Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday and the conclusion 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, JESSICA HARPER as Phoebe Bass, 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, IAN BUCHANAN as Ian McFyfer, and PAUL WILLSON as Leonard Smith.
Let’s not mince words: this is a bad season of a formerly enjoyable situation comedy. But I can’t claim surprise. As we’ve explored in the weeks prior, the writing was on the figurative wall for It’s Garry Shandling’s Show since the beginning, for although those first two years were able to consistently deliver creative off-beat comedy that – through its own self-awareness – seemed smart and different, the foundationally metatheatrical premise was not able to support the kind of character-driven storytelling that all narrative television (regardless of how the fourth wall is treated) must use as basis. By Season Three, the series could no longer escape its inevitable failings, as the novelty of this dissident structure wore thin, making it harder and harder to shock the audience with heightened self-reflectivity, thus necessitating a concerted effort to pivot the show towards a more traditional design in which developing the characters had to be a priority. Unfortunately, the results disappointed – the premise would not allow for integrity on behalf of its characters, and whenever the show tried to deliver as much, it seemed to be rejecting its own established identity. Winning seemed improbable. Fortunately for seekers of quality, the show wouldn’t have much life left in it anyway, for with FOX now broadcasting the series on its network at the same time that Showtime was airing new episodes, the show’s poor performance via Nielsen eventually led to its cancellation by FOX (which came in March of ’90) and its certain cancellation by Showtime, which, by this time, was primarily sticking with the series because of the FOX deal. Seekers of quality, we just have to get through this last season.
Frankly, I wish Season Four never even existed, because while everyone involved seemed to recognize that the show had deteriorated in its third year, the attempts to rectify the situation here just make things worse. Obviously the most ostentatious solution employed was to bring on a love interest and eventual wife for Garry in the form of Phoebe, as played by Jessica Harper (then married to a FOX executive — get the picture?). The thinking was that this change in format would allow for fresh stories, which would then be able to support the necessary gimmicks, because the lesson learned last season was that gimmicks couldn’t exist by themselves. And, to the show’s credit, it has the right idea. Supporting these stunts with story is vital. But as we all know, stories must come from character, and this is where It’s Garry Shandling’s Show breaks down. You see, Phoebe has no character, no chemistry, and no comedy — and since she’s elevated to such a position where she’s ostensibly the second lead, her presence does the exact opposite of bolstering the rapidly dwindling show: she hastens its decline. Furthermore, the writers use the addition of her character to serialize the show in a way we haven’t seen before, thus making it much more narrative-driven than ever. Not only is this a sin on traditional sitcoms, which rarely work when mired down in story (as we’ve explored on this blog time and again), but for a show like It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, which needs looseness for its premise to work, these new fourth season aims ultimately end up killing the show right where it lives: its premise. Now it might as well be a traditional sitcom that occasionally tries to foist upon the audience some outrageous fourth-wall-defying gimmick. And that’s pretty rotten.
Ultimately, if the show had done a better job of cultivating its regular ensemble in the very beginning when the premise was still being established, there would have been no need for Phoebe or her accompanying contrivances. In fact, it strikes as odd that the show would put so much faith in a character with whom the audience has no emotional connection (and who, based on the depiction, is never going to be multi-dimensional) when there are other characters with whom we’ve spent the past three years. But their line of thinking makes some sense – all of the other characters introduced in seasons past were created without a mind for realistic development or attempts to utilize them as reliable, non-pliable humans. No, they were a means to an end and the audience realized it. So the show decided to leave them be and focus its character-building efforts on someone new. Unfortunately… they picked an uncomedic presence who was, as mentioned above, defined entirely by the narrative into which she was placed. So the lesson wasn’t fully learned – the show never gathered how to handle its characters, who, when well-defined, would have fleshed out stories that could have then been expanded upon and enhanced by the unique metatheatrics that the show itself engendered. The series’ focus was backwards: metatheatrics, then story, then characters; but when the characters failed, the stories failed, and eventually, so did the metatheatrics. And that, sadly, is the end of the weird and initially wonderful experiment that was It’s Garry Shandling’s Show.
Of course, as discussed way back in Season One’s entry, the effect the show would have on television sitcoms remains long-lasting. Just look at how the series had already influenced the genre at the time. In the ’89-’90 season, audiences were beginning to taste the heretofore unseen satire that was The Simpsons, which shared a handful of writers with Shandling’s show, NBC was preparing to broadcast a short limited-run of a new convention-breaking sitcom called Seinfeld (coming up here at the end of April), created by Zweibel’s friend Larry David (who wrote one episode for Shandling’s series), and FOX was itself cultivating a subversive niche audience with a burgeoning hit called Married… With Children (coverage of which begins next week). So although It’s Garry Shandling’s Show ended a failure, it opened the playing field for a lot of impactful shows to come, which would learn from the series — its employment of a TV-lovin’ self-awareness — and also its mistakes, as seldom would a series premise be so counterintuitive to the characters. Perhaps no sitcom took this wisdom to its figurative heart like Shandling’s The Larry Sanders Show, coming up here next fall, which set the aesthetic template for cable sitcoms in the ’90s. So, mistakes and all, this series’ legacy is a strong and important one that deserves to be more often discussed, and it’s been a pleasure covering it here these past few weeks. As usual, I have picked eight episodes that I think exemplify this season’s strongest installments. 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 Four. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)
01) Episode 60: “Firehose” (Aired: 01/19/90)
Garry sets out to prove that his cameo in an X-rated film wasn’t a starring role.
Written by Al Jean & Mike Reiss | Directed by Madeline Cripe
With the near unanimous disappointment with which I would label the fourth season, particularly with regard to the show’s inability to provide content in keeping with its own established identity, the episodes here are forced to be adjudicated in ways different from seasons past. Because so little of the material this year honors the series itself, I’m forced to look more compartmentally at the episodes, essentially giving credit to entries that function best as individual works. In the case of this installment, the story is naturally comedic and that’s what earns the offering its place on the list. Not a great excursion, but it’s as good as you’ll get here.
02) Episode 62: “The Wedding Show” (Aired: 02/09/90)
The network turns Garry and Phoebe’s wedding into an extravaganza.
Written by Alan Zweibel & Larry Levin | Directed by Thomas Schlamme
The strongest episodes you’ll see here are those that make an effort to maintain the series’ reputation for fourth wall breaking, even though the shtick has admittedly grown tired and the means of wall-breaking are no longer engaging. But at least the show’s core premise is invoked, as it is here. This is the big wedding — a decision that the show never should have made (and unfortunately, the series seems to realize this, making the fourth season all the more tragic), but because they’re pressing forward with the nuptials, the show makes an admirable effort to design the script in a way conducive to the Shandling brand: random guests and unnecessary spectacle.
03) Episode 63: “The Honeymoon Show” (Aired: 02/16/90)
The newlyweds choose to abstain after a series of disasters.
Written by Monica Johnson & Alan Zweibel | Directed by Art Wolff
This is the last episode of what I consider Season Four A, in which the show makes at least some effort to justify to its skeptical audience (and skeptical star, I think) that Phoebe is an interesting character whose presence could benefit the series. After this installment, which I actually think features the most comedic narrative usage of their relationship of the entire year, in the rest of the season (which aired after FOX pulled the plug and the end was nigh), there are no more pretenses to engage Phoebe — save a mediocre outing in which the couple learns they’re expecting a child. So this is her turning point: the last time the show actually tries.
04) Episode 64: “Shandling Vs. Mull” (Aired: 03/09/90)
Garry and Martin Mull feud over a bill Phoebe served to the latter.
Written by Al Jean & Mike Reiss | Directed by Thomas Schlamme
As with last season’s episode featuring Martin Mull, this offering finds its place on today’s list solely for his guest appearance. The proceedings, coming from Jean and Reiss, who had worked the summer prior on the debut season of The Simpsons, feel like an extended sketch, but not in the ambitious convention-busting nature of the early seasons — instead, more structured and formulaic, characterized by a thin situation and easy jokes. Look for some more scenery chewing by Joy Behar, who appeared last season as Leonard’s late wife, as Mull’s nasty (live) wife. There’s a lot of camp in this one, and I go back and forth over whether it’s intentional.
05) Episode 65: “Leonard Gets Metaphysical” (Aired: 03/23/90)
Garry leaves Grant in charge of the show.
Written by John Bowman | Directed by Art Wolff
One of the more creatively satisfying installments on today’s list, this entry’s premise invokes the fourth wall by having Garry leaving Grant in charge of the show as the former goes on tour to open for Guns N’ Roses. So we’re on a solid foundation — and since Garry actually participates in the show (Grant isn’t the new star — thank goodness), this is the kind of idea one wishes the series employed more often. However, the real reason this entry is highlighted is because it’s perhaps the show’s best utilization of Paul Willson as Leonard, who is replaced as President of the Condo Association, thus benefiting from the way it features its strongest ensemble player.
06) Episode 66: “Chester Gets A Show” (Aired: 03/30/90)
While Garry’s opening for Guns ‘N Roses, his wife’s half-brother gets his own sitcom.
Written by Elaine Aronson | Directed by Paul Miller
Paul Feig as Phoebe’s half-brother Chester Bass is an obnoxious presence who spoils every scene in which he appears. He is not amusing and I hate that his character has a large role in this installment. But the episode takes its place on today’s list both for the guest appearance of Edie Adams, playing herself (but as the wife of the fictional network executive portrayed by Richard Fancy), and because the story is the most television-oriented of the entire final season. The premise is one large excuse to mock the state of network TV and what the suits decide will make it to air. The irony: neither the fictional show nor Shandling’s show is any good.
07) Episode 67: “My Mother, The Wife” (Aired: 04/06/90)
Garry envisions his mom every time he tries to make love to Phoebe.
Written by Al Jean & Mike Reiss | Directed by Art Wolff
As another sketch-like premise that’s only slightly wackier than the fare we’d find on a “traditional” network comedy, this offering probably operates with the most consistently delivered humor, and I think much of it has to do — not with Jean and Reiss’ script — but with the premise itself. The idea of Garry not being able to make love to his wife because he keeps picturing his mom is textbook sitcom, made even better by the other guys’ accompanying problems as well. As I’ve admitted before, I’m a fan of Barbara Cason, and any episode that gives her something interesting to play sets itself up for more workability. Enjoyable.
08) Episode 70: “The Last Show” (Aired: 05/11/90)
Garry dies after Mr. Death moves into the condo complex.
Written by Alan Zweibel & Garry Shandling | Directed by Roy London
Although this was initially written as the finale, the network forced the show to eke out two more episodes — a decision that was played up, mostly for comedic gain (despite the fact that the two following installments were creatively depleted). Surprisingly, I believe that this offering, which many involved at the time didn’t like due to some production problems (one of which involved the recasting of Mr. Death), is actually the most attuned to the series’ identity of the season, and is therefore funnier than everything else on today’s list; a fitting conclusion to the series (even though it technically wasn’t) and clearly the only choice for my MVE. There are a lot of great surprising cameos, including Bob Newhart’s, whose own show was wrapping, as the end of Garry’s show coincides with his “death,” yielding an amusing memorial scene in which Molly Cheek gives her most comedic performance of the run. Not perfect, but worthwhile.
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “The Day Howard Moved In,” which will appeal to fans of Howard Sprague and The Andy Griffith Show, and “Mad At Brad,” an episode thrown to Garry’s recurring agent, played by Bruno Kirby, who like Richard Fancy, is sprinkled throughout this last year in an attempt to find more narrative-based stories.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Four of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show goes to…..
“The Last Show”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the first season of Married… With Children! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!