Judd Apatow’s passion project, the HBO documentary on his friend Garry Shandling titled “The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling,” was nominated for three Emmys on Thursday, including best documentary special and best director for a documentary.
It is a no-holds barred look at the life of a comedy icon, best known for his work on “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show” and “The Larry Sanders Show,” along with his standup work. It examines Shandling’s relentless self reflection, his influence in the comedy world, and touchy subjects of his personal life, including the breakup with his ex-fiancée, Linda Doucett.
In a phone conversation, Mr. Apatow, who used to work for Mr. Shandling as a writer and a producer, discussed Shandling’s impact on his own career and the process of making the four-and-a-half-hour film.
I was reading your book “Sick In The Head” recently and you seem genuinely fascinated by comedians and their thought process. Do you think about your own comedic process in the same way, for example, when you did your Netflix special?
I’m not that deep in my own comedic process because most of my process is borrowed from the approaches of other people. I don’t feel any need to examine myself. I could be more simple about that: I don’t think I bring anything new to how people approach comedy. I’m more trying to refine the best of what a lot of different people have done and how they think about approaches to stories.
What would your comedic sensibilities look like if you had never met Garry Shandling?
I was so unfunny as a kid. I don’t know how anybody tolerated me. I really didn’t think much about the humanity of comedy until I met Garry. I was just trying to be funny. I didn’t watch a lot of movies as a kid and try to figure out how they worked. I was only interested in standup. When I worked at “The Larry Sanders Show,” that was the first time someone said the point of this show is to explore the human condition. No one had ever said that phrase “human condition” to me in my entire life. That opened an entire new way of thinking to me, and that made me realize what the essence of comedy was.
In the process of making the documentary, what was the most surprising thing you learned about Garry?
The thing that was most surprising is that in his private moments, he was an even better person than I thought he was. I was just so moved by the fact that he’s sitting in his room, alone with his journal, and he was working on himself. His number one focus was how he could be a better, kinder, more loving person. How could I drop my desires and attachments and treat myself and other people better? And that made me very happy to discover.
Your Netflix special was very self deprecating. You’ve talked about Garry Shandling wanting to find people’s core in his writing. Were you thinking about that as you wrote material for this special?
Garry came to see me do standup once and he said, “The only time you’re doing it wrong is when you are trying to be a comedian.” And that really was his way of looking at comedy. He thought it was trying to shed all of the artifice. I tried to think about that when I was writing standup for myself. I didn’t attempt to invent a character. I just thought, “How do I get to the truth of what I am right now?” My general point of view is that I’m doing the best I can, and I don’t know if I’m doing anything correctly.
This is an intensely personal project for you. Does the critical acclaim you’ve received for it mean more to you than acclaim about work you’ve done in the past?
It was important to me that it was honest and my subjective view expressing who Garry was. The only thing that mattered was that at the end of the day, that I can watch it and feel like I got close to the truth — that Garry was a mystery to a lot of people. I only had one concern, which was to not screw it up. I felt a responsibility to my friend to not be inaccurate. I knew what he would value the most would be telling the truth. Because that’s what “Larry Sanders” was: Here’s what people look like, flaws and all.
You are working on a million projects at any given time. What are you most excited about right now?
That’s a very good question. I’m directing an episode of “Crashing” as we speak. We’re pitching a third season. I’m writing a few things and I’m hoping to direct a feature film next year.