Comedy Legend Garry Shandling Has Died

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Garry Shandling, the stand-up, actor, writer, and creative genius behind the groundbreaking television comedies The Larry Sanders Show and It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, died unexpectedly in a Los Angeles hospital Thursday, TMZ is reporting.

Shandling broke into show business as a script writer, penning episodes of the hit ‘70s sitcoms Sanford and Son and Welcome Back, Kotter. He’s often attributed George Carlin with prompting his move to Los Angeles; he showed the influential comedian some of his jokes following a gig Carlin was playing near Shandling’s hometown of Tuscon, Arizona. He eventually went into stand-up himself, becoming a regular at L.A.’s Comedy Store during that club’s golden era, leading to his initial booking on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1981.

Throughout the ‘80s, he became first a favorite guest and then a favored guest host for The Tonight Show. His first regular series, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, aired four seasons on Showtime (with reruns airing on the then-nascent Fox Network) between 1986 and 1990. The innovative, hyper-meta comedy featured Shandling playing a variation on himself, a stand-up comic juggling relationships and friendships, with most of the action set in his apartment. (It premiered three years before Seinfeld.) The show was particularly noted for breaking the fourth wall, with Shandling addressing the studio audience and the audience at home, commenting on and joking about the show and its characters.

After Shandling’s departure from The Tonight Show, Jay Leno became the regular guest host and eventual successor to Carson. But Shandling turned his years on the show – and the very public battle for its legacy – into comedy gold when he co-created The Larry Sanders Show, which ran six seasons (from 1992 to 1998) on HBO. He played a narcissistic and insecure late-night talk show host; the series intercut scenes from the talk show (with numerous celebrities sending up their own images) with documentary-style scenes of its making, and the backstage personnel’s personal lives. Sanders was a true groundbreaker, both in terms of its self-awareness and the style of its comedy, rooted in awkwardness and emotional honesty atypical to most half-hours of the era. And it was a training ground for much of what was to come in comedy: Judd Apatow, Paul Simms, and Maya Forbes were among its writers, and its supporting cast included Jeffrey Tambor, Bob Odenkirk, Scott Thompson, Jeremy Piven, Janeane Garafalo, and Mary Lynn Rajskub.

In the years since Sanders’ conclusion, Shandling kept a fairly low profile, making a few film appearances (he recently played a supporting role in Iron Man 2, and reprised the character in a Captain America: The Winter Soldier cameo), popping up occasionally on television and on stage, and giving thoughtful interviews on Marc Maron and Pete Holmes’ podcasts. His cause of death is not yet known. He was 66.