Reading Amy Wallace‘s profiles is like sitting around your favorite bar with your favorite super-witty friend and talking about people over cocktails: You come for the companionship and vibe, you stay for the juicy details. It’s hard enough to profile the famous because public figures don’t reeeeeeally want to be known anymore, but Wallace, a GQ correspondent and Los Angeles magazine editor-at-large, gets in there every time and brings back something revealing. Is it her Yale brain that code-cracks walled personalities? (Yes.) Is it her tact? (Yes.) Her background as a reporter and business editor at the Los Angeles Times and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution? (That, too.) She writes all kinds of magazine stories – about vaccinations and autism for Wired, about a karma-centric prep school for Vanity Fair, about the killer Betty Broderick for Los Angeles, about the wah-wah guitar pedal for a former New York Times column on creativity and innovation, but today we’re focusing on profiles, specifically her GQ piece on the comedian Garry Shandling. In our annotation you’ll find Storyboard’s comments in blue, Wallace’s in red.
First, a few setup questions:
Storyboard: What can profiles teach us about narrative? How do the genres intersect?
Amy Wallace: Well, while I get that the two are distinct, I actually don’t think of them as being that different. Not to get too groovy, but it’s all about story and the drivers that keep that story going. A profile is not just a list of chronological events in an individual’s life. A profile seeks to capture the essence – the point – of the person being profiled, and that is done, often, through narrative. I wrote a profile of the soul singer D’Angelo last year that I would argue provided more than a glimpse into the mind of a creative genius. It was, more broadly, an analysis of some of the impediments to black superstardom – obstacles that have led legends like Marvin Gaye to falter. Those impediments include both the modern-day star-making machinery of the music business but also the legacy of slavery – a legacy that D’Angelo, having grown up in Virginia (once the cradle of slave trading) and having worshiped in the Pentecostal Church, felt personally tied to. The story was a profile, yes. But it was also an exploration of the continuing ripple effects of America’s greatest sin against its own people – slavery – told through the lens of a 38-year-old musician who believes he has a direct line to God. Similarly, my profile of Garry Shandling was about a heralded funnyman, but it was also (thanks to his brilliant, circular, inside-out thinking) a dissertation on creativity, on staying loose and open, on the role of humor. The person at the center of the profile is the vehicle that allows us to talk about ideas. And that isn’t so different than narrative (and often uses many of the devices of narrative). So I guess my short answer is: It’s not so much that profile writing can teach us about narrative. It’s that they’re both using the same tools, looking for characters and moments that pull you through (and toward) greater understanding.
You make profile writing look easy. How? Do you follow a certain philosophy/strategy?
Well, thank you, first of all. I really enjoy writing profiles – mostly because I think of them as puzzles. I wish I could say loving to do them made doing them easy. If you take it seriously, writing profiles is anything but. Without getting too earnest, writing a profile of someone is a big responsibility. You are charged with figuring the person out.
You’ve profiled Charlie Sheen, Jerry Lewis, author James Ellroy, HBO honcho Chris Albrecht, Variety editor Peter Bart, so many others – who’s the hardest person you ever had to profile? Let me rephrase that. What was your most challenging profile and why?
It’s all about access. Jim Carrey gave me 59 minutes in a featureless office he clearly never spent any time in and then saved most of his best quotes for the photo shoot (which luckily I attended). But great secondary interviews can help salvage a terrible primary interview. I’m a big believer in doing secondaries, ideally before I sit down with the subject. If things are going to go well, they’ll only go better if you’ve done your homework beforehand with people who really know the person. If things don’t go well, good secondaries can’t make up for it entirely, but they can go a long way.
What’s the weirdest thing that happened while hanging out with a celebrity?
Russell Crowe got “angry” with me, seeming to take great offense when I asked him if the fact that he’d just been cast in the first big movie that would allow him to speak in his own New Zealand accent appealed to his sense of national pride. He reacted as if I’d called him arrogant (which I was so mystified by that I asked him point blank, “Do you think I just called you arrogant?”) But the whole thing felt slightly staged. Like he wasn’t really mad, he was just testing to see how I’d react. At the end of the interview, he insisted that I stay and listen to the entire CD of his band, 30 Odd Foot of Grunts, as he sang along. Later, I talked to another journalist who’d interviewed him the same day (!!) and she said he picked a fight with her, too. That weird enough?
What’s in your personal literary canon, nonfiction or fiction? Top five.
I’m never good with lists. Here are a few books I admire: Larry McMurtry’s Leaving Cheyenne; Alex Kotlowitz’s There Are No Children Here; Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kittredge; Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close; David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars.
What’s the ideal profile subject?
Someone fascinating, relevant and accessible.
You’re an incredibly organized person, which allows you to work faster than a lot of people but yet with verve and impact. Were you born this way? I know you’re going to say you have to be organized or you wouldn’t get it all done, but be more specific. Do you, like break down your Los Angeles magazine stuff for certain days of the week, GQ stuff the rest of the week, work only at night, etc.?
I am organized, but not as organized as you suggest. I basically do what needs to be done when it must be done. Nights and weekends are, alas, rarely off-limits when it comes to work. I’m a part-time editor-at-large at Los Angeles magazine, so I tend to spend at least a fraction of each day there. I’m a correspondent for GQ. Thank God for my iPhone, because it keeps me on schedule.
You worked in newspapers for a long time before moving into magazines – how did you make that switch?
I worked in newspapers for years, but during my last few years at the L.A. Times I really wanted to become a magazine writer. I was tired of writing around what I didn’t know. And I really had begun to believe you could say more that was true in good long-form writing. I’ll get to what I mean in a minute. I wrote several pieces for the L.A. Times magazine when Kit Rachlis (who later became editor of Los Angeles magazine) was there and I learned a lot from him. Around that same time, Matt Tyrnauer, an editor at Vanity Fair, got in touch with me after reading an obituary I’d written in the newspaper of superagent Swifty Lazar. I did several tiny pieces for him, but it kind of got me hooked. Anyway, after Kit went to L.A. magazine, he asked me to come join him. And another person he’d lured away from the L.A. Times, Jesse Katz, and I spent a lot of time talking about the difference between newspaper and magazine writing. One story that we talked about a lot was Ron Suskind’s 2002 Esquire piece, “Mrs. Hughes Takes Her Leave,” about White House press secretary Karen Hughes. It starts with this unbelievably great scene of Suskind and Hughes’ “unheralded house husband” standing in the kitchen waiting for her one frigid morning. The husband – who used to have a solo real estate law practice in Austin – is out of work, having followed his wife when she was called into service by George W. Bush, and it’s a little awkward, their small talk. And then Hughes comes downstairs and she and her husband talk a little about how conflict of interest laws have hindered his ability to start his own life. And then, Suskind writes:
I look at them both, and they look at me, and then all of us seem to look at the glass coffee table, where Muslim scholar Bernard Lewis’s What Went Wrong? is atop a stack of must-reads. Then no one says anything. “So, let’s get out of the house! Get going! ” Karen shouts finally, like a fire captain after the crossbeam collapses.
I can’t tell you how much Jesse and I talked about that paragraph (even though the real punchline of the lede was that six weeks after they met in the kitchen, Karen Hughes resigned and took her family back to Texas). We loved the way Suskind acknowledged his own loss of words in that moment, let alone his own presence (usually a no-no in newspaper writing). We loved that he was part of the scene, but not in a gratuitous way – in a true way. The only reason the husband was so revealingly awkward was because a reporter was there. So Suskind used that and fessed up to it and didn’t try to erase himself from the picture. And as a result, we learned so much. (Ten) years later, I’m still talking about it.
Why does everybody think you’re Irving Wallace’s daughter? How’d that rumor start?
Irving Wallace has a daughter named Amy who co-wrote The Book of Lists with him (I remember reading it as a kid). When I saw she was speaking once in L.A. I went and introduced myself to her. It was funny. She said people confuse her with me as well. The weirdest experience I ever had with this doppelganger issue is several years ago when I went to a party and met a lawyer who asked my name. When I told him, he said, “That’s funny, I have a client named Amy Wallace.” I asked him what she did. He said, “Oh, she writes for the Calendar section of the L.A. Times.” I was stunned. “No,” I said, “that’s me.” It was so weird. I guess he represented her, but had conflated our identities. Very, very odd experience.
The Comedian’s Comedian’s Comedian
By Amy Wallace
Toward the end of February, in the first-class cabin of a United flight from Hawaii to Los Angeles, the only man on the planet who has hosted late-night talk shows, appeared on late-night talk shows, and created an iconic TV series that parodied a late-night talk show encountered the man who had just been famously ousted from a late-night talk show.
Garry Shandling was in 1A. Conan O’Brien and his family were three rows back. The two men are close friends, and their unexpected proximity made Shandling happy—so happy, he says, that he asked a flight attendant to deliver O’Brien a present. “Mr. Shandling can’t finish his cookie, and he thought you might want to have the rest,” the woman told O’Brien, presenting the crumb-littered plate. Minutes later, Shandling looked up—way up—to see the six-foot-four-inch redhead planted in front of him, an exaggerated scowl on his face.
“This is the way you treat me, with the broken cookies?” O’Brien asked Shandling, his voice slightly raised to make sure the comedy could be heard over the jet engines. “When I let you get in line with me and my wife and get your ticket ten minutes earlier? This is what you do?”
“Let me see if I understand this correctly,” Shandling responded, almost yelling. “I, out of the generosity of my heart, offer you food. And you have the nerve to walk up to my aisle and harass me and heckle me in front of this passenger”—Shandling nodded to the stranger in 1B—”who I don’t know?”
O’Brien turned to Shandling’s stunned neighbor, who will surely be dining out on this story for the rest of his life. “I’m sorry you have to sit next to him,” O’Brien said. “You know, if you call ahead and you find out Garry’s on the plane, they will allow you to switch seats.” I love this opening scene. Had you heard about it, or did it come entirely from Shandling in his kitchen? I like the opening sentence because it rolls and builds so beautifully, but with a sort of playfulness – it establishes tone. Did you immediately recognize it as your lede or did you toy with other openings? Garry mentioned it to me and I zeroed in on it. We met twice and the second time, I asked him to repeat the story in detail. He basically acted out this scene to me. I wrote it, then checked it with Conan.
It was a coincidence, these two funnymen being on the Big Island at the same time. Shandling, who had recently completed final reshoots on his first acting role in years—a U.S. senator in Iron Man 2—was enjoying one of his frequent retreats to the Waipio Valley, his favorite place to meditate and ponder the universe. (While he stops short of calling himself a Buddhist, he is a serious student of dharma.) O’Brien, who just weeks before had parted ways with NBC and The Tonight Show, was on what is perhaps best described as a forced vacation. This is the sort of nut-grafy raison d’etre thing that has to exist but that’s so hard to insert. You always do it gracefully: get in, get out, get back to the moment. In your early drafts do you ever overcomplicate/overexplain/oversignify? Please tell me you do. Of course I do. The nut graf is essential, but can almost feel cliché at the same time. It’s definitely a challenge to do it in a way that doesn’t feel obligatory. People need nut grafs to know why the hell they should spend all this time reading your story. So write them, then rewrite them. Then do it again and again. The timing was “synchronistic,” Garry says, recalling that they hung out so much in Hawaii “that Conan’s wife was jealous.”
“We were able to spend some time chatting about, uh, Nice little “uh” move. Some writers might feel compelled to delete it because that’s what Journalism has trained us to do, delete the little connectors, but in this case the speaker isn’t stalling or misspeaking, he’s cueing, and the “uh” is important in terms of intention/comedic delivery, and you paid attention to that. So say something about that. I always record my interviews with profile subjects because I think the rhythm of how they talk is important to capture and I can’t get that without transcribing precisely. With a comedian like Garry who thinks a lot about timing and delivery, that’s even more important. Sometimes such detail enables you to mimic their rhythms in your writing. Other times it helps you pick the best quotes. the turtles and anything else that might be going on in our lives,” Shandling says as we stand in the kitchen of the vast Spanish-style home where he lives, alone, in the hills above the West Los Angeles enclave of Brentwood. You can see the distant ocean out the window, past a grassy oasis and Garry’s rock-lined pool. He looks tan and fit, if a little rumpled, in an untucked striped button-down, baggy cargo pants with a tiger emblazoned on one leg, and beige Prada sneakers. I never know how to ask people what they’re wearing and I sure as hell don’t recognize Prada when I see it. In profiling celebrities, the subject of attire/accessories must always come up – do you bust out with that question and get it over with or do you just recognize Prada when you see it? In this case, Prada was just written on the side of the shoe, thank God. Same with the Pumas that Matt Damon was wearing. But mostly I don’t ask and don’t describe labels. In this case, I thought it was interesting – Garry’s a jock, but he still wears Prada sneakers. It felt like a remnant of his being a big dog in Hollywood, which he was quite publicly for years and now still is, but on the down low. Occasionally when I’ve written for women’s magazines, I know it’s required, and I ask it right away, or at a natural break early on, just so I don’t forget. But I can’t recognize most designers and usually would rather read a great visual description than a label name. When I press, he acknowledges that yes, the topic of O’Brien’s future came up. “Conan’s completely free now,” Garry says with a solemnity more gurulike than you’d expect from someone who got famous making jokes about his hair. “He doesn’t have to fit into someone else’s mold.”
But what Garry really wants to talk about is that hand-me-down cookie. “I’d eaten half, and the other half was in tiny crumbles and pieces,” he says, still delighted. Asked what kind of cookie—oatmeal? chocolate chip?—he adjusts his black baseball cap and takes off: “I asked the same question, and they said, ‘It’s an airplane cookie.’ And I didn’t want to ask what that was exactly. I was frightened.” A beat. “I was in a situation once over water where they said they were having a technical problem with my cookie. I said, ‘Oh, my God, what are you going to do?’ They said, ‘We’re going to have to switch cookies. Give us ten minutes.'” Backtracking to the tape recorder question. You’re obviously a fan. I’m a devout tape recorder user. I think it’s essential for a profile. How people talk defines them, and you can never capture that in handwritten notes. Plus, I like to be nimble in an interview, to pay attention to what’s happening in the moment (which I guess is partly what this story was about). I can’t do that if I’m simultaneously trying to remember and scribble down what the person is saying AND formulate my response in the same instant. Transcribing your own tape is one of the world’s worst chores (hearing your own dopey responses is torturous). But it is worth it.
He’s not merely riffing. It turns out that the man who is widely credited with redefining the sitcom, introducing self-referential humor to the masses, and paving the way for Seinfeld, The Office, and Curb Your Enthusiasm, Again, the subtle slip-in of background/context PLUS the currency of his new material, which presumably is why you’re profiling him. You obviously need this material in the opening section but I like how you scattered the context/nuts instead of jamming them into one spot, a hard habit for a former nut-graf-trained newspaper reporter to break, no? As I said above in my ode to Ron Suskind, it takes work and concentration to break newspaper habits. I’m grateful to my newspaper experience for teaching me so much in terms of reporting. But when it comes to writing, one must wean oneself of the tricks/tropes that newspapers use. Because people are bored with them. has been working hard on something new. Little breadcrumbs of currency/relevance start here …
“I have this very abstract idea in my head,” he confides. “I wouldn’t even want to call it stand-up, because stand-up conjures in one’s mind a comedian with a microphone standing onstage under a spotlight telling jokes to an audience.” That kind of comedy is fine, he says, but for him it’s in the past. Shandling is striving to exist … and continue here… —and thus to be funny—completely in the moment. “The direction I’m going in is eventually you won’t know if it’s a joke or not,” … and here… he explains, describing his new act, … and builds here… which he has been quietly testing … and boom, action, ends here. in clubs where his name never appears on the marquee. “What I want to happen is that I talk for an hour and the audience doesn’t realize it is funny until they’re driving home.” I’m so satisfied with this opening – it makes me want to keep reading the piece. You haven’t insulted us with some thin non-account of a person you clearly don’t know. Which leads me to the most irritating of profile openings. Forgive me if you’ve done this but I’m talking about the breakfast/lunch/dinner scene: “As Famous Lady sits down to breakfast I notice she’s twig thin with black clouds under her eyes, and I’m shocked and vaguely worried about her fragility as I order the lumberjack platter and she orders air, but she’s still majorly sexy and I think I could probably sleep with her if I tried.” But then I also feel sorry for the writer because clearly there’s no access and he had to make do with whatever the handlers gave him. How do you get around the food-as-metaphor setup? Okay, first of all, have you read Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad? Because there is a chapter in it that is a spoof of this very thing, the celebrity profile built around a brief restaurant meal. I read it right before I interviewed Matt Damon and loved it so much I brought a copy of the novel to him, and our interaction about it is in the profile (on newsstands soon!). Obviously, if we had our druthers, we journalists would always want to encounter our celebrity subjects in an environment they would naturally be in (Shandling in his house, or in recreated scenes in Hawaii or on the basketball court; Jerry Lewis in his memorabilia-strewn office). When you can’t have that (Matt Damon wasn’t letting me anywhere near his house) you have to try for something that at least will allow you to see your subject interact in vaguely real ways. Meals at restaurants will rarely give you that, in part because we’ve all read the scene where the celebrity interacts with the waiter or with the adoring fan who comes to the table. As Egan’s great novel captures, that has just been done to death, and we can’t bear to read it anymore.
Every Sunday he’s in Los Angeles, Shandling calls the game for noon. The invitation-only crowd gathers in his kitchen to drink coffee, and at twelve thirty everyone heads out the patio doors, past the pool, and down a series of steps into the lower yard. Nice description without describing. By walking us out you’re describing via action. How are you reporting this as Shandling’s leading you around? He walked me around. I tape recorded it as he gave me the tour, and also took notes of the layout/visual landscape. As is the custom, the first person to reach the half-court grabs a leaf blower and sweeps it clean. Then they play: three-on-three to seven points, win by two. When only the regulars show—they include Sarah Silverman, Kevin Nealon, David Duchovny, and Friday Night Lights creator Peter Berg—no one sits out for long. Are you here for this? You’re watching these guys play? Where are you while they’re playing? What are you doing? I’d feel like a tool, sitting there watching, but you’re too cool for that. Who’s got the best jump shot? Does Sarah foul a lot? Also, I once saw Duchovny walking through Washington Square Park alone, holding a Tiffany bag; he’s super tall. That’s all I got. I wanted to come to one of the games, but the timing didn’t work out. Instead, I asked Judd Apatow, David Duchovny, Sarah Silverman, Kevin Nealon and Peter Berg to describe the games to me. (Secondaries will save your life!) Other times, you’re lucky to get on the court. Sacha Baron Cohen and Adam Sandler have played, as have Ben Stiller and Billy Crystal. Judd Apatow plays infrequently, but only, he says, because “Sarah’s better than me, and it’s shameful for me, as a man, to accept that.”
The sweat, the speed, the lack of pretense—it gets sort of elemental. “It’s stripped-down,” says Peter Tolan, one of Garry’s best friends and a former chief writer on The Larry Sanders Show, Shandling’s pioneering metacomedy on HBO. “People show themselves truthfully in a time of competition, and that’s what he’s interested in.” After a few hours, Shandling leads everyone up to the house to eat takeout and watch sports on TV. There is no agenda at Camp Garry, as Silverman calls it. So interesting, that she participates in this. How do they treat her? Are they respectful/cool? Sarah Silverman is beloved, and for good reason. The woman is deeply smart. Every story I’ve interviewed her for, she’s helped me, not just with great quotes but with some higher level of analysis that I immediately incorporated into my thesis. More important as it relates to your question, Sarah’s got game. They all respect her. But it’s not a party—Shandling is adamant about that. Instead, it’s something of an incubator. Aficionados of Sanders may recall an episode in which Duchovny, playing himself, admits to having sexual feelings for Sanders. That’s just one moment of TV genius that was hatched on Shandling’s court.
“I was guarding him,” Duchovny recalls, “and you know, my pelvis was near his rear end, which happens sometimes when you’re guarding a man. And I said, ‘It would be funny if I had a crush on you but I was straight. I don’t know what that means, but that seems like it would be funny.’ And Garry said, ‘Yeah. Yeah. Your instincts are good.’ Garry’s always talking about your instincts.” Did DD tell you this in the moment or later? What’s it like to try to interview four famous people at once? Do you ever get nervous? Tell that story about the time you got nervous and what Shandling said. Well, in this case, I wasn’t interviewing several people at once – I was talking to Duchovny on the phone. It’s hard to get very deep with a lot of people at the same time. Group interviews are better for capturing their interactions with each other. The story you’re referring to happened during my first four-hour interview with Garry, when I asked him a question and it took him an hour to answer. That’s coming up below, and I’ll annotate it there.
Conan’s not the only one to use Shandling as a sounding board. For the past five years especially, the 60-year-old comic, who counts both George Carlin and Johnny Carson as mentors, has devoted himself to mentoring others. A generation of people at the top creative rungs of Hollywood credit Shandling with shaping both their material and their careers. More relevance. Did you know this going in and use it as part of your pitch or did the fact emerge during the reporting? I knew it going in, thanks to Garry’s publicist, Alan Nierob, who is one of the greats – by which I mean, he actually really knows his clients. He’d told me that Garry had this ongoing association with so many funny people in town, who relied on him (quietly) to backstop them. I confirmed it, obviously, but it was helpful to know going in. So many publicists simply pitch clients based on their latest projects and don’t know much about what makes them tick. Alan is different.
“There are so many people who lean on him to be their sage in these matters of what’s dramatic—not just what’s funny, but what’s effective, and what’s real, and why what’s funny is what’s real,” says Robert Downey Jr., who compares Shandling to “a Jewish E.T. He’s kind of vulnerable while at the same time very probing. And he’s got serious opinions.” I’ve always wondered how it’s possible to maintain any dignity or objectivity whatsoever while in the presence of someone like Robert Downey Jr., who to me is sort of, like, perfection (and whom Matt Klam, with brilliant brevity, once compared, in this same magazine, to a family member who “went crazy last Thanksgiving and tried to fuck the turkey, but is fine now and applying to law school.”) I doubt I’d ask a single coherent question. How do you stay cool/discerning? Did you do these satellite interviews in person or by phone? This was on the phone. Downey, like Silverman, is just a brilliant analyst. The twirling plates analogy he offers a few paragraphs down was just pure gold. I was excited to talk to him – I’m a fan – but I was so focused on what we needed to cover that I didn’t stammer.
Iron Man 2 director Jon Favreau dubs him “the Godfather.” Baron Cohen sought Shandling’s advice on both Borat and Brüno. Silverman says Shandling has taught her how to embrace the silences during her stand-up act. And Apatow still counts the night Shandling hired him to write jokes for the 1991 Grammy Awards show as “the biggest break of my career.” Apatow later wrote for The Larry Sanders Show, and their collaboration continues: Shandling often attends table reads of Apatow’s films and gives notes on the scripts. (Apatow says Shandling had a “monumental” effect on The 40-Year-Old Virgin.) “There’s nobody better in the world than Garry at telling me what’s working and what’s not,” Apatow says. “I’m just very lucky that I’ve had his input.”
Shandling says his collaboration with talented friends only leads him farther along his path toward mindfulness. Not long ago, he had a circular enso inked on the back of his neck. “It means ego emptiness—impermanence,” I like that – not the neck ink, which would hurt, but the idea. In a lot of these profiles you must deal with absolutely massive egos – how do you strip all that away and get to who the person really is, or is it ever really possible to get to who the person really is? That’s a big – dare I say almost a Buddhist – question, Paige. Of course, I’m tempted to say, “You tell me.” I think it’s possible to get down to who the person really is, but they have to be willing to reveal themselves to you. I have told Garry since this piece ran that I couldn’t have done it without him, and I wasn’t being polite. He leaned in and threw down. He gave as good as he got. We were in it together. he says. We’re in the living room, checking out his speakers—a six-foot-tall pair of Alexandria X-2 Wilsons Such a good detail and one with audience in mind. This is GQ. Boys want to know what kind of speakers other boys buy. Even for a girl like me, these speakers are hard to miss. They’re HUGE. that he calls “the best rock ‘n’ roll speakers in the world”—when he leans forward to show me the tattoo. It mimics what you see, he says, “if you take incense in a dark room and you twirl it fast. It looks like a solid circle. And it isn’t.”
Downey likens being with Shandling to watching plates twirling on the tops of sticks that are balanced on the tops of other twirling plates. I know what he means. When I ask Garry why he chose Iron Man 2 as his comeback movie, here are the topics he explores on his way to an answer: the emotional pull of the Olympic Games; a recent boxing match at Madison Square Garden; the Dalai Lama’s admission that he dreams about sex; the importance of being aware; the unmarried status of the greatest religious leaders; the appeal of powerful women; the four ulcers he had by 1998, after the sixth and final season of The Larry Sanders Show; how it feels to land a punch; the difficulty some men have expressing emotion; his love of Jerry Seinfeld; his respect for the Coen brothers; his disdain for cynicism; his fondness for the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh; dogs; the familiarity of every noise in his home; and the way his mother answered him when, as a child, he asked what she thought of him. (“‘What do you think of me?’ is what my mother said. “It was a stalemate.”) I love this labyrinthine move, and as a writer I love doing this move, don’t you? Using the discursiveness instead of feeling overwhelmed or frustrated by it. The discursiveness is character – plus you get to tell stories within stories and play with cadence and juxtapose weird ideas. Okay, this is the moment you were asking me to describe. So, I write it funny here, but during the seeming eternity when Garry wasn’t answering my question, I was getting nervous. I knew I had limited time with him and I had certain ground I wanted to cover, and we were on Question No. 1, basically, and I was getting nowhere. I kept trying to steer him back to the question, and he kept taking off on new tangents, and I’m sure I looked progressively frantic. So finally, after I tried to nudge him back on track for the umpteenth time, he could see I was worried and he leaned forward and said simply, “Don’t worry, you can come back.” And at that point I relaxed and thought, I’m going to let this go at the pace it needs to. Which was, again, sort of what the story was about. But Garry gave that to me. If I hadn’t known I could come back and interview him again, I would’ve kept trying to force my version of order on the experience. And it wouldn’t have been as good, by a long shot.
“I’m coming back to you,” he reassures me, sensing that I’m lost. “When I give notes on a script, I say, ‘Guys, I may drift, but it’s part of the process.’ So I’m aware that I’m drifting, but I’m grabbing a lot of stuff.” It takes fifty minutes, I laughed out loud here. I love that you timed him. Did you really look at your watch, note the time, or note it via the recording? The beauty of a digital recorder. Exactly. I know exactly how long it took. but eventually he answers. Except that all of it is the answer.
“Favreau called me in Hawaii, and he said, ‘I know everything about you, and I have a hunch that I know what you can do as an actor that you haven’t done yet.’ If only we had writing angels who came down and said the same thing, and who handed us pens and said, “Go! I know you can do it! Write!” Have you ever had that in your career? Have I had writing angels who swooped down and filled me with a bright light? No. But I’ve been blessed with a LOT of great editors: Kit Rachlis, who I mentioned; Brendan Vaughan at GQ; Mary Melton at Los Angeles magazine; Michael Caruso, now at Smithsonian; Mark Horowitz and Mark Robinson at Wired. People who gave me opportunities, people who urged me to do stories I didn’t want to write for the wrong reasons, people who improved my copy immeasurably and took the time to try to understand what I was going for. And he got my attention,” he says, his voice suddenly doubling in volume. Here’s another place where the recorder came in handy – I didn’t have to remember how he raised his voice. I could hear it. This is a habit of Garry’s as he explains: “Anytime my voice raises like that, it’s because I’ve locked in,” he explains, then veers back to his story. “It was that fast. None of this is about ‘Oh, I got a part!’ It’s so much deeper. Jon Favreau called me up and said, ‘What are you doing, man? I think you can act, and I don’t think this is the time to withdraw. And I’ll put you in with Don Cheadle and Sam Rockwell and Robert Downey Jr.'”
I mention that Peter Tolan told me that Garry’s greatest desire is to be taken seriously as an actor.
Shandling looks down at his Pradas. “Here’s what I’m very sensitive about,” he says, pausing for a good thirty seconds before he raises his head. “You’re right.” Then he laughs. “I would only rephrase it this way: I want to take myself seriously as an actor. And to know that I can be free enough and strong enough and courageous enough to express myself in emotional ways that are a little bit harder than standing there telling a joke.” Now we’re getting down to the guts of it. All profiles have to mine a little soul but this revelation feels sincere and strong, to me. Was it what you expected? What happened in the two or three beats after he said this? We were really clicking in this interview. I’d done my homework – watched everything he’d ever done, obviously, but also talked to a lot of people who knew him really well. So that laid the groundwork. But Garry was in a mindset where he wanted to be honest. He wanted to be understood. He wanted me not to get it wrong. And he was willing to help me. It was an intense experience, and this was a moment where the intensity of it was palpable. He’s always funny, even when he’s deep. But there was an intimacy to our conversation. Because he wasn’t just cracking wise. We were talking about some of life’s big shit.
In 2007, Shandling released Not Just the Best of The Larry Sanders Show, a curated collection of favorite episodes that fans had been awaiting for years. For their patience, they were rewarded with something far more interesting than the normal box set—a series of unscripted, one-on-one conversations between Shandling and some of the big names who had appeared on the show: Sharon Stone, Carol Burnett, Jerry Seinfeld, Jon Stewart, Tom Petty. The idea that motivated these DVD extras was at once simple and complex: Shandling was trying to walk his talk, to coexist with people who meant something to him and to make room for something—anything, even nothing—to happen. Exactly. God, Shandling as guru –never thought I’d see the day. I’m not ready to tattoo GARRY on my shoulder but he seems to be asking the right questions, paying attention to the right impulses. How do you know when a story subject is spinning you? People spin you all the time. There’s no surefire antidote to it, other than asking good questions. Garry, though, wasn’t spinning. If you haven’t watched these DVD extras, you have something big to look forward to. They are truly fascinating – unlike anything else, just like he intended. “The truth is in the emptiness,” he likes to say. So he set up a camera and let a little emptiness in.
He spent a full year producing the “visits,” as he calls them, consumed by the idea that the DVD-extra form—usually so canned and predictable—could be something vastly more ambitious. Some of his friends worried about him, he went so deep into the project. Then they saw the results. Together these sit-downs, which at Baron Cohen’s suggestion Shandling labeled “Indulgent Visits with My Friends That Are Meant for Only Me to See,” comprise the rawest, oddest, most genuine moments you may ever see famous people subject themselves to on-camera.
One of the visits, with Alec Baldwin, takes place in the ring of a Santa Monica boxing gym. As the men circle and jab, they talk about humor, aggression, fear. Baldwin says he was mortified when he first guest-starred in a Larry Sanders episode in 1993. “I was scared,” Baldwin says. “You are fucking eighth-degree-black-belt funny.”
“That’s how I feel with you in the ring,” Shandling says. “I’m going to allow you to hit me so hard that I don’t have to—”
“Work again for the next five years?” Baldwin taunts.
“Finish these DVDs,” Shandling growls.
Baldwin was right, of course. Shandling hadn’t been working much—at least not in ways that are visible to the rest of us. Which is why, on his first day of shooting Iron Man 2, he found himself reflecting on his life as he sat on a raised dais with his tie cinched tight, pretending to run a Senate hearing as the cameras rolled. “I’m in front of 500 people and the Joint Chiefs,” he says of the scene, in which his character, Senator Stern, pounds a gavel, trying to get Downey’s Tony Stark to turn over his high-tech armored suit. “And I’m thinking, Oh, my God, the last thing I did was the voice of a turtle.” Laughed out loud here too. No further comment. The guy has his timing down.
He is referring to his last acting gig: the 2006 animated movie Over the Hedge, in which he voiced a turtle named Verne. After this, I had written the following, which I cut for space to keep it moving: When I note that most people didn’t even know he was in it, since we couldn’t see him, his voice drops to almost a growl. “Count your fucking blessings,” he says. “Write that down. COUNT. YOUR. BLESSINGS.”
Not that Shandling has to work. He made a pile on It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, his first series, and an even bigger fortune on The Larry Sanders Show. (The complete Sanders DVD set—all 2,800 minutes of it—will be available in September.) Post-Sanders, though, two back-to-back projects—the 2000 comedy What Planet Are You From? and the disastrous 2001 flop Town & Country—didn’t deliver on expectations. Since then, he has grown accustomed to people asking where he’s been. “I never used to know how to explain. Finally I said, ‘Uh, I travel with Daniel Day-Lewis!'” he says. “Do you have to win the Oscar for someone not to bother you about it? Daniel Day-Lewis, he goes for six years to learn to make shoes in Italy. ‘Fascinating!’ But with me they’re going, ‘Why? What happened?'” I love this bit of insight. So you spent how many hours with him total? Did it feel like enough? Does it ever feel like enough? Do you ever leave a profile subject’s presence and go, “Oh, shit, I don’t have it.” Do you interview the friends/colleagues after you’ve met the subject or before, or does it depend? I spent about nine hours with Garry to assemble the piece. I spent 11 hours with Jerry Lewis. But that amount of access is rare with “talent.” Usually, you get a few hours, and some follow-up time on the phone. So yes, when it comes to celebrities, I often feel like I wish I had more. As for the friends/colleagues question, I’ve sort of already answered it. By accident, I stumbled into the wisdom that doing secondary interviews first is the trick. The director Cameron Crowe helped me immensely with my Matt Damon interview (which I guess isn’t a huge surprise – he used to be a journalist). You’ll see in the lead of the piece, he gave me an idea that helped me define the entire structure. But in general, if you can talk to someone who really knows your subject well BEFORE you interview them, it helps.
Shandling grew up in Tucson, where his mom, Muriel, ran a pet shop and his dad, Irving, was a printer. His older brother, Barry, died of cystic fibrosis when Garry was 10, and he has said he thinks the loss made him contemplate things most kids don’t have to. I’m glad you didn’t get into this. A lot of writers would’ve tried mining it for meaning, and perhaps forcing an insight. Why didn’t you? Well, I asked him about it, but by that time I’d read 10 other interviews in which he was asked about it. I could tell he was kind of done, and I didn’t push it. Garry studied electrical engineering at the University of Arizona, then switched to marketing, he says, because he couldn’t bear the thought of actually being an engineer. The less demanding major left him with more free time, which he filled by writing comedy routines “as a test, to see if I could do it.” One day in 1968 he heard that George Carlin—then a superstar—would be performing in Phoenix, a two-hour drive away.
Shandling had never been in a nightclub, but he tracked Carlin down. “He was standing by the bar. I said, ‘Hi, Mr. Carlin. My name is Garry Shandling, and I wrote some routines for you.'” Carlin was polite. He wrote all his own stuff, he said, but if Shandling would come back tomorrow, he’d look his jokes over and they could talk. Shandling drove home to Tucson, then turned right around the next day and came back. Nice anecdote. What prompted it? Did you ask him how he got his start? I had read that Carlin had inspired him to quit engineering and take the plunge. I asked Garry to tell me how. This was the story.
After that night’s show, Shandling recalls, “he takes me into the back room, which is like the clubs where I work now, and there’s my material on his little table with marks on it.” Carlin walked him through the twenty or so pages one at a time, and then he said, “You’re very green, but there’s something funny on each page.” This observation of his was so kind/generous, and instructive, I think, in dealing with people who want to be writers: look for the good where you can, for the glimmer of something real. What do you tell younger writers when they come to you for advice? I agree, wholeheartedly. You’ve got to blow on the sparks so that the fire will catch. I work with young writers all the time, and try to give as much positive feedback (where merited) as I can. In my 20s, I was a clerk at the New York Times in a system (now dismantled) in which we were all evaluated regularly to see if we had the makings to be Times reporters. At one point, I got a written evaluation that said (and I shit you not), “We see no evidence of a brilliant mind at work in these clips.” I have never forgotten that (or the name of the person who wrote it). It shapes the way I deal with every writer, young or old. Very earnestly Carlin added: “If you’re thinking of pursuing this, I would.”
The beats of Garry’s life from the time he moved to Los Angeles, at age 23, through the end of the Sanders show have become comedy-nerd lore: Great setup move, telling us that of course we already know all this because we’re in this club but here’s the litany again, just in case you forgot. Yes, my great editor at GQ, Brendan Vaughan, and I talk about this all the time: How to move quickly through the legend stuff (or leave it out altogether). The aforementioned Jesse Katz and I used to joke that this bio stuff was called “the log cabin,” and you had to figure out new ways of building it every time. his sitcom-writing gigs (Sanford and Son; Welcome Back, Kotter); his serious car accident that made him quit TV writing at age 27 to do stand-up (“That was my big shift—I felt like I had a calling”); his first appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1981, which led to a regular guest-hosting gig; his discovery of Roy London, the esteemed acting coach, at age 34; It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, which debuted on Showtime in 1986 and ran for four seasons.
It’s Garry Shandling’s Show was a sitcom that made fun of the conventions of a sitcom. The theme song was a guy singing about this being the theme song that ran while you watched the credits. The characters came in and out of Shandling’s supposed apartment, but Shandling himself also ran around the set and talked directly into the camera about the plotlines, his co-stars, his hair.
After a short break, he came back with The Larry Sanders Show, which first aired on HBO in August 1992. The show mixed on-air footage of a talk show with behind-the-scenes glimpses of how that show came together—the bookers, the network execs, the writers in the writing room, and most vitally, Sanders’s sidekick, Hank “Hey Now” Kingsley (Jeffrey Tambor), and his producer, Artie (Rip Torn). The guests were all real celebrities, playing themselves. Shandling played Sanders; many people thought the two were one and the same.
Just before the first season aired, Shandling was approached by NBC to host a real talk show in David Letterman’s old spot. He remembers talking the idea over with Roy London, who had worked on Sanders, advising on scripts and occasionally directing. “I would say, ‘Roy, can I grow as an artist going on TV every night?'” Wow. We see his intention – not about fame/validation as much as reaching his creative potential. Am I reading that right? If you need to go back and clarify stuff with these subjects, given their inaccessibility, how do you do it? If they feel you’ve taken them seriously in the interview, typically they’ll get on the phone one more time. When I was doing a profile of Viggo Mortensen for Esquire a few years back, I had a big post-interview back and forth with him via email – he was the engine behind that, actually. He wanted to clarify some things he said. But most people will follow up on the phone if you ask. But you’ve got to have a specific need. You can’t just request some time to shoot the shit. The question was its own answer. He turned the offer down.
In the second season of Sanders, London died suddenly of AIDS-related complications. Shandling was devastated. “When he died, I really thought about quitting,” he says, suddenly looking a little smaller in his overstuffed chair. This detail, the chair, brings us back to his house/the interview, reminds us where we are in time. “I worked with him on every episode of every show that I had done. He was a genius. I relied upon him for my acting and writing and sometimes life notes.” He pauses, overcome. “I’m sorry. I’m looking down because it’s hard for me.”
Shandling soldiered on. The pace was unforgiving. On Monday morning, there’d be a table read, then Tuesday rehearsals and a few days of shooting. “I would come home every Friday morning at 2 a.m. from shooting, and I’d have to get up to meet the writers at noon Saturday to go over the script for Monday. I would give them notes, and then they’d go and write a draft and come back on Sunday, and then I’d give notes on that. And get up and go to the table reading Monday.”
Fighting fatigue, he’d gobble Excedrin, grabbing them from a watercooler in his office that he kept filled with the stuff. That, he cautions, “will burn a hole in your stomach. It’s an incredibly effective medication, and I would like to be the spokesperson for it. But you want to stick to the dosage.”
The hard work paid off; the show was brilliant. The episode “Ellen, or Isn’t She?” revolved around Sanders’s efforts to get Ellen DeGeneres to come out on his show. It ran in the months before the comedienne was about to come out for real on her show. (On Sanders, though, while he’s trying to get her to admit her lesbianism, the two of them have a one-night stand.)
Apatow says the main lesson Shandling taught him on Sanders was that the curtain that separated backstage from onstage was just a metaphor for how we all hide our true selves. “He always talked about how it’s incredibly rare for people to say what they mean. People are lying a great deal of the time.” That was the root of the show’s humor, Apatow says: the disconnect between “what people are trying to project versus what they’re actually feeling.”
By the end of Sanders, Shandling was dealing with disconnects of his own. Your transitions are always good and feel organic. What’s the secret? Actually, I’ve been accused rightly of being too fond of transitions. Often in editing we take them out altogether. This may be a newspaper habit I’m still breaking: the holding of the reader’s hand a bit too tightly, as in: “Come THIS way, and I will explain [too much] why you should!” I think I’m weaning myself off this. Good editors help. His relationship with the actress Linda Doucett, who starred as Hank’s assistant on the show for years, had ended badly. His relationship with his longtime manager, Brad Grey, was over. Garry filed suit against Grey in 1998 for breach of fiduciary duty, alleging that Grey had gotten greedy with Sanders, taking half ownership and a producer’s fee on top of his manager’s cut. (The 1999 settlement included a mutual exchange of TV rights, as well as a cash payment to Shandling of at least $4 million.)
Romance has always been a challenge for Garry. Despite his expansiveness on most other topics, he’s evasive about love. “I have spent a lot of time studying the issue of relationships, how I grew up, my parents’ influence on me,” he says when I ask him why he’s single. “I’ve talked to a therapist, I’ve looked inward spiritually at myself, and what it seems to come down to is—” the slightest pause—”that I’m a Sagittarius. Oh my God. Yes. As a fellow Sagittarius I can confirm it: We’re screwed. I’m a Libra. I would like everyone to be happy, okay? Please don’t make me reveal more than that. It’s tough enough as it is.”
After Shandling quit Sanders, he rented a house in Malibu. He slept and read a huge amount. He and Tolan thought up a series built around the conceit that heaven was run like a multinational corporation. (Shandling would’ve played God.) But Garry begged off. “I was still working on myself, on my path—with Daniel Day-Lewis.”
During this period, Duchovny suggested he try boxing. Shandling took to it instantly. “The art of boxing is seeing spaces and being able to take shots,” he explains. “The hitting and being hit have to become one. Your reactions have to be so in the moment. There’s no time to think.”
Garry rises from his chair and leads me through the house, past the Buddhist prayer flags and the many-armed statuary, Nice. You didn’t call it by its actual name but rather described it literally, which lets us feel vague about it along with you. We visualize a “many-armed statuary” better than we’d conjure whatever god it actually represents. I don’t know the name; I’m not up on my religious iconography. Well, you see, unlike Garry’s sneakers, this lady with the many limbs didn’t have her name stenciled to her forehead. But just as you say, I kind of liked not knowing. The readers gets to be me for a second, wandering around Garry’s house. toward yet another outdoor patio, where a heavy bag hangs from a chain. Before we get to it, though, he turns off a hallway and into his study, where a well-worn copy of GOAT: A Tribute to Muhammad Ali, a 792-page book of photographs, lies open on a low bench. It’s an enormous book, measuring twenty by twenty inches and weighing in at seventy-five pounds. Nice details about the heft; how’d you get? The Taschen website. Ah, the Internet. Its binding is cracked, Garry has studied it so much. Now he leans over it, flipping to a photo of Ali in the ring.
“A beautiful man,” Shandling says, appraising the boxer’s fluid stance. “He’s had to put all this training in. But there’s a way that he’s still relaxed. It’s hard to describe. He’s at peace. He’s empty-headed. He’s all instinct—because he’s got his technique worked out.” He pauses. “This is how I work.” Okay, now here I have to ask: Did you wrestle with whether to cut the “He pauses. ‘This is how I work.'”? To me, the preceding sentence suggests the same thing, or at least suggests intention. When Garry pauses, he REALLY pauses. It felt like it belonged there.
Suddenly he launches into a story about Ali during the fifth round of the 1974 Rumble in the Jungle, when Ali said to George Foreman, “This would be a bad place to get tired.” That, Garry says, “is also what a comic would do. This would be a bad place to get tired. To this day Foreman says, You know, that got to me! It’s humorous, the idea that someone would say that in the ring. And you’re going to see how these things all tie together, because they’re all exercises in being in the moment.”
When I suggest that boxing, like comedy, is about rhythm, he nods. “My trainer, Dave Paul, he said, ‘G’—he calls me G—he said, ‘G, you have an unusual rhythm of your own that’s sort of, uh, no rhythm whatsoever. And yet that works for you, because they can’t figure you out.’ So sometimes when I’m in the ring, it’s like you can’t tell whether I’m about to tell a joke, or throw a punch, or start a punch and not finish it, or pass out. So some guys can’t read me. They come in close—just like when an audience leans in. And then I have a flurry.”
Shandling takes me into a storage room to retrieve a DVD of Special Thanks to Roy London, a 2005 documentary about his late friend that he often hands out to people he thinks will be interested. While rummaging for it, he finds a poster that he and Paul made. It’s designed to look like a classic promo for a heavyweight bout, with two fierce-looking fighters standing back-to-back. Both of them are Shandling. In big block letters at the bottom it says, garry shandling vs. himself. Too good. Each of your section kickers ends on some revelatory bit of inner Garry. I love that you were paying attention – he’s looking for one thing, you’re noticing (and using) another. What compelling detail did you hate to lose, to leave out? Anything? God, I wish I were doing this a year ago – I could tell you exactly. I just went and looked at my “GARRYsnips” file (this, actually, is a little window into my process: when I cut things out that don’t fit, I put them in a Snips document for safekeeping). Here’s a great quote from the cutting-room floor: “I don’t know that Buddha would have put himself through hell whether he went on at 10 o’clock or 11:30,” Shandling says, taking a swipe at Jay Leno, the man who took O’Brien’s seat. And I love this episode, the description of which we cut for space: The show was at its best when the characters tangled directly with this dichotomy. Like the episode in which Larry [Shandling] gives his Artie [Rip Torn] a top-of-the-line Phantas pen as a gift, then complains that Artie doesn’t seem grateful. Artie’s response? He tells Larry he was only being taciturn because he knows Larry gets nervous around emotion. Artie goes on to reassure his boss of his true, hidden gratitude: “Inside it’s all tears, cartwheels and a hard-on.”
In 2006 the UK’s Channel 4 aired a special called Ricky Gervais Meets…Garry Shandling that became an instant sensation among connoisseurs of comedy. The premise, which Gervais had already tried out with Larry David a year earlier, was for the British comedian to pay a visit to one of his heroes. They’d talk about the craft of being funny. Hilarity would ensue.
From the moment the two men meet, in Shandling’s kitchen, it’s clear something is wrong. Shandling seems put out—irritated, even. “Don’t touch me,” he says when Gervais puts a hand on his shoulder. Gervais appears nervous, confused by Shandling’s disapproval. As Shandling puts his contacts in over the sink, Gervais scolds him for putting the lenses at risk, and Shandling looks so peeved you think he may call the whole thing off. “What are you, controlling?” he asks. “You’re giving me advice on how to put my contact lenses in?” When a distant buzzer sounds, Shandling says it’s his “ass detector, and it’s gone off because you’re here.” Gervais tries to get Shandling to follow him outside. Shandling won’t go, turning instead to the camera to comment on Gervais’s obliviousness. Gervais responds by emitting his loud, high-pitched squeal of a laugh. He’s on the ropes, and he’s not quite sure how he got there. And that’s just the first five minutes. Only later will Shandling ask Gervais why he makes fun of people with cerebral palsy. Only later will Shandling say, pointedly, “I’m starting to get the feeling that you’re not comfortable around Jewish people,” or ask, “Does that make you feel better about yourself, to attack me?” This anecdote cleverly serves the story because it brings us back to Shandling’s soul questions, plus, in a meta way, it gives us another scene. We see action. We get dialogue. We hear their voices. Yes, there are lots of ways to have active scenes, even when you didn’t witness them.
In certain circles, the Shandling-Gervais smackdown has risen to the level of an unsolved mystery. People who know Shandling get asked all the time: What was going on, exactly, that led to the most awkward forty-seven minutes in the history of television? Neither man has ever explained it, not in public and not to each other. But when I ask Garry to do so, he looks relieved, as if an anvil has been lifted off the top of his head.
While completing the DVD extras for Sanders, Shandling had been struck by the idea that Gervais would be a great addition. Though he’d never appeared on the show, Gervais had spoken openly about how Sanders inspired him. So Garry called Gervais and asked if he’d do it. The answer was yes, but Gervais also had a request. While he was in Garry’s home, could they also shoot his Channel 4 show? Shandling agreed, and all was well until the day of the dueling interviews, when wires got crossed. Garry says he assumed they would shoot the “visit” for the DVD extra first, because “that laid-back, not-on tone is good preparation for saying, ‘Let’s turn it on'” later, for Gervais’s special.
But when Shandling walked into his kitchen, he realized instantly that Gervais thought the Channel 4 special was being shot first. Gervais was on—extremely so—and so were several cameras. Garry could have said something but wanted to see what would happen if he played it out. What if he stayed in the same low-affect head space he was in to do his DVD extras? Could he reach Gervais without explicitly identifying the problem? Could he bring Gervais’s energy level down? Huh. What did Gervais say about this? Did you try reaching him? I did. No comment.
“It’s fascinating, really,” Garry tells me. “We both became locked into the shows we were each doing, and it became a bit of a boxing match. Because he’s trying to get me to do the show that he needs, and I’m trying to get him to do nothing. I was trying to pull Ricky into the moment.” Did you buy this? Was there some master plan at work or was GS just being an ass? Clearly you need it because on this note you extrapolate and begin to move toward the end of the piece. Well, I bought it, but as the transition below seeks to point out, he wasn’t owning how aggressive he had been. Watch this video on Youtube. It is PAINFUL.
A great boxer makes his opponent fight his fight, on his terms. A great stand-up takes control of a room. There’s a reason comics say their best shows “killed.” Making people laugh is, at its simplest, an act of domination. And Shandling dominated Gervais. I tell Garry their interaction looks more hostile than he will admit. He offers me an organic-turkey sandwich. Great timing, these two sentences. Did you take the sandwich? Did he fix it for you? I took the sandwich and ate it with gusto. It was prepared by a chef – which is one detail that I think fell out of the piece. Garry is rigorous about eating healthy and he does it by only having good food (cooked by someone else) in his kitchen. “A lot of funny people have a way of looking at life and commenting on it,” he says. “Now, there’s another leap to take, which is: Are those funny people actually integrating their life into their work? I still search for ways to put it. It’s living art. I see it as living life as an art. And part of that’s the comedy, and part of that’s the acting, and part of that’s the basketball, and part of that’s the boxing.”
And part of that is, of course, the Buddhism. Garry’s been meditating and keeping journals that chronicle what he calls “my path and how I’m growing and where I’m at” since his twenties. The first time he was asked to guest-host The Tonight Show, he wrote in his journal. “I sat down—I have it in my book—and I said, ‘This is about becoming one with The Tonight Show,'” he says. (And yes, he still keeps a journal. “I probably write once a week,” he says. “This week there are three pages filled with the words, ‘I’m in GQ!'”)
As a misty rain starts to fall outside, I tell Garry that all his talk about process has made me think about my own process Yep, totally. —about the conventions of the interview, the seeming need for straightforward answers, and the stress that arises when such answers do not come. “You’re not the first person to have said that,” he says. “You want to know what the world is about? No one knows what to think. If we could just embrace not knowing for a second, we might have a chance.
“It’s all right not to know,” he continues, his voice kind, like he’s soothing a scared child. “Just calm down a minute. I give you permission to not know. That’s the key. Only from there can come answers.”
All over the house are notes Garry has scribbled to himself in a near illegible hand: on the refrigerator full of healthy food he pays a chef to prepare, on a paper plate lying on the counter, on a piece of lined paper wadded up in his pocket. More than once while I’m with him, he will consult them, saying distractedly, “Let me see what I had written down here.” But it’s just a feint, a way of creating space, of distracting his opponent.
“I’m going to jump,” Garry warns, signaling a subject change. His voice goes up again. “I feel like I’m on the edge of a new phase. Nobody knows it. I don’t discuss it. Honestly. But now is the time to discuss it, strangely enough.” He smiles, and his face goes soft. “Before it’s too late.”
Seven years ago, when the world-renowned Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh was invited to speak at the Library of Congress, he asked Shandling to fly to Washington, D.C., and introduce him. The two men know each other well—Shandling has spent time at the monk’s monastery outside San Diego—and the funnyman was flattered by the wise man’s request. The chaplain from the House of Representatives spoke first—”he gave a prayer that was, um, long and dry, to be honest”—so when Shandling arrived at the podium, he got right to the point.
“You’re probably wondering why I’m here,” he recalls telling the audience of about 2,000 dignitaries and religious leaders. “First of all, humor is a wonderful way to deal with our suffering, because if we can laugh at our troubles, we can feel better. Thich Nhat Hanh is a special man who has helped millions with their suffering with incredible technique. But he doesn’t know real suffering, because he has not dated as much as I have.”
Afterward, Shandling heard that the monk had only seen his introduction later, when he watched a videotape of the event. And this is how Hanh responded: “This guy really knows how to work a room.”
Shandling will always know how to work a room. But something has happened to him that has altered his approach. Without prompting, friends choose similar language to describe it. Robert Downey Jr. calls it Shandling’s “molting phase.” Peter Tolan compares it to shedding a skin. “Garry is interested in people showing themselves truthfully, either by action or by what they say,” he says. Which is what interests us as journalists. Yes. I think that’s part of why we got along like a house on fire.
“Artistically, your need to entertain sometimes throws up a barrier to getting to that truth. But I think he’s sort of shedding that as time goes on. He’s much more comfortable saying, ‘Hey, look at this. It might not be traditionally funny or what you expect from me, but there’s something to it, isn’t there?'”
Ask Shandling to explain his metamorphosis and he starts by describing an interview he saw with the snowboarder Shaun White about preparing for the Olympics: “He said, ‘Well, you know, I built a half-pipe in the middle of the mountains where I could go practice alone. It had a foam pit so that I wouldn’t hurt myself when I worked on my tricks.'”
Shandling’s foam pit is a place called the Comedy & Magic Club, in the coastal town of Hermosa Beach. For months he’s been dropping in occasionally, without warning, trying out his new Zen approach to laughter. This is interesting – were you compelled to go see him do a surprise performance in hopes of getting a scene, or did you in fact go see him do this and decide not to use it? I begged Garry to let me see it. I really thought that was the only way to end the piece. But he wasn’t performing while I was reporting. And besides, it wouldn’t really be a foam pit if I were there. He never came out and said that, but I sensed it. “I say: ‘Hi, I have so much to talk to you about. I’m sorry I’m late, because I was driving here’—and I’ll start talking about that. And I keep going on that and go off on something else and then on something else. But then I say, ‘I have to try to get to the stuff I wanted to talk to you about.’ So that by the end of twenty or thirty minutes, I say to them, ‘Oh, my God, I’m out of time! And I didn’t get started!’ And they get it!”
Shandling has always said his most enduring comic influence is Woody Allen. Allen “was unexpected at the time when he broke,” Shandling tells Gervais during a rare un-cringeworthy moment in that Channel 4 special. “He was fresh and new. And it was a different sensibility.” There’s something about Shandling’s voice when he says it—insistent, reverent—that suggests he can imagine no greater accomplishment.
Sarah Silverman is one of the people who have actually seen a recent Shandling performance, at a monthly comedy gig called Sarah & Friends that she organizes at the Los Angeles club Largo.
“He did forty-five minutes of the most rock-solid, vital, mind-blowing tears-from-laughing set,” Silverman recalls. “He was so vulnerable and so honest, but at the same time a powerhouse. It was like seeing Garry Shandling at his peak—and it was. But it wasn’t some memory of something gone by. It was a whole new thing. It was exciting.”
When I press for details, she says, “He talked about his face. He talked about going on Bill Maher and talking about stuff on that show that he cared about. And then going online the next day, and every comment about it was ‘What did Garry Shandling do to his face?’ And he was like, ‘I didn’t do anything to my face!’ And then he watched it on TV and said, ‘Oh, my God, what’s happened to my face??'”
Silverman compares Shandling’s new approach to what Eminem did for rap. “You know how rap has always been my phone and my car and I’m awesome and saying my name over and over again and my jewelry and my money? And it wasn’t until Eminem came along that vulnerability was brought to it? He raps about the embarrassing things about his own self instead of posturing.” She pauses. What Shandling is up to, she says, “feels like a change occurring in that vein. I don’t think the point of it is polish. The act is the process.”
The act is the process. The process requires a foam pit. The foam pit makes everything possible. And, I realize, I’m in it. I’ve been in the foam pit with Garry since the first minute I met him. So good. Did you really realize it while you were there? Or did you understand it by talking to Sarah later? This revelation totally works structurally because you’ve been building to it and we didn’t know it – we’ve been in your foam pit. Sarah helped me, as she always does (she’s brilliant on Damon, too). This realization didn’t come during the interviews, at least not consciously. It came while reading and thinking about the interviews.
“You’re getting the whole spew out,” he tells me. “I mean, it’s so honest that I just don’t know what to say. The truth is, once you open yourself up to this process of being in the moment, stuff starts to happen in the moment. You’re going to say, ‘Garry, all fascinating! But I’m lost.’ So I understand. But I’d rather give you this—because I’m impulsing off of you. “See the point?” Garry asks. “You’ve already seen the act. It’s like this. With a few less lulls.”
Amy Wallace (@msamywallace) is an L.A.-based GQ correspondent and former Los Angeles Times reporter who shared in two staff-wide Pulitzer Prizes: in 1992, for coverage of the Los Angeles riots, and in 1994, for coverage of the Northridge earthquake. Her work has also appeared in Wired, Vanity Fair, Details, The Nation and the New York Times magazine, among others.
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