Garry Shandling was the master of turning Jewish dissatisfaction into comedy. People love to talk about neurosis like it’s the defining trope all Jewish comedians share, but Shandling wore a look on his face like he was uncomfortable with nearly everything, like nothing was ever right. That’s what made him one of the greatest comedians ever.
Shandling was one of my first comedy heroes. I think the line for me goes from Bill Murray to Eddie Murphy, and then happening upon some Shandling standup set on television while flipping through cable channels. Murray and Murphy were cool to me; Murray in “Stripes” and “Ghostbusters” was the charming weirdo, while Murphy on an edited-for-TV version of “Beverly Hills Cop” was an effortlessly cool smartass. I was drawn to them both because they were funny, but maybe more because they were cool. Even at an early age I was aware that being both of those things isn’t easy to pull off; I knew I was never going to be cool, so I concentrated on the funny.
Shandling wasn’t cool to me. In fact, there was something about him that I didn’t like. That voice! He sounded and looked like every single uncle named Dave I’d ever met. But I kept watching, despite the feeling that I’d seen the comedian at some family function, the smug distant relative from out west. I didn’t turn off his 1991 HBO special because I was a weird kid who was drawn to comic books and comedy, and I didn’t have much else going on. I kept watching the guy who looked like he was the person at the party that would say, “I guess it’s OK,” about the dinner he was served, while everybody else flipped out about it. Even at a young age I could pick up on that.
And for some reason, I found myself liking it. His pauses, his pacing, that wry smile that hinted at some underlying disdain. Garry Shandling didn’t always make me laugh when I was a kid, but there was something about him that stuck with me. There was something I got about him that I could never quite put my finger on, even as I got older and started to better understand the jokes he was telling.
Years later, when I finally got it, when I understood what made Shandling so great, when his jokes made sense and his whole act felt like a work of art, after watching “The Larry Sanders Show” and countless standup sets, I saw something different. A lot of people on Twitter mentioned this almost immediately after his passing, but the scene in the “Dead Dogs and Gym Teachers” episode of “Freaks and Geeks,” specifically the part where Martin Starr’s Bill comes home to an empty house, fixes himself a snack and watches one of Shandling’s sets, floored me, and still does every time I watch that clip on YouTube. It’s the connection, those few moments removed from the real world that Bill gets, that makes that scene so easy to relate to. The lonely kid doesn’t feel so alone for a few minutes.
And then there’s Shandling on his TV screen. Long before he’d go on to make one of the greatest television comedies ever with “The Larry Sanders Show,” there he is on a stage, doing what he did so much better than 99% of the people in his line of work, all while wearing that look on his face, an almost perpetual, “Eh.” It let you know that deep down Shandling was just as uncomfortable with the absurd world around him as you are.