Austin Film Festival honoree Garry Shandling mocks the narcissistic heart of TV land
Janeane Garofalo is famously sheepish about her own work. While on press junkets for her films, she refuses to make the pretense that she likes what she's ostensibly promoting, usually volunteering that she hasn't seen the movie in question. But Garofalo never hesitates to praise at least one credit on her resume: The Larry Sanders Show.
An inside-baseball look at the ego-infested world of television talk shows, Sanders was not only one of the sharpest, best-written comedic series ever on the small screen, it's proven to be endlessly influential. The show's mix of real celebrities and fictional situations, and its willingness to flaunt the sleazy underbelly of showbiz, have provided a blueprint for subsequent HBO series such as Curb Your Enthusiasm, Entourage, and Arliss. As Sanders' namesake talk-show host, Garry Shandling delighted in presenting himself as narcissistic, insecure, passive-aggressive, and terrified of confrontation. He was also obsessed with Hollywood's pecking order. In one memorable episode, Sanders takes Sharon Stone to bed, but can't attain an erection until he turns on the TV and sees himself.
Sanders was actually Shandling's second groundbreaking series, following It's Garry Shandling's Show (1986-90), which aired on both Showtime and FOX. Where Sanders was caustic and jaded, Shandling's Show affectionately spoofed TV conventions, with Shandling breaking the so-called "fourth wall" by directly addressing his audience (even inviting them to use his apartment while he was out). In this show's world, everything was artificial, and once Shandling acknowledged that, we could happily proceed with the ruse. Though the show's conceit probably kept it from finding a mass audience, it also made for the first post-modern sitcom.
Shandling has been so effective at obliterating the medium's formulas because he understands them so well. In the '70s, he wrote for the hit sitcoms Sanford & Son and Welcome Back Kotter. In the '80s, he regularly guest-hosted The Tonight Show for Johnny Carson. These experiences, combined with his natural irreverence, created a true mainstream subversive.
Shandling's deft comedic touch - which he recently employed as host of the Emmy Awards - has never fully translated to the big screen. His most ambitious film venture, 2000's What Planet Are You From? (co-written by Shandling and directed by Mike Nichols) found him playing an alien sent to earth for the purpose of reproduction. Here, Shandling's limitations came into focus. As an actor, he didn't have the range to pull off the kind of sentimental about-face the script required. As a writer, he didn't know how to extend a sitcom-like premise into a full-fledged feature without succumbing to feel-good sentiment.
Television will always be Shandling's medium, because its form simultaneously demands more and less of him. It allows Shandling the actor to play variations on himself, and enables Shandling the writer to adhere to his fundamentally dark view of humanity. At the Emmys, Shandling mocked the reality-TV trend by suggesting the creation of a new show called Who's In Front Of Garry's Door? That might be one reality show worth watching. •
Shandling is being honored with the Outstanding Television Writer award at this year's Austin Film Festival. For information on attending the festival, see Special screenings below.
Austin Film Festival
More than 100 films in eight nights plus five panels featuring the most famous names in showbiz ... it must be the 11th annual Austin Film Festival. This year's big dog line-up includes honoree Garry Shandling (see related story page 25), Barry Levinson, and John August, and features a Bollywood showcase. AFF hasn't forgotten its roots, though, and you can still catch true independents, award-winning short films, and documentaries. Passes for the festival, which runs October 14-21, can be purchased by calling 1-800-310-3378, or visiting www.austinfilmfestival.com.
In this 1950 noir film (re-made in the '80s with Meg Ryan and Dennis Quaid) small-time accountant Frank Bigelow discovers he's been poisoned on his big week in the city and has only a short time to live. It's a race against time into the past to find the culprit.
D.O.A. screens at dusk Thursday, October 14 as part of the series "In the Public Domain" on the Slab across from La Tuna Icehouse, Probandt and Cevallos. Admission is free.
Fronterilandia, a "whimsical, border-hopping neo documentary" by Ruben Ortiz-Torres and Jesse Lerner, who traveled thousands of miles documenting the strange permutations of Mexican pop culture, is the second screening in Just Add Pictures: Collage Essay Films and Videos, a three-part series curated by San Antonio- and Los Angeles-based filmmaker Jim Mendiola. A Mexican Beatles tribute band, a Tijuana performance artist, and a sculptor who produces pre-Colombian fakes for the black market come together in a film that "challenges traditional notions of history, identity, and the US/Mexico border."
Fronterilandia screens at 6:30pm Thursday, October 14 at ArtPace, 445 N. Main. Admission is free. For more information, call 212-4900.
Calling all Caucasian 12-14-year-old hardball players: You could be a star, on the same screen with Billy Bob Thornton. Homegrown Texas director Richard Linklater is looking for one lead boy and one lead girl for his remake of the 1970s breakthrough kids' sports film The Bad News Bears. One team slot is also available for a 10 to 11-year-old-boy who will play Tanner, "an angry boy with an extreme attitude." If you've always wanted to be a stage mother/father, pack your precious one up to Richardson, Texas, for the open casting call, Saturday, October 16, 10am-4pm at the Richardson High School Cafeteria, 1250 W. Belt Line Road. No appointment or experience required, but you do need to bring one current photo.
For more information, contact Beth Sepko casting at 512-472-5385.