The comedy legend, who died Thursday of a heart attack at 66, first began writing jokes to escape the boredom of an accounting class during his senior at the University of Arizona. When George Carlin, one of Shandling’s stand up heroes, offered him some encouragement after a post-concert meeting in 1972, he headed for Hollywood and found some early success as a sitcom writer for Sanford and Son and Welcome Back, Kotter.
But the naturally insecure Shandling had never considered performing his own jokes until undergoing what he always remembered as a life changing experience. Involved in a two-car fender bender, he was inspecting the damage when a third vehicle crushed him between the first two cars.
He spent two days on the critical list at the UCLA Medical Center, suffering a crushed spleen among other injuries. During his recovery, Shandling adopted a new attitude towards the future of his budding career.
“I came to realize I should do what I want to in my life, and I wanted to do stand-up,” he told PEOPLE. The accident also caused him to adopt a more introspective view of his personal life. “I like to go up to my cabin in the mountains and hike and hang out alone. That’s what my life is about,” he said.
Shandling became a health enthusiast, sipping down natural juices and taking up meditation. “I read a lot about philosophy and read a lot of Zen,” he explained.
Reinvigorated by the idea of performing stand-up, he hit the comedy circuit and was eventually noticed by Joan Rivers. Rivers, at the time a regular guest host of The Tonight Show, introduced Shandling to Johnny Carson, who tapped him to be a substitute host after a half-dozen or so appearances.
Guest hosting the talk show was a lifelong goal for the comedian, but with his newfound dedication to self-contemplation, Shandling eventually decided to move on. “When I was a stand-up comic,” he said, “one of my goals was to guest-host The Tonight Show. But going on night after night … it started to get old very quickly.”
And so It’s Garry Shandling’s Show was born, running from 1986-1990, and helping to launch what would become his storied career in front of the camera.
The comedy world has come together on Thursday to mourn the loss of Shandling and to pay tribute to the comic genius. His longtime friend and colleague Kathy Griffith said in a statement to PEOPLE, “I’m crushed. That man, made me laugh. Spoke to me as a peer. Even though I’ve known him since the 90s, it’s in the last few years that we have had meaningful and memorable one-on-one talks. I had no idea our last one would be four days ago.”