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THE REAL GARRY STANDS UP

Garry Shandling has always been an angst-ridden but highly agreeable comedian. But mature? This is the guy who built his act on hair jokes, bad-date material and his myriad insecurities. This is also the guy whose theme song for the four years of his TV series, It's Garry Shandling's Show, which aired on Showtime and then on Fox, held this nonsensical message: "This is the theme to Garry's show/ The opening theme to Garry's show/ This is the music that you hear/ As you watch the credits."

Now there's a grown-up Shandling who in his latest HBO comedy special, Garry Shandling: Stand Up, tackles weighter issues, such as safe sex, relationships (the consummate single has been in one

for three years now) and world events, including a jab at Iraq's leader. Of the latter, he cracks, "Saddam Hussein used to sit and watch CNN. So on top of everything else he's done, evidently he has an illegal cable hookup, too."

Shandling, 41, has had some new growth experiences the past few years, although his fluffy hairdo looks the same. But he's hardly lost his trademark comic persona, that of a self-deprecating guy who has invested greatly in therapy through the years.

To get ready for his first stand-up television special in seven years, Shandling says he worked small nightclubs for five months. Sometimes he performed for as long as two hours, so the HBO gig of one hour was easy in comparison. But Shandling, in a recent phone interview, adds that he's not happy about where he ended up taping the special, at the Irvine Barclay Theatre at the University of California at Irvine.

"It wasn't intimate enough for my tastes," he said. "The audience was too far back from the stage and because there were about 1,000 people in attendance, I had a tough time warming up the crowd."

From Shandling's whining, you'd never guess how relaxed and natural he appears on this special. He's extremely agile telling funny stories. Having a steady girlfriend hasn't hurt his act one bit, either.

He asks in his routine: "Hey, what could be worse than dating?" And during a telephone interview he adds that even if he were to tie the knot, "I'll be able to joke about my marriage because I'll still be pained somewhat."

What's Shandling been up to since his TV series went off the air last year? Besides preparing for this HBO special, he says he's writing a yet-untitled movie. But it isn't the film he had said he was going to do a few years ago, titled It's Garry Shandling's Movie. He says all the material eventually was used by his TV series, where Shandling stretched by playing a comedian named Garry Shandling who's the star of his own TV show.

The series, which will air in reruns on cable's Lifetime beginning Saturday afternoon at 1:30, opened with Shandling explaining the story line, and then as the comedy progressed, he would make frequent asides to the audience and camera.

This method, called breaking the fourth wall, was Shandling's way of mocking the traditional sitcom. His thinking was that his TV-generation audience knew they were watching the tube, so why not acknowledge that? One episode had Shandling inviting the audience to use his condo while he went to a baseball game. The audience came on stage and raided his refrigerator.

Shandling doesn't miss the weekly zaniness, however. "We peaked creatively at the end of the second season," he says. "I'm proud of what we did, but it was time to move on."

Shandling had planned to die at the end of his series. "Death was to come and take me," he explains. "But the actor who played Death didn't work out, and then we had to recast and we were under-rehearsed." Shandling adds that he even had Bob Newhart as a guest but still had to throw out the episode because it wasn't funny.

Shandling says he wants to continue with stand-up because "I still haven't reached my potential." He says he's turned down an opportunity to do a talk show, but he sounds as if he would be open to an offer to once again be the permanent substitute host on The Tonight Show when Johnny Carson retires and should Jay Leno move into the host chair.

Shandling worked this stint in 1986 before his Showtime series, and says wistfully, "I miss doing that."

So who knows _ come next year, it could be Here's Jay and on nights off for Leno Here's Garry.

TV PREVIEW

HBO presents Garry Shandling: Stand-Up, Saturday at 11 p.m.

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