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Judd Apatow Mines The Mystery Of His Mentor: Garry Shandling

The new two-part documentary <em>The Zen Diaries Of Garry Shandling </em>relies on personal journals and private documents to better understand the late comedian.
Bonnie Schiffman
The new two-part documentary The Zen Diaries Of Garry Shandling relies on personal journals and private documents to better understand the late comedian.

Judd Apatow was just a kid when he first saw the comedian who would change his life. He was watching The Tonight Show.

"Like a lot of people in America, I just thought: what a fascinating, hilarious, odd man," Apatow says. "And I tracked his career. Some kids would track baseball players and their averages. I would watch comedians and watch them develop."

Apatow grew up to write and direct hit comedies like The 40 Year-Old VirginandKnocked Up. But he owes a lot to the time when he worked as a young writer for Garry Shandling. And he's not alone: A long list of comics — Sarah Silverman, Conan O'Brien and Jim Carrey among them — give Shandling a lot of credit.

See, after those stints on The Tonight Show, Shandling became a comedy giant. He did standup and, as Apatow says "reinvented television two times."

First, there was the self-aware sitcom It's Garry Shandling's Show. And then with The Larry Sanders Show, Garry Shandling made a show about a show: about a late night host, ego, insecurity, real celebrity guests. They set the stage for many of the hits we love today: 30 Rock, The Office, Curb Your Enthusiasm.

So when Shandling died unexpectedly, just two years ago, Judd Apatow wanted to put the groundbreaking comedian in context.

"You know, for 25 years he was the most important mentor that I had," Apatow says in the documentary. "But in a lot of ways, he was a mystery to me."

Judd Apatow worked up a 4 1/2 hour documentary to tackle the mystery of this man.The Zen Diaries Of Garry Shandling, which premieres on HBO tonight, relies heavily on the actual journals Shandling kept almost all his life.

Deeply personal, they point to a man who behind the comedy was really a tortured soul — who never fully got over the loss of his beloved older brother, who had cystic fibrosis and died when Shandling was 10 years old.

Interview Highlights

On the dark sides of many great comedians, including Garry Shandling

Garry Shandling and Judd Apatow pose on the set of <em>the Larry Sanders Show.</em>
Larry Watson / HBO
Garry Shandling and Judd Apatow pose on the set of the Larry Sanders Show.

I think a lot of people who have trauma when they grow up get hyper-vigilant, and they're trying to avoid pain by anticipating pain. And for comedians and creative people, they think, 'If I can make this performance and this film perfect, people will like me and I won't suffer.' ...

I just think when you get hurt, you become more sensitive. Artists who have injuries — sometimes they see more. They see the levels more; they have more empathy. So I never see it as darkness — I think they're tuned in to the human experience. And it's not everybody — there are certainly very happy comedians who are as great as the ones who seem more troubled. Jerry Seinfeld's a very happy guy — he's as great as anyone's ever been. Jay Leno is a happy guy.

If Apatow himself taps into darkness in comedy

I think that like Garry, I'm fascinated by life, you know? Here we are, what does this mean? What are we doing? What are we doing it for? I think the search for meaning is at the core of all creativity, and it's troubling. You know some people are just like, "Jesus has got me covered," and they're happy to their core. I know people like that, and then other people are like, "I don't know what's going on out there — I don't know how the universe works," and it really bothers them, and they spend a lifetime trying to make sense of this life.

There's a great page in one of Garry's journals near the end of his life where he says, you know: I should be grateful that I'm funny and for comedy, because it's a gift that I can give to people that helps them deal with this long, difficult life. I think that's the way a lot of us feel about it.

On the takeaways of reading Shandling's diaries

The ultimate lesson is a very simple one, spoken by [Buddhist guru] Ram Dass at the end of the documentary. He just says: It's all about living in your heart, not in your head. ... And he says: Comedy is good for spiritual work — it gets you there. He also said: It's all about loving awareness. And that is what I think Garry was ultimately exploring and trying to apply to his own life — that life really is just about loving people. It is about kindness. And we all step on each others' toes and beat each other up and it's a mess and we're scared of each other or we isolate. And what Garry was trying to do was use these diaries to constantly remind himself to reach out, to help, to mentor — to connect.

Justin Richmond and Shannon Rhoades produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for Web.

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David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.