For most of Garry Shandling’s life, his work and Zen practice were one and the same.
“Work is an expression of life, of Zen,” the comedian wrote in his diary. “Do your comedy not for the sake of fame or fortune, but because it is what God does through you. You are merely a vehicle.”
This is the central point of Judd Apatow’s new HBO documentary, “The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling.” “Zen Diaries” is a sleekly produced show. Clever edits and visualizations breathe life into what could be static fare, such as audio recordings and still images of handwritten notes. Apatow combines interviews with celebrities and friends, home videos, bonus DVD features, recorded phone calls, TV and radio interviews, clips from sitcoms and live stand-up shows, and, of course, fragments from the titular diaries. (“My entire fucking life,” Shandling calls the pile of notebooks.)
But it takes a while before “Zen Diaries” gets around to telling you what is so Zen about Shandling’s life. Part of the delay is due to the documentary’s indulgently long runtime, a two-part series totaling more than four hours of commentary. The other part is Apatow’s seeming lack of familiarity with Shandling’s Buddhist practice.
Apatow bills himself as this generation’s preeminent comedy nerd, setting up his bonafides early in the documentary. As a 16-year-old, he interviewed Shandling for a radio show, overstating his journalistic qualifications to get a chance to speak to his hero. After Apatow got into comedy, Shandling went from icon to mentor. Apatow eventually wrote for Shandling’s most critically acclaimed project, “The Larry Sanders Show,” and even directed some episodes. Moreover, they became lifelong friends.
But while Apatow’s reverence for and knowledge of Shandling is in a class of its own, his understanding of Buddhism appears to be limited.
“It seems like there’s something in Buddhism and that type of thought that lends itself to being solitary,” Apatow muses in voice-over as “Zen Diaries” examines Shandling’s aversion to commitment. “There’s very little in it that’s about connecting and figuring out the dance with another person . . . Your spiritual life [is] not directing you toward partnership; it’s directing you to let go of all attachments.”
Sure, Buddhist practice can be solitary, but many find a sense of community in it; in fact, community is core to it. Besides, a lay practitioner like Shandling would not be beholden to monastic vows—and even ordained Zen priests can get married.
Still, the title alone invites the viewer to consider the whole of Shandling’s life through the lens of his spirituality. And as the story follows his career as a burgeoning stand-up, Shandling begins to develop a Zen-like approach.
“My philosophy is literally just being yourself on stage,” he writes.
This view, that comedic performance is nothing more than stripping away artifice, propels him through his career and eventually leads him to the groundbreakingly honest “Larry Sanders Show.” For Shandling, this is a direct product of meditation.
“I meditate in my life, and I keep my mind clear. And I do that before I go on so that I can just be myself,” he says in his journal.
This approach, however, is aspirational. On the surface, Shandling’s comedy and personality are decidedly non-Zen. He oozes neuroticism, insecurity, and pettiness. Distancing himself from this aspect of his own personality allows him to satirize it but never totally escape it.
Comedian Sarah Silverman notes, “He turned to Buddhism, but it’s not because he’s Zen. It’s because he was in desperate need of being Zen.”
In his later years, Shandling—who by then had an enso, a circle that symbolizes nothingness in the Zen tradition, tattooed on the back of his neck—appears to finally unite his spiritual and comedic life while abandoning the trappings of ego and success.
“You realize now that comedy is your soul,” he writes. “Maybe your comedy is a natural gift to be given to others with joy to help them through this impossible life.”
Toward the end of the “Zen Diaries,” he writes a meditation-based joke that falls flat in comedy clubs. But a little later on, he ends up chatting with the spiritual teacher Ram Dass and tells the joke again.
“I’ve been meditating for 35 years, so I can meditate until my mind is pretty empty, pretty blank,” Shandling says. “But then there’s no one to blame.”
At this, Ram Dass bursts out laughing.
“Now I realize I have an audience for my meditation material,” Shandling quips.
Ram Dass replies, “Humor is great in spiritual work. It gets you there.”
Phap Hai, who is given the final word in the documentary, explains that Shandling joined the Plum Village community two decades earlier. He adds, “In the Zen world, one of the greatest compliments we can give a person is to share that they are a real human being. And Garry was certainly that.”
Even if Apatow is not an expert on Buddhism, he came up in the Garry Shandling school of comedy, which places an emphasis on authenticity and seeing things clearly. This Buddhism-informed approach comes across in Apatow’s films and shows, whether he knows it or not. It’s an honest laying-bare that serves him well in this documentary and gives every aspect of Shandling’s (sometimes petty) life overtones of Zen.
Part 1 of The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling airs March 26 on HBO. Part 2 airs the following night.
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