Garry Shandling and Ricky Gervais’s Epic Sparring Match
Judd Apatow’s two-part documentary on Garry Shandling, The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling, was released this week on HBO and it is, in a word, beautiful. In several more words, it attempts to paint a complete picture of a man who seemed to refuse to allow anyone to ever see the whole thing. It digs deep into Shandling’s extensive diaries and seems to leave no stone unturned, interviewing friends, former lovers, family, and employees, and scraping every project the man touched for insights, whether it’s as his alter ego Larry Sanders or the voice of a turtle in the 2006 animated film Over the Hedge. Judd clearly loves his late mentor but isn’t afraid to present Garry Shandling the man, warts and all.
One incident that is certainly more of a wart than a triumph was his appearance on a short-lived series of specials called Ricky Gervais Meets… in which Ricky Gervais would spend time interviewing a comedy hero of his, discuss the business, appreciate each other’s work, and show some clips. The first installment with Larry David was broadcast on Channel 4 in January of 2006, and on December 25th of that same year a Christopher Guest sit-down aired and on the following night, one with Garry was shown. Before we dig into this episode, I’m going to go ahead and tell you that according to an anonymous source speaking to The Independent, the reason the show was short-lived was because “The Shandling experience put him off for good.” Two other episodes filmed that year featuring John Cleese and Matt Groening remain unreleased.
Gervais gives us his version of the encounter through his show, but through a few outside sources, you’ll also get to hear Garry’s perspective on the meetup as well. So buckle up for a wild ride, grit your teeth and watch as Ricky Gervais Meets… Garry Shandling.
The show begins with Ricky, pre-interview, having his makeup done, talking about how excited he is to meet Shandling. He also asks an off-screen crew member if it would be insulting for him to tell Garry that the comedian has always reminded him of Bingo from the Banana Splits before stating that “of course it’s fucking insulting!” (If you’re not familiar, click the link to see a picture of the character. It’ll come in handy later.) But this little bit of ribbing is surrounded by praise from Gervais calling Shandling “brilliant” and his work an “opus.” On the drive to Shandling’s house, where the special is to be filmed, he wonders aloud what Garry’s like since he doesn’t “do a lot of these things” and hopes that he’ll be funny in person, before, in a prophetic turn, he begins poking fun at himself for complaining about meeting one of his comedy heroes before he’s even done it.
Ricky arrives at Garry’s house before Garry does and spends a little time exploring the man’s house, examining his living room, opening his fridge, and riffing on the contents. Suddenly the man of the hour appears, carrying his keys and wearing sunglasses. As Ricky turns toward him, Garry speaks his first words to Gervais and greets him, saying, “Why did you ruin that moment by looking?” Ricky is obviously a little confused and confident that he’s doing a bit, but this line of questioning continues long beyond the point of comedy. Shandling says, “Before I shake your hand and say hello…” and continues to hash out why Ricky spoiled a moment of comedy Garry had in his mind for his entrance into the kitchen. Immediately Ricky is on his heels, nervous and concerned that he’s offended his guest/host. When they finally do shake, Garry softens and smiles in a way that seems to say that he was just kidding, but unfortunately for Ricky, this might be the most positive interaction they have in this special.
Garry tells Ricky he’ll be ready to get into it in a moment, once he puts his contacts in, and Gervais quips, “We can get this. This is dynamite.” When Shandling begins to put his contacts in, right there in the kitchen, Ricky is shocked. “Don’t do it over the sink! What if it goes down the plug hole?” Garry’s head slowly turns up to meet Ricky’s. “What are you, controlling?” he says, and gives him a look that would have had made lesser men burst into tears. Discussing this moment with Sanders co-star Jeffrey Tambor in his documentary, Judd describes this as “a little eye into a gear that Garry had when his anger came out and when he felt abused in some way.” Tambor nods his head, grinning. “Ricky [has] this series of eyes that was going ‘Where am I? What’s going on? I am scared.'”
Gervais is literally cornered at this point, trying to look casual but failing as he leans on the corner of Garry’s kitchen counter. He asks Garry to follow him out to the garden so he can show him something and, no doubt eager to leave the awkward encounter in the kitchen behind him, starts walking. Garry, instead, just watches him leave. Ricky makes it into the next room, realizes he’s alone, and laughs his trademark cackle. Garry asks, “Where is your sense of what’s going on? You just kept walking. I wasn’t behind you.”
Why don’t we take a moment and let Garry explain his perspective on what happened with this incredibly awkward introduction. In an interview with GQ in 2010, Shandling discussed the Gervais interview and was apparently quite relieved to do so. In 2006, Garry was in the midst of compiling extras for his DVD release of The Best of Larry Sanders and since Gervais had cited the show as an influence, he reached out to interview Ricky for the DVD. These extras were different from most DVDs and included an assortment of interviews with people who had appeared on Sanders, ranging from Alec Baldwin, whom he interviewed while literally boxing him, to Linda Doucett, Garry’s former fiancee, who played Hank’s assistant until she was fired from the show when the couple ended their real-life relationship, in one of their first conversations since the split.
In an interview with the Archive of American Television, Garry explained that he wanted those extras to go further than Sanders had, saying that they could never be shown on television but were perfect for a DVD extra, being more real than reality television. It was Garry’s understanding that they would be filming the low-key interview for his extras first, followed by Ricky’s special because in terms of energy, as Garry put it, “You can’t get up and then go down but you can go down and then come up.” Arriving home and realizing that this hadn’t been communicated, Shandling was annoyed not with Gervais but with the producers for not doing their job. Rather than interrupt, he decided he was going to maintain the low-key energy he needed for his piece and try to pull Gervais into his energy. “We both became locked into the shows we were each doing, and it became a bit of a boxing match,” he told Amy Wallace of GQ. “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.”
Things go a little smoother once Garry and Ricky make it out to the garden. Larry talks about how he broke into comedy through Sanford and Son, standup, appearing on and eventually hosting Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show, and It’s Garry Shandling’s Show. You can see Gervais relax. Things are smoothing out, and I have to assume, his next move is one that is an attempt to connect through ribbing. We the audience can see what’s happening, though, as Gervais begins to tell Garry that earlier in the day he had joked about his resemblance to Bingo from The Banana Splits. Ricky realizes before he even completes his thought that this was an awful move. It starts taking him longer and longer to explain and even he can tell that he is watching a slow-motion car crash that he also happens to be a participant in. Garry has no idea who Bingo is and for some reason Gervais doubles down and asks if he has the Internet. While they wait for someone to return with a photo of the character, Garry offers to get Ricky a jacket. Ricky agrees but points at Shandling’s own jacket and says with a smile, “Not like that one, though.” Garry does not laugh. Instead he just sighs, “Oh boy…”
Garry is gone and a crew member arrives with a photo of Bingo. Ricky laments, “I can’t show him that… He’s going to be so insulted.” “Good luck!” says the crew member, walking away from the condemned man.
Garry returns with a stack of jackets and Ricky puts one on. Ricky points out Bingo on the page and Garry stares for a moment before deadpanning, “Oh! I’m sorry, I thought it was an insult. I’m complimented!” Gervais has been given a stay of execution.
It doesn’t last.
Gervais brings up his recent interview with Larry David, who described Jewish humor as “a lot of complaining.” Garry slowly turns his head towards Ricky who continues, “I should have done that in the form of a question.” After a brief discussion of Jewish humor, earthquakes, and boxing, Garry brings up Gervais’s Extras and his observations about Ricky’s sense of humor centering on Holocaust jokes and the disabled, and “the side of life that you choose to explore. You with a Nazi helmet on, you see, is funny enough, with that smile… And I’m sure that you’re not happy casting any Jews for your show.” He then stands up from his chair and looks down at Ricky. “That’s the feeling I get. I get the feeling that you’re not comfortable around Jewish people.” Ricky looks up and asks, “Are you Jewish? You’re not Jewish…” Larry takes this at face value and begins to explain that he was raised as a Jew when Ricky stands up, mirroring Shandling. “Good one on you,” Garry responds as Ricky laughs. “Are you happy now?” “Yeah,” Ricky says. “Okay, good. Make sure you cut where it looks like you won,” Garry says as he turns and walks back towards the house. Ricky laughs once again.
In The Zen Diaries, Judd recounts the way Garry described this encounter with Ricky. “Garry said that on some level he was creating some sort of moment that was awkward and in some sense teaching Ricky Gervais to be present in his performance.” The documentary then shows some footage that was not used in Ricky Gervais Meets… in which Garry asks Ricky if they can take a minute without thinking. Ricky eagerly wants to facilitate this for Garry but doesn’t understand. He touches Garry’s arm and says, almost frantically, “What do you mean? Tell me what you mean. No, no, I don’t — What do you want me to do?” “We’re taking a break,” Garry says. “Don’t even think.” Garry is basically trying to meditate with Ricky and exist in the moment. He’s trying to bring Ricky into the low-key energy he talked about in interviews years later, and Ricky just wants to please and do right by his hero. “Are you saying you want to take a break?” he asks. “No,” Garry responds, then stands in silence for eight seconds before Ricky jumps back in. “I’m thinking. I’ve got to be honest, I can’t not think.” “I see it in your work. It’s valuable in your work. Do you know how valuable not thinking is in your work?” Ricky doesn’t know what to say.
This moment, cut from the final version of Ricky Gervais Meets… doesn’t necessarily change the way Garry comes off in the special, but it does illustrate Garry’s point that he would make to GQ years later. In fact, in a very similar way, he ends up imparting some of this same Buddhist philosophy to Amy Wallace, the writer of the piece. In the process of discussing the Gervais encounter she tells Garry that she’s now questioning the nature of an interview: “the seeming need for straightforward answers, and the stress that arises when such answers do not come.” Garry responds, “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… Just calm down a minute. I give you permission to not know. That’s the key. Only from there can come answers.”
Garry is suddenly transformed from a grumpy celebrity, hell-bent on torpedoing an interview into a figure like the wizened Jedi master Yoda who initially plays dumb and gives Luke nothing but trouble in order to illustrate a much larger point. He was implementing the Socratic method in what was supposed to be a fluffy interview.
Somewhere down the line, Garry and Gervais hashed all this out. In the Archive of American Television interview he described running into Ricky after he hosted the Golden Globes and Garry walked through Ricky’s routine with him and complimented him, saying Ricky’s never been better than he is right now. Looking back on the strange interview, Garry admitted that it might have been better had he stopped things and explained what was happening, but “I’ll be damned if something didn’t happen. I love the guy for sticking to his game, and I stuck to mine and it was, you know…” He paused and searched for the right words. “An experiment.”
Ricky Gervais Meets Garry Shandling is at different points funny, painful, and cringe-inducing in a way that mirrors the comedy that Larry Sanders and The Office pioneered. The only difference is, once the credits roll on this show, everybody stays in character. Some might say the lesson to take from the experience is “never meet your heroes,” but a better one might be “live in the moment and embrace the unknowable.”
Or, at the very least, “don’t rely on producers to communicate your schedule.”