Life & Culture

Shandling: the outsiders' outsider

The tributes to the comic writer and performer Garry Shandling have been fulsome


The tributes to the comic writer and performer Garry Shandling, who died suddenly last week at the age of 66, have been fulsome. The creator of the legendary Larry Sanders Show was acclaimed as one the most influential comedians of the past three decades, and an inspiration and mentor, by Ricky Gervais, Sacha Baron Cohen, and Hollywood's current king of comedy, Judd Apatow.

The praise is deserved. Shandling was the trail-blazer for his generation of Jewish comics, a more assimilated group than earlier entertainers.

Prior to Shandling, most Jewish comics came from an urban milieu. Shandling might have continued that stereotype. He was born in Chicago but when still quite young his family moved to Tucson, Arizona because his older brother had cystic fibrosis and it was thought the desert air would be good for his health. He died when Shandling was 10 and the death had a profound effect on the future comic.

In Arizona, not noted at the time for its Jewish culture, Shandling lived a typical post-war suburban life. His parents ran small businesses and the upbringing was all-American and middle-class.

Jewish comedy for the previous generation was questioning and ironic, occasionally bitter, its punchlines ending on an upward inflection, palms turned outward, "so, nu?" Jackie Mason is the paradigm of this comedy but you could name most any comic, Woody Allen or the late Joan Rivers, or others who honed their craft at Borscht Belt resorts and the generalisation would hold.

It holds even in literature. Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint is a comic rant on Jewish identity and ends with a question as well. Portnoy's analyst asks him, "So. Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?"

Roth, Allen, Rivers et al were the first Jews to move outside a self-imposed social ghetto. They turned their Jewish identity questions - often asked in relationship to their interactions with the goyische world - into the heart of their comedy. The possibility of romance and sex - sometimes mutually exclusive, sometimes not - with non-Jews is a thing of wonder for them. They make casual and hip references to the Jewish geniuses - Freud, Marx, Einstein - who have shaped the modern world

But for the next generation of Jewish comic writers and performers, mixing and mingling with non-Jews is no big deal, nor is the sheer wonder of Jewish genius. The rhythm of their patter is not that of the ghetto street. Shandling and his audience take his Jewishness for granted. Like his great friend, Jerry Seinfeld, the comic did not change his name, nor did he have to in order to advance his career, as Allen and Rivers did. He did not alter his mannerisms and did not make a thing about being Jewish. His audience didn't demand that he do Jewish jokes although, occasionally, he did.

"I flinch when I think of two Jewish women getting together and having a child because the idea of having two Jewish mothers makes my head explode. I have one. I couldn't handle two."

Shandling's comedy owes as much to the 1960s Sunbelt suburban environment in which he grew up as it does to his Jewishness. In this, he is like film director Steven Spielberg, a few years older and, like Shandling, born in a Midwestern city and then forcibly transplanted to a suburb in Arizona.

It is a life of never-ending sunshine and sitcoms on the television. It is a world of conformity in which anxiety and fear are suppressed as well as the sense of being different because you are one of the Chosen. This creates a new identity problem for Jews. Shandling joked, "To know me… is to not know me."

Referring to himself in the third person, the comedian explained to the New York Times what this meant, "Here he is, this kid in Arizona, he's not in New York, and while being Jewish, he's not at all Jewish in the traditional sense, of a noisy Jewish household."

In the midst of all the sun and gentiles of Arizona, the sight of Woody Allen on television triggered the comic impulse in him. It would take at least a decade before he could follow it. He studied electrical engineering at the University of Arizona but switched to marketing after a couple of years and got a job at an advertising agency in Los Angeles. In his spare time, he wrote scripts on spec for sitcoms. A near fatal motor accident made him realise that he really wanted to do stand-up comedy and within three years he made his first appearance on the Johnny Carson Show, the premier showcase for comic talent in America.

Shandling's deadpan delivery of his jokes - followed by a nervous, gurning smile while the punchline detonated - charmed viewers. Carson soon invited the comic to fill-in as host when he took his increasingly frequent vacations.

He was the favourite to take over from Carson when the host retired but instead decided to make his own sitcom out of the late-night chat show experience. It would expose the unhappiness of the celebrity life and the vapidness of the format. Shandling would play the host, Larry Sanders, Rip Torn would play his sharp-elbowed producer, Artie, and Jeffrey Tambor, would play the clueless sidekick, Hank Kingsley.

In one of the classic episodes, Hank rediscovers his Jewish roots and decides he will start wearing a yarmulke on air. Not only that, he wants to be known as Asher Kingsley. Larry and his producer, Artie, try to explain why this won't work.

Hank then brings his rabbi, a woman, in to explain why they should let Kingsley wear the kippah. The announcer then proclaims his love for her and she needs to let him down. The rabbi asks if he observes Shabbat or keeps kosher. "As a Jew, I'm not very good," he admits. "As a Jew you're practically a Methodist," she replies.

That line could sum up Jewish practice as it has evolved in many suburban enclaves around America.

Because of the way he treated his Jewishness, Shandling is to the next generation of Jewish comic writers and performers what Woody Allen was to him, the inspiration. His work was best summed up in a New Yorker tribute from his young friend Gary Shteyngart, the Russian-born, Jewish-American author: Shandling's jokes "were effortless-not jokes at all, but bulletins from a complicated man travelling through a particularly funny band of the space-time continuum."

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive