Vanity and ego were two major hallmarks of Garry Shandling’s comedy. But the man who is revealed in the new two-part HBO documentary directed by Judd Apatow is as selfless as it gets.
There’s a defining story from very early in Shandling’s career that plays out in the first part of The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling, which premieres on HBO Monday night at 8 p.m. (part two airs on Tuesday). In 1972, a college-aged Shandling seeks out his favorite comedian, George Carlin, after a show in his home state of Arizona and bravely hands him a large stack of jokes he’s been working on.
When Shandling returns the next day, he finds the pages spread out on a table in the backstage green room where Carlin is about to perform. Carlin told Shandling that there was something funny on each page and if he’s serious about pursuing comedy, he should do it. The next week, Shandling picked up and moved to Los Angeles to become a stand-up comedian. The rest is history.
That nudge from Carlin is something Shandling spent the rest of his life and career paying forward, with Judd Apatow as his biggest beneficiary. Not only did Shandling give Apatow his first real paying gig in comedy—writing jokes for the 1993 Grammy Awards—but he also hired him to write for his seminal HBO series The Larry Sanders Show and gave him the chance to direct an episode before Apatow even knew he was ready.
In the two years since Shandling died prematurely at the age of 66 from a blood clot, Apatow has been meticulously crafting this masterful, four-and-a-half hour documentary about his friend and mentor’s life. But Zen Diaries is not just a feast for comedy nerds. It’s also a meditation on existence and spirituality as told through the koans Shandling spent decades scribbling in his private journals.
At times, we glimpse a version of Shandling who was able to overcome his anxieties: “You don’t need to be anything. You can just be.” At others, we see just how tortured he was by the pressures of success: “If you’re not on TV, you don’t exist.”
In a long interview by phone from his office in Los Angeles, Apatow discussed Shandling’s complicated legacy along with his hesitancy to condemn frequent collaborator James Franco and how porn star Stormy Daniels ended up in two of his movies. “What if there’s a sex tape and you find out I directed it?” Apatow joked on Conan this week.
Below is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.
So I want to start with Garry’s private journals because they play such a huge role in the documentary. Once you got a hold of those, was there anything in them that really surprised you?
The main thing that surprised me was the fact that his mentorship was a conscious choice. I always thought he was just a nice guy. He was around if you needed him to read to something or look at something. But in his journals, he wrote about it. It was this very conscious choice to be a giving person. He wrote in one section, “Learn to grow old gracefully, learn how to become a mentor gratefully.” And I was very moved by that. He made an almost spiritual choice to make his life about giving to other people.
Yeah, some of things he wrote in those journals are so powerful and wise and not what we think of as a typical comedian’s notebook, as we saw in the recent Jerry Seinfeld Netflix special, for example.
Jerry’s special, which I worked on, those were his joke books, which Garry also had. He had tons of looseleaf binders filled with jokes that he would be attempting to work out. So it might say, “I have a mirror above and below my bed so it looks like I’m sleeping with 160 women” and then below it says, “I have a mirror above my bed that says, ‘Objects are larger than they appear.’” So you could see how a joke evolved. But these journals were a way for him to try to connect to his higher self and to give himself advice and reminders about the kind of person he wanted to be.
What were your earliest impressions of Garry as a comedian before you started working with him?
I saw some of his first appearances on The Tonight Show and when he first guest-hosted The Tonight Show. And every once in a while, there’s someone that’s so strong and so funny that you can tell that they’re not just another comedian, that they’re going to do big things. And you always felt that with Garry. I even interviewed him for my high school radio station right after he did The Tonight Show for the first time and he had a real vision for his career. He talked on that call about how he wanted to do a television show and do something really honest and play himself in a show, so he was already planning his next steps.
We see how close he came to hosting The Tonight Show and that he ultimately took himself out of the running. Do you think he was better off playing a fictional late-night host than actually hosting a real late-night show?
I think the idea of making a very long commitment scared him. He also wasn’t sure that he was interested enough in other people to do it for several decades. He had more interest in exploring the people who work on a talk show and how that’s a metaphor for all of us, for the way that we are blocked from connecting. And so he chose to take himself out of the running for all of the late-night jobs. He was alternating with Jay Leno filling in for Johnny Carson and he decided that it was too much work to do that and his sitcom [It’s Garry Shandling’s Show] and so he stopped doing it.
There’s a pivotal moment during the making of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show when he realizes the next step is capturing human behavior in a more honest way onscreen. That seems to say a lot about what he strove for as a comedian and as an artist.
You know, he studied with this acting teacher, Roy London, who talked a lot about using yourself in the work and I think he fully realized that he wanted to get closer to the truth and dig into his core and examine the human condition, more than he was interested in trying to figure out how to just be super funny. And that’s why he created The Larry Sanders Show. It really was the perfect show for him to express all of his ideas about the way people’s egos get in the way of them connecting with other people. It’s like he was satirizing a part of himself that he wasn’t proud of.
What did you take away from your experience working on Larry Sanders that you’ve applied to the work that you’ve done since?
The main approach to the work that I learned from Garry is that if you really dig deep for the truth, it’s not hard to get to the comedy. If it’s very three-dimensional and you think deeply about human behavior, it’s always right next to funny.
People in the film talk about how Garry was always eager to top himself. Do you think he feared he would never be able to top The Larry Sanders Show?
I think that he really got burnt out as a result of doing the show and then he made a motion picture [What Planet Are You From?] that didn’t go as well as he wanted it to go and he had his lawsuit with his manager [Brad Grey] and all of that drained him. And then he started having health problems and after that I think he thought, maybe I don’t have as much energy as is required to take on as big a project as The Larry Sanders Show. He seemed to switch gears into trying to be there for other people, trying to be a mentor and do comedy but at his own pace.
It’s fascinating to see in the documentary how the behind-the-scenes DVD extras for that show came together and how that inspired Jerry Seinfeld to create Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. Do you think if Garry were still around he would try to do the type of streaming show that comics like Seinfeld and Letterman and now Norm Macdonald are doing for Netflix?
I never heard him talk about wanting to interview people again, but I know that he was very proud of his appearance on Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. Garry was trying to figure out ways to talk about his spirituality in a way that was engaging and funny. He hadn’t really done that before. And he loved what happened between Jerry and himself. So that might have been a direction that he would have moved in, looking for ways to explore his world view and spirituality in comedy.
Yeah, I think that experience and his podcast with Pete Holmes were both insights into him that fans didn’t really have before then, and it’s something that is taken even further in this film. It’s almost a way of getting even more real than Larry Sanders.
Well, that’s what was so interesting about the Larry Sanders DVDs, which is that he took it on with as much energy as he spent doing The Larry Sanders Show. He wanted to explore what happened and who were the people who made it and it really was an experimental art project. And in a lot of ways, it became very influential.
On a personal level, you obviously owe a lot of your career to Garry taking a chance on you so early. How do you think would your career would be different had he not taken you under his wing?
It’s hard to say. Almost every major break I got he was somehow related to. He gave me one of my first writing jobs writing for the Grammys, he did a cameo on The Ben Stiller Show pilot, which I think is part of why it got picked up. He asked me to write on The Larry Sanders Show and then he asked me to direct on The Larry Sanders Show. Then he asked me to co-run the show during the last season and he gave me very important notes on all of my films. So I don’t know where I would be if I didn’t learn so much from him and get so much from him as an adviser and a friend. He also was very interested in Eastern religion and Buddhism and when I first met him I was in my early twenties. He would give me these books by people like Pema Chödrön and Ram Dass. My introduction to that type of thought changed everything about the way I live my life in addition to my work.
This film was clearly an enormous undertaking and you got so many amazing people to appear in it. But was there anyone you really wanted to interview for the film and couldn’t get for one reason or another?
Everyone was very happy to talk about Garry. The hardest part is that there were so many other people that definitely would have had interesting insights and stories to tell. I was very lucky that HBO loves Garry so much that they were willing to let me make this documentary in whatever way I thought it worked best. I told them early on, I don’t think it’s your normal two-hour documentary. I think it’s going to be a little bit more like The Eagles documentary or the Bob Dylan documentary and they said, whatever works best, that’s what you should do. It’s so rare that you are given that type of freedom. And I was allowed to be completely honest about his life. I think often people’s lives are edited in a way to remove their imperfections and I always thought that Garry would want the truest possible telling of his greatness and his flaws.
You definitely don’t shy away from the more difficult parts of his life, from the engagement he called off to the lawsuit against his manager Brad Grey. Was there anything that you were hesitant to include?
I just tried to tell the story as truthfully as possible. I didn’t censor anything. What was fun is that usually you don’t have enough time to really show comedy. When you’re trying to show why someone’s really funny you get to show 12 seconds of it. But in this format I was able to show long scenes from The Larry Sanders Show, big hunks of his comedy sets, and that’s always the way I wish people would edit movies about artists.
I know one of the origins of this film was Garry’s memorial service, which you essentially produced. What was that process like for you so soon after losing him as a friend?
I think when you grieve sometimes you go into a trance and some part of you goes on automatic. It’s how I handled dealing with the news. We put together an evening where about a dozen people spoke and they were all so insightful and hilarious talking about Garry. We showed these short documentary films that I quickly put together about Garry and while I was editing those I realized there was definitely enough material to put together a documentary that would tell people who he really was. Because he was private and very few of his friends really knew the story of his life.
There’s something kind of tragic in the way public celebrations of famous people happen only after they’re gone. Do you think Garry knew how beloved he was by the comedy community?
I think that Garry was trying very hard to believe that none of that was important. A lot of his spiritual practice was about letting go of his ego. That being said, he definitely loved being appreciated. I always tried to talk about Garry in most interviews that I did because I really feel that he was the person who taught me everything that has allowed me to do the work I’ve done. And I never want people to forget about him. But he was surrounded by a lot of people who loved him and appreciated him, so I think he knew the regard he was held in by the comedy community.
Shifting gears, I have to ask you about Stormy Daniels, who I believe has appeared in two of your films—The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up—which both came out around the time of her alleged affair with Trump. What did you make of her at that time and what has it been like for you to see all of this unfold?
I just remember that she was very smart and really strong and funny, to the point where we kept asking her to do silly things in our movies. I think the story has not even begun to be told. It feels like there’s probably a lot more Stormy Daniels out there that we’re going to hear from. What’s really troubling about it is it’s somebody who does what he wants to do and thinks he can throw money at people and make them disappear. He doesn’t have a lot of morality in how he deals with his family. I mean, he had two affairs in one weekend right after his wife gave birth! And I think that troubles all of us because he’s someone that we all look to to help us and protect us. And it doesn’t seem like that’s his top priority. He’s clearly a selfish, dishonest person and that’s troubling.
There’s kind of a debate: If something does bring Trump down, will it be Robert Mueller or Stormy Daniels? Do you have any thoughts on which scenario is more likely?
I think that as a result of the lack of disgust by almost every Republican out there, an enormous amount of women are going to vote for Democrats in the fall. And certainly that is something that is going to affect him. I don’t know if paying off a lot of women you’ve slept with is something that brings you down.
You’ve been very outspoken about Trump and Hollywood’s sexual predators, from Bill Cosby to Harvey Weinstein, but I’ve noticed you’ve gotten some criticism on Twitter for not speaking out as forcefully against James Franco. Is it harder to condemn his actions because you’ve had such a long personal and professional relationship with him?
Well, I know an enormous number of people who are being accused of things. And I know an enormous number of people who are accusing people of things. So it’s a very sad, dark, confusing time. I don’t see it as my place to tell the world exactly what they should believe in every situation. There are a lot of facts floating around out there and there are a lot of situations where we don’t have all of the facts. There’s a lot more to come out about people, which in some situations will support them and in some situations will condemn them even more. So in all these cases, I don’t think we know everything.
Yeah, but I’m sure you’ve seen some of that pushback about Franco in particular. Does that bother you?
I’m sad that people got hurt. And I’m sad that there’s so many people who don’t feel heard and respected. I also think we have a weird situation where all of the accused are afraid to speak up and defend themselves because the whole idea of defending yourself in some way makes you look worse. So we’re in a weird Catch-22 with all of these people, where no one is allowed to speak up and I don’t know how that’s going to evolve. But in the meantime, it’s not up to me to determine who’s telling the truth and who isn’t. I certainly have my own opinions on a lot of the cases. And usually if someone’s got 10 accusers or 60 accusers we all pretty much know what happened, but there are a lot of cases where we want to know what people are being accused of. That doesn’t mean I think they’re innocent or not innocent. I want the women to be heard, I want them to be respected and to be taken very seriously in every case, whether they are accusing my friends or not.