Ralph Gardner Jr: King And The Comic

Mar 31, 2018

President Lyndon B. Johnson and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. meet at the White House, 1966
Credit Public Domain / Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum

Martin Luther King Jr. and comedian Garry Shandling are rarely mentioned in the same breath. I’d venture to guess this is the first time.

Both of them are the subject of excellent new documentaries on HBO and may even have something in common.

“The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling,” directed and produced by the comedian’s longtime friend Judd Apatow, is currently running on the cable network.

“King in the Wilderness,” directed by Peter Kunhardt, a friend of mine, debuts on Monday, April 2nd.

I saw both of them this week – King in the Wilderness at Riverside Church in Manhattan. That’s where the civil rights leader gave what some consider his most powerful speech. It occurred on April 4th, 1967 when King declared his opposition to the Vietnam War.

I watched “The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling” from the comfort of my bed.

That turned out to be a wise decision because the Apatow documentary comes in two parts for a combined running time of four hours and nineteen minutes. When it was over I felt like I was a friend or even a relative of the comedian, part of a circle that included Jim Carrey, David Duchovny, Jay Leno, Kevin Nealon, Conan O’Brian, Bob Saget, Jerry Seinfeld and Sarah Silverman.

King In The Wilderness is a somewhat more modest one hour and fifty-two minutes long.

I once met Shandling, though it was in the early 1980’s before he went on to guest host the Tonight Show, as well as the Grammys and Emmys, and make two groundbreaking sitcoms – “It’s the Garry Shandling Show” and “The Larry Sanders Show.”

For those who haven’t seen them “It’s the Garry Shandling Show” stars the comedian playing a comedian who bears a remarkable resemblance to himself and breaks the fourth wall.

The Larry Sanders Show is set within a fictional late-night talk show and stars a neurotic host, again played by Shandling parodying himself. He apparently didn’t have to stray far for his best material.

I can also attest that he wasn’t necessarily acting. I was writing a story for Cosmopolitan Magazine about the Caesar’s casino empire and was invited to Atlantic City to interview Joan Rivers. Shandling was opening for her and was too jumpy to talk before he went on.

I regret it now but I didn’t follow up after he came offstage. I was there to interview the headliner, after all.  

The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling takes its title from both the notes the comedian, who died in 2016, kept throughout his career about everything from stand-up to his quest to find peace, connection and happiness. His life was haunted by the death of his older brother to cystic fibrosis when Garry was ten.

King in the Wild intersperses clips, news footage and even home movies, some of it rarely seen before, with the recollections of King’s friends and fellow soldiers in the civil rights struggle.

So then. What could these two possibly have in common?

For starters, both were courageous. True courage isn’t about blindly going into battle. It’s doing so in the face of fear and self-doubt. There’s a scene in King In the Wilderness where Martin cringes and ducks at what sound like gunshots. He’s all too human.

He also roused himself against his will from the Lorraine Motel the night before his assassination to give his followers a speech where he foreshadowed his own death. That’s where he uttered the famous words “I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.”

The documentary’s achievement is to show the man behind the national holiday and the monuments who struggled with depression, faced dissent from a younger generation of black activists, and was deeply hunt after colleagues in the civil rights movement split with him over his decision to take on the Vietnam War.

It’s relatively easy to be courageous when people are telling you how great you are. It’s another thing to refuse to compromise your ideals when you’re alone and, well, in the wilderness.

Obviously one can’t compare Garry Shandling’s efforts to find inner peace or a memorable one-liner with King’s courage and willingness to face batons and bullets to lead a nation towards equality for all.

Yet the comedian’s achievement was to find his own voice, to turn his fears and neuroses to the service of humor. If you think that’s easy try it sometime.

Shandling can pinpoint the moment. He was doing his act when he informed the audience: “My girlfriend moved in with another guy, so I dumped her, because that’s where I draw the line.”

The line had the ring of truth because it apparently had the benefit of being true.

Another thing they have in common was a sense of – I hate to call it craft, especially in the case of Dr. King – but that your standards for yourself must be higher than anybody else’s.

Shandling was famous for arriving at gigs with pages of scrawled notes. King was a workaholic, too. One of the documentary’s most poignant moments comes around the dinner table where he’s too exhausted and hungry to play with his own children.

But King in the Wilderness is leavened with lighthearted moments as well; his friends and acolytes – among them Harry Belafonte, Andrew Young and Jesse Jackson testify to King’s talent as an impressionist who specialized in delivering stentorian eulogies about his colleagues – while they were still very much alive.

The great orator also had the ability to be something of a pill. Harry Belafonte recalls King frequently crashing at his apartment on the Upper West Side and peppering his conversations with references to Nietzsche, even though Belafonte freely admits he had no idea who Nietzsche was at the time.

In the end both documentaries leave you inspired to set your own sights a little higher. And in an age when truth is under assault, they serve as icons, believing adamantly in its pursuit.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

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