Saturday, October 24, 2009

On DVD: "Monty Python: The Other British Invasion"

I’m certainly not the first early adopter to get hosed by excessive re-releases. When I bought the complete series of Monty Python’s Flying Circus in 2000, it was the crown jewel of my then-fledgling DVD collection—my first major box set purchase (and a pricy one), it sat atop my video shelf and soaked in the admiration of all who passed. Then A&E video released the ”16-Ton Megaset” a few years later; it was noticeably cheaper, as I recall, but the only additional material had been released separately, a few years before, as Monty Python Live!. No, the killer was last year’s “Collector’s Edition Megaset”, which, for the same price as the 16-ton set, included all of its contents, plus all of the “Personal Best” discs, plus two new documentaries. The completist in me was livid.

Thankfully, A&E now has done the right thing and released those two documentaries separately, under the title Monty Python: The Other British Invasion; I’m sure the highly-publicized release of the epic new 40th anniversary Python doc Monty Python: Almost The Truth on the exact same day is a mere coincidence. At any rate, it does offer those of us who bought early to pick up a pair of informative, if conventional, documentaries on our favorite crew of British satirists.

The first disc is the hour-long Before the Flying Circus; it is subtitled “a black and white documentary,” and sure enough, the entire special (even the new interviews) is desaturated, presumably for maximum historical effect. Director/producer Will Yapp combines interviews with the surviving Pythons (and a couple of snippets of the late Graham Chapman) with a treasure trove of old clips and photos. The Pythons discuss their childhoods, backgrounds, and early influences—Disney for animator Terry Gilliam, the innovative British radio series The Goon Show and the brilliant stage show Beyond the Fringe for everyone else. The crew first became aware of each other as they started performing in university revues; all of the British members of the troupe worked together (albeit as writers, with only John Cleese appearing on-screen) for David Frost’s That Was The Week That Was follow-up, The Frost Report.

What Before the Flying Circus has, in spades, is clips—great old snippets of their first, tentative steps into television, not only on The Frost Report but in varying combinations on earlier series like At Last the 1948 Show and Do Not Adjust Your Set, the “children’s show” that got a sizeable adult audience thanks to the wry comic sensibilities of its writer/performers and the oddball animations of American Gilliam. The documentary then takes us through the forming of the group in April of 1969 and the beginning of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, with a wonderfully chosen transition to color at the program’s end.

The second disc gives us the documentary Monty Python Conquers America, which also runs about an hour and utilizes Python reflections from the same interview sessions (this time in color, of course). We pick up the Python narrative several years later, after the show has become a popular success in Great Britain, as both the troupe and their British boosters start to wonder whether it could ever “cross the pond.” Victor Lownes, an American operating the British arm of the Playboy organization, thought it could translate, putting up his own money to finance a “best of” film, And Now For Something Completely Different. While that project failed to muster up much enthusiasm, the Pythons experienced their first underground success in the States thanks to a less-discussed sideline—they first crossed over with hippies and intellectuals not through the film or the series, but via their record albums, which started getting play on various underground and college radio stations.

Their American record promotion was handled by Nancy Lewis, who quickly became a fan and later their U.S. manager. She adds some insight, supplemented by great home movies and memories of their first Transatlantic trip—a Canadian tour, followed up by a disastrous American television debut on The Tonight Show (unfortunately, like so many Tonight Show clips, that one is nowhere to be found). The special then details Lewis and the group’s attempts to shop the show to American television, specifically to PBS affiliates. They finally found success in 1974, on KERA, located not in a risk-taking “cosmopolitan” market like New York or Chicago, but in Dallas, Texas. (The station’s manager? Luke and Owen Wilson’s father, Bob Wilson). The show expanded from there to other PBS stations; we see some rare promo films, as well as a great clip of four members of the group doing a standing room only appearance at a KERA pledge drive.

By the time Monty Python and the Holy Grail opened in New York, they’d become an American phenomenon; mention is made of Cleese’s initial reluctance to court a Stateside audience, but he tells a terrific story about the moment he realized, during their 1976 show at City Center, exactly how big they’d become. The doc closes with a fascinating (and detailed) examination of the ABC fiasco—how the bowdlerization of Flying Circus shows for rebroadcast on that network led to a legal action and, eventually, the ownership of the shows going to the Pythons themselves.

Both documentaries are well-executed, but the trouble with them now is that they suffer in comparison to Almost the Truth, which is, in many ways, the definitive Python doc. It’s not just that much of the same material is covered; though Before the Flying Circus matches up almost precisely with the first episode of Almost the Truth, it has more clips and mentions a few projects (like Twice a Fortnight and The Complete and Utter History of Britain) that go unnoticed, while the bulk of the second hour is supplementary to the longer doc (and dovetails nicely from it). But these two films plod a bit; in contrast to the newer film, they’re scholarly and somewhat dry, but somehow not quite as insightful or sharply analytical. We don’t get the same sense of how the Pythons were molded by their backgrounds and influences, in spite of the use of the rather straightforward and often dull narration. The rogues gallery of American fans (Carl Reiner, Paul Rudd, Jimmy Fallon, Judd Apatow, David Hyde Pierce, Robert Klein, and South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone) is impressive, however; they speak with love about to discovering the troupe, and speak plainly about why they’re great, and that section (dealing as it does with simple fandom) may be the set’s most effective.

The two hour-long documentaries that comprise Monty Python: The Other British Invasion will surely be of interest to Python fans, and folks like me who bit early on the A&E series sets. But they do suffer in comparison to the new Monty Python: Almost The Truth documentary—a comparison only encouraged by this set’s congruent release with that one.

"Monty Python: The Other British Invasion" hits DVD on Tuesday, October 27th.

Friday, October 23, 2009

On DVD: "Not Quite Hollywood"

What a treat this movie is. Not Quite Hollywood is a raucous, joyous history and celebration of so-called “Ozploitation” cinema, low-budget genre pictures made in the 1970s and early 80s by the then-thriving Australian film industry. Some never made it off the continent, while others were repackaged for U.S. exploitation markets, unspooling in the same grindhouses and drive-in theaters as their American counterparts—where their infectious energy and low-budget charm inspired would-be filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino (who appears in this documentary, of course).

Mark Hartley’s doc is a free-wheeling good time, an affectionate tribute that provides a history of the movement and a treasure trove of fascinating and frequently hilarious clips. After briefly setting up the emergence of the industry, and glimpsing a few of the early films shot in Australia by outside filmmakers (like Wake In Fright and Walkabout), Hartley plunges us into the cream of the Aussie crop, separated by three headings.

First is “Ockers, Knockers, Boobs, and Tubes,” spotlighting the skin flicks and gross-out comedies that embarrassed some natives and warmed the hearts of others, including the “Barry McKenzie” films (featuring Barry “Dame Edna” Humpries), the “Alvin Purple” films, and the “Fantasm” pictures (so sleazy, they had to go to California and populate them with porn stars). “Comatose Killers and Outbreak Chillers” focuses on the always reliable suspense and horror genres, including the thriller Road Games, for which future Psycho II director Richard Franklin imported stars Stacey Keach and Jamie Lee Curtis; Razorback, a stylish if goofy creature feature from future Highlander director Russell Mulcahy; and the creepy horror picture Next of Kin. “High Octane Disasters and Kung Fu Masters” covers the action movies, from the brutal biker epic Stone to the martial arts cop flick The Man From Hong Kong to the insane people-hunting potboiler Turkey Shoot to perhaps the most famous Ozploitation movie of them all: Mad Max.

Not Quite Hollywood is inventively assembled; Hartley and co-editors Sara Edwards and Jamie Blanks use split-screen, zippy photos, funny reframing, and clever montages that match the momentum of the subject. It clips right along, from its smart opening sequence (utilizing ancient drive-in concession commercials) to its charming ending, crafted with a sense of humor and a genuine sense of fun.

The picture eschews narration, telling the tale in fast-paced interview bites with seemingly everyone who even passed through the industry. We get plenty of astute insights from the folks who saw the boom through, including director Brian Trenchard-Smith, screenwriter Everett De Roche, and stuntman-turned-actor Grant Page (the clips from opus Stunt Rock! , which mixed stunts, rock music, and magic, are a scream). Producers Anthony I. Ginnane and John D. Lamond are oily fascinating (you want to hear everything they say, but you want to take a shower afterwards), and a reflective Dennis Hopper shows up to confirm the mind-boggling war stories from the set of Mad Dog Morgan, a film he shot at the height of his excesses. Entertainingly grouchy film critic Bob Ellis functions as a curmudgeonly voice of opposition. And there is exactly the right amount of Quentin Tarantino—you get his enthusiasm, but a manageable amount of his obnoxiousness.

The film is full of great stories: how Aussie TV star Abigail helped drum up publicity for her full-frontal turn in The True Story of Eskimo Nell, how Trenchard-Smith accidently set one-time James Bond George Lazenby on fire, the dangerously out-of-control production of Trenchard-Smith’s batshit Turkey Shoot. But Hartley also keeps his doc on track, framing the laughs and thrills with context of where these movies came from, and exactly why they disappeared. Hartley’s documentary certainly isn’t for all tastes—the first section is just filthy, and parts of the first and second chunks are stomach-churning—but put this one in front of the right audience, and they will eat it up with a spoon.

Over the past few years, we’ve seen a flurry of terrific “movies about movies,” films like A Decade Under the Influence and Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession that move beyond the realm of clip compilation to penetratingly examine a time or movement in popular culture, and function as compelling documentaries in their own right. Not Quite Hollywood is of that class—it’s smart, it’s well-made, and it’s a hoot.

"Not Quite Hollywood" was released on DVD on October 6th.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

On DVD: "The Secret Policeman Rocks!"

Earlier this year, Shout Factory released the three-disc box set The Secret Policeman's Balls, collecting the performance films of the "first wave" of Amnesty International benefits organized by Monty Python's John Cleese. The first show, Pleasure at Her Majesty's, was performed in 1976 and comprised entirely of comedy sketches by Cleese and his Monty Python castmates, along with contemporaries like The Goodies and the cast of Beyond the Fringe. But the concerts gained their true identity in 1979, when the show was branded The Secret Policeman's Ball and, at the urging of co-producer Martin Lewis, musical performances were added to the mix.

Those music performances, which were often stripped-down, acoustic versions of popular hits (in a forerunner to the "unplugged" format), became one of the primary attractions of Secret Policeman shows to come. Now, on the fortieth anniversary of that first music-infused show, Shout has followed up that extensive box set with the slimmer The Secret Policeman Rocks! , a "best-of" collection that compiles music performances from The Secret Policeman's Ball, The Secret Policeman's Other Ball, and The Secret Policeman's Third Ball, along with two from Amnesty International's Big 3-0, a 1991 show not included in the earlier box.

The overwhelming majority of the songs collected here are from Other Ball, including the first number, Sting's solo performance of "Roxanne"; he accompanies himself on the guitar, and the resulting number is quiet, downbeat, and outstanding. Next up are former Yardbirds members (albeit at different times in that band's history) Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton, who turn in a raucous, jubilant performance of the blues grinder "Further Up The Road." Pete Townshend's acoustic cover of "Pinball Wizard" from the first 1979 show follows, and it remains a knock-out; it stands, along with the acoustic set on Elvis' 1968 comeback special, as one of the embryonic moments of the "unplugged" movement (a sidenote: as pointed out to me by Martin Lewis himself, both the version of the song on this disc and in the Shout box set restore a 30-second intro unseen in previous releases of the shows). Another unexpected spin on a modern standard follows, as Phil Collins performs "In The Air Tonight" as piano and guitar only (and without that iconic drum machine); it is a surprisingly powerful arrangement, well-performed.

With those famous performances done, we now move into the middle section of the special, which has some good numbers, though (due to the arrangement of the performances) it feels rather like they're biding time until they can use another song by the marquee players that started the disc. Kate Bush's "Running Up That Hill" is solid, although it feels of its 80s period in a way that the other performances don't--particularly when butted up against Mark Knopfler and Chet Atkins' lovely instrumental cover of "Imagine." David Gilmour's rendition of "On The Turning Away" is pleasant if forgettable, though Dave Stewart's performance of "Amnesty" is stirring and Bob Geldof's performance of "I Don't Like Mondays" is strong.

Next up is the return of Beck and Clapton, though their rendition of "Cause We've Ended As Lovers" sounds a bit too much like 80s power rock. The disc goes back on the upswing with Sting's second number, a mournful take on the uptempo Police hit "Message In A Bottle," again proving that that group's songs are as good, if not better, when stripped of their New Wave trappings. Pete Townshend's acoustic performance of "Won't Get Fooled Again" (with classical guitarist John Williams) is downright beautiful, while Peter Gabriel's powerful "Biko" is rather magnificent. The disc comes to a strong end with the Other Ball closer, an electrifying cover of The Band's "I Shall Be Released" performed by "The Secret Police," a super-group comprised of that show's participants (including Sting, Clapton, Beck, Collins, Geldof, Neil Innes, and Donovan).

The Secret Policeman Rocks! has a much more affordable pricetag than the expansive Secret Policeman's Balls set, and for those more interested in the musical breaks than the copious amounts of Python-infused British comedy, it will surely do the trick. I personally prefer the box set--spotty though it may be, I prefer the music as counterpoint and accompaniment to the comic bits.

"The Secret Policeman Rocks!" is now available on DVD.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Today's New DVDs- 10/20/09

It's Garry Shandling's Show: The Complete Series: I'm pretty sure you're tired of hearing about how much I like this show.

Fawlty Towers: The Complete Series Remastered: And yet, there is actually a funnier show than It's Garry Shandling's Show being released (okay, re-released) on DVD this week. And it has new commentaries and bonus features, so I guess I'm rebuying the goddamned thing.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (Blu-ray): Still holds up. The candy man caaaaaaaan....

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen: You know, I didn't see it. And yet, I'm pretty sure I can tell you that it really, truly blows.

On DVD: "The Achievers: The Story of the Lebowski Fans"

“It’s like all my nerdiest dreams have come true.” So says one of the organizers of the “Lebowski Fests,” a series of conventions and events for fans of the 1998 Coen Brothers comedy The Big Lebowski, which went from a box-office disappointment to one of the most durable cult movies of the modern age—a Rocky Horror for the Internet era. Those fans call themselves Achievers—after the title character’s pet organization, the Little Lebowski Urban Achievers—and the slender but amiable documentary The Achievers: The Story of the Lebowski Fans gives us a peek into their world.

The film is directed and photographed by Eddie Chung, and if it’s not an inside job, it sure feels like one; Chung captures the essence, the feel of fandom, but does it without the slightly condescending snark of the (admittedly entertaining) Trekkies films. This is probably also due to the source material; in contrast to the (mostly) serious Star Trek films, Lebowski is a straight-ahead comedy, so its fans tend to have a sense of humor about themselves—what they are, and what they do. One Achiever is seen on the phone, trying to get a friend to come down to the Fest—“ We’re gonna drink White Russians, we’re gonna watch some movies with other nerds... It’s gonna be a good ol’ time.” That’s a man who knows what he wants, and knows what he likes.

Chung traces the humble beginnings of the “Lebowski Fests,” from a local event that surprised organizers with a turnout of 150, to later events with thousands of attendees and guests ranging from bit players to the band My Morning Jacket to the Dude himself, Jeff Bridges. Along the way, we meet some of the super-fans who populate “the Forum” (that’s what it’s always called), the online message board for Achievers; they’re the ones that work the festivals, travel around the country, and form friendships on and off the ‘net.

The picture is, of course, concerned with all things Lebowski—in addition to Bridges, Chung talks with day players from the movie and peripheral figures like beloved film rep Jeff Dowd, acknowledged by most as the inspiration for “The Dude.” He also takes a fascinating detour into the real story that inspired the odd and uproarious scenes with Dude’s stolen car and the homework in the plastic baggie—going so far as to track down Jaik Freeman, the real “Little Larry Sellers,” and reunite him with the Coen brothers’ friend Peter Exline, who told them the story.

Scenes like that are fun, and will delight fans of the movie. But the heart of the movie is the Achievers themselves. Plenty of screen time is spent on the sheer inventiveness of the fans; one of the organizers notes that the usual structure of the fest is “Friday night we watch the movie, and Saturday we become the movie.” The primary manifestation of this is in the clever costumes that festival goers don; it’s one thing to dress up like the Dude or Walt or Jesus, but when you’re so inside the movie that you bypass even the less obvious costumes (like a toe or a Creedence tape or a bottle of Kahlua) and work something up (like a masturbation manual or a carnal position with a camel) that requires explanation even to people who have seen the movie a hundred times, well, that’s when you’re speaking your own language.

In its more subtly insightful moments, The Achievers is not just about that particular movie, but about fandom in general. Andy, a forum poster and self-admitted obsessive personality, takes Chung’s camera on a tour of his memorabilia-filled home, including (swear to God) his “Simpsons room,” in which the walls are covered with figurines from that show. He talks about what being a super-fan means to him. Guys and girls like this are upfront about themselves; they’re not usually the most socially successful people (I say this with no judgment; I’d put myself in the same category). These are people who forge relationships by quoting movie lines and arcane trivia—those represent the common ground that they can share, the common experiences that they can speak to. But then (and this is only hinted at here, but it’s present) those relationships mature and progress, and hopefully, at the end of the day, these people can relate with each other about more than just this movie that they’ve all memorized.

Some of the filmmaking is pretty amateurish—the videography is shake and zoom-heavy, even by documentary standards, while the structure is somewhat scattershot and the final product leans too heavily on the copious clips from Lebowski. But a more professional film would have, in all probability, been too far removed to understand these folks as thoroughly and sympathetically as The Achievers does.

The Achievers: The Story of the Lebowski Fans may look and feel like a home movie, but that’s part of its considerable charm. It knows this scene from the inside out, and takes on an entertaining and clever journey inside of it. It’s easy to laugh at these fans, but honest viewers may see something of themselves in them as well, and those are the kind of laughs that stick in the throat a little.

"The Achievers: The Story of the Lebowski Fans" arrives on DVD on Tuesday, October 27th.

On DVD: "Contact"

It’s funny how youth and the passage of time can warp your perception of a film’s quality. I was in my early 20s when Robert Zemekis’ Contact unspooled in theaters, and my memories of it are entirely positive; it was the director’s first feature since his Forrest Gump swept the Oscars, based on the acclaimed novel by Pulitzer Prize-winner Carl Sagan, and was praised by critics as a rare example of thoughtful science fiction, a movie that dared ask questions about what exactly existed beyond our horizons. Though audiences were split on a key climactic revelation (more on that later), the film made a mint at the summer box office.

Twelve years later, Contact doesn’t quite hold up. It’s not that it’s a poorly made film; quite the opposite. And it’s not that it’s a dumb film—not exactly. But it is a movie that thinks it’s smarter than it is, so busy signposting its points and mouthpiecing its debates that it becomes a pablum. Oh, and it’s got a Matthew McConaughey performance that we all should have heeded as a dire, stern warning.

Jodie Foster heads the A-list cast as Dr. Eleanor “Ellie” Arroway, a driven scientist with the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) program. We see, in Rockwellesque flashbacks, how her interest in what lies beyond the stars was encouraged by her aw-shucks father (David Morse), but her stubborn determination has made her less than popular with her government supervisor, David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt). After her funding is pulled, her cause is picked up by an eccentric billionaire (John Hurt), and she eventually receives what appears to be a signal from another life form.

The revelations of that signal—how they receive it, how it is decoded and interpreted, and what becomes of that data—showcase Zemekis and his crew at their best; the sequence where it is descrambled, with the help of some software and an errant TV set, is indisputably thrilling. The plot turns that follow (the discovery of what the data means, the building of the “transport,” and the bumpy road to its use) are all clever, believable, and fascinating. There’s no question that the film is structurally sound—it propels from scene to scene smoothly, and our attention never wavers.

But most of what works is (presumably) transposed from Sagan’s novel. The screenplay proper, by James V. Hart (Hook, Sahara, Bram Stoker’s Dracula) and Michael Goldenberg (Bed of Roses), is kind of terrible. The dialogue is all boilerplate, dull exposition and bland pronouncements. There’s nothing to explore in the writing, nothing for the viewer to sink their teeth into—it’s all transparent, all surface. The questions of faith and its coexistence with science are compelling, but the discussions of it are, for the most part, dumbed down for the mass audience; at the end of the film, when a senator thunders at Ellie, “Are you really going to tell us that we should take this all… ON FAITH?” it lands with the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the balls.

The romance between Foster’s Ellie and the smolderingly charismatic religious figure played by McConaughey is a non-starter, a perfunctory distraction; they’ve got zero chemistry, and his performance is just awful. This was his first film after his (admittedly impressive) breakthrough in A Time to Kill, and it’s got all of the inappropriate grinning, wooden line readings, and general half-assed coasting that we’ve come to expect from the handsome but empty actor. When he’s on screen, you’re embarrassed for him; you can’t wait for his scenes to end.

Foster may not be stretching much, but she’s able to carry Ellie’s lingo-heavy dialogue credibly and fill in the blanks of her character admirably (a very young Jena Malone, as the young Ellie, makes for a remarkably effective Foster doppelganger). The rest of the cast is somewhat at the mercy of their flat lines; Tom Skerritt can play this kind of smug authority figure in his sleep, and while he has some good moments, he has a hard time recovering from his opening line (“Now I remember why I took that desk job!”), which sounds like something cut from a lesser Lethal Weapon sequel. James Woods is also basically playing the “James Woods role,” but what the hell, nobody does it better than he does.

Poor Angela Bassett doesn’t get much to do, aside from frowning a lot and intoning lines like “What does it all mean, doctor?” John Hurt’s role, though brief, is the showiest and presumably the most entertaining; in his second scene, he scores the best line in the movie (and nails it), though even he can’t sell his first appearance, in which he has to do one of those scenes where his character recites another character’s entire biography for the benefit of no one (since she knows it) except an audience that is at the mercy of a lazy screenwriter. Most of the remaining roles are paper-thin—the fact that one of Ellie’s fellow SETI scientists wears Hawaiian shirts and a pony tail tells you about all you need to know about the level of depth on display. (That guy must be a rebel!)

At the time of the film’s release, I remember fiercely defending the controversial reveal at the climax—I won’t go into it here, except to say that while I still think it’s a fine idea, the scene would play better if it didn’t get so bogged down in platitudes. But that sequence at least shows Zemekis and his writers taking a chance, experimenting with a narrative move that would presumably not be a crowd-pleaser. It’s a film that could have afforded to take more risks like that one.

This review has turned into a list of all of the things that Contact does wrong, which wasn’t my intention—there’s a lot that it does right. The filmmaking is near-flawless, particularly the deservedly famous opening shot (which still knocks me out) and the how-did-they-do-that shot involving young Ellie’s run to the medicine cabinet. The visual effects are, for the most part, downright stunning. And when it arrives at the climactic launch scene, Zemekis (who, lest we forget due to his recent lack of interest in making movies with flesh-and-blood actors, helmed Roger Rabbit and Romancing the Stone and the Back to the Future trilogy) harnesses a genuinely exciting sense of wonder. The man may have a tin ear for dialogue, but he can sure as hell build a sequence. Those moments of greatness may be the ones that attached themselves to my memory, while the rest of the movie faded away. But the rest of it is there, and it’s kind of a mess.

At the time of its original release, critics that I admire compared Contact to modern classics like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Seen clear-eyed, Contact aspires to reach those heights, and fails. There are moments of tremendous power, wonder, and suspense, but there are also reams of terrible dialogue, a heavy-handed attempt at message, and an unnecessary romance with an uninteresting character played by an untalented actor. It’s a mixed bag, and those who look back on it fondly might prefer to hang on to those memories than to revisit this problematic picture.

“Contact” was released on Blu-ray on Tuesday, October 6th.

Monday, October 19, 2009

On DVD: "It's Garry Shandling's Show: The Complete Series"

"This is the DVD of Garry’s show…”

At long last, the wait is over. Garry Shandling has been the star and driving force behind two of the most innovative comedies of the modern era, but for the last several years, neither show received the DVD treatment they deserved. His 1990s HBO series The Larry Sanders Show proved a non-starter on disc; we’ve seen only the first season thus far (though it’s been released twice) and the well-produced but (of course) incomplete Not Just the Best of the Larry Sanders Show. (The idea that they’re just sitting on the five remaining seasons while a full box set of the entire run of Full House is readily available boggles the mind.) But his earlier comedy “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show.” remained MIA in any form… until now.

“It’s Garry Shandling’s Show.”: The Complete Series collects all 72 episodes from the show’s four seasons on Showtime (with re-runs later airing in the primetime line-up of the then-fledgling Fox network), and while it may not have been the most widely-seen comedy of the era (its stealthy audience was a frequent running joke on the show), it was certainly the most influential. The creative elements involved went on to become major players on several of the most critically praised (and frequently funny) shows of the years that followed, many of which share the show’s hip, smart sensibility and humor: the aforementioned Larry Sanders Show, The Simpsons, Seinfeld, and Curb Your Enthusiasm, among others.

When “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show.” began, television comedy was formulaic to a fault; sitcoms used the same tired template and the same clich├ęd conventions, relying on cute kids and pat situations and an unending cycle of flat set-ups and easy pay-offs. Shandling and co-creator Alan Zweibel made the show fresh and new primarily by reaching further back into the history of television comedy, with a show that mimicked the presentational storytelling and personal, character-based comedy of Jack Benny while utilizing the ingenious fourth-wall breaking of his contemporary George Burns.

Shandling plays “Garry Shandling” a neurotic comedian in his late 30s; the series begins with him moving into a new condo, where his neighbors include his “plutonic friend” (she’s always referred to as such), Nancy (Molly Cheek); his best friend, nebbish family man Pete Schumaker (Michael Tucci); and Pete’s son Grant (Scott Nemes) and wife Jackie (Bernadette Birkett). Garry’s mother Ruth (Barbara Cason) is a frequent visitor, as is his condo president, the insufferable Leonard Smith (Paul Willson), who drops in whenever possible in a blatant bid for more air time on Garry’s show.

While both George Burns and Garry Shandling break the fourth wall by talking to the audience and acknowledging the fact that they’re on television (Burns would turn on the TV in his study to eavesdrop on scenes he wasn’t in, an idea expanded by Shandling), the primary difference is in the show’s overall self-awareness. Every character knows that they’re on Garry’s show and makes jokes to that effect, from little Grant making his first appearance at the end of an episode to complain scornfully, “Thanks for the big part in the show this week, Uncle Garry!” to Garry’s mother doing a spontaneous live commercial on the air in order to drum up business for her pet shop. The show also makes ingenious use of its studio audience—Garry prompts them to join in to shout “surprise” at his mother’s surprise party, hands out his winnings to them after a lottery jackpot, and, in a clever season three episode, takes the episode in a boring direction that prompts an audience walk-out. Perhaps the finest use of the studio audience comes in the second season episode “The Schumakers Go To Hollywood,” where Pete and Grant go on a trip to Tinseltown and wind up in Garry’s audience (Grant: “Hey, it’s my room!”).

Shandling and crew’s love for old-school show business is clear in several ways, aside from the obvious links to older television shows; his guest stars (at least in early seasons) are more often along the lines of Norman Fell, June Lockhart, Norm Crosby, and Florence Henderson, almost invariably introduced with Garry’s enthusiastic, “Hey everybody, it’s (name of celebrity)!” That love for the lesser lights of show-biz reaches its pinnacle in the season one finale, “Force Boxman,” which finds Garry leaving his show to front a cop series, leaving his show in the hands of Red Buttons. The new program (“It’s Red Buttons’ Show” ) is a hit, prompting Garry to return and beg for his old gig back (“We’re finally on a hit show!” Leonard Smith tells him. “We’re all gonna be famous!”)

The show’s construction is (often deceptively) simple: each episode begins with Garry’s “opening monologue,” where he comes out into his living room, tells some jokes, sets up the episode, and introduces the bouncy, impossibly catchy 41-second theme song (“This is theme to Garry’s show/The opening theme to Garry’s show/Garry called me up and asked if I would write his theme song…”). The plot then unfolds, often with commentary throughout by Shandling (“So here’s what happening in the story now…”) and clever time-passage gimmicks (in an early episode, fourteen newspapers are thrown at him during a transition; once they’re done, he announces “Two weeks have passed!”). He’ll then wrap the show up with a “closing monologue,” which often sends up the moralizing of lesser sitcoms (“Well, I guess we learned something tonight.”)

Generally speaking, the show’s first two seasons are its best. Season one finds Shandling, Zweibel, and the talented writing staff tinkering with television conventions like a kid playing with a new toy, trying new ideas and generally seeing what they can get away with. On “Fate” (penned by future Men In Black screenwriter Ed Solomon), Garry tries to stop the show to prevent Nancy from going on a bad date; he tells the audience, “We’ll stay here, we won’t go to scene four,” and then bides his time by putting on a square dancing instructional video. On “Garry Met a Girl Named Maria,” Garry finds out that one of the studio cleaning women is about to be deported; he contemplates a green card marriage, and goes out into the audience to get their opinion (he carries a handheld microphone and turns the whole thing into a Donahue/Oprah spoof). Most memorably, on “The Morning After,” Garry has to find out how his previous night’s party went wrong with the use of his handy “flashback booth” (“Yeah, it’s my flashback booth. Like you don’t have one!”).

The show really hits its stride in season two, with the rules established and characters entrenched, and Shandling and the writers pushing the envelope even further. The season kicks off with the so-called “Name the Schmacher Baby Contest,” a real promotion in which viewers submitted names for Pete and Jackie’s gestating baby. “Nancy Gets Amnesia” is also a highlight (“All right, our first amnesia show!”), giving Molly Cheek the rare opportunity to give Nancy some extra layers; Jennifer Tilly guests on the two-part “Angelica” show, as Garry’s first real live-in girlfriend (the title and theme song change once she moves in); and the gang all pays a visit to “Shandling-Land,” Garry’s theme park (Grant: “Dad, am I old enough to go into Garry’s Haunted Bedroom?”). The Christmas episode is quite funny (“Hey, everybody, it’s Santa Claus!”) and the “Save the Planet” episode—and its revelations about Garry’s mom—is one of their silliest and most enjoyable.

But three episodes from this, the show’s best season, stick out most. The second show of the season, “No Baby No Show,” begins with Garry excited (“This is a very special episode!”) because Jackie has agreed to give birth on the air. But when Jackie and Pete arrive and the baby isn’t coming yet, Garry’s stuck for what to do with the time; once neighbor Tom Petty arrives (“Hey, everybody, it’s Tom Petty!”), it slowly, subtly, and brilliantly morphs into an incredibly awkward talk show (shades of Larry Sanders), complete with a song by Petty, plenty of plugs, couch scooching, and Susan Anton. Perhaps the ballsiest single show of the entire run is “Garry Falls Down A Hole,” in which Garry misses his entrance because of, well, see the title; it begins on the empty set, and the first five minutes of the show is purely people wandering around looking for Garry, and the theme song playing (twice). It’s a rather exceptional bit of meta-comedy, an example of the show taking its premise right up to the edge, and then leaping over gleefully.

For sheer enjoyment, however, it would be hard to top the “Mr. Smith Goes to Nam” episode, which features guest star Gilda Radner in her final TV appearance—and she’s wonderful, stealing looks into the camera, shamelessly soaking the audience for applause, and generally having a great time. She was so gifted, and clearly had so much more to give, that the episode’s only drawback is that it’s kind of heartbreaking.

Season three finds the show refusing to rest on its laurels, puttering with its now-established format—starting the show in new locations, toying with the monologues, even sometimes (gasp) skipping the theme song, or playing it in new ways. It also includes the show’s only live episode (special coverage of the 1988 presidential election—“We’re live… because I don’t have enough godddamn stress in my life…”—with the help of special correspondent Don Cornelius) and an all-musical episode, done specifically for the entertainment of their special guest, Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley (“I don’t know why he’s here, he only likes musical theatre”).

Gimmicks like a live show and a musical episode would come to serve as red flags for shows jumping the shark, and to be sure, there are some clunkers in season three. The three-part “Save Mr. Peck’s” episode, in which Garry and his show-biz friends put on a benefit for the comedy club that gave him his start, is kind of a misfire; it parades out celebrities (and pseudo-celebrities) without finding much of anything interesting to do with them, aside from letting them do their acts. “The Natural,” an episode-length spoof of the Robert Redford film, wasn’t even timely when it first aired (four years after the film’s release), and shows that the weakest “Shandling’s Show” episodes are those that are most conventional—specifically (with the exception of the first season episode “The Graduate”) those that dabble simply in straight-forward parody.

But there are also moments of brilliance (in the “Worry Wart” episode, Garry throws in a tape of a previous, unaired show, commenting and fast-forwarding throughout), and shades of things to come for Shandling. The “Big Brother” episode begins with Pete waking up Garry, who tells him, “It’s six a.m. The audience isn’t even here yet!” and sure enough, they’re not—there’s no laughs heard, and as Garry ends up wandering through the empty seats and reflecting on his own loneliness and neurosis, we get a glimpse of him moving towards the themes he would explore in greater depth—and with great success—on The Larry Sanders Show.

Most fans remember season four as the “girlfriend season,” since it focused on his courtship and eventual marriage with Phoebe, played by Jessica Harper (who was immediately made a regular, which must have infuriated actors like Willson and Birkett who never made it, throughout the four seasons, into the opening credits). As an actor, Harper is likable as hell, but the trouble is that she’s not very funny—even when they writer her some decent lines. The idea of shaking up the show by giving Garry a continued romantic interest wasn’t a bad one, but Harper unfortunately doesn’t prove quite strong enough to tackle it.

On the other hand, there are more appearances by the late, great Bruno Kirby, whose characterization of Gary’s manager Brad Brillnick is a perfect synthesis of yes-man and snake. And there are plenty of truly funny episodes; Andy Griffith Show fans will love “The Day Howard Moved In,” which features Jack Dodson as his Mayberry character, Howard Sprague, while “The Wedding Show” features a garish on-air wedding thrown by the network, complete with production numbers, dancers, and guest stars like Charles Nelson Reilly and Connie Stevens. “Shandling Vs. Mull,” with uproarious guest-star turns by Martin Mull and Joy Behar, is killer, as are the episodes dealing with Garry’s failed tour opening for Guns N Roses (specifically “Chester Gets a Show,” a clever satire of what was then the norm for TV comedy). And “The Family Man,” in which Gary and Phoebe take a home pregnancy test (the results take 23 minutes, “just enough time for a show”) makes ingenious use of a new prop, Gary’s “time flies clock,” which sends him into the future.

Unfortunately, they rather muck things up towards the end; the episode titled “The Last Show” is, strangely, not the last show. It brings the series to a fine conclusion, with clever cameos by Dabney Coleman, Tony Danza, and Bob Newhart (whose own Newhart was signing off as well), a darkly funny funeral for Garry, and a hilarious Grant callback (“Thanks for the big part on your funeral show, Uncle Garry!”). But then, at the end of the episode, network head Mr. Stravely (Richard Fancy) appears, furious at the dark ending, and demands two more episodes, “and I don’t care what they are!” The show’s writers apparently didn’t either. Shandling is nearly absent from the penultimate “The Talent Show” episode, and the few shows that focus on the supporting cast are always among the weakest (this is the primary difference between the two Shandling series; he had a flawless supporting cast on Larry Sanders, including Rip Torn, Jeffrey Tambor, Jeremy Piven, and Janeane Garafalo, but Willson is about the only truly memorable member of this show’s ensemble). The final episode is another parody show, “Driving Miss Garry”—it’s an awfully weak ending, and while the final moments are nice, they feel tacked-on, disconnected from the subpar episode that precedes them. (A listen to the commentary track confirms that it was, in fact, not intended to be the show closer.)

In its last two years, “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show.” was still awfully funny, but became subtly less subversive and more conventional (as with the in-law shenanigans of “The Proposal”), less edgy and more goofy (as in the broad Hitchcock parodies of the “Nathan’s Sheer Madness” episode). But in even its weakest episode there are moments of greatness, whether it’s an inspired storytelling device (Gary’s “dream hat”), a throwaway bit of business (Gary stops a scene to ask, “Can we use the camera angle into the mirror? I think the scene will play much more dramatic”), or a well-utilized guest star (when Carl Reiner finds that he’s only getting “cold spaghetti and one little scene,” he picks up a phone and announces, “Think I’ll make some long distance phone calls!”). Some of the references are dated and some of the links in the supporting cast are weak, yes. But those flaws don’t add up to much. “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show.” was an innovator, and the best comedies of the intervening years owe much to it, both in terms of style and format (the influence on Seinfeld is particularly obvious, from the broad outlines down to several parallel characters: Nancy and Elaine, Pete and George, Leonard Smith and Newman, etc.). It was a series that showed how inventive TV comedy could be, as long as its creators were willing to think outside that square box.

Though there is a noticeable drop in quality between first two seasons and the last two, “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show.” more than earns its reputation as one of the great comedy shows of the modern era. The price tag for The Complete Series is a hefty one, but for those who are serious about their comedy, it is a must-have.

"'It's Garry Shandling's Show.': The Complete Series" hits DVD on Tuesday, October 20th. For full details on audio/video quality and bonus features, read this review on DVD Talk.