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‘The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling’ reveals deep emotions in the late comedian

Comedian Garry Shandling is the subject of a two-part documentary based in part on his journals. | HBO

Garry Shandling always struck me as a cool comic.

Not “cool” as in edgy and owning-the-moment like George Carlin and Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock and Sarah Silverman, but cool as in cool to the touch.

Impenetrable and self-absorbed and borderline aloof. The consummate stand-up pro who would gladly make fun of himself for laughs, but never seemed all that reachable and or vulnerable.

Turns out the joke was on me.

Turns out that in addition to being one of the most influential and creative comedic voices of the last half-century, Garry Shandling was a contemplative and generous and spiritual soul who cared deeply about making a positive impact on the world.

Judd Apatow’s four-and-a-half-hour documentary “The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling” debuts in two parts on HBO on March 26 and 27, and if that seems like an excessive time investment, my only complaint about the film is it felt too short.

Apatow is the godfather of modern comedy, a guiding hand in everything from “Freaks and Geeks” to “Girls” to “Anchorman: the Legend of Ron Burgundy,” and so on and so on. But Apatow’s showbiz roots trace back to Shandling, who hired him as a joke writer when Apatow was in his early 20s and then brought him aboard his series “The Larry Sanders Show.”

Garry Shandling (left) and Judd Apatow in 2014. | . Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images
Garry Shandling (left) and Judd Apatow in 2014. | . Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

Shandling and Apatow remained close through the years, and after Shandling died in 2016 at the age of 66, Apatow took it upon himself to honor Shandling’s legacy with a documentary that features interviews with friends and colleagues including Jim Carrey, Conan O’Brien, Jay Leno, Jon Favreau, Sarah Silverman and Bob Saget, among others; archival footage from Shandling’s TV shows; home movie clips, and perhaps most fascinating, excerpts from the journals Shandling kept from the age of 25 until shortly before his death.

In simple but effective animation, Shandling’s handwritten notes emerge from a blank page of paper, as the actor Michael Cera voices Shandling’s thoughts about his career and his goals.

“I think I’m getting more natural onstage … commit to killing, commit to the performance,” Shandling writes as he begins to climb the stand-up ladder.

“The Zen Diaries…” walks us through Shandling’s rise through the comedy ranks, as he becomes a fixture (and the go-to guest host) on “The Tonight Show,” breaks ground with the innovative, fourth-wall-busting “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show,” and creates the perfect vehicle with the brilliant and dark and wickedly funny “The Larry Sanders Show,” a show ABOUT a talk show.

But the defining experience of Shandling’s life was the death of his beloved older brother Barry, who had cystic fibrosis and passed away when he was 13 and Garry was just 10.

Garry’s mother wouldn’t let him attend the funeral because she didn’t want Garry to see her cry. The family never talked about Barry after he died. It’s clear from Shandling’s journals that this lack of closure affected him for the rest of his life.

Garry Shandling with his mother, Muriel. | HBO
Garry Shandling with his mother, Muriel. | HBO

As much as Apatow admires Shandling, he doesn’t shy away from controversies personal and professional, including the lawsuit filed by Shandling’s former fiancé Linda Doucett, who was fired from “The Larry Sanders Show” after they broke up; Shandling’s multi-million dollar suit against his manager Brad Grey; and Shandling’s devastating experience on the set of “What Planet Are You From?”, when legendary director Mike Nichols made it clear after the first day of filming he didn’t believe Shandling had the necessary acting chops.

We also get some fantastically raw and uncomfortable footage, including a boxing match pitting Shandling against Alec Baldwin that seems legitimately intense, and a sequence in which Ricky Gervais attempts to apologize for overstepping, and Shandling refuses to let him off the hook. His withering glances at Gervais are devastating.

So yes, Shandling was human. Not always the easiest person to deal with or connect with. Mostly, though, “The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling” gives us a portrayal of a seriously funny man who turned to meditation and Buddhism to seek a higher spiritual ground, who genuinely and sincerely and consistently tried to help others.

In his journal, Garry writes to his brother Barry.

“Dear Barry, you died during the night. My hunch is you were a special spirit …

“When you died, I died. … Being alone in that house without a brother, without you, the emotional pain was immense. … I claim victory for you, for me, for us. So Barry, I tell you that I love you. You were, are joy. Goodbye from this world. Goodbye from the pain of your body. I honor your life. … Thank you. See you on the other side.”

Turns out Garry Shandling really was cooler than cool.

★★★★

HBO presents a documentary directed by Judd Apatow. Running time: 270 minutes. Premieres at 7 p.m. Monday and Tuesday on HBO. Also available on HBO NOW, HBO GO and HBO On Demand.