2016 has been the Year of Death…or so clickbaiters will have you believe. I’m sure at any given moment there is a steady stream of celebrities dying but what’s so remarkable about the glut of passings we’ve witnessed since the beginning of this year is that it’s concentrated around the great innovators of pop culture. Comedy and music have been hit the hardest and key artists have been dying with such frequency that two of the most significant names in television comedy on either side of the Atlantic, namely Garry Shandling and Victoria Wood, died within weeks of each other.
It occurred to me while taking in that Garry Shandling and Victoria Wood are both gone from the world that the pair were almost counterparts in their understanding and reinvention of television in America and Britain. Though both took fairly traditional career routes into the TV of their native lands – with Shandling a sitcom writer and Wood a variety star – they mastered the medium by keenly observing its conventions and then satirically reproducing them. The self-reflexive sitcom It’s Garry Shandling’s Show and talk-show set The Larry Sanders Show both featured note-perfect facsimiles of longstanding TV formats with a knowing (distinctively buck-toothed) smile at their absurdities. Wood’s As Seen on TV featured a myriad of TV flow pastiches including commercials and soap operas, the latter of which was Acorn Antiques, a devastating summation of the budget-constrained, storm-in-a-teacup melodrama that had been commonplace in regional daytime dramas in Britain since the seventies.
Wood and Shandling were also too overflowing with brilliance and creativity to accept their place in the TV hierarchy. Wood began her TV career as winner of the talent show New Faces performing her own comic songs on the piano, earning her a place as a novelty act on the consumer affairs and erotically shaped vegetable discussion programme That’s Life. Rather than continue to plug the remaining – and increasingly unlikely – spaces for traditional vaudeville performance in a changing TV ecology, she diversified into playwriting, sketch comedy, character stand-up and pop culture parody. Her focus on the latter meant that Wood was ahead of a curve of self-referential television comedy that is typically seen as coming into existence when it became male. As Seen on TV first aired in 1985 which significantly pre-dates the supposed watershed moment of televisual self-awareness with Armando Iannucci and Chris Morris’s The Day Today in 1994.
Shandling’s career could have gone two ways. Instead it went a third that was almost the same as the first two. After writing for sitcoms such as Sanford & Son as well as a successful stint guest-hosting for Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, Shandling seem destined to graduate either to an eponymous sitcom or late-night talk vehicle. He did both and neither. Shandling sold It’s Garry Shandling’s Show to cable station Showtime after networks balked at the idea of a show that actively drew attention to the mechanics and artifice of the studio audience sitcom. It was a revolution in TV form. As Shandling once explained to Ricky Gervais: ‘Either I did a talk show or a sitcom about a talk show.’ Of course he did the latter. The result was The Larry Sanders Show, set behind the scenes of a continually fledging late-night talk show, while commenting wittily upon it.
Their commitment to raising the bar of television comedy was so wide-ranging that neither stopped at satire. Both Shandling and Wood embraced comedy that was as real as it could be, and that eschewed the synthetic qualities of much comic material on TV. In Shandling’s The Larry Sanders Show, the naturalism of both visual style and performance was staggering and well beyond what audiences were used to seeing. Needless to say, The Office and its mock-doc ilk would never have existed without this breakthrough. Wood’s comic characters were drawn with such observational realism their dialogue could have been telegraphed from an encounter on public transport and she frequently emulated the fly-on-the-wall documentary but as a route to pathos rather than irony or sneer, something Shandling also achieved with The Larry Sanders Show. In particular, the ‘Swim the Channel’ segment of an As Seen on TV episode has rarely been bettered.
Of course, there are massive differences. Wood is far less cruel to and awkward with her characters, and Shandling much more provocative in his humour. But it’s hard to imagine we’d be watching half (and that’s being generous) of the comedies we currently do without either of these two colossuses.