On Garry Shandling and the voice that speaks to us all

If you’re like most Homo sapiens, you’ve wondered a time or two about what people will say about you when you die.

If you’re lucky, they’ll say something like what Conan O’Brien said last night, hours after he found out that comedian Garry Shandling died.

Shandling got his big break when one of Johnny Carson’s assistants booked him on the show. He killed it.

Last night on NPR, All Things Considered played a short, but incredibly powerful, segment of a 2007 interview Fresh Air did with Shandling.

Listen to him explain what he was thinking as he watched Johnny Carson double over in laughter and the audience howl.

  1. Listen Garry Shandling on his Tonight Show appearance

“I’m not that funny,” he said, not in a self-deprecating way.

Why is that significant and powerful?

A lot of people this week have been sending me this week’s Washington Post op-ed with the sister of a woman — a special education teacher in Duluth — who took her own life last month.

They didn’t know, I suspect, that I had already written about it (while I was on vacation) and that the young woman’s mother had participated in the subsequent discussion, and I didn’t really have anything more to say.

I write about suicide and mental illness a lot, mostly because someone has to. And when I talk to those left behind, they tell me the same thing that Eleni Pinnow wrote about her sister, Aletha.

I went on to share with everyone — friends, family, students, and work colleagues — the cause of my sister’s death: depression and suicide. I told them that my hilarious, kind, generous, helpful, silly and loving sister couldn’t see any of that in herself and it killed her.

I told them that her depression created an impenetrable fortress that blocked the light, preventing the love of her friends, her family, and any sense of comfort and confidence from reaching her.

Garry Shandling — smart, funny, universally loved Garry Shandling — provided a glimpse into our own minds when he said “I’m not that funny.”

He was that funny. Of course, he was. But he gave voice to that voice that’s inside us all, the one that says, “I’m not good enough. I’m not smart enough. I’m not funny enough. I’m not lovable enough.” That “this is the day the world finds out about the real you.”

The voice lies. But that fact too often is a secret to us because our reluctance to share with others what it’s telling us creates its own lie: That we all don’t hear the voice too.