Running nearly four and a half hours, Judd Apatow’s compelling two-part HBO documentary The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling is a fascinating film that draws you in quickly, and somewhat quietly. It’s befitting to its subject, Garry Shandling, who not only broke ground with his own innovative humor, but also imparted an often unsung influence onto a generation of standups and actors who have come to shape the comedy landscape over the past 40 years.
“He was like this comedy angel,” Sacha Baron Cohen says in the film. Sarah Silverman offers a similar assessment: “The ‘Garry Effect’ is beyond what any of us can really imagine.”
They are among those mentored by Shandling with whom Apatow — who had a long, close relationship with Shandling himself — talked for Zen Diaries. It’s a list that reads like a who’s who of modern comedic greats: Jim Carrey, Jay Leno, Kevin Nealon, Conan O’Brien, Bob Saget, Jerry Seinfeld and Jeffrey Tambor are only a few of more than 40 of Shandling’s friends and family members featured in sit-down interviews and/or via archival clips.
But in this film, the true insight into Shandling’s complexity and lifelong quest for the truth in himself comes not from those offering external assessments of the man, but from his own internal thoughts, as recorded in a series of journal entries written over the course of decades. Shandling used Buddhist practices like meditation and journaling to try to “still” his thoughts (the mantra-like phrase “Let go” turns up in them a lot). The film often gives these personal and revealing entries a full-screen presence, showing them to viewers with no narration and in Shandling’s original handwriting.
Apatow’s presentation of these writings is a unique creative approach. The director admitted at a recent press conference that there is “a fair amount of reading involved in the documentary, and so we tried to make you not hate reading.” That was successfully achieved with graphic artists who make Shandling’s writings come alive on the screen. And it is a highly appropriate filmmaking choice — asking that a viewer “let go” at times to quietly reflect on the journal entries — given Shandling’s own desire to take time and be “still” whenever possible.
Zen Diaries is a transcendent, meditative film in its own right, and is the closest we ourselves will ever get to the truth of Garry Shandling.
The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling premieres in two parts March 26-27 at 8pm ET/PT on HBO.