2018 | Unrated (R equivalent for language) | Documentary | narrated by Michael Cera | directed by Judd Apatow | 4hrs 30mins |
Studio Pitch: The life story of groundbreaking comedian Garry Shandling.
The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling first and foremost serves as a beautifully detailed love note from Judd Apatow to his friend and mentor. It covers the entire life of the comedian most know as the creative force behind HBO’s prototypical meta-series The Larry Sanders Show from his childhood to his struggles in comedy to his romances and legal fights to his personal demons and lasting legacy. It is in a pantheon of epic documentaries and I’ll give it this big compliment – at an unsellable 4 hours and 30 minutes, the HBO-aired film still never feels too long. It feels rich and full.
It’s a great backstory for someone like myself who came in on the tail end of Shandling’s Larry Sanders career. I always preferred Seinfeld to Larry Sanders even with very similar meta material, often dismissing Shandling as too vanilla in his approach to observational comedy and penis jokes. Zen Life made me really appreciate Shandling and how groundbreaking much of his work was. The groundbreaking starts with It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, his sitcom about sitcoms that seems to be the first to smash through the 4th wall before that became all the rage in the early 00s. Then in Larry Sanders he did the workplace comedy in a pseudo-documentary style before Rickey Gervais did with The Office. Shandling seemed to be steps ahead of the zeitgeist his entire career, causing ripple effects through the comedy world we’re still feeling today. At one point Sarah Silverman (whose own Sarah Silverman Program owed a small debt to Shandling) says that there are probably NCIS scripts today with some influence from Garry.
The narrative starts from the beginning with Garry’s family and detailing the death of Garry’s brother, Barry, in childhood from Cystic Fibrosis. Apatow and the massive army of Shandling’s friends and admirers he’s assembled to interview thread the impact of Barry’s death through Garry’s entire life, influencing how he related to his best friends even in his final years, how he worked and how he came to find peace with Buddism. Zen Diaries is crammed with at least 3 movie’s worth of content. The opening stretch exhaustively detailing Shandling’s young obsession with comedy and struggling against insecurity to find his voice on amateur open mic nights at Caroline’s Comedy Club in LA could have been a movie in and of itself. Throughout the film we get to see Garry’s own hand-written diary notes showing how he refined his vision and came into his own (Michael Cera reads them as if voicing a young Shandling). His dream becomes to host The Tonight Show and his life changes during a fantastically successful gig on Johnny Carson’s stage.
Like Jim and Andy: The Great Beyond, the wild Netflix documentary following Jim Carrey’s rise to fame, Zen Diaries details the obsessive torment that runs through so many of these great comedians and, particularly, the depression that comes from achieving your dream. What to do with your life once you’ve made your masterpiece. We’ve heard this story before, in every version getting what these people want – Shandling ends up co-hosting The Tonight Show and is in the running to succeed Carson during the late shift debacle – and the inability to find happiness in it becomes a heavier burden that continuing to struggle. Shandling breaks and remolds his career over and over. But unlike Jim and Andy which seems to end with Carrey still descending into the throws of madness, Garry Shandling seems to find a solution in the zen life. A large chunk of the middle of the film is devoted to Shandling’s various legal battles with his former manager and easily feeling betrayed by those around him, but the portion of the film finds hope as Shandling appears to drop off the showbiz radar for years. While the world was wondering what was wrong with Garry Shandling, he was finding peace in himself.
At core it’s deep stuff, beautifully told, but the film is also very funny and a fascinating look at the business of comedy. Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Sarah Silverman, Bob Saget, Kevin Nealon, Sacha Baron Cohen, and a ton of comedians appear to discuss working with Shandling, working in the 90s where comedians were exploding into sitcoms or detailing the mechanics behind some of Shandling’s most remembered jokes. Like going on The Tonight Show with a bank teller pen, Shandling’s endless clever variations on the small penis joke and his observations on dating.
It’s hard to not be overwhelmed at the end of the whole experience of what Apatow has put together here. It’s gripping and thorough and an excellent lesson in recent comedy history, pulling together everything from old Tonight Show clips to full stretches of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee to tell the singular epic story of a man’s universal struggle to find happiness and a more specific case that puts on the record Garry Shandling’s many (often behind-the-scenes) influences on the comedy world we live in today.