The Role Of a Lifetime
written by Harry Waksberg
Almost a century ago, comedian Jack Benny began playing a character with the same name, as part of The Jack Benny Show. Despite sharing a name, this persona was many things the real Benny (born Benjamin Kubelsky) was not. The antithesis of his “true self,” his character was vain, parsimonious, selfish, a bad violinist, and reticent to marry. Though his friends in the industry knew better, Benny never suggested he was playing a character, even in his many appearances as “himself” on talk shows, game shows, and roasts. Human identity is performative and situational, with much of who we are the result of social circumstances and our perception of how we should behave in them. In this sense, “we must be careful about who we pretend to be,” not only because of what it might inspire in others, but also because of what it might say about ourselves and our society.
While Benny provides a self-conscious example of the phenomenon, this paradigm would eventually become the go-to model for celebrity appearances, particularly on late night talk shows. They would appear not as themselves, but the talk show versions of themselves. However, with the whole world now a stage, or at least an Instagram feed, and where many feel compelled to perform for potential audiences on social media, engaging with these dynamics have become increasingly important if we are going to understand the implications of this age of visibility.
When we work to perform, we reveal much more than we intend to about ourselves. Authenticity is not something that we can build from scratch; it will always be rooted in some aspect of who we are, whether we acknowledge it or not. Instead of considering the lines between public and private personas, and positions, to be blurring, perhaps it is more accurate to say that it was always more fiction than fact. Therefore, it is appropriate that comedians, as the result of the demands of the art form, are the ones who primarily are exploring these questions with the most self-awareness, given how deeply comedy is rooted in fundamental human questions. Garry Shandling and Jim Carrey provide two great examples of comedians that have explored this complex divide in its most artistic and self-conscious forms.
In his new documentary, The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling, Judd Apatow explores the life and work of the late Garry Shandling, who created two enduring TV characters based on himself, with the most notable being The Larry Sanders Show’s Larry Sanders. The show was a vehicle for him to explore his frustration with the artifice of the talk show format, as well as his complex history with Johnny Carson (“The only thing worse than being on TV every night,” he said at the time, “is wanting to be on TV every night.”). Funny enough, Shandling turned down the role of becoming the full time host of the prestigious late night talk showin the ‘90’s, which had once been his dream.
The character of Larry Sanders was a nervous, image-obsessed late night host. One of the show’s hallmarks was having celebrities come on to play fictionalized versions of themselves, which has since become so common it’s practically its own scripted genre (not even including “unscripted” reality shows, on which everyone is playing “themselves”). By playing themselves, they were adding layer onto layer of character over their authentic identity. And by showing these characters during commercial breaks, The Larry Sanders Show was scripted to get at something essentially human hiding behind a ubiquitous presentation of allegedly human behavior. Through the experiences the show’s writers and performers, Apatow, who also worked on the The Larry Sanders Show, explores Shandling’s commitment to authenticity, and his belief that sincerely performing characters reveals elements of the performer’s own identity. The show was designed to tear down this façade and reveal that, as the old adage goes, stars are just like us: They’re cranky, petty, and wrapped up in their ambitions.
The show served as a vehicle to engage with Shandling’s own endless curiosity into the nature of human identity and the idea of self, which also motivated his fascination with Buddhism. However, even in the case of Shandling, one must wonder how much of himself Shandling was actually aware that he was revealing. Sanders was an avatar for Shandling, with the character embodying “everything he didn’t want to be in himself.” While Shandling imbued Sanders with the foibles he recognized in himself, he couldn’t help but empathize with his alter ego.
This muddying of what was real and what was fake on the show reached its nadir with the split up of Sanders and his longtime partner Linda Doucett. She had been playing the role of Darlene, an assistant on The Larry Sanders Show since its beginning. After their relationship ended, Shandling fired her, and her character was written off the show, leading to a wrongful termination suit. This is just one example of the sexual misconduct that those interviewed describe as being common on the set of the show. What makes the situation interesting is that sexual misconduct of this type was often a point of criticism on the show. Shandling described The Larry Sanders Show as “a show about people trying to get love and that shit gets in the way.”
What’s the value of building stories around topics like sexual harassment while, at the same time, maintaining hostile work environments for women employees? In these instances, it feels much less like real vulnerability and much more like an inability to cope with one’s own particularly vicious pattern of behavior. Shandling treated women poorly, and then made a TV show mocking the terrible people who treat women poorly. This is the kind of “authenticity” apparent in the works of Woody Allen, Louis CK, and every other comedian whose fictionalized misogynist behaviors (even ones the work ostensibly disapproves of) turn out to be autobiographical.
The celebrities who appeared on the show would schmooze and glad-hand with Larry on the show-within-the-show, then tell him how they really felt once the show transitioned into the behind the scenes segments. In one typical example, Jim Carrey (playing himself) appears on the talk show, running up into the audience, singing to Larry, and pleading with him to stay on the air. When the commercial break begins, Carrey leans in to tell Larry, “You never liked my work until I got hugely famous. What are you going to do now, movies? I’ll crush you.” When Larry asks if Carrey’s doing a bit, Carrey looks around. “Larry, we’re off the air. This is real life now.” To Garry Shandling, when celebrities appeared on talk shows, they were already playing characters, versions of themselves who got along with everyone else in Hollywood and were enthusiastic about every movie they appeared in. Taking cues from Shandling, Carrey would eventually come to explore this philosophy with his portrayal of comedian Andy Kaufman. The documentary Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond offers more examples of the accidental metanarratives that are created and juxtaposed onto original work by focused and controlling comedians.
Though Carrey was in character as Andy Kaufman as an acting exercise, he was essentially playing Andy Kaufman’s onstage persona, not the person behind the performance. In the documentary, Carrey relates a story from filming: director Miloš Forman called Carrey to vent about how difficult it was working with Carrey’s ersatz Andy Kaufman on set each day. Carrey responded, “Well, we could fire [Andy Kaufman and Tony Clifton] and I could do an impression. I’m a really good impressionist and I could do a pretty good imitation of both of them, I think.” To Carrey, everything happening on set was because of Andy Kaufman; Carrey had no control over outcomes. Jim Carrey may have thought he was embodying Andy Kaufman with his performance, but for all his talk of becoming Andy Kaufman, he offered no real insight into the character beyond what everyone else saw onstage. Carrey missed the person for the performance.
While The Zen Diaries of Gary Shandling is one part documentary and one part eulogy, the positive critical reception of it, and Jim and Andy: The Great Beyond, can also be attributed to its relevance to the world we live in now. The current era of visibility has fundamentally changed the way we engage with our own many identities, and the many roles that we play for others and ourselves. Multiplicity and performance always existed as a fact of how we navigated our many interactions. However, that has now been compounded in the era of visibility, which has turned us all into pseudo-celebrities, concerned with personal image and brand. More than simply offering a glimpse into the lives of eccentric celebrities, these documentaries resonate well because they navigate the stories of individuals who grapple heavily with this new reality we all share. One where performance dominates our lives, and where the boundaries between the public and the private are becoming blurrier as we are all left performing indefinitely, always on-air.