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Shandling’s Show Now on 16 DVDs

After spurning a regular guest-host gig for Johnny Carson, and before his career-defining role as fictional host of The Larry Sanders Show, comedian Garry Shandling starred on one of TV's most innovative sitcoms.

Nearly 20 years after It's Garry Shandling's Show ended its 1986-1990 run on Showtime, the offbeat, unconventional series remains a high-water mark of Shandling's long career. "There was so much improvisation. It was incredibly breakthrough - there was just nothing like it," says Shandling, 59.

Available for the first time Tuesday in a 72-episode, 16-DVD set, Shandling's Show was little-watched but big on concept for its time, with Shandling and co-creator Alan Zweibel experimenting with imaginative plots, staging and twists. Shandling, featured as a bachelor, routinely stepped out of character and talked directly to the camera, inviting studio audience members on set during taping, even incorporating their ideas into plots. The show's signature theme tune mocked traditional show songs.

One memorable episode, "No Baby, No Show," centered on the birth of a child - and Shandling promising viewers the baby would be born during the show. Uncomfortably filling time, Shandling evolves into a living-room talk-show host, with singer Tom Petty (promoting an album) and actress Susan Anton (hawking a TV special) stopping by his home; he later blends them back into the plot as they lend a hand during childbirth. Another episode, "The Graduate," is a humorous ode to the 1967 film. Norman Fell, a bit player in the film, turns up to field questions.

Shandling opted for Shandling's Show over filling in regularly for Carson on the Tonight Show because the sitcom "challenged me in much deeper ways than a talk show," he says. Moreover, Shandling says, Tonight would have usurped Sanders, the novel 1992-98 HBO comedy. "Creatively, this show leads to Sanders and a very different guy," he says.

Shandling's template - Shandling speaking to camera - was homage to comedic legends George Burns and Jack Benny, says Zweibel, a former Saturday Night Live writer. "We were very fortunate that Showtime said, 'Do what you want,' " Zweibel says. "What we did was slowly turn 'What if?' into 'What if we don't?' It was a show where anybody could do anything. There were no rules."

Like Shandling, Sanders later broke convention with its behind-the-scenes celebrity-ego skewering. It's also the star vehicle Shandling is best known for.

Among the current slate of actual late-night show hosts, Shandling says it's hard to pick a favorite. "They're all talented and have their own thing," he says. "It's a pity they have to be opposite each other."

Shandling previously spurned offers to host Fox and NBC talk shows and isn't interested in a regular return to the genre. "If I wanted to do one now, I could do one. But it doesn't seem to be the direction I'm heading. That seems to be selling DVDs."

He recently filmed a small part as a politician for 2010's Iron Man 2. "I hope to do more things like that. Maybe Iron Lung 4 - about a Jewish guy who has congestion, but becomes a superhero when he's got the suit on."

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