If you had told Garry Shandling 30 years ago that 1,400 people would pay money and crowd into a theater to see him, he probably would have made a joke that it was his public execution.
Roaring laughter spouted out of the Castro Theatre on Thursday as organizers paid tribute to actor and comedian Shandling as part of their annual comedy festival SF Sketchfest.
SF Sketchfest was formed in 2001 as a local sketch comedy show by co-creators and SF State alumni David Owen, Cole Stratton and Janet Varney. In the past 10 years, the popularity and variety of the shows has soared, and this year performances included everything from live tapings of television shows like the Benson Interruption to the meeting of minds of Brian Henson and Neil Patrick Harris.
Tributes have become some of the more prominent events at SF Sketchfest, and this year one pays due to producers the Zucker brothers, known for such films as BASEketball and High School High, on Jan. 31. Diane English and Candice Bergen, stars of the 90s sitcom “Murphy Brown,” will be honored on Feb. 2, with special guest moderator Connie Chung.
“The tributes are all from the heart, it really is, from the three of us,” Varney said. “This is an opportunity for us to honor things that influenced us as comedians and as people. And we want to honor particularly the Bay Area because it has such a wonderful artistic sensibility and such a great, smart appreciation of the arts.”
Shandling was witty and humble as he was honored as both a stand-up comedian and a writer during his tribute.
The event also celebrated the 25th anniversary of one of his most famous works, “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show”. Joined by the show’s co-creator Alan Zweibel, the two engaged in conversation on the show and other tangents, moderated by actor Zach Braff from the popular medical comedy “Scrubs.”
Starting his career in the business early on, Shandling wrote episodes for shows such as “Sanford and Sons” and “Welcome Back Kotter”, in addition to being a guest host several times for the “Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.” Shandling began the “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show” in 1986 and was nominated for an Emmy for it.
However, his most successful show was the “Larry Sanders Show”, an HBO program in 1992 that was nominated for 18 Emmys. Shandling won an Emmy for Outstanding Writing in a Comedy Series for the series finale in 1998.
Shandling and his co-speakers kept the dialogue moving and constantly told jokes to the audience.
“This is how it’s going to be at my funeral,” Shandling said at the end of the show. “Then my boxing coach is going to come up, yes I have a boxing coach, and he’s going to go ‘one, two, three, four, he’s out’.”
Certain members of the audience said they enjoyed the experience of seeing Shandling where he truly belongs, on a stage and cracking jokes with ease.
“It looked great, it sounded great, I liked the whole thing a lot,” said audience member Eric Cohen. “It’s a great thing to be Jewish right now.”
Event crew member and volunteer Darryl Duffy watched the production from the back of the theater.
“What I found to be really fascinating was the depth of it all,” Duffy said after the show. “I didn’t expect Zach Braff to do that much with it. The layers were really impressive.”
Perhaps the proudest and most influenced of all those in the theater were the organizers themselves. Once a student at SF State, Varney remembered when her friends and she put on their first full length sketch show in a tiny venue south of Market Street. Now, she gets to put on shows for entertainment icons like Shandling.
“To get to the place where I’m standing in the back of the Castro Theatre with my wonderful partners and we’re watching a classic episode of ‘The Garry Shandling Show’ in a 1,400 seat theater and Garry Shandling is sitting two people away from me, you think to yourself, this ain’t too bad!” Varney said. “It’s really wonderful.”
Eric Green contributed to this article.