I submit, for your consideration, the funniest joke from the funniest American television show of all time. It comes from an episode of The Larry Sanders Show, the brainchild of Garry Shandling, whose sudden death earlier today has gut-punched the comedy community and beyond.
In the episode, perennial second banana Hank Kingsley (Jeffrey Tambor) is in Sanders’ office having a meltdown, the latest flare-up of a crisis of confidence that has burned longer than the Centralia mine fire. After opining about the proper pluralization of “Judds,” Kingsley heatedly shifts the conversation to a matter of great personal shame.
“What about the time I chipped my tooth on the bathroom urinal?” Kingsley asks. “What the fuck is so comical about that?”
A pause, roughly four seconds long. Sanders processes the comment without breaking, a bastion of calm in the midst of a nuclear bomb of angst and rage.
Sanders: “It was a back tooth, Hank.”
He pauses again, pointing his thumb and middle finger to his molar. He shifts his weight back in his chair slightly, continuing in a softer voice—what you might call a “vocal fry”:
“I don’t know how you did it.”
It’s perfect, like so many aspects of the show that found Shandling nominated for a staggering 18 Emmys over the course of a half-dozen seasons, and it neatly encapsulates the comedian’s brilliance. He was, perhaps, often on the verge of exploding or falling to pieces, but in contrast to the hot-headed Hank Kingsley, Sanders/Shandling kept his unique brand of anxiety-infused comedy bundled over the course of a long and fruitful career—a career that launched a million peptic ulcers.
Shandling broke into the industry in the early 1970s, selling a Sanford and Son spec script to NBC. It was the beginning of brief foray into writing that ultimately found him onstage at the Comedy Store half a decade later, attempting to shake off the formulaic world of network sitcoms.
Shandling’s routine led to regular appearances on Carson, and later a guest hosting gig that would prepare him for the titular lead of The Larry Sanders Show in the early ’90s.
First came a show that carried his own name, It’s Garry Shandling Show, a surrealist deconstruction of the three-camera network comedy featuring a character fully aware of his sitcom-starring status. (It also featured one of the most memorable theme songs of all time.)
The show was well-received, but it wasn’t till Larry Sanders that Shandling truly created a comedy for the ages. This time the comedian played a self-obsessed late night host, with Tambor as the Ed Mcmahon to his Carson and Rip Torn as the show’s seasoned and often-loaded producer.
It was a perfect storm of brilliant comedic writing and acting, and at its nucleus was Shandling’s tireless handwringing—perhaps most brilliantly executed in “L.A. Or N.Y.?” in which Sanders does Letterman before Letterman by moving to a cabin in Montana, in an attempt to give up show business once and for all.
It also foreshadowed his own later career. Sanders largely avoided the spotlight, save for for occasional appearances including a number of interviews by fellow comedians like Jerry Seinfeld, Ricky Gervais and Marc Maron, who rightfully hailed him as one of the most influential stand-ups and television comedians of his era.
It takes a special sort of comic genius to make a joke about chipping one’s molar on a porcelain urinal even funnier than it is on paper. I can only quote the man himself: Mr. Shandling, I don’t know how you did it.