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Kevin Nealon Remembers Garry Shandling, One Year Later

Variety logo Variety 3/24/2017 Kevin Nealon

Amid the crop of notable and creative entertainers who died last year, it did not go unnoticed that the world lost an inventive and trail-blazing comedian. Most remember Garry Shandling from his groundbreaking TV series, “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show” and “The Larry Sanders Show,” or from his brilliant stand-up comedy. I met Garry 38 years ago, soon after arriving in Los Angeles to pursue my own career in comedy. I always admired his work ethic and hilarious point of view. He was an inspiration and mentor not just to me but to a large percentage of today’s most brilliant comedy writers and standups. In that spirit, I would like to be incredibly honest and authentic here about my friend Garry Shandling.

I think it was very, very difficult to be Garry. He was complex, at times neurotic, persnickety, high-maintenance, child-like, a perfectionist with the highest standards, and, since we’re being honest, he could be a handful. Being in his company sometimes required extra patience. That said, Garry often apologized for these shortcomings and always owned them. He was extremely complicated, and I think the fact that he spelled his name with two R’s was fair enough warning. That was Garry.

It took some work to be Garry’s friend, but it was worth it. He was quality. He was the gold standard. He was funny, wonderful, self-deprecating, playful, kind, generous, stylish, spiritual. (I got those descriptions from his Tinder profile.)

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Nealon sketched his friend of 37 years.

He was the first friend I had who meditated. He was my only friend who had Buddhist monks for friends, and on occasion they actually stayed at his house. The only time I had floor seats at a Lakers game was because of Garry. He was the first person I ever saw French kiss a dog. He was my first “male friend” to send me flowers on my birthday. He despised gossip, and you could rest assured that anything personal you shared with him was safe. He was also the only friend I ever had who was into CBs and ham radios, and he wasn’t even a truck driver. That was Garry.

During the well-documented Sunday basketball games at his house, a mélange of famous and not-so-famous actors, writers, comics, and musicians showed up to play. They weren’t there so much because they loved basketball, but rather because they loved and respected Garry. He took a personal interest in our lives and careers, and he made us feel special and talented. He was always in our corner. He was our “cut man.” That was Garry.

A few days before he passed, we went for a short drive up the Pacific Coast Highway. We stopped at one of his favorite lunch spots in Malibu. As we ate at an outside picnic table, he gazed out at the vast beauty of the ocean, saying, “How great is this, Kevin? How great is this?” I would hear him say that often.

Getting the news of his death that morning a year ago was such a kick in the gut. I commiserated with mutual friends, sharing our disbelief and heartache. The first person I called was Eric Idle, from Monty Python. I remember thinking, “Why? Why couldn’t it have been him instead of Garry?”

For months I would call Garry’s still-connected home number just to hear his voice on his familiar, outgoing message: “I don’t think I’m heeeeere.” I would hang up and think how eerily prophetic that message had become. To this day, it’s hard to accept that he’s gone.

He was brilliant in so many ways and unbelievably inspiring. Having his approval meant the world to me, and, of course, his friendship meant even more. I loved Garry for everything he was, and I don’t know how I’ll ever stop missing him. I don’t want to stop missing him. I read somewhere that grief is not a sign of weakness. Grief is simply the price you pay to love someone, and I can tell you that Garry turned out to be very, very, expensive. That was Garry.

Kevin Nealon is a comedian-actor known for his roles on “Saturday Night Live” and “Weeds,” and currently on CBS’ “Man With a Plan.”

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