Actor-comedian Garry Shandling

Actor-comedian discusses his first writing job, switching to stand-up and his role in the blockbuster film, Iron Man 2.


Tavis: When you think of big summer blockbuster movies, you, of course, immediately think of Garry Shandling. Okay, well, maybe not (laughter).
Garry Shandling: Well, why don’t you just start over (laughter)?
Tavis: But you can currently catch the Emmy-winning comedian and actor in one of the biggest films so far this year, Iron Man 2. Here now a scene from Iron Man 2.
Tavis: I can’t imagine you, Garry Shandling, playing a smarmy United States senator.
Shandling: Well, then, that’s perfect because really when you see those smarmy United States senators, you can’t imagine what they’re like in real life, can you? So working backwards, they’re like this (laughter). No, I think that you just have to really know that you are in front of your constituency.
Really, I played that guy as someone really wanting the attention, making sure that he’s gonna get re-elected, looking like he’s standing up for the U.S. and, at the same time, doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
Tavis: But there’s nobody like that in the U.S. Senate for real, though, is there?
Shandling: Not that I know of. It is a completely contrived character (laughter).
Tavis: I made my attempt at humor a moment ago, but how did you end up in this blockbuster this summer?
Shandling: Well, I mean, I just don’t know what to drink to override your sarcasm.
Tavis: You got two cups there. There’s coffee in this one. You got water in this one.
Shandling: I need the Gatorade anti-sarcastic drink. Well, it’s good to see you and I love you and they may not know that we know each other so well. You enjoy poking fun at me assuming I’m not going to really strike back. Isn’t that true? You feel safe.
Tavis: Yeah, I do feel safe with you.
Shandling: Okay, okay, all right. Because you seem like a little sissy. Tavis, how are you, buddy?
Tavis: I’m good.
Shandling: I was on your show a year ago, about two years ago, and I think I was plugging the It’s Garry Shandling DVDs and we ended up getting somehow from that to politics. It must have gone through piracy or something. I don’t how we got there.
So Jon Favreau, who’s the director of Iron Man 2 and the director of Iron Man 1 and the director of Elf, which has nothing to do with this conversation –
Tavis: – anything (laughter). Yes?
Shandling: And, of all things, he saw me on here talking to you on one of the days when you were coherent and allowing me to be whoever I am. We had really quite a good time, you and I, that particular day.
He went to one of the other producers of Iron Man and said, “You think Shandling could play the senator? I saw him on Tavis Smiley.” I just assume he thinks you were probably busy or he would have had something for you.
Tavis: I was about to ask that question. So he saw the two of us engaged in dialog, you got a call from Favreau, I did not. What happened here?
Shandling: I mean, I didn’t bring a shrink along, but I think you should talk to somebody because I can see it’s gonna be riding on you. I would guess that, in general – although I think you can play a senator, you can play a senator.
He called me up because I did the DVDs and then I went to Hawaii. I go to Hawaii a lot when I get away. It always throws people in the business off when I disappear because they say, “Well, where were you?” and I say, “I was off TV.” (Laughter) No one can imagine, who’s on TV, that world of off TV, which is real life.
Tavis: But why Hawaii, though?
Shandling: I go to Hawaii to really get away. You have to fly over the ocean and I don’t like that part. I don’t like flying over the ocean. I really don’t like going to Hawaii. You stumped me on why I’m going. I feel like I’m very far away and I really actually do meditate and I hike and I swim and I take care of myself.
I was hanging out and Jon called me there and he said, “What are you doing?” I said, “I’m hanging out in Hawaii.” He said, “Well, I have this small part.” Then he said, Tavis, this really interesting thing which he really said because he got human very fast. He wasn’t talking like a job offer or anything like that. He was talking about artistically.
He said to me, “I don’t think this is the time to withdraw.” What he meant was spiritually withdraw, emotionally withdraw, physically withdraw, because Hawaii’s symbolic for a certain spiritual withdrawal where I heal and I meditate and take care of myself and have my own time, and he’s a fan.
He said, “Well, I have this very small part and I’d like to give you the support to do what you do.” We started talking like that and, before I knew it, I was on the set.
Tavis: (Laughter) I have read, though, that what started out as a little two-page thing when you got on the set, it started growing.
Shandling: Yeah. We had this shorthand. I said to him, “When I come back from Hawaii, I’ll get together with you.” He said, “Come on in with me and Robert and we’ll just read through the scene” which was about three pages at the time. By the time we got halfway through that, Robert stopped, nodded to Jon and then we started to improvise and Jon called in a computer fellow who started taking down the script and it grew to 15 pages.
Before I knew it, much like the start of this show, I was suddenly sitting there and it was “Action” and I realized, “My God, the last thing I had done was the voice of a turtle” (laughter) which I just maybe translated a bit to the senator.
Then I was in the trailer a ton. He put me in the trailer so much that I started to get offers for other trailers of movies I’m not even in because I stood out in the trailer (laughter). I think I’m best in the trailer, by the way. Did you see the trailer?
Tavis: I saw the trailer, yeah.
Shandling: I’m in eight seconds of the trailer and I think Mickey Rourke’s in like two seconds. I timed it all. I have the whole graph and it’s disproportionate to the amount of time I’m actually in the movie. But you go, “My God, he’s the star of the trailer.”
Tavis: I’m curious. Take me back inside that room. You start out with three pages of dialog. Without getting too detailed, how does that grow to like 15 pages? I mean, how did the part grow from what it was to what it is?
Shandling: First of all, it’s a style and a form and an artistic way of creating that I’m familiar with. That is my style of operating. So we all were of the same mind, which is once you’re in the mind and the chemistry happens, where does it go? Robert started to improvise and then I went with him.
Jon calls it getting in the cage with Robert (laughter). There’s only certain guys I can put in the cage with Robert, which makes it sound kind of ominous. Whereas, what it really is is gigantically fun because you’re with a man who is so open and often childlike that he’s just working off of pure impulse and I enjoy that.
So it grows and then Jon, he sits about six feet away so as to stay out of the immediate danger.
Tavis: He’s on the outside of the cage, yeah (laughter).
Shandling: He’s on the outside of the cage and I said, “You don’t need to wear the scuba gear. We’re in an office, man.” But he gets confused easily. I shouldn’t be saying that, but he often comes in in scuba gear (laughter).
He’d say, “Now what would happen if Robert took over the screens at the Senate hearing?” and then we just start improvising. Then, of course, after all that and after that is all shot, then he goes back and cuts it back down to somewhere in between what it was originally and how much improvisation was done.
Tavis: But still, you end up being more than what it was originally was.
Shandling: Yeah, yeah.
Tavis: One of the reasons I suspect that you are so good at that process, of being able to improvise and to expand it from three pages to 15 is you started out as a writer. The last time you were on this show, we had so much fun talking about other things and getting you a job on Iron Man 2, we didn’t get –
Shandling: – and then Sean Penn you interviewed after me and he got Milk, but you’re getting nothing, are you?
Tavis: I’m still stuck here at PBS.
Shandling: No, you were in C-Span2.
Tavis: Yeah, C-Span2, yeah.
Shandling: Well, that’s still something.
Tavis: Yeah, thanks. You get Iron Man 2, he gets Milk.
Shandling: You were fantastic on that. You controlled that room.
Tavis: And I get C-Span2.
Shandling: Where was that?
Tavis: In Chicago, Chicago, yeah.
Shandling: You controlled that room. You made Captain Kirk look like a little sissy; you make him look – you run that room. You got Farrakhan, you got Jesse Jackson, right? Those two would be enough, right? You got ten of the most fantastic people, then kids. And you had your facial hair fully grown out. You looked like you were ready. You know, you meant business. I enjoyed that show, by the way.
Tavis: Are you done now (laughter)?
Shandling: No. I thought – yeah, I am. I’m giving you a compliment, man.
Tavis: I appreciate that. It’s still Iron Man 2, Milk and C-Span2, but I digress.
Shandling: They’re coming out with the adult version now of Iron Man 2. You know what it’s called?
Tavis: What?
Shandling: Iron Man 2 (laughter). You know, they like to play with the title cheaply, but they don’t even need to on this one.
Tavis: (Laughter) I am not going to let you get out of this this time. The last time you were here, I wanted to talk about two things I didn’t get a chance to talk about.
I’m a huge Sanford and Son fan and I love when I watch this show on TV Land or TV1 or whoever’s running it, reruns all the time. I love watching credits and I crack up every time I watch the show and I see Garry Shandling’s name in the credit. That is so hilarious to me.
Shandling: Do you ever freeze it right there?
Tavis: I have a couple of times. I just freeze it and just revel in the moment, the Garry Shandling moment.
Shandling: Maybe have a drink, just stare at it?
Tavis: Yeah.
Shandling: Well, then you’re like my mother.
Tavis: (Laughter) What were you doing writing for Sanford and Son?
Shandling: Well, when I was 24, I think, I moved to Los Angeles from Tucson, Arizona. The first job I got on any show was on Sanford and Son. I wrote a [unintelligible] for Sanford and Son and I wrote a script about Fred and Ah Chew, his Chinese neighbor opening a Chinese restaurant in Fred’s house, which is illegal because it wasn’t zoned for that. It was a junkyard. And you’re staring me down for some reason and I don’t know why.
I pitched other stories. I said, “Hey, Fred becomes a member of the Black Panthers.” They said, “No.” I tried everything. I wanted to go more progressive. “Lamont is a member of SDS.” No, they won’t do that. So I wrote three in one season. I wrote Fred and Lamont go camping and they have a father-son talk.
Tavis: That was just on the other night. I just saw it the other night.
Shandling: This is embarrassing.
Tavis: No, I’m serious.
Shandling: You’re like a little child, like you want to see things –
Tavis: – I love Sanford and Son. I can’t help it.
Shandling: Well, it’s a great show. It’s a really funny show. They spotted me honestly because of the jokes I could write. It took me a long time to understand story, but I could always write jokes. Sanford and Son was what we call hard comedy because it’s got hard jokes and, for some reason, I could write Aunt Esther.
So there you go. Give me the credit for having this range. Aunt Esther, Iron Man 2 senator (laughter). I can write them both.
Tavis: That’s a nice range. Not just Sanford and Son, but you also wrote for Welcome Back, Kotter.
Shandling: Then I wrote for Welcome Back, Kotter.
Tavis: Love that show.
Shandling: Then I called up my agent and I said, “I can’t do this anymore” and I started to do stand-up comedy.
Tavis: How did you make the switch? Why did you make the switch? Why did you call your agent and say, “I’m moving from writing to doing stand-up?” What happened?
Shandling: I was bored out of my mind, basically. I couldn’t understand. I was 26 and I went into the story editor at Sanford and Son and said, “Why do you write 20 of these?” because it was a formula. If you think of my series, they sort of aren’t formula.
The stuff I then did was very offbeat and difficult to write each week because it would be very different each week, whereas these shows were pretty locked down to a formula. So once you were able to write one, because I see everything as a challenge, once I sort of could do it, I didn’t understand why you keep doing it unless you’re inspired.
So it was time for me to move on because I’d gotten onstage at The Comedy Store and stunk. I was never a natural. I was dead in the water on amateur night. In fact, I was gonna change my name to that, but it was too long, don’t you think?
Tavis: Dead in the water on amateur night, yeah (laughter).
Shandling: Yeah. Dead in the water on amateur night was my American Indian name when I used to do stand-up back then before the Europeans moved in. What the hell happened there, by the way, with immigration? The Native Americans should be the ones who decide. Everyone outside of them is an immigrant. Jeez, I’m gonna get angry.
Tavis: So are you gonna go to Arizona? Are you boycotting Arizona?
Shandling: I’m boycotting Arizona because my mother lives there (laughter).
Tavis: (Laughter) Wow.
Shandling: Finally the Jews and Latinos have bonded (laughter). It seems like immigration for all these years has been the real don’t ask-don’t tell. That’s how they’ve run that thing. But don’t ask-don’t tell, they should change that to don’t ask-don’t tell and change don’t ask-don’t tell to something more mature like don’t know-don’t want to (laughter). That would take care of it. I don’t know and I don’t want to.
Tavis: Since you’re on issues, I got more. Can I throw some more at you?
Shandling: Please, and solve them.
Tavis: Okay. We’ve solved the immigration problem here in 20 seconds. We’re just gonna change the name of the program and now we’re off to something else.
Shandling: Well, you know, Obama was on TV today saying he needs Republican support to get the immigration laws. I don’t know how you feel about this, but it’s very tough. I mean, I voted for him and I support him. I just don’t want to hear him say he needs Republican support because I voted for him because I thought he knew how to get Republican support (laughter). That’s not my job. Is that my job? Isn’t that accountability?
Tavis: That’s accountability.
Shandling: Isn’t it my responsibility to make it work?
Tavis: Um-hum. That’s why you’re the president.
Shandling: No, I don’t want to be president. That’s why I’m the president, you said? That’s why I’m the senator.
Tavis: That’s why you’re the senator. What about the Wall Street situation, the bailout?
Shandling: You and I talked a year and a half ago about money addicts, before this.
Tavis: We did.
Shandling: So it’s not news to us, is it? They’re money addicts. I particularly got burned because I had my money with Goldman Sachs and Goldman (laughter). Now that’s not anti-Semitic. I’m just talking about I shouldn’t be putting my money with my relatives (laughter). I never trust my relatives.
Tavis: What’s gonna happen, though, with this financial reform they’re talking about? Is it gonna work? Should it work? Is it tough enough?
Shandling: Well, you know, Tavis, how I feel about this, which is the only change that’s gonna happen is – help me with this. The only change that matters is gonna come from within. We can only blame ourselves for creating this culture that’s a fiasco.
The culture is built on get what you can until you get caught. That’s what the culture is. It doesn’t go back to Bush, it doesn’t go back to Clinton, it goes way back like it’s developed. So we all have to take – what I’m trying is, it’s my fault (laughter). It’s your fault, it’s the crew’s fault, it’s my fault.
Tavis: Why you blaming me for this? I hadn’t nothing to do with this.
Shandling: Well, you probably started protesting pretty early. I did too. But, you know, all of us who – people who are looking to blame somebody else had best look at themselves first is what I’m saying. That’s an unusual perspective because it requires a small singular approach, one by one, but I think that’s what has to be done.
I mean, we’re at the end of this ride, aren’t we? We’re at the end of this crazy spinning wild ride called earth. Doesn’t it seem like it’s coming to an end? Doesn’t it seem like we’re –
Tavis: – say it ain’t so, Garry. Say it ain’t so.
Shandling: Well, it seems to me, unless we do something, we’re getting to that place where the guy says, “Get off and stay to the side there” because it’s tricky. It’s time to take a real serious look before 2012 comes because they think that’s when people are wondering if that’s gonna – I mean, I am optimistic.
I think it’s gonna be 2013 before the whole thing – I think you got to look at all the possibilities, so I’m actually not joking when I say it’s a singular – you’re so good at putting this into the correct words – it’s singular responsibility and accountability.
But if we continue to point and blame – look, my car’s leaking oil like there’s no tomorrow because it’s a BP car (laughter). I got a BP car. It’s killed the plants, it’s killed the animals. I mean, there was no thought about what’s gonna happen if it doesn’t go right, but we’ve created a culture that needs oil so badly that we’ll pump it anywhere at any cost.
Tavis: One of the things, since you mentioned –
Shandling: – definition of an addict. They’re all definitions of addicts.
Tavis: I feel you, I feel you. One of the things that President Obama has been saying of late is that what’s wrong with the culture – since you raised the culture a moment ago. He’s argued that what’s wrong with the culture is that we’re too uncivil. There’s no civility in our discourse anymore. Have we become too uncivil in our discourse?
Shandling: Well, it seems to me that you bring – if we go back to your C-Span special which is called – help me – Black America’s Agenda is America’s Agenda. If you see how you handled that discourse – and I do. I want to congratulate you. You had thoughts flying in that room under control. I don’t know how you did it. I think that’s a gift. You had everybody talking.
I think the answer is going to come in a quiet moment of stillness when an inspired thought strikes because we’ve intellectualized it too much. So what that causes people to do is take sides, so now we have this partisanship that is so out of whack that even Israelis and Arabs look at the Republicans and Democrats and go “Oh, my God, they’re crazy. They’re never gonna get it together.” (Laughter)
Tavis: I read a piece the other day and somebody was arguing that what’s wrong with America, again, back to the culture, your point. What’s wrong with America is that we don’t have a moral leader. We don’t have a Gandhi. We don’t have a king. There’s no moral leader.
Shandling: I said that the last time I was on. I said we need a moral leader. I mean, that’s a tough job because I think those things just happen. But, you know, as long as we have an idea what we’re looking for, I’m not even sure if people know what they’re looking for. So let’s know what we’re looking for before we start hiring and voting. I don’t think we know what we’re looking for.
Now I know all this stuff about, oh, we’re only so many choices. That’s not the part I’m talking about. I’m talking about each individual; do you know who you are and what you want? Because it just seems completely out of whack. Sometimes I say I don’t know where to end (laughter) because it seems like we’re at an ending of some kind, when we’re trying to resolve something.
I saw Jack Kevorkian on Larry King two weeks ago and I thought he was there to actually end it for Larry (laughter). You know, when I tuned in, I could only see them from the neck up and he was talking. They both looked like they’d passed away, to be frank. I thought, “Well, is this how it’s gonna end for Larry?”
Nobody has considered conceivably that suicide could be the way that 2012 – individual, you know, now that Jack is out of jail and available, now we’ll hear commercials like “House foreclosed? Call Jack?” “Volcano? Call Jack” because it’s overwhelming, I think. I think it’s overwhelming and I don’t know how it’s gonna end and we got to bottom out and make a transition somehow or another.
Tavis: Well, we have bottomed out of this conversation and I must transition to whatever’s coming on after me. So take your little Iron Man 2 money and go home.
Shandling: Oh, I bet I owe you because I got the job from this. I owe you $130 million. Remind me (laughter).
Tavis: (Laughter) Remind you to pay up, right?
Shandling: Yeah.
Tavis: It’s Iron Man 2, as if you didn’t know, and the senator. I don’t know that name, Senator Stern?
Shandling: Yeah, I think Jon said it might be named after Howard Stern, but that has nothing to do with how I played it, I can assure you of that (laughter).
Tavis: Played by one Garry Shandling.
Shandling: I wanted to close the movie with “I am Senator Stern,” the same way he closed the movie with “I am Iron Man,” but they just didn’t go for that.
Tavis: They didn’t go for that, yeah. But $130 million. That’s not bad, though.
Shandling: But if I could on this show say, “I am Senator Stern” –
Tavis: – you want to close by saying that?

Shandling: No. “I’m Garry Shandling. Tavis and I wish you a pleasant evening. Enjoy the rest of what’s on PBS.”

Last modified: May 22, 2014 at 2:14 pm