surprisingly, with the show now more itself than ever, it can produce elevated scripts that ably use said devices to explore tailor-made stories worthy of the show and its mounting reputation for superb comedy in seemingly fresh packaging. This succinctly explains why the second year finds the series on the ascendant from what came before, and in the weeks ahead, we’ll also explore why Season Two proves to be a peak for It’s Garry Shandling’s Show… and not part of a continuing climb.
But this series is fascinating because the bulk of both its successes and failures are contingent on a single primary factor: the premise. Now, one needn’t preface this idea with a “spoiler alert” claim because it’s quite obvious – even here, when the hits overpower the still prevalent misses – that there’s a specific reliance on the show’s concept and the quirky (but as explored last week, rooted in some classic televisual traditions going back to the radio-to-TV transition) fourth-wall-defying constructs that may overwhelm and obfuscate the series’ ability to find its substance in more traditional, but also reliable sources: namely the characters. This will become abundantly clear next season for several reasons to be discussed – one of which is the dissolution of the show’s novelty, which is still a significant factor here in the second season, where our delight in what’s being delivered is wrapped up in notions of creativity and innovation (which themselves are hinged on the series’ boldness in comparison to other shows that toyed with their own metatheatricalities). This aforementioned novelty is “baked in” to the series’ premise, which as defined last week, is quite literally the deconstruction of the fourth wall, and thus the abandonment of any pretenses regarding realism on behalf of its characters and storytelling.
How does that manifest itself in Season Two, the series’ strongest? That’s like asking “where’s the sky?” because the answer is: it’s everywhere! From throwaway jokes about Bennett Cerf and Tina Louise that celebrate the medium while making us think about its history and construction – to sequences that have Garry running around the soundstage in his miniature car that disrupt the audience’s comprehension of narrative time and space – and stories about Garry’s interaction with his live studio audience that reinforce the series’ disinterest in creating a universe unware of its own fiction – we’re made to examine the fourth wall and the dynamic between television and reality. This metatheatricality is where the series sets itself apart from its competition and from where the scripts derive the crux of their enjoyment. In fact, with a premise as such, a successful episode of It’s Gary Shandling’s Show must be outrageous in its use of self-awareness, otherwise the series isn’t living up to its promise to the audience — the repeated rejection of which would indicate a serious flaw in the design. Fortunately, this isn’t a problem in Season Two, as the show is committed to its own unique style, and because of the accompanying novelty, is able to craft creatively rich stories that adhere to the series’ identity. However, possible design flaws may prove fodder for commentary later, as again, it’s no surprise that trouble is a-brewing…
In the meantime, I want to discuss Shandling’s ensemble players, who, as always, are vital in premise actualization – for character-subjugated ideas have no place on a medium designed to intimately showcase humanity (that, with a humor objective, is the thesis of the situation comedy) regardless of concept. While this series is really a showcase for Shandling and its premise, the show is nevertheless populated with a cast of funny individuals who, frankly, never get the chance to prove whether or not they’re spectacular. We have Molly Cheek as Nancy, Garry’s platonic female friend, an amiable presence who helps to ground the series and focus the star. She’s likable and believable, if not consistently amusing (or even allowed to be). We also have the Schumaker clan, intended as a contrast to Garry, the single man who lives alone. Tucci (Pete), Nemes (Grant), and Birkett (Jackie) each supply their characters with realistic quirks, and they seem to get more stories than anyone else in the ensemble. This can be a deleterious phenomenon, because their outings tend to be among the ones that don’t work, mostly because the techniques used to define this trio only reveal the thinness of the show’s relationship with its characterizations. (But, again, more on that in the weeks ahead…) Meanwhile, two of the more comedically rewarding supporting players include Barbara Cason as Garry’s mother, who forms with him the most realistic bond on the show, which is necessary for both the humor and pathos needed to earn an audience’s emotional investment, and Paul Willson, best known to readers of this blog as recurring barfly Paul from the final seasons of Cheers, as Leonard, the head of the condo association. He’s a wonderful pest, popping around just to get his mug on Garry’s show, and is usually good for a few laughs — he’s the series’ most effortless presence, and the one who’ll most prove his worth in the second half of the series’ run.
Here in Season Two, which collectively features these characters decently but is thriving (almost exclusively) because of its concept, I’m more willing to examine how the series is both benefited and cursed from the implications of this utilization. If these characters are indeed spectacular and we don’t often get to see it, this suggests a shortcoming in the show’s construction (and an argument for such a case could be made later when the quality slips), but if they aren’t spectacular, this perhaps makes them all the more special. For unlike the similarly designed Seinfeld or other tonally alike star vehicles that nevertheless boast strong ensembles, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show is not filled with talented folks trying to pretend they’re ordinary. These people really seem ordinary… and that’s actually perfect for the show’s own trope-destroying aesthetic. Now, I’d like to believe this choice is intentional, and in the sense that the show is consciously not putting forth effort to make the characters extraordinary, that’s true; however, I’m still more apt to believe, because of what we’ll see later, that this is merely a byproduct of a diverted focus, and not an intended outcome… But I’m getting ahead of myself. In the meantime, remember that this is the best season of the series, and I’d even go so far as to say it’s one of the most laudable situation comedy years of the ’87-’88 cycle. So, as with last week, 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 Two. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Note that every episode this season is directed by Alan Rafkin.
01) Episode 18: “No Baby, No Show” (Aired: 11/06/87)
Garry and company await the birth of the Schumaker baby.
Written by Alan Zweibel & Garry Shandling
Although this episode ultimately wasn’t selected as my MVE for the year, I have to admit that it was a little bit painful not being able to choose this one as well, for when I think of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, this is one of those classic installments that comes to mind. Not only does the episode mock the genre’s fascination with TV births (going of course, all the way back to I Love Lucy and earlier, Mary Kay And Johnny), but the concept also capitalizes upon our star’s reputation as a late night host, as the episode quickly goes from sitcom to talk show when Garry is visited by all the regulars, along with Tom Petty, Susan Anton, and Doc Severinsen. It’s inspired television for the television-lover, and most importantly, the laughs are fast and furious. An absolute classic episode of warped situation comedy — only found on Garry’s show!
02) Episode 19: “The Fugitive” (Aired: 11/13/87)
Garry learns that his friend is on the run from the authorities.
Written by Tom Gammill & Max Pross
After noting the brilliance of last season’s “The Graduate” in light of the show’s general inability to satisfyingly satirize other films/shows while maintaining the necessary amount of laughs (something with which even The Jack Benny Program struggled), I believe this will be the only other overt singular parody highlighted in this series of posts. This time, the script, written by two future Seinfeld staffers, takes aim at The Fugitive, and while an understanding of that series would naturally enhance one’s enjoyment of this entry, I believe the show’s own elements account for the majority of the humor, specifically in the aforementioned chase sequence (in Garry’s miniature car) around the soundstage. A solid episode from the most solid season.
03) Episode 20: “The Schumakers Go To Hollywood” (Aired: 11/20/87)
Grant wins a trip to Hollywood and decides to attend a taping of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show.
Written by Ed Solomon and Tom Gammill & Max Pross
If you’ve scrolled down, you’ll see that this is my selection for the season’s strongest episode, but — despite the brilliance of this entry — it wasn’t an easy choice given a couple of other outings on today’s list. So why does this one get the honor? Well, frankly, I think it’s the best representation of the series and its sensibilities. The storytelling is logically illogical, the premise is ideally meta, and the script is filled with laugh-driven non-cloying fun. We have musical numbers (by the “Garry Shandling dancers”), a surprisingly delectable guest appearance by a former TV star (Florence Henderson), and plenty of fourth-wall-breaking moments (inherent in the concept itself), along with a story that can actually be followed and enjoyed on its narrative merits. It’s a modern day Jack Benny episode — exactly what this show should be, and because the teleplay is so easily comedic as well, it’s on this series’ not-too-crowded top shelf. Hysterical.
04) Episode 22: “Angelica (I)” (Aired: 12/04/87)
Garry goes on Love Connection and finds a love connection.
Written by Alan Zweibel & Garry Shandling
More television for lovers of television! Guest starring Chuck Woolery as himself when Garry goes on Love Connection, funny lady Jennifer Tilly plays the titular Angelica, Garry’s chosen “love connection,” with whom he embarks on a two-episode romance. Garry’s shtick within the format of Woolery’s show is great, as is the chemistry he shares with the always delightful Tilly. But I always double over with laughter at the surprise cameo by Zsa Zsa Gabor as the “Goddess of Commitment.” It’s so randomly hysterical — something this series does best. I’d also recommend watching Part II, which seems a knowingly rotten trial run for the Phoebe era, but gains points for an amusing I Love Lucy gag with Garry and Angelica. (Part I, of course, is best.)
05) Episode 25: “Killer Routine” (Aired: 01/08/88)
An audience member dies of laughter during Garry’s monologue.
Story by Jim Geoghan | Teleplay by Alan Zweibel & Garry Shandling
As we move into the second half of the year, you’ll notice a trend in which the ideas are seemingly better than the executions — a surprise given the creative problems that the series has in the latter half of its run (in which the ideas are generally lousy, and saved only by little moments). Season Two is still, collectively, the best of the series’ run, but the comedic heights reached at the beginning of the year are more frequent and laudable than those at the end. Specifically regarding this installment, the idea of someone in Garry’s audience dying during a fit of laughter is great for the show — it’s an actual story, it’s unique (Carl Reiner appears!), and it breaks the fourth wall. There are indeed laughs, but the concept is starting to consume.
06) Episode 29: “Save The Planet” (Aired: 02/05/88)
Garry’s old teacher wants to publish a nude photo of Ruth.
Written by Alan Zweibel and Tom Gammill & Max Pross
Kurtwood Smith guest stars in this episode as an old professor of Garry’s (not to mention Nancy’s and Pete’s) who is publishing a book that they discover contains a nude photo of his mom. That’s the story — it’s direct and focused. The comedy comes from everything the show does to flesh out the concept, which includes cameos by the musical group The Turtles, who sings the theme song and participates in a delightful daydream involving Ruth Shandling acting like a ’60’s go-go dancer. Again, we’re not breaking any comedic heights here, but the show is adept at using its own tools to make a story more interesting than it would otherwise be, and given the way the show involves the characters, this is among the year’s more memorable.
07) Episode 32: “Garry Falls Down A Hole” (Aired: 03/11/88)
Garry can’t do the show because he’s fallen down a hole.
Written by Richard Day
This is probably the oddest installment on today’s list — and that’s no small feat given the nature of the series. It opens with a couple of minutes of Garry’s empty apartment, as the theme song plays multiple times. Where’s Garry? Well, as we come to find out, he’s fallen down a rather large hole. This surprisingly dramatic construct gives the episode carte blanche to indulge in heightened sketch-like lunacy, including an enjoyable beat in which Garry goes to heaven and gets his life reviewed by a bunch of folks who deem his existence thus far as too boring. As for the script, I’m proud of anything that can weave in jokes/references to both Bennett Cerf and Tina Louise; this is intelligent stupidity, folks, and that’s a unique joy.
08) Episode 33: “Mr. Smith Goes To Nam” (Aired: 03/18/88)
Garry gets a visit from Gilda Radner and Leonard has nightmares of Vietnam.
Written by Richard Day
Who really cares what this episode is about or whether or not it’s any good? This installment will forever be known as the last TV appearance of Gilda Radner, whose cancer was then in remission. (She was actually inspired by the success of this episode to return to television in a more regular capacity before the disease returned). A good friend of Zweibel’s, who’d written a lot of her material in the early days of SNL, Radner plays herself in this story that’s actually centered around Leonard, who is haunted by memories of Vietnam. I’ve never personally been an enthusiast of the aforementioned late night variety series, but Radner’s energy is radiant, and even though the script isn’t as funny as its reputation, I still consider it an essential.
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “Nancy Gets Amnesia,” which uses the show’s gimmicks well but suffers from a storyline that instead of riffing on a traditional sitcom plot, instead gives in to convention and fails to satisfy, and both “Mr. Sparks” and “Our Town,” which boast great premises but not enough laughs.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Two of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show goes to…
“The Schumakers Go To Hollywood”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the third season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!