I’ve been watching a lot of biographies lately. Okay, I admit it—I’ve been watching a lot of serial killer documentaries. It’s novel-writing research. I’m not twisted. I swear.
Before I confuse you, Garry Shandling was not a serial killer. But I remember the first time I saw him on television. His dry, self-deprecating humor really appealed to me. I was hooked.
When he passed away suddenly in 2016 at only 66 years of age, I was shocked. And saddened.
When I noticed HBO was airing a two-part biography (called The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling), I had to see it. So I recorded the episodes. I’ve finished the first and am part way through the second, but I didn’t want to wait until I’ve viewed the whole thing (in case you want to catch it before HBO takes it down) to discuss it.
In case you’re wondering, I highly recommend it.
Whether you’re a fan of his or not, you can learn from this look into his life. Here are a few things I learned:
- Let the loss of loved ones affect you, but don’t let them consume you.
Shandling’s brother died when they were young. His mother didn’t let him attend the funeral. In fact, she didn’t even tell him Barry had died. He was left to figure it all out on his own and was denied closure that is only healthy. Worst, though, his mother became obsessed with him, her attention and desperation to keep him safe ultimately creating in him an inability to commit to a woman (out of fear of losing her) and a restlessness he couldn’t quell. So, by all means, allow tragedies to affect your work. We can all grow from painful situations, and we can find catharsis by writing about them. But don’t get mired in the sorrow.
- Analyze your work with candor.
Shandling wrote notes on all his material. It wasn’t enough to jot down and joke and then finesse and perfect it. Every time he performed a bit, he’d revisit his delivery and the joke’s reception, then he’d leave himself frank feedback. Before performing that segment again, he’d go over his notes. This constant pursuit reminded me of the editing process — how we make adjustments after every level of feedback (critique sessions, beta readers, editors, etc.).
- Analyze the work of the greats in your industry.
Shandling studied the work of the comedians who came before him. He (again) took notes on delivery, pacing, tone. He mustered up the courage to approach George Carlin about his work, and the veteran took the pages and left him invaluable feedback. As a writer, I find reading others (both in my genre and in other genres) to be just as good as, if not better than, reading books on craft. I also found, when I was beginning, that curating a relationship with a mentor was indescribably beneficial.
- Mentor those coming up behind you.
Shandling was obsessive about his craft, no two ways about it. He could be a harsh taskmaster who felt betrayed easily and didn’t forgive quickly. Yet he inspired loyalty and a devoted following. Yes, from his fans, but also from the people who worked for him. The reasons why? His crew appreciated his quest for perfection, and they were grateful he took the time to mentor them. I believe in the “pay it forward” philosophy, and as a writer, some of the ways I do that are through editing, posts on craft at Story Empire and Romance University, critique group feedback, and mentoring authors.
- Self-Affirmations can make all the difference.
Shandling kept diaries in which he worked on himself. Sure, there were notes about his performances, but there were also notes for him as a person. (Some are kind of dark, but many are encouraging.) Some examples:
- Let go of all.
- Never separate from higher power and love.
- I demand truth.
- My philosophy is literally just being yourself on stage.
- Work is an expression of life, of Zen. Do your comedy not for the sake of fame or fortune, but because it is what God does through you. You are merely a vehicle.
- Maybe your comedy is a natural gift to be given to others with joy to help them through this impossible life.
Quotes like these and so many others remind me to be honest with myself, to try and bolster myself in the same way I try to encourage others, and to keep my priorities straight. I’ve gotten away from journaling; I always feel like I’m too busy to take the time for myself. Now I’m thinking perhaps I’m too busy not to take the time.
You may not appreciate the kind of performer Shandling was. Just as we all have limited audience appeal, comedians also have a discrete fan base. But whether you consider him brilliant or buffoonish, I’d recommend viewing the documentary. Don’t think this is just a bunch of his friends giving him a flattering send-off. It’s not. There are some harsh truths revealed as well as some complimentary insights. On the whole, it’s an profound look at the genius of his tortured soul, and there are plenty of actionable takeaways I found that can help me as a writer and as a person. Perhaps you’d find the same.