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Judd Apatow waits approximately 200 minutes before he shows HBO viewers the most revealing archival video footage in his leisurely paced but consistently rewarding four-and-a-half-hour-long documentary miniseries The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling: excerpts from Ricky Gervais Meets…Garry Shandling, a cringe-inducing 2006 TV special in which the late Shandling (the influential stand-up and creator of the meta-reflexive sitcom The Larry Sanders Show) invited Gervais — the formerly funny creator of the sitcoms The Office and Extras — into his Los Angeles home and then, when Gervais showed up with a film crew early and unannounced, proceeded to criticize everything about the British comic.
Thanks to Shandling’s elusive tone, a bizarre mix of open hostility and avuncular concern, the train wreck of an interview has become an object of cult fascination among comedy nerds and YouTube rubberneckers. Apatow highlights some of Shandling’s more lighthearted digs, like when he quips — after somebody’s cellphone rings off-camera — “That’s my ass detector, and it’s gone off because [Gervais is] here.”
Apatow doesn’t include Shandling’s most incisive criticisms of Gervais’s comedy, which already tended toward the lazy, button-pushing jokes that have made his recent Netflix special, Humanity, a source of predictable controversy. In their interview, Shandling dismisses Gervais’s need to “pick on” “taboo subjects” — for example, the lame Extras scene where Gervais (playing an unpleasant movie extra) wears a Nazi uniform and mocks a co-star who, unbeknownst to Gervais’s character, suffers from cerebral palsy. First, Shandling chides Gervais for overdoing it: “You with a Nazi helmet on is funny enough.” Then, several topics and minutes later, Shandling zeros in on the revealing nature of Gervais’s act: “I — and I think the audience — sees a certain relish in your eyes when you’re playing a Nazi,” he says. “You’re a naughty little boy and you know it.”
Moments like that suggest that Ricky Gervais Meets…Garry Shandling was something more than an interview gone wrong: It now plays as a failed artists’ intervention, one whose subject, Gervais, never appears to consider the truth-teller’s righteous observations.
But Gervais practically begs to be dunked on when he makes a series of bad jokes about Jews. He can’t resist pointing out that Woody Allen “looks funny” moments before he mystifyingly observes that “Jewish humor” has to be effective “otherwise it wouldn’t be humor…it’d just be Jewish.” Shandling replies, with withering understatement: “I’m starting to get the feeling that you’re not comfortable around Jewish people.”
Shandling appears anxious during this exchange, so much so that he abruptly stands up from his chair, partially proving Gervais’s point about how “real uncomfortable moments are only funny in retrospect.” Soon, Gervais tries — after making a sour face and indignantly asking Shandling, “You’re not Jewish, are you?”— to mask his own discomfort by standing up, too. “Are you happy now?” Shandling asks.
“Yeah.” Gervais laughs.
“Good,” says Shandling, winding up for a knockout punch: “Make sure to cut so that it looks like you won.”
Shandling’s most well-intended commentary has a vicious, personal tone because, as Apatow explains in his documentary, Shandling felt ambushed when he came home to discover Gervais and his camera crew already recording in his kitchen. This squares with what Shandling told the Archive of American Television’s John Dalton during a career-spanning talk: He had expected Gervais’s producers to film, on Shandling’s behalf, an “intimate chat” for a Larry Sanders DVD featurette before they started taping Gervais’s show. Shandling says that he disliked the idea of following what he calls the “very up” tone of Gervais’s project with the desired “low-key vibe” of his own. Gervais, for his part, plowed ahead despite Shandling’s preferences, and at the end of their abortive dialogue refused to record anything more.
Last week, Gervais offered his own interpretation of what went wrong — on Twitter, to me, after I had tweeted (without tagging him) that I planned on writing about the incident. He insists that Shandling was “doing shtick that didn’t quite come out like he thought” because, as Shandling allegedly told Gervais, he “wasn’t himself” and was “having 5 different therapy sessions a week.”
Perhaps Shandling did politely explain away his criticism. Still, if Gervais is right, and Shandling was just doing a bit, why do so many of his least-cutting comments — especially about The Larry Sanders Show’s thematic concern with vanity and egotism — sound like warnings about the seductive power of fame and the gnawing fear that you’re only as good as your last show? “You cannot get caught up in the result of your work,” Shandling told Gervais in 2006. “That’s not who you are.”
This kind of generous but unsparing perspective is a Garry Shandling specialty. It’s what makes The Larry Sanders Show more than just a caustically funny deconstruction of Hollywood’s most seductive and inauthentic qualities. It also suggests why Shandling doesn’t accept Gervais’s excuse for his cerebral palsy joke: “At no point,” he says, “are we getting a laugh out of being homophobic, or being racist, or someone else’s disability.” Shandling’s reply cuts to the heart of their conversation: “Why are you choosing those uncomfortable moments?”
Shandling’s question now looks especially prescient given the unabashedly transphobic routine that Gervais performs at the beginning of that Netflix special. In the routine, Gervais claims that it’s not transphobic to refer to Caitlyn Jenner as Bruce Jenner, her pre-transition name, because, as he repeats with a visible twinkle in his eye, “Bruce was his name.”
Thankfully, disillusioned Gervais fans may find some solace in a previously unaired Ricky Gervais Meets…Garry Shandling outtake that Apatow includes in his documentary, in which Shandling begs Gervais to join him in clearing his mind of all distracting thoughts. Gervais looks confused, but also receptive enough to see that Shandling is reaching out — trying to form a bond with him. Maybe Apatow’s right and Shandling was “creating some sort of moment.” But if Shandling was, as Apatow continues, trying to “teach Gervais how to be present,” he did so with a characteristically discomfiting mix of dark humor and acute introspection.
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