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The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling: Searching for Truth through Comedy

Whether you know Garry Shandling from his standup comedy, his brilliant masterpiece in deconstruction, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, his groundbreaking examination of ego and interpersonal relationships, The Larry Sanders Show, or even if you don’t know of Garry Shandling at all, the documentary detailing the life and rise of the comic is essential viewing for the human experience. As the title would suggest, The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling shares entries from Shandling’s personal journals, in his own handwriting, accentuated by his constant search for truth often pursued through meditation and reflection. This documentary provides a fascinating glimpse into the complicated private thoughts of a most human and restless individual. Shandling seemed to never be truly satisfied, even at the peak of his career, because there were still so many questions left unanswered. For those who exist on a higher plane, like Garry did, peaks are often only seen as the precursor to life’s valleys and a reminder that happiness doesn’t last forever. 

The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling, directed and produced by Judd Apatow who calls Garry “(for 25 years) the most important mentor that I had”, lovingly highlights Garry’s comedy brilliance, his deep introspective mind, and the demons that plagued him through all of it. Unlike many documentaries about a subject who has passed away, Apatow never paints Shandling as a perfect individual, but rather, details his highs and lows while seeming to bridge together fragments of each to make a whole yet prematurely-ended picture of a life. The loving detail and care Apatow has clearly put into this exceptional tribute to his friend and mentor is a gift to each person in the audience. He illustrates how true Garry was to his path and allows his quest to be an inspiration to the millions of people who were never fortunate enough to know him. In the documentary’s trailer, Apatow voices that, despite being close to him, Shandling was also a mystery to him. Throughout the documentary, Apatow seems to be searching, just as Garry was, to gain a deeper insight into the enigma that Garry Shandling was. The result is an incredibly moving tribute and an immensely illuminating experience.

Presenting unbelievable access to Garry Shandling’s early life complete with pictures and videos from his childhood and adolescence, the audience learns how deeply impacted Garry was by the death of his 13-year-old brother Barry from cystic fibrosis. Never having a “goodbye” moment or even being allowed to attend his brother’s funeral seemed to have left Garry scarred with a pain never attended to, and a fractured sense of trust that seemed to suggest to him that everyone he loved would be gone eventually. Following his brother’s death, Garry’s mother overcompensated her love and affection toward her living son, smothering Garry and seeming to instil in him an insurmountable internalized pressure and a deeply-rooted sense of guilt. By evaluating such aspects of himself, both through his journals and his comedy, Garry was searching for answers to the human condition and helping others understand that life is much the same as his vision of The Larry Sanders Show “people trying to get love, and shit gets in the way.”

A page from a journal of Garry Shandling's

Watching The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling allows one to realize, through Garry’s humor and being, that we’re not as alone in the world as we thought. At our cores, we all want to be our true selves, and often don’t know–or never find out–how to live that truth. The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling teaches us Garry’s method–one that can be adopted by anyone–that staying true to yourself, trusting your instincts, and being your unique self, are the closest we can ever come to happiness. Hearing Garry’s voice and seeing his handwritten words onscreen was a brilliantly powerful decision to bring the audience into Garry’s experience. We are not simply invited to view a Garry Shandling photo album, but rather to be immersed in his life and his journey. Just as he was in life, never letting things linger on the surface level and always striving for a deeper truth, Judd Apatow continues Garry’s search for truth after his death through the brilliantly reflective The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling. 

It’s amazing how obvious some answers seem when you see them presented. Throughout the second half of Judd Apatow’s The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling it appears as though the answer that brought Shandling the most resolve throughout his search for truth was to live a life only for himself and to appreciate life’s silences. I suppose the answers one searches for to live a meaningful life will be different for everyone, but it’s hard to see fault in what Shandling derived. Speaking as an over-thinker and over-analyzer, I am often in need of being reminded that the answers I am looking for may be much more straightforward than I’ve made them out to be. Being able to watch someone face the most human parts of himself and live a tireless quest to find personal meaning was a fascinating venture. The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling is a genuinely life-altering experience to witness and leaves kernels of truths available for anyone who sees it.

One of many truths from the journal of Garry Shandling.

A revelation offered through the second night of The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling is how fully Shandling committed to every project he took on. It is clear from watching this documentary that his creative endeavors took over his life entirely. From his show, The Larry Sanders Show to a voice role in Over the Hedge, he invested himself fully and enlisted all of his efforts to communicate his truths through his art and to make each venture successful. Interestingly though, this dedication didn’t seem to come from an aim of perfectionism but rather to bring the same authenticity to his work that he sought through life. The methodology of someone who puts their entire being into their work while leaving plenty of opportunities for input from the others who worked with him on these creative undertakings was captivating to witness. Shandling was incapable of being false in his work, driven by a compulsion to inject real human emotion in his work and his art. Another brilliant divulgence of The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling was seeing Shandling use his art to work through his struggles in life. When dealing with his feelings of betrayal brought about by the broken trust of his longtime manager Brad Grey, Shandling channeled the myriad of emotions brought on by that situation to provide commentary on betrayal and fractured trust during the final season of The Larry Sanders Show. Being the person he was, wholly driven by human emotion and the search for truth, it only stands to reason that his art would imitate his life and act as a means to grow and develop as a person.

Self-motivation from the journal of Garry Shandling.

Perhaps the most incredible takeaway from The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling is the impact Garry Shandling had on his friends and anyone who interacted with him. Scores of entertainers paid tribute to Shandling after his death, and through this documentary and Garry’s journals, it is easy to see why. Judd Apatow recounts how available Shandling was to him anytime he needed his advice or creative input. This accessibility came from a deliberate motivation of Shandling’s to “become a mentor gracefully.” Clearly, he did become a mentor as his impact can be felt through the number of people interviewed in the documentary as well as those that shared their reflections at his memorial service shown in the documentary. Perhaps, he was trying to deliver to someone else the same kind of moment George Carlin gave to him, providing an imprint of confidence able to change the course of someone’s life. Through his love and mentorship Garry provided an invaluable gift to those who knew him personally, and thanks to Judd Apatow and The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling, that same gift is available to those who never got the chance to know to know him, a gift I personally will forever treasure.


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Written by Ashley Harris

Ashley Harris works for a senator by day, writes for 25YL Site by night, and is a full-time anxiety warrior. When she is not writing about the human experience or her most recent world cinema favorite, Ashley enjoys fawning over François Truffaut, reading Immanuel Kant, or drinking lemonade through a Paw Patrol straw with her son.

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