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‘The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling’ review: Revealing portrait of the comic

Garry Shandling is the subject of an extensive

Garry Shandling is the subject of an extensive HBO documentary. Credit: HBO / Bonnie Schiffman

THE SHOW “The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling”

WHEN | WHERE 8 p.m. Monday-Tuesday on HBO

WHAT IT’S ABOUT Garry Shandling, who died March 24, 2016, from a heart attack, spent a lifetime filling diaries. There were dozens left at his death, and their contents form the basis of this profile by fellow comic and friend Judd Apatow. They reveal a serious — and spiritual — person who sought “oneness” with himself and the world around him. Along with a trove of archival footage, including ancient home movies, there are 40 interviews with Peter Tolan, James L. Brooks, Jim Carrey, Sacha Baron Cohen, David Coulier, Jon Favreau, Jay Leno, Kevin Nealon, Conan O’Brien, Bob Saget, Jerry Seinfeld, Sarah Silverman and others.

MY SAY “Implacably neurotic,” “immensely talented” and “intensely driven” are the words that so effortlessly grafted themselves onto Shandling during his career. But “Zen”? From afar, or from the TV set, he seemed consumed by show business, then razed by it. There was the abrupt departure as guest host from “The Tonight Show,” the failed attempt at reinvention as a movie star, the scorched-earth lawsuit against his manager Brad Grey and finally — sadly — the eclipse. In that long absence, he seemed a cautionary tale, just another star to fall off the Hollywood assembly line.

“The Zen Diaries” corrects the record. By this account, there were two Shandlings — the public figure and then the private one, who consigned his thoughts to paper when no one was looking or laughing. These jottings are alternately prayerful or vengeful (“I hate him, I hate him,” referring to Grey). They’re self-lacerating or world-weary (“I’m so tired of worrying”). But the surprise, the shock even, are all the other words.

In these pages, Shandling is looking for peace, meaning and self-awareness. There’s a spiritual yearning, too. He’s especially seeking an “authentic” self. What is an authentic self? He doesn’t know, but he’s certain comedy has something to do with it. Word after word, page after page, the journey of Shandling’s life proceeds. It’s fraught, tortured, resolute, intensely human and finally cathartic — for viewers as much as Shandling.

Thanks to this posthumous contribution, “The Zen Diaries” is one of the best films on a major comic you’re likely to see, certainly one of the most instructive. In the spirit of Shandling himself, Syosset native Apatow is searching for the meaning of one life in interview after interview — dozens of them, with friends, fellow comics, colleagues, neighbors and family. Forced to examine their own feelings for Shandling, they’re forced to examine the world they are part of, too. This isn’t a parade of sound bites but a deep dive into the world of comedy, television and show business.

Inevitably, many observations get around to Shandling’s adored older brother, Barry, who died of cystic fibrosis when Garry was 10. Friends say — and the diaries confirm — that Garry spent a lifetime trying to close the wound, and only after leaving the daily grind could he manage some headway in the effort. The real “Zen” of this portrait is that by the end of his life, he apparently did.

“Diaries” is for Shandling fans, certainly, but it’s especially for any kid who might want to become a comic, or write for TV or get into this industry. “Zen Diaries” is a nearly five-hour-long master’s degree in “the business,” and also a sober, clear-eyed view of the risks as much as the rewards.

“Diaries” is also for someone else who may have lost a sibling. However small, it too may provide a measure of solace.

BOTTOM LINE Brilliant portrait of an iconic comic, but an especially moving and human one, too.

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