“90% of success is showing up.” –Woody Allen.
“Every great thing you do in life will result from failures, both large and small.” Garry Shandling might have never used those exact words to sum up his unusual, successful career, but those of us on the outside looking in, believe his career may be one of the best examples of that idea. The idea may be an exaggeration of a truth, but in the case of Garry Shandling it suggests that regardless how often a person fails, if they show up to do it all over again, a sweet spot may open up that no one, least of all the person in question, would’ve imagined possible.
No one would look at the physical stature or appearance of Garry Shandling and think, leading man. If central casting were to draw up a stereotypical leading man for roles in TV and the movies, they might use Garry Shandling as a model … to contrast the characteristics they seek. No one, it appears, that listened to Garry Shandling’s early standup routines thought, “This man needs to have his own sitcom.” If one were to compose a list of 100 comedians most likely to succeed beyond the stage, the young Shandling may not have made many lists, unless he decided to pursue his career as a sitcom writer. The difference between Shandling and those “more talented” comedians he succeeded beyond, according to Shandling, was that he continued to show up.
He began his career in comedy, as a writer on the sitcoms Sanford and Son, Welcome Back Kotter, and The Harvey Corman Show. He left that world of consistent paychecks behind, to enter into the far less stable world of standup comedy. The problem with that decision, according to those that have documented Shandling’s career, is that he wasn’t a good standup comedian. The owner of The Comedy Store, Mitzy Shore, went so far as to refuse to put Shandling on, because she didn’t think he was funny. One of the funniest comedic actors of his generation wasn’t even able to make it on stage, because of his relative lack of talent. The lucky break, if one wants to call it that, occurred for Shandling when the other “talented” comedians on The Comedy Store’s roster, decided to strike. That strike occurred as a result of Ms. Shore’s decision not to pay her comedians. Shandling made the very unpopular decision to cross that union line, and in total desperation for a body to put on the stage, Shore decided to put him on.
Gary Shandling might even admit that the difference between Garry Shandling and the other comedians that didn’t succeed in that space was that he was willing to continue to get on the stage night after night, regardless the circumstances, the pay, or lack thereof. He was willing to face the abuse and hectoring of an audience that must have reached a point where they agreed with everything, those in the know said about him.
We can only guess that while those that cared about him admired his courage and perseverance, they probably sat him down, at one point, and told him to go back to doing what he did best, writing for sitcoms.
No one gave Garry Shandling any reason to believe in his abilities as a performer, in other words, but he continued to show up and hone his act, until a talent scout from The Tonight Show watched him for a number of nights and decided that he had the chops to make an appearance on a show that was then considered the Holy Grail for all comedians. After a number of these spots, Shandling began guest hosting for Johnny Carson for years, and they began to consider him a suitable successor for Johnny’s seat, should Johnny ever decide to retire.
Was Shandling ever as funny as Jay Leno or Jerry Seinfeld, or the many other “more talented” comedians of his era that didn’t succeed? It appears that his material was top shelf, but those same people considered his presentation so poor that they didn’t foresee him developing a career in the field.
He kept showing up. He kept enduring the years of bad nights, presumed harassment and humiliation, and the feelings of failure that had to have resulted from bombing so often that he achieved levels of success in TV and the movies that were unprecedented among most of his peers.
The first step, Shandling instructs, is to show up so often that you get over your stage fright. The import of this advice is that tips and advice may ease the psychological trauma a little, but nothing compares to just doing it so often that the fear becomes more manageable. Writing quality material before you take to the stage helps, of course, but nothing helps more than just doing it … often.
The next step is to work your material before an audience and tweak it based on their reactions. Some have said that this part of the job is never ending, but at some point a routine does develop. It’s implied throughout this part of the process that a comedian has to have thick skin for those in the audience that help you shape material.
Thick skin, to my mind, is an understatement. How about a person has to have rhinoceros skin, or the type of skin necessary to evolve from a sane, somewhat humorous individual to someone that is asking around 450 paying customers a night (the seating capacity of The Comedy Store) three-to-four times a week what they think. The first question that comes to mind is how many paying customers in an audience are in such situations? How many people would pay to see someone perform raw, untested material, and how many people will let a comedian know that they’re no better than them, and that the comedian should be sitting next to them in the audience? Unless it’s some sort of amateur night, most people will sit with folded arms, wondering why the owner decided to put some newbie on stage on their night out. These people enjoy the schadenfreude of watching another person squirm. This thick skin requires that the aspiring comedian move past such people, and the consistent feelings of failure, the heckling, and the excruciating nights where you’re left alone to adjust your material for the next night of more of the same.
The night after a person bombs, the natural inclination of most sane individuals might be to adjust the material in such a way that it sounds like the exact opposite of the night before. The inclination may be to list those jokes under the “rejected” heading. The inclination may be to consider a scorched earth policy on that material. It’s often somewhere in between, say successful comedians. The successful comedian has to believe in the material, they say, and it may require nothing more than some tweaking of the language. They might want to consider adding something here, deleting something there, changing the point of emphasis, or the point of perspective. Then, just when a comedian reaches a point where they’re comfortable with their material, they’ll want to do a complete overhaul that puts them in an uncomfortable place where they’re nervous and agitated and learning from the audience, because once a comedian becomes comfortable they reach a point that no comedian wants to reach.
A comedian is no longer striving when they’re comfortable, and they’re no longer developing fresh, new material that makes the audience so uncomfortable that they’re laughing with you, as opposed to at you. The space all comedians search for exists somewhere between artistic purity and honesty, a sweet spot that can some over a decade to find.
This struggle, according to Garry Shandling, didn’t involve the material. He may have needed years to shape the material, but the basic task of writing jokes always came easy to him. The presentation, on the other hand, had always been lacking to some degree, and the fact that he kept showing up to put himself in the uncomfortable position of exposing this weakness before others bore fruit in the form of an insecure, neurotic character that was insecure about his presentation skills.
What Shandling did, in short, was combine his greatest strength, and his greatest weakness to form a pure, honest character that he would go onto hone over the course of a decade in the form of two television shows: It’s Garry Shandling’s Show and The Larry Sanders Show. These shows featured a character that knew how to write material but were forever worried about his presentation. These shows resulted in nineteen Emmy nominations, numerous American Comedy Awards, and a spot in the hearts of many standups that regard him as one of the most influential comedic actors of all time.
Garry Shandling’s story is, in essence, the exact opposite of all those sad, depressing “could’ve been, should’ve” stories of individuals that were on the cusp of stardom but didn’t make it … for a variety of reasons. His is the tale of a “couldn’t have been, shouldn’t have been” character that showed up so often, and worked so hard that he was … for a variety of reasons. His unlikely story should remain an inspiration for those marginal talents, that are informed that they are marginal talents, that there may be a sweet spot for you too, if you are willing to work your tail off and show up so often to succeed. It’s your job to find it and hone it.
The one cliché in the Garry Shandling bio is the “no one believed in my talent as much as I did” angle that has been put forth by so many, but in Garry Shandling’s case, it appears to be the unvarnished truth. The non-believers may have been witness to some killer material, but they may have believed that a more skilled, more charismatic presenter would better serve that material. His is the story of an individual of marginal talents that believed in himself beyond reason.
To those that have never heard of Garry Shandling, or believe that I am overselling the insecure, neurotic characteristics of a man that has succeeded in life to the degree he has, I challenge you to watch the interview Ricky Gervais did with him in 2010. The purpose of this interview, for Ricky Gervais, was to deify Shandling as a comedic luminary, and to pay homage to Shandling as a personal influence. Shandling, however, appears as insecure and unsure of himself in this interview as he may have been as an upstart comedian in 1978. It’s uncomfortable to watch in parts, and in other parts, it appears almost confrontational. Even the most informed viewer –that knows the Shandling schtick, and knows that some of it is schtick– can’t help but think that at least some of what they’re watching is an exposé of a man that is uncomfortable in his own skin.
The idea that Shandling has lost whatever it was he once had crosses the viewer’s mind, as does the idea that he might be too old, or that he’s been out of the game so long that he can’t handle this type of interview anymore. There are parts of the interview when the viewer begins to feel so sorry for Shandling, and we want someone to step in and put an end to Shandling’s pain. Those informed viewers that know the Shandling story know that he never had it, in the manner, some define the elusory “it”, but that doesn’t stop the intrigued from watching something that is almost unwatchable. A description that Garry Shandling, himself, might admit is a beautiful encapsulation of just about everything he did throughout his unusual career.