GARRY SHANDLING IS CURRENTLY PLAYING a talk show host on his HBO sitcom, but it isn't as if he couldn't have been the real thing. After all, he was Johnny Carson's official guest host on The Tonight Show in the mid-'80s, right after Joan Rivers defected to Fox. Even as recently as 1991, executives from Tribune Entertainment came calling, pitching a talk show for him. "I was offered The Dennis Miller Show spot right before Dennis got the offer," says Shandling, 42, a sweet yet mildly dour man who almost seems to be in pain as he mulls over a question or winds up for a punch line. It's hard to tell whether he's smiling or wincing.
"But I said no. They still wanted to call it The Dennis Miller Show."
Well, now they call it canceled, a victim of the Talk Show Wars of 1992. But Shandling's sitcom, The Larry Sanders Show, is a safe bet to be renewed after its initial 13-episode run ends. There haven't been reviews this good ("Huge laughs, huge," according to the Los Angeles Times) since, well, Shandling's previous, fourth-wall-shattering sitcom, which was called It 's Garry Shandling's Show and ran from 1986 to 1990. In his new incarnation, Shandling is Sanders, a basically nice but often tetchy host-comedian who, off-camera, relies on his blustery handler and producer Arthur (Rip Torn) while coping with network executives and the Sanders Show's insecure answer to Ed McMahon, Hank Kingsley (Jeffrey Tambor; see p. 146). On-camera he schmoozes with the likes of guest stars Carol Burnett, Robin Williams and Billy Crystal, all playing themselves.
"I know a lot of people who want to go on," says Crystal, an off-camera friend. "There's no difference between what goes on in Larry Sanders and what really happens on a talk show. That's what makes it so great." Shandling fantasizes about having a guest appearance by Johnny's successor, Jay Leno, or Leno's rival, Arsenio Hall. "I'd really love to get another big host on the show and start slugging it out in a fistfight." he says, pouring a glass of berry juice in the kitchen of his three-bedroom home in Sherman Oaks, Calif. "Maybe we'd have me rolling around on the carpet with Arsenio." (But, no, he hasn't asked either to appear on the show yet.)
Talk shows have been a lifelong passion for Shandling, who was raised in Tucson, the son of Irving Shandling, a printer who died in 1985, and his wife, Muriel, a retired pet-shop owner. (A brother, Barry, died of cystic fibrosis when he was 13 and Garry was 10.) "I grew up watching Tonight with Jack Paar and Steve Allen," he says. He also collected comedy albums, including the Mel Brooks-Carl Reiner classic 2,000-Year-Old Man, which he adapted into a grade-school skit.
While studying electrical engineering and then marketing at the University of Arizona at Tucson, a bored Shandling found himself jotting down jokes in his notebooks. With the encouragement of comedian George Carlin, who read Shandling's material while in Phoenix for a gig, he headed out to L.A. after graduation, eventually writing for sitcoms (Welcome Back, Kotter; Sanford and Son).
He ultimately ended up in front of the cameras after being involved in a minor fender bender one day in 1977: As he was standing between the two cars inspecting the damage, a third vehicle slammed into the hack of Shandling's car, trapping him and crushing his spleen. While recuperating, he became a health nut (hence the berry juice) and took up meditation (which he practices daily). And he thought, hard, about what he wanted to do with his life ("I read a lot about philosophy and read a lot of Zen"). Somehow this led to stand-up.
Hitting the comedy circuit, he was noticed by Rivers, who brought him to the attention of Carson, who tapped him to be a substitute host after some half-dozen appearances.
Well, this is how the story would end—drums rolling, curtains parting—if it were about Jay Leno. But Shandling being Shandling, he did a little more noodling over his life and decided to give up Tonight for his own sitcom. "When I was a stand-up comic," he says, "one of my goals was to guest-host The Tonight Show. But going on night after night...it started to get old very quickly."
But now, here he is, doing something new with what felt old. It may help keep the show fresh that the actress who plays Hank's assistant, Linda (General Hospital) Doucett, is his real-life girlfriend of four years. They met at a party, says Doucett, 35, who remembers Shandling showing up with his friend, comic Richard Lewis.
A relationship with Shandling, as one would guess from his alter ego's unhappy dating habits on It's Garry Shandling's Show, can be an odd thing. "I wanted a baby," says Doucett, laughing, "and he gave me a job."
"Every once in a while, we'll be rehearsing a scene and I'll see Linda watching from the side," says Sanders director Ken Kwapis. "She'll start laughing, and Garry will look over and see her and he'll start smiling."
For his part, Shandling seems absolutely miserable at the mention of his private life. He curls up in his chair. He paces around the room. "I think that my personal life is always a tad of a struggle for me," he says. "I'm struggling to make it all work and figure things out the way other people do. We are two people who have really worked on the relationship, are currently working on it, and are two people who need a lot of work."
If it's quality time they're lacking, before long they'll be able to lake off together for his nearly completed getaway in the hills above Hollywood. "It's a kind of Mexican hacienda," says Shandling, "that will hopefully have a retreat feel to it."
Which isn't to say he's ready to run away from his new success with Larry Sanders. "I feel good where I'm at," says Shandling, sounding like a talk show guest discussing a fresh spin through rehab. "But," he adds, smiling or maybe wincing, "I also know there are still many things I'm confused about."
CRAIG TOMASHOFF in Los Angeles
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