The details of Garry Shandling’s death are not yet known. We do know that the 66-year-old comedian had no known illnesses and that 911 was dialed from his Los Angeles home Thursday morning. He died at a hospital shortly after.
Just last week, he was hanging out with friends like Kathy Griffin and Bob Odenkirk, who worked on his seminal 1990s sitcom The Larry Sanders Show. With that program, along with It’s Garry Shandling’s Show before it, Shandling led the way in innovating a type of comedy storytelling that has now become the norm.
Without Shandling playing a fictionalized, perpetually awkward late-night talk show host version of himself, there would be no Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm. No Ricky Gervais on Extras. No Louis CK on Louie.
Besides Odenkirk, luminaries who got their start either writing for or guest-starring in Larry Sanders include Judd Apatow, Sarah Silverman, Jon Stewart and many other household names. The show also marked the first time the world truly took notice of Jeffrey Tambor, who delivered an all-time great performance as Hank “Hey Now!” Kingsley before going on to Arrested Development and his ground-breaking, award-winning work on Transparent.
A one-time guest host for The Tonight Show, Shandling opted to portray the inner-life of a fake late-night host instead of living the life of an real one. NBC originally wanted him to succeed David Letterman as host of Late Night, but he turned them down, opening up the door for Conan O’Brien.
Yet after Larry Sanders went off the air in 1998, with a farewell episode to rival Johnny Carson’s swan song, Shandling more or less retreated from the public eye. He made cameos as himself in films like Zoolander and had a recurring role as a U.S. Senator in the Marvel universe. But other than that, he largely kept to himself.
Shandling spent much of the past two decades dedicating his life to Buddhism, becoming the rare comedian with a truly spiritual view of the world. He practiced mindfulness and considered “impermanence” the greatest lesson he had learned.
Earlier this year, Shandling appeared on Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee web series, where the two friends reminisced about comedians who have passed in recent years.
“I was sitting there watching CNN and they said Robin Williams killed himself. And I sat there and I was frozen,” Shandling said. “And then Wolf Blitzer says, ’63 was so young!’ And I thought, ‘I’m the same age as Robin.’ and then I realized ‘63 is so young’ is a phrase you never hear relative to anything but death.”
“You have to die in your 60s for them to say, ‘Boy he was young!’” Seinfeld added.
Then, Shandling delivered the perfect funeral joke: “What I want at my funeral is an actual boxing referee to do a count, and at 5 just wave it off and say he’s not getting up.”
It was this combination of spirituality, comedy and self-deprecation that appeared to truly drive Shandling, especially later in his life. It came out in conversations with other comedians like Marc Maron, where he told the WTF podcast host in 2010, “Life itself is impermanent, not solid, purely energy. Putting up walls around it is just ignorance. It’s based on fear.” More recently, he spoke to podcaster Pete Holmes about meditating and being at peace with death.
Above and beyond his ability to make people laugh, Shandling's role as a wise and generous elder statesman in the comedy community explains the enormous outpouring of support from his fellow comedians on Twitter today, including many who, in one way or another, owe him their careers.
One of Shandling’s closest friends, Judd Apatow, had only this photo to share on Twitter:
But he also issued a statement that sums up, if not Shandling's life, then at least what Shandling, or his alter ego Larry Sanders, would think about this collective, public mourning process.
“Garry would see the ridiculousness of me being asked to sum up his life five minutes after being told of his passing,” Apatow said. “It is a perfect, ridiculous Larry Sanders moment. I can imagine how Hank would handle it but I just don’t know how to sum up someone I loved so much who taught me everything I know and was always so kind to me. I am just too sad. Maybe tomorrow I will do better.”