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Culture

My Mentor’s Mentor

Judd Apatow taught me everything I know about making TV, and Garry Shandling taught him.

Illustration by Carolyn Figel

I am almost never on the Westside of Los Angeles. But when I’m there, I always call Judd Apatow and ask if he wants company. The last time I was there, we were writing the sixth season of Girls, and though Judd and I talked constantly — about scripts, cuts, actors, the Kardashians — we hadn’t talked much in the previous few weeks. But that day, Garry Shandling had died. Suddenly. And just like that, Judd had lost his mentor.

Early in my career, I had the great fortune of working for Judd on Undeclared. I had been obsessed with Freaks and Geeks and couldn’t have imagined a more pinch-myself job than Mr. Apatow’s next show. This is not the hazy memory of times past: This was truly one of the best jobs in history. Judd achieved the unusual duality of ruling with an iron fist and creating a meritocracy. He didn’t give a shit about level or even job history. If you were good, you were good, and the best idea won every battle. An eighteen-year-old Seth Rogen wrote the lion’s share of the scripts because he was brilliant. So were Rodney Rothman and Nick Stoller. Honestly, all the writers were amazing, and a cursory search on IMDb will show you that Judd is as skilled at staffing writers' rooms as he is at casting.

But he was also a mentor. It was my first writing job that wasn’t putting words into the mouths of animated characters for children under seven, and he let me spend time on set, in editing, and in casting for our episodes. I cannot begin to explain how rare that is in a world where baby writers are shut out of almost every part of the process.

This was the beauty of Judd: He wanted people to do well — even better than he had — and he trusted them to do their jobs. He also had the patience and goodwill to teach us all how to do the job he was so masterfully doing.

Here is where he learned how to do some of that: Garry Shandling. Judd, who worked with him on Garry's sitcom The Larry Sanders Show, watched Garry so closely, both his brilliance and his very human missteps, that it allowed him to create the egalitarian system he keeps moving to this day.

That day Judd accepted my offer of company. I stopped by and found him grieving deeply, surrounded by the tokens of Garry’s life. Judd has always been a serious hoarder. He saves everything. We differ more extremely on this than anything else. If there were a zombie apocalypse, I would leave with my kids and maybe one book. Judd would cart everything he has ever written and owned out with his family. I’m guessing the healthy choice is somewhere in between these two modalities. But the man is frankly so wealthy that his hoarding is fairly seamless. How can you tell if someone is a hoarder if they just keep buying bigger homes within which to keep their accumulating crap?

Usually, his office is your standard-issue mess, filled with the most nostalgic treasures — paintings of the 40-Year-Old Virgin cast, pictures of him and Adam Sandler as practically babies, images of his children with a pre-tattoo Justin Bieber. But this day, the day I stopped by, I could barely find Judd among the rubble. It was there, behind stacks and piles of weathered papers and yellowed boxes, that Judd read to me from Garry’s journals. Now his office had gone from a world of Apatow nostalgia to a Garry Shandling history museum. Judd was one of Garry’s best friends, and he had inherited Garry’s work — and all the beauty and pain that came with it. Within those journals, Garry had left the secrets of his process and also his darkest struggles.

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He also left so many great fucking jokes.

I felt so lucky to get to listen to Judd read from those journals but also to learn that I too had been the beneficiary of the Garry Shandling way of being. Listening to Judd talking about Garry was like listening to me talking about Judd. I realized how much of the ethos of writing and truth and a constant striving to push further, go deeper, be wiser was, in fact, part of a comedic legacy. I couldn’t believe I was a part of that legacy.

In true Judd fashion — and maybe Garry fashion, though I only had the honor of meeting him a handful of times — I took that experience and put it immediately into the work. Based on Judd’s relationship with Garry, Lena and I created a story line for the Girls character Ray. Ray outlives his mentor, the curmudgeonly Ghost of Ray Future, and he has to become the curator of Hermie’s work, much of it unfinished. We were nervous when we showed those scripts to Judd, who was still so deep in his grief. But he supported us every step of the way.

When Judd shared the documentary he made about Garry with me, The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling, I wondered if it would ache with sentimentality, if it wouldn’t be able to avoid the more maudlin aspects of the form. I was wrong to worry. His documentary is bracingly fair — unflaggingly truthful. It shows Garry in all of his weakness: striving, broken, narcissistic, human. It’s complex and impossible, like most things worth your time. It’s the story of a man who pushed every minute of his life to improve his work and also himself, and to distinguish between the two.

You don’t have to know Garry’s work to be moved by his story. It’s a haunting portrait of an artist and a perfectionist, a loner who needs company and a mentor who is always letting go. It will move you and inspire you. Unless you are made of wood, in which case it will simply make you laugh and cry.

I thought, as the closing credits hit, how happy I was that Judd was everything Garry had tried to be but also a little bit more. He has things Garry hoped for and never got, like a family that loves him fiercely. He keeps working despite setbacks, never retreating into a hermetic crouch. He’s a little less hard on those he loves, a little more open to the vicissitudes of life. But he’s still an impossible hoarder, just like the man who taught him how to teach me.

Jenni Konner is going to be crying and watching the documentary again tonight.