Judd Apatow’s thoughtful meditation on his showbiz shaman Garry Shandling gives valuable insight into the inner-workings of one of comedy’s most versatile and introspective talents. It sometimes drifts aimlessly across an open ocean of stand-up sets and behind-the-scenes clips. But even when its unfocused, “The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling” refuses to be yet another “grand history of comedy doc,” with Shandling’s own diaries making us question not “who was this person?” but “what is a person?”
To accomplish this, Apatow does the one thing that great documentarians should never do: include themselves in the story. When he interviews friends, colleagues and lovers of Shandling’s, he’s often present in the frame, reinforcing the idea that he is conducting a conversation and not letting these beloved figures define who Shandling was. This also helps the film on a publicity level, making “The Zen Diaries” not just “It’s Garry Shandling’s Documentary,” but “The Judd Apatow directed and produced documentary about Garry Shandling.”
But why Apatow to tell this? Obviously there’s his stature as cinematic comedy’s director du jour of the past ten years, but couldn’t any skilled comedian or journalist from Shandling’s era deliver something thoughtful and nuanced as well? Well, that’s because Apatow’s entire showbiz career is directly owed to Shandling. Back in the day when he hosted the Grammys, Shandling hired the then 20-something to write jokes for the musical event. Even before then, a teenage Apatow interviewed Shandling for his high school radio station. Apatow’s encyclopedic knowledge as a comedy student has been well documented, but it’s his unrenounced love for Shandling that’s truly the Master’s thesis of his Hollywood studies.
We learn in “The Zen Diaries” about how a 10-year-old Shandling tragically lost his brother; How a teenage Shandling nearly suffocated in the overly loving arms of his mother; How 20-something Shandling just couldn’t find happiness as a comedy writer and struck up as a comedian instead; And how 30-something Shandling couldn’t find peace even among his success as a sitcom star and guest host on “The Tonight Show.”
We watch as Shandling’s humor evolves, always on a deeper search for truth, but while still maintaining a keen, self-deprecating style. Throughout the years, the comedian often jokes about the size of his penis or his failures with women. When he gets the creative freedom of his own show, his goal is to use multi-camera absurdity to find a singular truth. Shandling frequently smiles but always seems on edge, highly aware of how others perceive him and how he perceives himself.
This self-awareness can be reflected in how interview subjects talk about Shandling. There’s always a hint of sadness in their voice, probably because they haven’t quite gotten over Shandling’s sudden death two years ago. But they also seem reluctant to share their full thoughts on Shandling, with some noting how Shandling was very sensitive and it was easy to hurt his feelings. So, the comedians often adopt the same approach when talking with Apatow: carefully choosing their words to not upset Shandling as if he were watching.
What the interview subjects do provide is still illuminating. Not because their answers make “The Zen Diaries” the ultimate tell all about Shandling, but because their comments allow this movie to evolve into a conscious, collective group effort to have a conversation with someone whose voice has passed to the other side. “The Zen Diaries” contains a cinematic and realistic rawness, one that could only be accessed and penetrated in a short window of time after Shandling’s death. Luckily, Apatow does that, turning anecdotes into insight, and crafting a school of thought that doesn’t define but rather explores the essence of a true artist.