Fear and Loathing in Los Angeles: Buddhism and The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling

Israel Daramola breaks down the new Garry Shandling documentary, 'The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling.'
By    April 4, 2018

Israel Daramola was also mean to Ricky Gervais.

Chapter 1

Most people that know me know I’m a big Twin Peaks head. I love the show more than I love most people, and the thing about it that sticks with me most is its references to Buddhism and Eastern teachings. Special Agent Dale Cooper was the most zen, most sure, unflappable cop —being guided not just by his skill as an investigator but a natural oneness with the world around him. He was a part of the trees and the rivers and the wind that blows. He was the intermediary between heaven and hell, essentially, and, as long as he let go and listened, he was always guided to the right directions and the correct answers.

Chapter 2

I first came to know about Garry Shandling through whispers and namedrops from comedians and shows I loved. But I never had access to any of his work. By the time I hit the age of discovering comedy on my own, The Larry Sanders Show—easily the most influential and arguably most important comedy to be on television—was over. It would be years before I finally saw it and him in his full glory. By the time I did I was angry that I hadn’t found it sooner. I imagine Garry would believe I found it at the right time.

Chapter 3

This past week, HBO debuted The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling. A two-part, four hour documentary directed by friend and mentee Judd Apatow, the film uses archival footage, diary entries, and interviews with friends to tell the story of Garry Shandling. The Zen Diaries wears the mask of a career retrospective while actually trying to figure out why this neurotic comic genius became so obsessed with finding zen and turning to meditation, Buddhism, and keeping diaries in order to fight the emptiness and self destructive habits common in any comedian and celebrity. Apatow’s doc is fascinating and effective but that’s not what this is about. The Zen Diaries is a portrait of an artist in flux. A man who’s unsure about life and turned to what he could to treat this unstoppable sadness. I can relate.

Chapter 4

For lack of a better phrase, I am uncontrollably sad. What I mean is: No matter where my life is; how positive or accomplished I may be; and how much love I receive in my life, the grim specter of sadness lingers over me. There is an emptiness in me that I keep trying to fill. At first—and still sometimes—with personal vices but lately with spirituality and, of course, Buddhism.

Chapter 5

Buddhism is charming. It tells you to let go; to accept the chaos that is life but opt out of it. It teaches you to be a student and a teacher to others and to reach a bliss, a zen state, through meditation and prayer. It is in effect about transcending the bullshit of the modern world to a higher plane, feeling untouchable and fulfilled as you go through everyday; concentrating on the self no matter what the world gives you.

But that’s kinda bullshit. And the documentary hints at that suspicious feeling throughout. Can you really overcome ego, jealousy, anger, the death of your younger brother and closest friend through meditation? In the doc, Garry thinks he wants love and marriage until he doesn’t. He wants to make television until it burns him out. He wants to be at peace until he needs revenge. The diary entries of Shandling are as critical, sad, and pitying as they are inspiring and funny. I found myself moved to the verge of tears because I recognized so much of that pain and desire in myself. “He turned to Buddhism, but it was not because he’s zen but because he was in desperate need of being zen,” Sarah Silverman sums up about Garry in the doc. That desperation drowns so many of us.

I ask myself on too many occasions, ‘What am I looking for? Why do I keep running away from things and why can’t I stop the emptiness?’ Garry embodied this in the truthfulness of his comedy —shunning the workman like drudgery of show business in favor of creating art that allowed him to be his most honest self. This took the form in the cartoonishness of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show and then in the brutal yet sweet and incredibly funny and biting The Larry Sanders Show. A show that Shandling himself described as “a show about people looking for love but shit gets in the way.” Garry Shandling became an idol of mine because I understood the feelings he had and because he was actively trying to teach me what to do with them.

Chapter 6

Here’s something people often ignore about rap: it deals almost exclusively in trauma. My love of rap is less about lyricism or even production as much as it’s about listening to these artists speak on their traumas and the (often unhealthy) ways they deal with them. From Scarface to Future, rap is full of night terrors, survivors guilt, drug-induced pain numbing, respites from reality through glamour, partying, and just genuine heartache and remorse. The sadness of rap is not appreciated enough but it’s in that sadness I recognize my own depression and anxieties and I hope for better days for us all.

Chapter 7

I started writing in a diary again because of this documentary. I write in it the way I imagine Garry would write: flustered, nakedly honest, vulnerable, and without vanity. I can’t tell you that I feel better with it but seeing my actual feelings on paper feel like a deep exhale. When I write—be it comedy or criticism—I think of Garry Shandling. I am still trying to achieve that level of truth and comedy in everything I do and I look to those same zen practices he did because I need to believe I can be zen in order to save me from myself and from this world. I am trying to find love even though the shit is getting in the way.

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