Judd Apatow's five hour documentary about his mentor, groundbreaking comedian Garry Shandling who passed away in 2016, is based on Shandling's own journals he kept over several decades. The film is never boring nor an overly laudatory portrait. In contrast to many biographical docs, Apatow makes his subject enigmatic and compelling.
Shandling was part of a new wave of comics that came up in the 1970s, shaped by the counterculture and the rebel comedians of the post-war era. His observational brand of humor was innovative and influential. A favorite of Johnny Carson, Shandling made a splash on The Tonight Show after years of struggle. A car accident early in his career led him down a spiritual path, a road that witnessed success, betrayal, and disappointment.
By the late 1980s Shandling was next in line to replace Johnny Carson, while also producing a cult TV show It's The Garry Shandling Show (1986-1990), known for deconstructing the sitcom. The Larry Sanders Show (1992-98) was the ultimate post-modern look at television with Shandling playing a fictional (and narcissistic) late night talk show host. Afterwards, he struggled to find his footing with a stalled movie career and a failed relationship. In later years he took solace in mentoring young comedians and pursuing new challenges such as boxing.
The Zen Diaries asks the big questions about life, most importantly, how one should live? Should you simply find a niche and ride that wave? Or always seek out new challenges? Shandling never followed the same path and often paid the price for it. His comedy played on his various neuroses, much of it stemming from a childhood trauma, the loss of his older brother.
Many comedians appear and offer their memories of Shandling, making The Zen Diaries a warm tribute to comedy. Scholars of comedy history will devour this film, and for those unfamiliar with Shandling's body of work, the documentary will make for an excellent introduction, a documentary handled with great care and chock full of laughs.