Having written thousands of columns, my memory can be tested when celebrities die. And fails. I usually have to go to the library to remember what I wrote.
That’s what I did after the recent deaths of comedian Garry Shandling, baseball sportscaster Joe Garagiola and actor Ken Howard.
Turns out I never wrote about Howard, who starred in one of my favorite television shows, “The White Shadow.” It aired when I actually watched only programs I liked – before I became a critic and had to watch ones I didn’t like.
As a youth, that meant watching a lot of baseball. I grew up following the New York Yankees, largely through the play-by-play of Mel “How About That” Allen. I can still hear Mel’s voice introducing Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and Tom Tresh.
Garagiola had the thankless task of replacing the Yankee legend. He was quite a storyteller. Usually, the stories were about growing up with Yogi Berra. I got tired of them. I guess that had something to do with my beanballs aimed at him.
When NBC rehired Garagiola for “Today” in May of 1990, I wasn’t kind. I joked that “I checked my calendar to make sure it wasn’t April Fools’ Day.”
“Yes, Joe is a very nice guy,” I wrote. “My mother and probably your mother love him. He may help Bryant Gumbel project more humanity … But there is a down side here, too. Garagiola’s act is very old. Even baseball fans have had enough of him. NBC finally let him go the year before it lost the baseball contract.”
I know. Kind of mean. Garagiola deserved better. He got it in many appreciations last week.
Timing can be everything when it comes to the attention celebrities get when they die. The younger they die, the more attention they usually get.
In his death as in his comedy, Shandling had perfect timing.
Since he died at the relatively young age of 66, Shandling and his programs received a deserved send-off in appreciations from fellow comedians and critics.
Whether he was hosting the Emmys or pretending to be a talk show host in HBO’s “The Larry Sanders Show,” he was an acquired taste.
My taste. Shandling was a precursor to “Seinfeld.”
“NBC’s ‘Seinfeld’ is a good sign for the lazy summer TV season,” I wrote in May of 1990. “It could have been called ‘It’s Jerry Seinfeld’s Show.’ ‘Seinfeld’ looks and feels very much like ‘It’s Garry Shandling’s Show,’ the Showtime and Fox show. Which probably helps to explain why NBC took so long to schedule ‘Seinfeld.’
“Before Shandling went to Showtime he took his idea to NBC, which rejected it. Like ‘It’s Garry Shandling’s Show,’ ‘Seinfeld’ revolves around a good, clean comedian with a dry wit whose routines are usually about the irritating little things in life that are easy to relate to: changing relationships, changing apartments, arguing with the dry cleaner, playing the stock market.”
I’m a little embarrassed to say I wasn’t as effusive praising Shandling’s HBO show, “The Larry Sanders Show,” when it premiered two years later.
“The low-key Shandling starts off weakly with an episode that has the insecure Sanders fighting with an aggressive network female who wants him to do live commercials for a garden tool,” I wrote.
“Larry is in no position to argue, because his show is a financial failure. So he turns to his ego-stroking producer, Arthur (Rip Torn, whose signature line was “I see big laughs, huge laughs”), for support against the network.”
I only gave the premiere two and half stars out of five, concluding that the show needed more “spiderlike bite” to succeed.
It eventually got it. I became a “huge” fan and learned a critical lesson. It takes more than three episodes to determine if a show has potential.
The 1995 season premiere of “Larry Sanders” included an appearance by one of the prosecutors in the O.J. Simpson murder case, Christopher Darden. It earned four stars.
“I know what you’re thinking,” I wrote. “From ‘Murphy Brown’ to ‘Seinfeld,’ haven’t we had enough Simpson story lines on television over the past year?”
“Shandling and his cohorts pull off a deliciously funny satire about America’s continuing obsession with the case,” I wrote. “Reminded that Simpson was once bumped from his talk show for ‘Murphy Brown’ star Faith Ford, Sanders (Shandling) snaps, “Who knew he was going to get this hot?”
“As Sanders’ selfish sidekick, Hank, Tambor practically steals the episode with his childish defense of his neighbor, Simpson: “He’s always been nice to me, always kept his lawn up.”
Thanks to FX, we have learned this year that the O.J. story never gets old.
The sixth and final season opener of the Sanders show received four stars in 1998. Sanders didn’t accept the suggestion that he shake hands with his audience. “That’s how you get the flu,” he cracked.
“’Sanders’ is an infectious, acquired taste,” I wrote. “Lord knows it took me a good while to appreciate its take on the phoniness behind late-night talk shows.”
I always appreciated Shandling as the host of the Emmy Awards.
When he hosted the 2000 Emmys, Shandling said he admired Tony Soprano’s mother for ordering a hit on her son in “The Sopranos.”
“Jewish moms drag it out a whole lifetime,” he cracked.
Shandling’s lifetime was too short. But I see “big laughs, huge laughs” in comedy heaven.