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Garry Shandling dead; Comic, ‘The Larry Sanders Show’ star was 66

Comedian Garry Shandling starred in "The Larry Sanders

Comedian Garry Shandling starred in "The Larry Sanders Show" and "It's Garry Shandling's Show." Credit: Getty Images / Alberto E. Rodriguez

Garry Shandling, the innovative television writer and performer who influenced a generation of TV comics and TV comedy itself, has died. He was 66.

Los Angeles Police Officer Tony Im told The Associated Press that Shandling died Thursday in Los Angeles of an undisclosed cause.

Im said officers were dispatched to Shandling’s home Thursday for a reported medical emergency. Shandling was taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead. Im had no details on when the call was placed or what the nature of the emergency was. Police will conduct a death investigation, he added.

Shandling’s television reputation rests largely on just two series — “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show” which aired more than 70 episodes from 1986 to 1990 on Showtime (and on Fox) — and “The Larry Sanders Show,” which aired on HBO from 1992 to 1998. “Shandling” brought attention to Showtime, which had launched a decade earlier and had continued to struggle in HBO’s shadow.

But “Sanders” was explosive and innovative: A meta-commentary on show business, television and especially Johnny Carson and the ongoing and overhyped late-night wars. In “Sanders,” Shandling found an insecure nudnik who was both cool overlord of his late-night kingdom and self-abasing host who understood his vocation’s vacuity. In “Shandling,” he found himself by busting down the so-called fourth wall, constantly referring to himself, his life and those in the audience. “Shandling” would anticipate both “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

In fact, Shandling’s close friend, Jerry Seinfeld — among so many who were deeply influenced by Shandling had him as a guest on his Web series, “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” in January.

Seinfeld said, “We started at the Comedy Store together, we did ‘The Tonight Show’ at the same time. We did our TV series at the same time on the same lot, right across from each other. We were a pair.”

Shandling traced the trajectory of his later life and career to a single, horrific incident in 1977 that nearly took his life. He told Charlie Rose in an interview just after “Sanders” ended, “I hit a car, and got out to help the lady, and bent down, and [the car] smashed me. I could have died. It was a very serious accident. I was writing a script for ‘Welcome Back Kotter’ at the time, and I was lying in the hospital and said to myself, ‘Is this what I want to do for the rest of my life?’ I was having an identity crisis and that’s when I started a search for who I was and what my life was.

“I have a strong philosophical bent that leads me, and I follow it as best as I can.”

Born in Chicago, Shandling grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where his family moved so his older brother Barry could be treated for cystic fibrosis. (His brother later died.)

In the early 1970s, Shandling worked in advertising in Los Angeles, where also began submitting spec scripts to various hit shows, including “Sanford and Son.” After his accident, he turned to stand-up, and booked his first “Tonight Show” appearance in 1981. Shandling, along with Jay Leno became a frequent stand-in for Carson, whose series of NBC contracts demanded more vacation time for the host, setting the stage for his eventual successor. Carson clearly respected Shandling, but Joan Rivers and Leno were considered his potential replacements, never Shandling.

Shandling launched “Sanders” in 1992, the year Carson retired, and while the series was hardly considered a knock on Johnny, it certainly revealed how Sanders felt about the genre, and especially the hosts: Preening, neurotic, self-important and hopelessly lost in the undergrowth of Hollywood and its many self-obsessions.

Also starring Jeffrey Tambor as Sanders’ sidekick, Hank Kingsley, and Rip Torn as his scabrous producer, Arthur, it was — simply — one of the best sitcoms in TV history.

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