“The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling” Is an Intimate Portrait of a Comedy Pioneer

…Shandling was born in Chicago and raised in Tucson, Arizona, where his family moved because his older brother Barry had cystic fibrosis, and his parents thought the dry, warm climate would be better for him. Barry’s death at just 10 years old is the “Rosebud” of this production, if not of Shandling’s life. His personal trajectory feels like a response to that formative tragedy, in particular Shandling’s laid back yet painfully confessional form of stand-up comedy. His family wasn’t repressed, necessarily — not in the stereotypical 1950s way — but like a lot of Americans, they had trouble talking about their feelings. There was tremendous pressure to just keep pain to yourself and soldier on so as not to be a bother to anyone. It’s clear that once Shandling got older, entered therapy, and became interested in Eastern religion (meditation in particular), he started to realize how unhealthy this was, and built his style of comedy as a cathartic, liberating response. “I had no one that I recall putting a hand on my shoulder and saying, ‘This is death. It’s okay to grieve,’” Shandling wrote in his diaries.

We see the seeds of this philosophy in his teenage fascination with ham radio operation. He had radio buddies in countries all over the world, and became very close to a Japanese boy who ultimately came to Tucson as an exchange student. This tendency to want to reach out across a void of space and seek closeness also seems related to the loss of Shandling’s only brother, and it’s to Apatow’s credit that he trusts us to get this without hammering the point home too hard.

 

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