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Why It’s Garry Shandling’s Death That Stings

Mourning the man who went by the TV name Larry Sanders

(This article previously appeared on MidCenturyModern, a conversation about age and identity on Medium.)

One by one, we all get plucked off this earth  —  in a kind of slow-motion, rolling version of the Rapture.

When celebrities go, it’s news.

As a child growing up, I remember my parents shaking their heads when the news reported deaths of the icons of their youth. They were names that barely resonated to a child: the Clark Gables, the Gracie Allens. Their era so far in the past, their faces might have already been on stamps.

A celebrity obit either glances over us, or it hits us straight on  —  reminding us what delighted us, or didn’t, as we march toward our own exits.

But now it’s our turn. The boomers’ turn. We hear it in our personal circles. We attend funerals, we cluck in disbelief when we learn from Facebook that someone in our extended circle has died. So too, almost every day brings news that people we only knew from records, TV shows, politics or movies have left the planet.

David Bowie and Garry Shandling

And then there are the big ones. In January, it was David Bowie. Yesterday, Garry Shandling.

I hadn’t been a big David Bowie fan. Nothing against him; I just hadn’t been paying attention. But I had paid attention to Garry Shandling. I own the complete six seasons of The Larry Sanders Show. Watching the show, in the 1990s, was how I discovered Jon Stewart, Janeane Garofalo and Jeremy Piven. Watching it more recently, it had become a wicked (and somewhat reassuring) exercise in Schadenfreude as I’d Google the starlets of that older era to see how they’d aged.

It was, as so many TV and cultural critics have proclaimed in the last day, a game changer. A backstage comedy that paved the way for well-known shows like 30 Rock and lesser-known shows like Slings and Arrows. And a popular-culture turn toward cynicism, showing stardom itself as a shallow mask for craven and petty personalities.

So you saw Larry Sanders in bed, wincing at that night’s show. You saw a blustery Artie (Rip Torn) as the show’s producer, protecting an anxious Larry from the network suits. You saw Hank Kingsley (Jeffrey Tambor), as the loyal sidekick, showing pathetic gratitude for the few crumbs of friendship Sanders meagerly bestowed.

And best of all, you saw the scenes in the hallway, where Larry greeted a guest star with a huge smile, only to complain about that same star bitterly to Artie later. And on the set, the treachery that happened during the commercial breaks.

Knowing Larry, But Not Garry

It made you feel like you knew him. And I did know Larry Sanders, although of course I didn’t know Garry Shandling. Larry Sanders was Shandling’s face to the world, and it was so raw in its portrayal of cowardice and duplicity, it felt real.

Maybe Larry Sanders was Garry Shandling. Although a GQ article from 2010, describing a regular Sunday basketball game he hosted with comedians, suggests a much more generous man.

Like a Rorschach test for our souls, every celestial death hits us in different ways. A celebrity obit either glances over us, or it hits us straight on  — reminding us what delighted us, or didn’t, as we march toward our own exits. That Larry’s  —  er, Garry’s — was one that touched me, may expose me as a heartless cynic or a quivering coward. Or both.

I’m okay with that.

If you haven’t partaken of the delicious forbidden apple that was the Larry Sanders show, you’re in luck. HBO is putting it back on demand, in a deal reportedly struck before the star’s death. And be sure to watch Garry Shandling in a recent episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee with Jerry Seinfeld.

Debbie Galant is publisher of MidCentury Modern, a conversation about age and identity on Medium.

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