Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday and the start of our look at the best of The Larry Sanders Show (1992-1998, HBO), the ’90s’ finest cable comedy. The entire series is available on DVD.
Putting on a late-night talk show is never easy. The Larry Sanders Show stars GARRY SHANDLING as Larry Sanders, RIP TORN as Artie, JEFFREY TAMBOR as Hank, PENNY JOHNSON as Beverly, JANEANE GAROFALO as Paula, JEREMY PIVEN as Jerry, WALLACE LANGHAM as Phil, LINDA DOUCETT as Darlene, and MEGHAN GALLAGHER as Jeannie Sanders.
The Larry Sanders Show is cable’s first brilliant situation comedy. While the prospects of freedom offered by burgeoning non-network enterprises, like the prestigious HBO, had already been evident – just take a look at Dream On – never before was there a cable series that delighted critics so much that eclipsing the monopolizing creative power of commercial broadcasting finally seemed possible. But, in 1992, cable was still the Wild West for original scripted content; the big question was whether this land was as fertile as many had hoped. Obviously, TV of the 21st century gives us the answer: viewers have embraced cable, forced the networks’ programming to become more like cable’s, and expanded to cable’s own relative Wild West – digital. The reasons are always the same: viewers follow respected talent and value connectable material. Yet it wasn’t until Larry Sanders that this trend away from the nets gained a momentum not simply based on technology – but also on quality. So, the legacy of this series, above all, is that it’s the first terrific cable comedy. I’m recognizing this distinction early in our discussion because, beyond this, I’m not interested in examining its impact on any shows that followed. Frankly, the series’ “importance” is the most common topic of analysis, and I’m bored of it. Yes, we see its influence everywhere, in shows like (to name a few) Curb Your Enthusiasm, which married the laugh-driven and allegedly low-concept reality of Larry David’s Seinfeld with Larry Sanders’ spontaneity and visual design, the perennially meta backstager The Comeback, for which future Sanders writer John Riggi was a key architect, and the classically built workplace comedy The Office, ostensibly adapted from its British counterpart but also a descendant of Sanders, bringing its pedigree of un-varnished humanity to the mainstream. (And certainly, 30 Rock, one of NBC’s aesthetic companions to The Office, finds easy surface premise-based commonalities here – not to mention in the shared presence of Riggi. Of course, sitcoms set in the TV world – industry folks writing to what they know – are all over the place and have been forever!)
Linking those sitcoms – and many others not highlighted above – to The Larry Sanders Show aids an understanding of their histories and appeals. But it does little for this one, because the legacy-based narrative hinders enjoyment. In other words, watching The Larry Sanders Show with an eye towards how it influenced 30 Rock is going to disappoint, because you’ll be more drawn to how the two are different. (The same goes for those other above shows.) A mistake many people make when looking back at this series is the tendency to conceptually move it closer to our 2010s notions of comedy, thinking too much of the recent sitcoms that have gained critical favor. Instead, I’d advocate – not for the obliteration of what we know via the benefit of hindsight (which, by the way, can’t be muted), but for a more focused view of Larry Sanders’ own qualifications, taking into account its position within the era (the ‘90s) and the works by which it was influenced. It’s my belief, crystallized in this chronological survey, that the similarities between the show and those that followed over the next two decades are overstated, while its similarities to those from the prior two decades have been understated. We’ll discuss. Then, once we touch on the roots from which this series sprang, we’ll move to a more critically straightforward look, of which I feel the show, like Seinfeld, has been starved. However, before we get to all the above, there are two other points of reference that must be figuratively hit – the show’s relationships to both the HBO comedy we just covered, Dream On, and Shandling’s prior Showtime sitcom effort, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, which was featured here last year.
Regarding the former, one of the angles we explored over the past few weeks was how Dream On got overruled by The Larry Sanders Show as the brand ambassador, if you will, for HBO and its original programming. As with Dream On, this series’ very premise – the behind-the-scenes of a late-night talk show – engages with a televisual literacy that really first came into fashion within the rebellious content wave of the late ‘80s. But while Dream On founded itself on the clash between romance and realism, The Larry Sanders Show places itself squarely on the side of hard reality, for the romantically glamorous elements of this concept are only prevalent in the talk show segments, which are visually delineated (taped vs. the backstage stuff’s filmed), but not fantasy. These heightened moments merely exist as an extension of the characters’ realities – the same world into which we, as the at-home audience, are already permitted. In other words, as the difference between the magical world of television – in which these people may act differently than they do elsewhere – permits a type of humor derived from the clash between romance and truth (just as in Dream On), there’s no doubt that the latter is always taking precedence, for everything we see is reality and the differences between the talk show and the sitcom only add to the total cinéma vérité portrayed. Dream On used truth to service fantasy; The Larry Sanders Show intentionally does the exact opposite. Eventually, this would reinforce HBO’s bent towards realism, which it still mostly maintains — at least in its original comedies. Now, why did this series get so much power? Well, by establishing a reputation for being well-written (partly by avoiding Dream On’s gratuitous nudity; profanity was its only HBO-approved vice), this provided, more than for the otherwise delightful Dream On, the opportunity to represent and define HBO’s desired objectives. Because when you’re the best, you shape the rest.
But, again, I want to move beyond legacy-related beats and get back to the show’s foundational ancestors – one of the most obvious being, of course, Shandling’s first sitcom, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, the daring Showtime comedy that we discussed at length in November of last year. (Go check out those posts, if you haven’t already!) The most critically potent observations regarding that series involved the damning effects of its decision to shatter the fourth wall in total, for in addition to having to maintain this premise-based gimmick throughout every scene, the concept also made it difficult to supply the regular characters with enough of the emotional gravitas needed to both motivate stories and earn the audience’s investment; if our disbelief is never allowed to suspend, then why should we care about anyone or anything? Well, Garry Shandling took this lesson to heart, for The Larry Sanders Show guarantees to the audience right away that, in spite of the flashy premise and ostentatious visuals (the previously mentioned switch between tape and film), the show is committed to reality. The only fourth wall that’s broken is a fictional one – the one between these characters and the people in the soundstage bleachers – while the actual wall that exists between the actors and, us, the people watching at home – the very barrier that Shandling broke in his prior series – remains intact. We are never meant to doubt the reality of anything that’s shown – on tape or film, in front of an audience or without one. And that’s Larry Sanders’ first step to being able to prioritize the sanctity of its characters, focusing the writing on the players’ appropriately low-concept relationships – even amidst a potentially high-concept structure. (This, by the way, is similar to mid-run Seinfeld, a show to which Larry Sanders is often likened for the same reason: a structural rebellion that sits atop a rather basic, elemental design.) The takeaway: if not for Shandling’s experimentation on It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, I doubt this series would have been able to be so character-driven.
The extent to which this show well-utilizes its players, and the particulars of each member in the ensemble, makes a better discussion for next week. Here, I want to connect my general appreciation for how the show prizes character (especially in comparison to some of the aforementioned perceived descendants), to a previous notion regarding the understated relationship between The Larry Sanders Show and its forebears – particularly The Mary Tyler Moore Show. (Okay, it could become a bit of a running gag around these parts about how often the flagship comedy in MTM’s enterprise can either be associated and/or used as a frame of reference in analyses of other comedies. But I think the unavoidable truth is that her show is only a few degrees away from every sitcom – both its successors and predecessors – and when discussing a good comedy, which usually means a good character comedy, it’s difficult to ignore the memory of MTM, whose first show best represents the practiced principles of how to effectively use characters comedically.) I don’t want to seek forced parallels of debatable accuracy, but as another critically acclaimed ensemble comedy set within the world of television, The Larry Sanders Show arouses MTM’s specter – and, for our purposes, does so subliminally, too, in the proud earnestness with which it crafts its players. While we often label this series, mostly when talking legacy (and the HBO brand), as being two things an MTM show is not – irreverent and irony-laden – those descriptions have to be qualified. Its irreverence comes from the personalities of several story-driving characters, while the irony is supplied by our response to seeing the disconnect between these characters’ public and private personas.
Both labels are based in legitimate weekly observations. Yet, when ascribing an identity for the show itself – its voice, its point-of-view, the way it’s actually written – we find that it’s surprisingly sincere, dedicated to the presentation of character-based truths and liberated from the self-referential, forever winking, and glib flippancy of later shows to which there are, nevertheless, aesthetic associations. Frankly, this series is rather direct in its perspective – there’s not a lot of playing around with structure beyond the show vs. backstage concept. The text’s goal is actually simple: to present these tough, jaded, complicated characters, who give the material a lot of the above qualities (the kind often used to describe HBO in general), without supplying the qualities itself. That is, the characters drive not only the stories, but also the tone – just as Mary Richards was optimistic, Larry Sanders is maladjusted – and this kind of premise-independent, author-independent, story-independent character-driven style of writing is as much a novelty today as it was then, as the commercial demands on a series often force either a personality or a premise to be the guiding, promotable influence. Now, I’m hesitant to get too complimentary, for the show does feature a conspicuous concept for which stories about the mechanics of its environment are vital, meaning great ideas can sometimes draw our attention away from the players… But this is to be found in every series that sets up a premise and is obligated to engage it regularly. Just as always though, we’ll mostly be connecting with the character beats, especially as they become a specialty. And as for Larry Sanders’ sense of humor, we learn very early (in an episode highlighted below), that the show can and wants to deliver big laughs. So, we’ll expect those too.
Here in the first season, the show isn’t yet great. The premise is interesting, wonderful laughs are suggested, and the characters appear ripe with possibility. But the tone isn’t yet character-driven; this won’t happen until the series is able to fully embrace its darkness, which many accurately pinpoint as having developed later, but don’t always associate with these character-related adjustments. Thus, this first season is uneven. As usual, there are story-based installments, varying degrees of humor, and generally, a wider-but-quieter take on the characters’ neuroses, which seeks big laughs, but doesn’t, like Mary Tyler Moore in its initial character-building years, deliver them in abundance. Also, it feels like there are a few specific visions fighting for dominance in Season One. (This is mostly conjecture based on the crew and its individual histories.) First, there’s the one belonging to executive story editor Paul Simms, who wrote for David Letterman and provides a consistent influence in this first year of staff volatility (in which a few producers moved in, out, and around – Marjorie Gross and Fred Barron were taken out; Dick Blasucci and Chris Thompson were put in). Simms’ knowledge of the behind-the-scenes of a late-night talk show makes him ideal for premise-connected stories that take advantage of the setting and what this concept offers. He does idea and story. Then, there’s supervising producer Peter Tolan, the series’ most durable scribe (who was then doing his best on Murphy Brown). He brings to this figurative table a recognition of the sitcom’s need to always be funny, and finds ways to make the characters conducive to big laughs – a stylistic choice that may have been at the crux of some turnover, and why Taxi’s Howard Gewirtz (later of Wings) was likely added mid-year as a Creative Consultant. In the middle of these two necessary bookends, story Simms and laughs Tolan, is Garry Shandling, who values pronounced humor and loves this premise, but is most determined to give the characters, especially Larry, weight…
Shandling’s convictions regarding his character’s depth will prove noble in the long-run, but here they directly contribute to the weakest element of these first two seasons: the idea of a permanent love interest for Larry. There’s no delicate way to put it… Larry’s wife is unfunny, their drama is not engaging, and all the scenes in the home – away from the office where the delicious characters reside – are death to the comedic pacing. Attempts to make Larry more complicated through this structural decision occur in talky story-driven episodes that just don’t play to the series’ growing strengths. Fortunately, the show will soon learn that the best way to make Larry more human is to simply let him be more human – story shouldn’t define it; he should define it. But, interestingly, there’s a preface to this realization (and the show’s eventual darkening) in the first produced entry, “The Hey Now Episode,” which was co-written by Dennis Klein (he worked on Buffalo Bill, an extraordinary, dark sitcom covered here in 2016) and held to air as the season’s last. We’ll discuss it more below, but the offering not only suggests the tonal course the series will take (after discovering that the characters want it), but it also illustrates Shandling’s own fears about letting his show get too “edgy” – at least, undeservedly. Perhaps rightly recognizing that the series hadn’t yet earned such a harsh tone, the rest of the season grapples with how much “lightness” – or, more accurately, emotional availability – is ideal. The wife storyline, as with next year’s, is part of Larry Sanders’ belief that it needs to be more obvious in how it builds the characters’ inner lives. That’ll soon change – and they’ll become funnier too, but as a welcome side effect of this narrative de-escalation.
Before we get to the list, I want to make one final point, and it relates to both why the show has a reputation for being self-referential and why it’s more connected to the past than many think. In the first place, the show is considered knowing because of Shandling’s prior experience in Late Night (which he already spoofed both on his prior sitcom and in a 1986 special), which made this a buzzworthy concept in ’92 – the year of Carson’s departure. Also, because the series would have celebrities playing themselves, there was an apparent blurring of the fourth wall. Meta, right? Well, kinda… As discussed, everything we see is projected as reality, so all that’s blurred is our disbelief, which unlike for many of today’s acutely self-aware and exaggeratedly reflexive comedies, means truth is still king. Nevertheless, the intermingling of truth and designed truth is interesting, for it is metatheatrical, and surely places the series inside a trend that’s only gotten more robust. (Alas, if only every show with this meta undercurrent knew how to simultaneously honor character!) And yet, this is a design rooted in sitcom lore – going all the way back to radio, with shows like The Jack Benny Program (which we cover here bi-monthly), where listeners were treated to both the show and the behind-the-scenes of a show, with some actors playing a version of themselves and others playing entirely fictional characters. Of course, Larry Sanders doesn’t go so far as to have the leads play themselves (like on Jack Benny) – perhaps Shandling’s Showtime series took care of that impulse – and makes a distinction between the cast, including Larry, and the starry guests. This is more like, for example, The Lucy Show or The Danny Thomas Show, where the stars shared certain attributes with their on-screen counterparts, but within a fictionalized concept that nevertheless allowed other celebrities to still appear as themselves. So, for as revolutionary as The Larry Sanders Show’s “this can’t be done on a network” reputation seems, it actually is part of a grand sitcom tradition. A classic one. And on this rousing note, I have picked five episodes that I think exemplify this season’s strongest.
Here are my picks for the five best episodes of Season One. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)
01) Episode 1: “What Have You Done For Me Lately?” [a.k.a. “The Garden Weasel”] (Aired: 08/15/92)
The network asks Larry to do commercials for the sponsors’ products.
Written by Peter Tolan | Directed by Ken Kwapis
Produced as the fourth episode of the season, following the departure of the first supervising producer, Marjorie Gross, this installment is the first script written by Murphy Brown‘s Peter Tolan, whose comedic sensibilities seem the most like Shandling’s. Although not intended as the debut outing and certainly not as hilarious as the best entries of this series, the offering does a surprisingly commendable job of introducing us to the core characters — particularly the dynamic trio of Larry, Hank, and Artie — and is best remembered by fans for the Garden Weasel product that the first two are forced to advertise. My favorite scene, however, happens early, as Larry and Artie meet with the network representatives, including Melanie Parrish.
02) Episode 3: “The Spider Episode” [a.k.a. “Spiders”] (Aired: 08/29/92)
Larry’s reluctant to do a bit involving spiders.
Written by Garry Shandling & Rosie Shuster and Paul Simms & Peter Tolan | Directed by Ken Kwapis
Far and away the best episode of the season, this outing features Carol Burnett, who guest stars on the show and prepares to do a Tarzan sketch with Larry that’s, to no one’s chagrin, axed (and there’s a very funny bit about Larry needing a bigger loin cloth). It’s the entry that I mentioned above in my seasonal commentary as illustrating the show’s ability and desire to be explicitly hilarious, for although pretty much all of the episodes produced this season meet an acceptable quota of laughs, this offering exceeds expectations. The comedic centerpiece is indeed one of the show’s broader moments, but it comes to define the series’ potential, and remains a high watermark of hilarity throughout — at the very least — the remainder of this year. A classic, setting the bar to which these other early excursions must rise and meet. Must see!
03) Episode 5: “The New Producer” [a.k.a. “The New Producer Episode”] (Aired: 09/12/92)
Panic abounds when the show gets a substitute producer.
Story by Garry Shandling | Teleplay by Dick Blasucci & Paul Simms and Howard Gewirtz & Chris Thompson | Directed by Todd Holland
It’s common for new shows to push later episodes to the front of the schedule, hoping to attract and keep audiences by showcasing what they perceive to be their best material. So although this was produced as the year’s 11th, it made the largest jump forward. The outing, which includes former It’s Garry Shandling’s Show recurring cast member Ian Bunchanan as a new interim producer whose ideas appeal to the network, represents another attempt to increase the show’s comedic output — finding big laughs in the characterizations of both Hank and Artie, who turns to booze following the news of the young producer’s Machiavellian maneuverings. Rip Torn is a comedic tour de force, while Artie’s relationship with Larry is proving important.
04) Episode 8: “Out Of The Loop” (Aired: 10/03/92)
Larry gets personal with his staff after he learns about a company affair.
Written by Marjorie Gross | Directed by Ken Kwapis
Gross, though acting as supervising producer for only the first three filmed excursions, is credited for this script, the seventh, which is notable for centering its story around Jeremy Piven’s Jerry, whose only other anchored outing houses his departure. While Piven would gain prominence for another gritty showbiz series, and here helps bring humanizing color to the office environment, he’s never allowed to be a powerhouse for laughs or plot. Rather, this entry gains distinction simply for engaging with the ensemble in the office, showcasing the setting and the characters within it as the place where the scripts thrive, thus helping to establish the connections to terrific workplace sitcoms like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, discussed above.
05) Episode 13: “The Hey Now Episode” [a.k.a. “Hey Now”] (Aired: 11/07/92)
Larry tries to curb Hank’s use of his catchphrase.
Written by Garry Shandling & Dennis Klein | Directed by Ken Kwapis
Mentioned above in my seasonal commentary, the year’s finale was actually the first episode produced. It was co-written by Dennis Klein, who, as already noted, had worked with Brillstein before on Buffalo Bill. Those darker, nastier sensibilities are echoed in this script, painting the core characters (and their relationships) with a harsher brush than we’ll ever see — even when they are allowed to indulge in more of the depravity that the characterizations naturally exude. Shandling believed the entry, despite being funny and character-revealing, was too “heavy” to lead the series, and thought it’d have more power after the characters were better explored in lighter circumstances. Little did they know then that this would become the aesthetic norm… only, the characters, not Klein’s writing, would be driving the tone…
Other notable episodes that merit mention here include: “Guest Host,” in which Larry’s insecurities mount as Dana Carvey fills in for him, “Hank’s Contract,” which presages some of the terrific material afforded to Hank in upcoming seasons, and “The Party,” a popular entry that has the company going over to Larry’s house for a party, where there are a handful of memorable moments — overshadowed, though, by the weighty and unfunny marital drama.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season One of The Larry Sanders Show goes to…
“The Spider Episode” [a.k.a. “Spiders”]
Come back next Tuesday for my thoughts on the best from Season Two! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!