When he was 16, aspiring stand-up comedian Judd Apatow interviewed comedian Garry Shandling for a high school radio show and asked him for advice. Shandling provided it and much more, hiring Apatow to write jokes for the Grammy Awards and write and direct “The Larry Sanders Show” a decade later. The mentorship-turned-friendship continued until Shandling’s death in 2016.
Now 50, with iconic film and TV comedies including “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Trainwreck,” “Bridesmaids,” “Freaks and Geeks” and “Girls” to his credit, Apatow pays tribute to his friend in the two-part HBO documentary “The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling.” He spent two years poring through footage, photographs and diaries, and conducting interviews with Shandling’s family and friends to get insights into the man behind the laughter.
Jewish Journal: In the film, you say of Shandling, “In many ways, he was a mystery.” Why?
Judd Apatow: People didn’t understand what he was going through and how he was feeling. He often seemed neurotic and people didn’t know what was troubling him. The film was an opportunity to talk about his inner life because he left behind 30 years of journals, and an enormous amount of writing and interviews to go through. It was fun to have a reason to watch it all. I miss him. I thought he’d want me to learn whatever lessons there are from his life.
JJ: What did you learn from him?
JA: The most important thing he taught me is there’s nothing more important than kindness. As he got older, most of his focus was [on] being a mentor and giving back. In his journal, he writes, “Give to other people. That’s the win.” He was focused on connecting with other people, and being more loving and more kind. He’d chased glory, he’d chased creativity and where he landed was: “Nothing matters but love and being there for other people.” That’s so important, especially now.
JJ: Are there parallels in your careers?
JA: We both spent a lot of time alone in our rooms as kids. When he was young, he wrote jokes for George Carlin, and George’s encouragement really helped him. Garry’s encouragement of me made me want to encourage people like Seth Rogen.
“When I was a kid, my family never talked about religion. For reasons I never quite understood, it wasn’t part of their lives. It probably had to do with the many people lost in the Holocaust on my mother’s father’s side.”
JJ: How did being Jewish influence Shandling?
JA: Clearly, he was one of our great Jewish comedians. A lot of his material was about the experience of being Jewish. A Japanese foreign exchange student lived with his family when he was a kid and he was exposed to Buddhism and Eastern thought. I know that was very important to him. He certainly was a seeker.
JJ: How would you describe your connection to Judaism growing up and now?
JA: When I was a kid, my family never talked about religion. For reasons I never quite understood, it wasn’t part of their lives. It probably had to do with the many people lost in the Holocaust on my mother’s father’s side. My brother became very religious after college and is now Orthodox and lives in Israel. I’ll go to a seder every once in a while at somebody else’s house. I’m open to everything. I’m not sure what I believe. I’m still on my journey, with many evolutions to come. I’m about, “How can I put more kindness into the world?”
JJ: What were you like as a kid? Were you the class clown type, always trying to be funny?
JA: I caused a lot of trouble. I did some damage. I don’t know if I was trying to be funny, but I wanted to be funny around [age] 10. I was into the Marx Brothers and Abbott and Costello, and that turned into Steve Martin and George Carlin and “Saturday Night Live.” When I was a kid, it really was the golden era for comedy, with “Monty Python” and “Saturday Night Live” and “Second City.” The comedy club scene was booming in the ’70s. I was enamored by all of it.
JJ: Who or what makes you laugh today?
JA: Will Ferrell, Adam Sandler. I’m a big fan of John Mulaney, Dave Chappelle, Hannibal Buress, the TV show “Atlanta.”
JJ: Do your wife [actress Leslie Mann] and daughters [Maude, 20, and Iris, 15] think you’re funny?
JA: Sometimes. It changes by the day. But most of the time, they’re funnier than me.
JJ: What are your proudest accomplishments so far?
JA: I’m very proud of being part of “Freaks and Geeks.” It had a big effect on a lot of kids’ lives. I hear all the time how it helped people get through high school and made them feel better about themselves. I’m proud of the work I did with my wife, Leslie, on “Knocked Up” and “This Is 40.” And I’m proud of this documentary.
JJ: What’s next for you?
JA: I’m working on the third season of “Crashing” on HBO. It’s a show about comedy but also a religious person trying to find his place in the world and where his religion fits into that. It uses comedy to make you think about deeper ideas. I’ll be at Largo doing a benefit for the ACLU on April 21.
JJ: Do you have longer-range plans?
JA: I don’t. I’d love to write a play but I haven’t had a good idea yet. After two years of hard work on this [documentary], I need a nap about now. I need to slow down and appreciate the work I’ve done and recharge my batteries. I’m trying to convince myself to do that.
“The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling” is available now on HBO and HBO On Demand.