By Jen Chaney
Tuesday, October 20, 2009 12:00 AM
"It's Garry Shandling's Show" might be the most meta sitcom in the history of television. A half-hour comedy about the life of a single comedian whose name happened to be Garry Shandling, this late '80s gem that aired on Showtime (and later, Fox) never forgot -- or let its audience forget -- that it was a TV series.
From Shandling's insistence on speaking directly to the camera to the occasional inclusion of the actual studio audience in the plot, the goal of "It's Garry Shandling's Show" was nothing less than to obliterate every sitcom trope imaginable, right down to the theme song. Hence the work of catchy, self-referential genius that opens each episode: "This is the theme to Garry's show/The theme to Garry's show/Garry called me up and asked if I would write his theme song."
More than two decades and an infinite number of TV comedies later, "It's Garry Shandling's Show," which arrives on DVD today in a complete series box set ($159.99), remains groundbreaking, smart and hilarious, a joyful precursor to "Seinfeld" that may have been even more daring than Jerry's weekly ode to nothing. But that's just one of the reasons why this collection merits a look.
Shout! Factory, a company known for giving revered shows like "Freaks and Geeks" and "thirtysomething" the loving treatment they deserve on DVD, has done the same for "Shandling's Show." The eight-disc set comes with a bounty of extras, including six featurettes that boast brand new interviews with Shandling, series co-creator Alan Zweibel and other members of cast and crew; extensive outtakes; 18 commentary tracks; and clips from Shandling's appearances on Michael Nesmith's short-lived sketch series "Television Parts." It's all tucked into a tidy box alongside a booklet that contains essays from Shandling admirers and collaborators like Judd Apatow (who later wrote for and produced Shandling's "Larry Sanders Show") and writer Larry Gelbart.
The bonus features deliver with informative bits of trivia -- Scott Nemes, who plays the preteen son of Garry's best friend, almost lost the role to Fred Savage -- as well as funny anecdotes about the show's sometimes chaotic creative process ("It was terrifying," says actor Michael Tucci). "Shandling Show" fans will devour every moment, right down to the "Show and Tell" with writers Tom Gammill and Max Pross, who display all kinds of nostalgic items they saved from their time working on the series. (Ah, if only I had been lucky enough to receive a printed invitation to the "It's Garry Shandling Show" and "It's a Different World" mixer.)
But as nicely done as the special features are, what's most striking about revisiting "It's Garry Shandling's Show" is the level of talent involved in making it a weekly reality, or rather, a surreality. In addition to a posse of top-notch writers -- including Gammill, Pross, Al Jean and Michael Reiss, all of whom would later go on to craft landmark episodes of "The Simpsons" -- the number of notable guest stars, from Gilda Radner to Jeff Goldblum to "Soul Train's" Don Cornelius, is staggering in its diversity. Only on this sitcom would next-door neighbor Tom Petty drop by to return a pair of hedge clippers and wind up playing a stellar acoustic version of "The Waiting."
In a way, we have former NBC President Brandon Tartikoff to thank for all of this. During an interview, Shandling remembers pitching the series to the late Tartikoff, who rejected it because he didn't think the audience could relate to a comedian. That gave Shandling the opportunity to pitch the same concept to Showtime, where executives there gave him free, comedic reign to create the show he envisioned. And now, 20-plus years later, we, the DVD-viewing audience, are all the more fortunate for it.