From the very first notes of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show sing-along theme song, the series doesn’t so much “break the fourth wall” separating viewers from its creators and performers as it does level the building.
“This is the theme to Garry’s Show/the opening theme to Garry’s show/This is the music that you hear as you watch the credits . . .” it begins. Like so many sitcoms before it—think Gilligan’s Island or The Brady Bunch—the song delivers just the facts, but not about the show; they’re about the song itself.
That opening ditty essentially lays out the meta-brilliance of the entire series: the more literal a thing gets, the funnier it is. Therefore, Garry Shandling stars in It’s Garry Shandling’s Show as Garry Shandling. Yes, he is the famous comedian of that name, but Garry is also a fictional(ish) character who directly addresses viewers and is completely aware that he’s living on a sitcom.
Similarly clued-in are his mom, friends, wacky neighbors, lady visitors, pesky condo board president, and occasional celebrity drop-ins such as Rob Reiner, Martin Mull, and Father Guido Sarducci. Even the studio audience knows they’re playing a studio audience, and they often figure heavily (and cleverly) into the action.
Remarkably, the you-are-here novelty of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show never wears off. In fact, it only snowballs into higher and harder hilarity with each successive gag and subsequent episode. Few TV series can boast such a consistently killer run, a fact that’s no doubt bolstered by Shandling’s Show knowing and gleefully announcing all along that it’s a TV series.
Naturally, television history comprises one of Shandling’s cornerstone joke ingredients. On a first season episode titled “Laffie,” for example, Garry takes in a runaway dog and falls in love with her, saying, “It’s so hard to come up with a name for a female collie that’s really smart and has been on television already—except for Lassie, but we couldn’t get the rights to use that name, so I’m going to have to call her something like . . . Laffie! Laaa-feeee!”
The screen then shifts to a black & white parody of the Lassie credits that introduce the It’s Garry Shandling’s Show cast as members of a pie-baking, cardigan-adorned, arch-Eisenhower-era family. After returning to the present, Garry says, “Hey, it’s great to be back in color!” and the audience applauds the miracle of TV magic.
That sort of hip, knowing take on nostalgia powers much of the show’s humor. It also figured profoundly into Shandling’s stand-up comedy and the previous work of co-creator Alan Zweibel, a beloved original Saturday Night Live writer who crafted Samurai bits with John Belushi and Gilda Radner’s Weekend Update correspondent, Roseanne Roseannadanna.
The episode “Force Boxman,” for example, expands its targets from simply television tropes to tweaking decades of old-school comedian and show business lore with which both Shandling and Zweibel were joyfully obsessed.
The program opens as Garry announces he’s leaving It’s Garry Shandling’s Show to play the title role in a new tough-guy cop series, Force Boxman. Taking his place is vintage funnyman Red Buttons, who wears a tuxedo and reworks his classic “never got a dinner” routine into a series of “never had their own show” gags. Red’s wild-haired fellow Friars Club comedian Marty Allen drops by and makes off with Garry’s mother. It all ends (perfectly) with the lead comedians passionately showbiz-kissing one another—smack on the lips.
Like Seinfeld, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show immediately grabbed the attention of savvy audiences while initially proving too ahead-of-the-curve for wholesale success. Seinfeld eventually did win over the masses, of course, while Shandling himself moved on to the HBO’s history-making The Larry Sanders Show.
However, neither of those ’90s comedic juggernauts seems possible without the heavy conceptual lifting done beforehand by It’s Gary Shandling’s Show. The same goes for The Ben Stiller Show and Mr. Show, along with the on-and-off-screen work of The State and the Upright Citizens Brigade—in short, every comedy pro that’s made us laugh hardest for the past quarter-century.
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