At Garry Shandling’s star-studded memorial service on Sunday night at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre, a Buddhist monk, cloaked in a traditional brown robe and sporting the traditional shaved head, walked to the stage more than halfway through the three-hour event and praised the star, a longtime Buddhist, for his dedication and service to the Deer Park Monastery outside San Diego.
During the five minutes that he shared his views with other attendees, he offered his religion’s highest compliment to the late comedian who passed away suddenly from a heart attack on March 24 at the age of 66, calling Shandling, “a real human being.”
That is precisely who was honored on Sunday night, a real human being, celebrated in front of nearly 500 of his closest friends, colleagues, associates and admirers. More than a dozen of them took the stage to help paint a 360-degree portrait of a man who was at times lauded for his comedic genius, roasted for his neuroses (associated largely with intimacy issues), admired for his spirituality and above all, applauded for his ability to be the best friend, mentor and comedy writer around.
Present to pay their respects to Shandling were Warren Beatty, Billy Crystal, Norman Lear, Conan O’Brien, Albert Brooks, Rob Reiner, Tom Petty, Ray Romano, Phil Rosenthal, Jon Favreau, Peter Farrelly, Henry Winkler, Tim Allen, Vince Vaughn, Michael Richards, Cheryl Hines, Jeremy Piven, Eric Idle, Pauly Shore, Carrot Top and Dimitri Martin. Also in attendance were HBO’s Richard Plepler, Time Warner’s Jeff Bewkes, UTA’s Martin Lesak (Shandling’s longtime agent) and David Kramer, and Shandling’s longtime publicist and close friend Alan Nierob of Rogers & Cowan.
Aside from Shandling himself, the person who got the most attention of the night was Judd Apatow. Taking Apatow under his wing 26 years ago when he was just 22 years old proved to be a smart move by Shandling because Apatow returned the favor on Sunday night, producing the memorial service for his late friend. It started on time at 7 p.m. with a skit featuring Jeffrey Tambor and Penny Johnson Jerald, Shandling’s co-stars on the first of his two innovative TV series, The Larry Sanders Show and It’s Garry Shandling’s Show.
The two did a bit about what order Tambor would fall into on the night’s lineup, with the actor joking, “I think he would want me to open. I don’t want to follow his comedy friends.” But he did just that, leaving the stage seconds later only to return last close to 10 p.m. and close the service.
The short skit was followed by the first of the night’s handful of musical performances, this one featuring rocker Ryan Adams, who was joined by several musicians, most notably Johnny Depp, to perform a version of Adams’ forceful ballad “My Wrecking Ball.” The lights were dim inside the theater and the stage sparsely decorated with a giant screen framed by three hanging lanterns on either side, a podium fronted by a floral arrangement, and a changing light scape that started off the night as purple and changed to pink, blue and green.
After Adams came the night’s host Apatow, who didn’t take long to make the connection between the hue glowing behind him and the death of superstar singer Prince on Thursday.
But first, he got choked up. “I don’t know how I am going to do this. I’m sorry in advance,” he said, fighting back tears. “It’s been very emotional to go down the rabbit hole of Garry, but I feel like it’s a lesson for me to just think very deeply about Garry’s life and his death and to learn from it. It’s odd that Prince just died because Garry and Prince were very similar. There really were no differences.”
And that proved to be the set-up for the night’s first wave of uproarious laughter. “(Garry) was mysterious, complicated, sexually ambiguous. … He was a brilliant performer who may or may not have been high the entire time,” Apatow said. “Both stood up against the man to get their shit back, and both were sexy as a mother f—er… Larry Sanders Show was Garry’s Purple Rain. His Garry Shandling Show was (Prince’s) Dirty Mind. The only difference between the two was that Gary had a huge c—.”
The punchline is exactly “the joke Garry would have wanted,” Apatow added.
It would be the first of many penis jokes throughout the night. One might expect a memorial service for a late comedian to be a series of stand-up routines from close industry peers, but since this night was for Shandling, the tone often switched from serious and spiritual to light and irreverent and back again.
“Why are we so upset about Garry?” asked Apatow, before revealing that HBO, home to Larry Sanders, generously picked up the tab for the service. “Because he opened up to us. He revealed his truth, his pain, his struggle, his fight to lead an ego-less life. … He worked so hard to become the man that he became and an amazing friend to so many of us. … He’s like a comedy buddha.”
And one that had high expectations for those around him, unafraid to show his displeasure when people couldn’t keep up with his quick timing. “He was a better writer than everybody in the room,” Apatow explained. “It was like Picasso being mad at you because you couldn’t paint with him. (But) he loved people and that was always his priority. Despite his human failings and struggles, he was preaching love.”
Shandling’s cousin, Michael, followed Apatow. He would be the only family member to take a turn at the podium and he took full advantage, offering to share facts about his relative with those in attendance, things that would be news to many in the room, he said.
In addition to being a “pretty normal kid” who was, perhaps, a bit shy, Michael explained that his cousin was a great athlete who played baseball, football and basketball. He taught himself to be a Ham radio operator and was a “self-described nerd.” Shandling’s first job, Michael said, was writing ads for Japanese ad agency Dentsu.
As a kid, Shandling adored his big brother, Barry, who was three years older and diagnosed with cystic fibrosis as a toddler. Barry died at the age of 13 when Shandling was just 10, and “it was devastating for the family,” Michael explained. In the 50 years that have passed, “we never ever spoke about Barry again,” he added.
And it was revealed during the service that Shandling’s mother, Muriel, never told her son that his brother died, instead she lied to him and said that Barry went to live with their grandmother. Michael noted that the mother-son dynamic proved to be a very “difficult and odd relationship for Garry to maintain.”
Shandling often joked about his mother during his career, and how she smothered him and acted in a very possessive, if not aggressive, way. (One of his jokes: “My mother wants me to have children, just not with other people.”) Somehow, Michael said, his cousin managed to break through the family drama to find a mantra that worked for him: “Be true to yourself.”
“He never let go of it. He shared it,” Michael said.
His desire to stay in the moment at all times while remaining authentic in his life and work was a through line of the night’s tributes. His friend of 30 years, makeup artist Bruce Grayson, also described Shandling as a “perfectionist” who was competitive in all areas of his life, from boxing to his infamous Sunday basketball games at his home that drew many peers from the comedy biz.
Linda Doucett, a longtime girlfriend and onetime fiancee, recounted his bravery which was on display when the two were on a walk with their dogs. The couple witnessed a gnarly dog fight when an aggressive dog named Otis snapped on a white husky. She said Shandling swept down and rescued the dog from Otis’ mouth, saving its life. She struggled to get through the story, fighting back emotions and tears.
But that’s not how it started. She began her tribute with this: “Garry really did have a huge penis. That’s not what I had planned to say. I’m in the moment.”
Following Doucett was Shandling’s former writing partner Alan Zweibel, with whom he co-created It’s Garry Shandling’s Show. Zweibel said he’s not ready to accept the fact that he won’t hear his friend’s voice in real life any longer. It was a voice that provided him much comic relief during their friendship. One night Shandling phoned Zweibel to say, “My dog’s penis tastes bitter. You think it’s his diet or what?”
Those types of calls continued during their friendship and (rocky) working relationship, at times like 2 a.m. or 6 a.m. “It was either a death in the family, or it was Gary,” he laughed. And even in death, Zweibel said he was “certain Gary is in this theater. And when my body breaks down too, he will give me notes on my speech.”
Author, security expert and Shandling pal Gavin de Becker didn’t need any notes on his speech. He delivered an insightful and entertaining tribute, and one that won’t make Brad Grey very happy. Before that, though, his longtime friend said that because of his access to Shandling, he “got to see the evolution of great jokes,” including ones the world will never get to hear because of their status as “too terrible or awful or too politically incorrect.”
Like this one: “I don’t care what anyone says about Bill Cosby, that man was a mentor who taught me skills I will always use … in my private life.”
De Becker didn’t hold back when speaking about Shandling’s mother. “She was awful. She was wounded and flawed and one of her flaws was wounding other people. After the first day with her, Garry asked me what I thought of his mother. I said, ‘Garry, she’s a monster.’ He said, ‘Well, you are seeing her on her best behavior’,” he remembered.
Perhaps because of the complications of his own immediate family, Shandling spread his love out and created an extended family out of his friends and associates, like de Becker, he said. That proved to be a transition de Becker would use to bring up Grey’s name. Shandling and Grey were known to have one of the most bitter feuds in Hollywood. When he worked as a manger with Brillstein-Grey Entertainment, Grey managed Shandling and served as a producer on his Larry Sanders project.
However, that relationship didn’t end well, and Shandling ended up suing Grey in the late 1990s for $100 million, alleging that Grey improperly used his relationship with his client to leverage his other business interests. Grey countersued, and the two, despite settling the matter out of court, never made up.
“Even Brad Grey had a role in his family because every family has an uncle or a cousin … who is a sociopath,” de Becker said. “I want to say something true about Brad Grey. You already heard that (Garry) lost his brother when he was 10 years old. Deep betrayal by his mother, and like anyone, he had betrayals in life and Brad is one of them. The pain of that … was a brother wound. A deep brother wound. A lot of challenges in relationships Garry had in his life were a result of that brother wound, not the mother wound.”
He concluded that Shandling fought to find a path to forgiveness, which was, like show business, “a struggle for him.”
Someone who didn’t struggle during her moment under the lights was Sarah Silverman. Here’s how she opened: “You know what I like to do after I masturbate? Speak at a nice memorial service.”
Claiming she “stole that joke from our friend, Garry Emmanuel Shandling,” Silverman also revealed that Shandling lent her loads of furniture once to fill her apartment. Some items she still owns, she said. “He made us feel so loved and supported and mirrored with the best lighting,” she continued. “He was The Giving Tree.”
She tried to mirror his moves on the basketball court, playing the guard and staying on him for 18 of the 21 years they knew each other. “Sundays were pure joy, the summer camp I never knew,” she added.
Silverman then made reference to Shandling’s Buddhist leanings. “When my mother died in August, he comforted me with a Buddhist expression that went, ‘Grief, teach me what I have to learn.’ What I’ve learned from grief is that she is a strange mistress who works in jagged, inconsistent unpredictable ways. You may want to cry when you find out your close friend is gone, but grief says, ‘Nah, I’m going to go ahead and wait until you’re in line at Gelson’s in two weeks,” she explained. “My mind knows that he is gone but my body, my bones are positive that he’s just in Hawaii.”
The island came up many times throughout the night as it was Shandling’s favorite vacation destination. Other speakers included his lawyer Bill Isaacson, husband and wife Chris Henchy and Brooke Shields, the latter who said she served as his date to many events and functions. Their outings always ended with a long talk in a driveway, shared laughter and tears over their complicated mothers. She always left feeling “more grounded and less alone as if I had just been given a gift.”
Kevin Nealon followed the couple and joked that being friends with Shandling, someone who was “complex, neurotic,” required extra patience because he could be a handful. “I think the fact that he spelled his name with two ‘r’s was a warning signal,” he said. But the biggest laugh during his 8 minutes on stage came when Nealon mentioned Muriel.
“The sad irony of all of this is that Garry is reunited with his mother for all eternity,” he said to huge laughter and applause. “I wish Garry was here. He was so proud when I got a big laugh.”
Jokes aside, Nealon said Shandling loved real estate and hiking or hiking to open real estate properties, was very loyal, despised gossip, was his first male friend to send him flowers and his first friend to meditate. Nealon recounted the story of gifting Shandling with his black-and-white Border Collie named Shep.
The dog, now dead, could be seen in several of the video tributes that played throughout the night. The clips included Shandling’s late-night appearances on shows led by the likes of Johnny Carson, David Letterman and Conan O’Brien. Other montages were dedicated to Jerry Seinfeld, spirituality and stand-up.
Then back came Tambor to close the presentations. He recounted his early days on Larry Sanders, telling a story about how Shandling put his hand out to his co-stars after filming one of the first scenes on the show. That gesture was a metaphor for how Shandling lived his life. “He was the kindest genius I ever knew,” Tambor said. “He changed my life. … He went past laughter to humanity. And laughter, for him, was health and in the moment.”
But that wouldn’t be the final moment of the night. A surprise last performance would close Shandling’s memorial service as Adam Sandler came on stage to play guitar and sing George Harrison’s “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth).”
Despite the health problems that plagued his final few years, it did seem that Shandling found some peace in the days leading up to his death.
Nealon recalled their final lunch, two days before Shandling died, when he was invited to join Shandling at one of his favorite places on Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu. “We sat together at a picnic bench outside, overlooking the ocean,” he detailed. “He looked up and said, ‘How great is this’?”
If Shandling had a view of inside the Ebell Theatre Sunday night, he could ask anyone in the room the same thing.