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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
April 5, 2018

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.

Garry Shandling, Alex, Inc., Sleep, 5 Books

When we see them from a distance -- as most of us do, most of the time -- we really have no idea of what kind of person celebrities are.

This actor might be wonderful and generous to work with; that one might be arrogant and bossy. This one might be a good husband and father; that one might be his children's worst nightmare -- or a completely absent legend in the family.

Only after a celebrity dies do we get much of a chance to find out what kind of person he or she really was.

Not long ago I wrote about a Nora Ephron documentary that really elevated my opinion of a writer and director I already admired.

And now we have a very good documentary about the late Garry Shandling. Directed by Shandling's good friend Judd Apatow (who produced and directed the outstanding comedy Trainwreck), the documentary Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling is playing on HBO, which means that for the next few weeks, it's likely to be in heavy rotation, so you have plenty of chances to see it.

In case you've forgotten -- or you're too young to have ever known -- Garry Shandling may well be the most subversively funny comedian in the history of television. I heard that sort of claim about Ernie Kovacs and Andy Kaufman, but I never cared about their "innovations," because the weirder they got, the less I enjoyed watching them.

But Garry Shandling's ventures into madness were not only funny, but also filled with warmth and -- dare I say it? -- love. He was a frequent comedian guest on all the major late night talk shows and occasionally sat in as a guest host for several of them. But nothing prepared us for his first series, It's Garry Shandling's Show.

Supposedly about Shandling's real daily life, it was a strange kind of recursive comedy, where we knew that nothing about it was real -- and yet this made it more real than its eventual successors like Seinfeld.

We knew we were going to be seeing something wonderful the moment the theme song started playing. To a jaunty melody, we heard these words:

"This is the theme to Garry's Show,

The theme to Garry's show.

Garry called me up and asked if I would write his theme song.

I'm almost halfway finished,

How do you like it so far,

How do you like the theme to Garry's Show.

This is the theme to Garry's Show,

The opening theme to Garry's show.

This is the music that you hear as you watch the credits.

We're almost to the part of where I start to whistle.

Then we'll watch 'It's Garry Shandling's Show.'

(Whistles)

This was the theme to Garry Shandling's show."

It was such an unusual, self-referential, and yet absolutely straightforward theme song that we were completely ready for the weirdly hilarious things that Shandling and his guest performers did.

I honestly believed that Shandling would never be able to top himself, and in a way, he didn't. By the time the popular "real life" reality shows became popular, we realized that Garry Shandling had already destroyed them -- he had satirized shows that hadn't even been thought of yet.

But he had another arrow in his quiver: The Larry Sanders Show. This take-off on late-night talk shows starred Shandling as Larry Sanders in the Johnny Carson-esque role, and long before Thirty Rock we got a look at the backstage machinations of ambitious, terrified, ego-driven people who had no idea what they were doing and yet were getting paid ridiculously large salaries for doing it.

Yet even though Shandling was making fun of the whole late-night scene, he did it, as always, with warmth and love. Even the most pathetic and obnoxious characters in the series became beloved figures to the audience, and for some of the performers it was the best role of their career.

Maybe you never saw Garry Shandling in his heyday. Maybe you never saw him doing standup, and never saw his series. I still recommend that you watch Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling.

This documentary uses entries from Garry Shandling's real diaries, as he jotted down his thoughts about his progress in life. Knowing better than most performers the pitfalls of letting his ego drive his behavior, Shandling put forth real effort to use meditation and other aspects of Buddhist practice to try to keep himself centered. While he never professed adherence to the Buddhist religion, he found great solace in meditation, so the title is well earned.

However, the real story is Shandling's ability to rise from a life of early pain and loss and several strained relationships to become a sort of universal mentor for an astonishing variety of comics. His taste and mine are not the same -- I've never found Sacha Baron Cohen remotely funny or even tolerable on the screen, for instance -- but the point is that he wasn't trying to remake other comics in his own image. Whatever they were trying to do, he helped them make it better.

The result is a wide variety of comedians and others in show biz whose heartfelt comments on Shandling are often moving -- and also funny. He could be prickly, and he was easily hurt. When a friendship ended, it could stay ended for a long time, and it was hard for him to reconcile with some of them. But the people who stayed close to him truly loved him, and were loved by him.

If you don't know the comedy of Garry Shandling, you should. Unlike most who are claimed to be "innovative," Shandling really was, and he changed everything after him in television comedy. He was also really, really funny -- and this documentary contains many of his best moments in many different comedy appearances.

It also documents the array of illnesses that weakened him during his last years of life, and considering he died in 2016 at exactly the age I am right now, I take some of those things a little personally. People I admire are supposed to live to at least 90, and he didn't.

But we have this two-part documentary to remember him by. Judd Apatow and Shandling's many friends who took part in this film have created not just a tribute, but a critical biography, and it's a superb one.

And if you don't get HBO, sign up for it for a month just to watch this show. In my opinion, it really is that good.

*

Starting in mid-season is a new series called Alex, Inc., about a guy who quits his job as a broadcaster and then struggles to get backing for a podcast series, so he can be self-employed as he continues to do the kind of journalism that has been his life's work.

It's based on Alex Blumberg's podcast Startup, who did exactly the same thing that the title character does in Alex, Inc. Zach Braff is perfectly cast in the role of Alex, because nobody does bewildered-guy-trying-to-do-the-right-thing better than Braff.

If you don't already know him from his central role in Scrubs, think of him as a not-desperate version of Andy Samberg.

Critics have given the show a mere 43% on Rotten Tomatoes -- but civilian viewers approve of the show at a rate better than 80%. I'm with them -- I really enjoyed the premier episode.

Maybe I partly identify with Alex because my wife was pregnant with our first child and we hadn't been married a year when I quit my job to support us with freelance writing and editing.

At the time I was not yet the author of the novel Ender's Game or, actually, of anything you would have heard of. I had no guarantee of anything, except a longterm contract with Living Scriptures, writing half-hour audioplays which they sold as sets of audiotapes that dramatized scripture and American history.

Fortunately, while we had some hard times for the first ten years, I never did anything as stupid as when Alex, in episode 1, vows that he will not touch their savings and then, as we knew he would, does exactly what he promised not to do.

I never did that. So Alex, Inc. makes me look pretty good by contrast.

Is it screamingly funny? Not yet. Is it amusing? Is it believable? Is it well-written and well-acted? Yes it is.

If you compare it to, say, the first episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, well -- it's not that kind of comedy. It's not a string of gags. But it has the kind of puzzled-and-frustrated humor that we enjoyed in Scrubs, without the insanity and absurdity. Or at least, so far. It feels pretty real.

Tiya Sircar plays Alex's wife, Arunima "Rooni" Schuman, and Elisha Henig plays their son Ben, with Audyssie James as their daughter Soraya. They make a believable family, and I don't think I'm going to get sick of these kids, because nobody told them to try to be funny. This is the kind of comedy that works best when it's played absolutely straight.

*

One of the most popular features of the Graham Norton Show is the "Big Red Chair." At the end of each show, after listening to the best celebrity conversations in the history of television, the guests all turn to a screen where they watch an audience member come sit in the Big Red Chair and tell a story.

If the story gets boring -- or appalling -- Norton will flip a big lever onstage that rocks the chair backward, upending the storyteller. Sometimes I'm disappointed -- I was enjoying the story -- and other times, Norton turns the lever over to one of the guests -- and those celebrities can be merciless.

But most of the time, the storytellers are welcomed cheerfully and usually the stories are funny or, occasionally, moving. I'm quite sure they are all pre-interviewed by a producer, who makes sure that the story is worth telling.

Now and then, one of them will be somebody significant in the life of one of the guests on the show that week. But don't take my word for it. Look up the episode called "Red Chair Special," and you'll get a fine and funny selection of Big Red Chair moments. Funny even if you've never watched the show.

*

So I was channel-surfing the other night and ran across a film called The Holiday, from 2006, starring Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslett as two jilted women who swap houses for the holidays just to get away from all those painful memories.

Naturally, they fall in love with men they meet in their new location -- Jude Law (in his warmest-ever performance, I think) and Jack Black (in a believable, gentle, even subtle performance). I really enjoyed it and, following my tradition of reviewing movies when I see them rather than when they're brand new, I was all set to write a review.

Until it dawned on me to look up online to see if maybe I hadn't already reviewed this movie. I was almost sure that I hadn't, because everything in this movie took me by surprise.

Well, I always tell people that my bad memory makes me the ideal audience member, because you can tell me the same joke every year and I'll never remember the punchline, so if it works the first time, it'll keep on making me laugh.

It's a good thing, though, that I know this about myself. It spares you reading almost the same review I wrote back in 2006 when the movie was new. What worried me was that my earlier review might have hated the movie, so it might embarrass me that I loved it this time.

Fortunately, I loved it both times. And because it's only barely a Christmas movie (there are some decorations, but nobody moans about "losing the Christmas spirit"), it worked perfectly well to watch it at Easter time.

If you're interested, here's my original review. I still stand by what I said then: http://www.hatrack.com/osc/reviews/everything/2006-12-10.shtml

*

So in my search for ways to get enough sleep, I learned a couple of things. First, Clonidine (which sounds like it should have been the original name in the song "Darling Clementine"), which I take to keep my blood pressure down so maybe I can postpone my second stroke, has an anti-sleep effect.

Thus, if I take drugs to sleep, I rather resemble people from my college days who would get high on uppers and then take downers to recover, in an extremely dangerous cycle.

There's no such danger with Clonidine and over-the-counter sleep aids, fortunately. But it's still ironic to take a medication that, by hindering sleep, makes it necessary for me to take other meds to sleep. But that's where I am.

A good friend who suffers from debilitating pain and was desperate to sleep arrived at a solution. Like me, he overresponds to the antihistamine in Benadryl and Simply Sleep (by Tylenol). Yes, it puts him to sleep, but he never feels completely awake the next day.

I've had the same result, so I've shied away from using Benadryl or Simply Sleep until I'm so desperate for sleep that it's worth wrecking the entire next day.

However, my friend found that Unisom SleepTabs are much better, especially when he learned that the right dose for him was a half tablet.

Note that Unisom makes three sleep-aid products. Two of them use the same ingredient as Benadryl and Simply Sleep, but SleepTabs have Doxylamine succinate as the active ingredient.

Splitting pills works best if you buy a pill splitter. You can split tablets using a table knife on the kitchen counter, but the likeliest outcome is that you'll be searching for one or both halves of the tablet on the floor, as they fly like tiddly-winks. A good splitter confines both halves very nicely, so you can take a half-tablet one night, and the other half the next, without searching for wherever a half-tab flew off to.

I've actually had a little jar of Unisom SleepTabs in my bathroom for a year without ever trying it, because using drugs to get to sleep makes me nervous. Partly it's because sleeping pills have been associated with accidental overdoses, even though this isn't a dangerous drug.

But mostly it's because I kept thinking, I'll get control of this without drugs.

But I didn't. It only got worse. For the past month, I've been averaging four hours of sleep a night, and that is not enough.

It dawned on me that maybe the reason I haven't been as sharp while teaching this semester is because of sleep deprivation. Usually, in the adrenalin rush of teaching, my memory goes into overdrive and every name and reference I need while lecturing just pops into my head. I was counting on it again this semester, and it wasn't there.

That was scary, and it had me wondering if my teaching days were over. That scare is what drove me to pull out that Unisom SleepTabs bottle and lay one little blue tablet into the pill splitter that we already owned -- and which my wife was able to locate.

Well, no, the first time I was so desperate I just took a whole pill and, yes indeed, I was groggy the next day. That's why I lost every game we played that evening with friends, not because I'm not good at trivia games!

What mattered was that I got, not 8, but nearly 11 hours of sleep. It felt good.

The next night I started taking split tablets, and then I got seven hours of sleep a night every time I took a half-tab.

I don't take it the night before I drive to or from Lexington, Virginia, because the last thing I need is to have drug-augmented sleepiness while I'm on the road.

But it's already working. I'm slightly less stupid while teaching, and I finally spend my days far more clear-headed than when I got only three or four hours of sleep.

I was up in Lexington Monday night, getting ready for bed, when I realized that our pill-splitter was still back in Greensboro. At a quarter to nine at night, I had to race to get to a local CVS Pharmacy before it closed. Naturally, I was weary enough that in rushing to the pharmacy I took a wrong turn that I've never taken before.

I'm glad I was using my GPS to show me where I was, because when I thought I was on a southbound road that suddenly had me crossing over a freeway that had no business existing, I glanced at the map and found that I was headed due north.

It wasn't the GPS, it was me that started muttering, "Recalculating ..." By the time I retraced my route and found where I had made the idiotic wrong turn, it was after nine.

Then I remembered that Walmart is supposed to be a drugstore and it didn't close for another couple of hours. So there's where I went.

Walmart is a very, very big store. The pharmacy stuff is all in one corner of it, but there's no sign that directs you to "pill splitters." After looking at everything on every shelf, I finally asked an employee.

She knew right where the pill splitters were -- a couple of different models, but I bought the kind that we already owned in Greensboro. Now we have splitters in both places. And last night I was able to get seven hours of sleep.

I can't promise that this will work for everybody, but it works for me, and it works for my friend who is dealing with far worse sleep problems than I was. Who knows -- when I'm getting enough sleep, maybe I'll be able to write again, and even make intelligent comments on student stories.

*

Recently on Quora someone posted a question asking what three to five books were most important in the responders' lives.

It's the kind of question where it's tempting to list the kinds of books that will make you look really smart. Or, in my case, I was tempted to list books of scripture and religious commentary -- C.S. Lewis, Hugh Nibley, John Sorenson.

But I didn't want to take part in a piety contest any more than an intellectuality contest. What are the five books that actually made the greatest practical difference in my life?

So no, I'm not listing the books that I think you should read. My responses were entirely personal.

In making this list, I'm leaving off a few that had a powerful effect on me -- but were just out of the top five. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich still haunts my memory and shapes my perceptions, but it was other history books that got me started on my lifelong history habit.

So here are the five I chose for my Quora answer:

How to Win Friends and Influence People. Giving me Dale Carnegie's self-help classic when I was about ten was my parents' way of saying, we're glad you're acing the school thing, but happiness in life depends more on having people in your life who care about you.

Galactic Derelict by Andre Norton. In the East Mesa Junior High library, this was my first full-length sci-fi novel. It set me to dreaming and I read everything by Norton and then by Heinlein in that library. Tho sci-fi was never even half of my pleasure reading, it was still the path that led to my career.

The Army of the Potomac, Bruce Catton's three-volume history of the Union's most powerful army -- the one that Lee kept beating up on because of the incompetence of its commanders. Not only is this book the direct ancestor of all the leadership philosophy in Ender's Game, it also made me a lover of good history books -- and a critic of flawed ones.

The Prince and the Pauper, by Mark Twain. I read this when I was too young to realize that a lot of what Twain wrote in it was irony and satire. To me, it was a powerful and moving story that led me to immerse myself in English history to the point where for a while I could compete with British schoolkids in a contest to name, in order, all the English monarchs after Edward the Confessor.

Little Men: my first Alcott, and the first time I realized that a story about good people doing good had the power to make me cry like a baby.

Dawn's Early Light, the first of Elswyth Thane's Williamsburg novels. My mom owned them because she loved them, and I, ignorant of any idea that love stories were for women, read it as a compelling historical novel that had a love story in it.

Oops. Six books. Arithmetic is apparently the first thing to go.

Some of these books forced me to memorize lines without meaning to, because they happened to stick in my mind.

"It hath a pleasant flavor, but it lacketh strength" --Twain, from the moment when pauper Tom Canty drinks the fingerbowl, thinking it was a beverage.

"Be hearty in your approbation and lavish in your praise" -- Carnegie. Only later in life did I realize that my mother had read the book, too, and absolutely lived by this mantra. Nobody did encouragement and praise like my mom. It was a gift she gave to many people all through her life.

And a particularly moving moment in the Thane novel was when Tibby Haws, talking to her schoolteacher, Julian Day, quoted Ruth's speech to Naomi in the King James Version: "Entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the Lord do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me" (Ruth 1:16-17).

That scene made me read the Book of Ruth and memorize that whole passage, tho my fading memory can't be trusted to dredge it up accurately today. (I looked it up so I'd get it right here.)

These aren't necessarily the best books I've ever read, but they are all good books, I came to them very early, and they have helped shape my perceptions and decisions throughout my whole life. It happens that within the past five years I've reread all of them, and they hold up very well.

I was especially surprised by how emotionally powerful the rereading of Little Men was for me. The first time Nat touches a violin at the school reduced me to tears, because at that moment the whole experience of reading Little Men as a child came flooding back.

There are other books that would make the second five quite easily. I already mentioned William L. Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, and other books I read before high school that have stayed with me and shaped me include Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine, Robert A. Heinlein's Citizen of the Galaxy, Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind, and Pride and Prejudice, by the Incomparable Jane.

I love movies and, now that we're in the golden age of television, there are series that have had a strong effect on me. But with the exception of two movies -- A Man for All Seasons and The Lion in Winter -- nothing on a screen has ever owned me the way that certain books have been able to. (And those two are really part of my anglophilia.)

Maybe it's because reading is participatory -- you have to imagine settings and characters, and your own inner voice has to act all the parts. But the books of my childhood matter far more to me than the movies and tv shows.

Eight Master Classes

on the art and business of science fiction writing.

Over five hours of insight and advice.

Recorded live at Uncle Orson's Writing Class in Greensboro, NC.

Available exclusively at OSCStorycraft.com

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