Garry Shandling, a towering figure in American television history, died in Los Angeles today at the age of 66. His death is a tragically sudden end to a storied career that more than once redefined comedy: He was best known as the creator and star of the surreal 1986 sitcom It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, which ran for four seasons on Showtime, and the landmark HBO series The Larry Sanders Show, a spoof of late-night talk shows that pioneered an age of darker, more adult humor on television and inspired a new generation of comedians.
Born in Chicago in 1949, Shandling broke into the industry in the early ’70s, writing scripts for sitcoms like Sanford and Son and Welcome Back, Kotter, before eventually moving into stand-up comedy, where he became a star on the L.A. comedy scene—particularly at the city’s famed Comedy Store. He was a regular guest and replacement host on The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson, assuming the persona that was at times neurotic, brittle, and anxious, but always blisteringly funny and original.
Rather than submit to the formula of the network sitcoms he loved to deride, Shandling created It’s Garry Shandling’s Show with the former Saturday Night Live writer Alan Zweibel, airing on the then-nascent Showtime network from 1986 to 1990. The show was presented as a sitcom, but one in which Shandling was self-aware about being in a TV show, along with the rest of his cast. He would make surreal asides to the audience, zip years into the future without warning, and even air live episodes. The show’s famous theme song, by Bill Lynch, emphasized the show’s zany metatextual quality, a revolutionary concept at the time.