Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday and the continuation of our series on the best of The Larry Sanders Show (1992-1998, HBO), the ’90s’ best cable comedy. Every entry 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 Kingsley, PENNY JOHNSON as Beverly, JANEANE GAROFALO as Paula, JEREMY PIVEN as Jerry, WALLACE LANGHAM as Phil, LINDA DOUCETT as Darlene, and KATHRYN HARROLD as Francine.
The second season of The Larry Sanders Show is the anticipated healthy extension of its predecessor, with a greater understanding of its strengths – specifically, the characters – a rapidly expanding sense of comedic viability, and a gradual amble into the darker character-driven tone for which the series, in discussions on its legacy, remains best known. As we saw last time, Season One was no slouch when it came to discovering the terms under which the show best works, and, naturally, Season Two is even better – much better, in fact. But, at this point, the show is still evolving in this positive direction, and despite the winds of novelty still propelling the year’s figurative sails, the richest character stuff – the biggest laughs, the most compelling narratives – are yet to come. That noted, the novelty the series inherently facilitates in its sophomore season is unique, for just as we’ve seen before (in shows like Dream On and Murphy Brown), once this relative sense of freshness is coupled with an elevation in the aforementioned self-understanding (which usually stems from a solid first year), there’s a ripe, delicious era where the premise can still be explored on a weekly basis, but with characters to whom both the audience and the writers have now become accustomed. That’s what’s represented here, as the show makes its most effortless, organically zestful utilization of its talk show, and the behind-the-scenes of a talk show, concept. Remember, 1993 was the year Letterman defected to CBS after NBC gave Carson’s old spot to Leno, so discussions about Late Night were topical, and the backstage maneuverings were intriguing. Beyond even the growing strength of character, The Larry Sanders Show’s second season is working with a dynamic, relevant premise – and the air surrounding its very existence fuels the excitement (and a lot of these episodes’ appeal).
Of course, critical favor and an extraordinary show of support by the Television Academy – with eight Emmy nominations following the first season, including Outstanding Comedy Series, two for writing, two for guests Carol Burnett and Dana Carvey, and three for the cast’s core trio (Shandling, Tambor, and Torn) – also helped contribute to the series’ rising and palpable je ne sais quoi, which in turn inspired more stars to appear on the show. One of the things we’ll be tracking, for both better and worse, is the series’ relationship with the stars who play themselves. Here in Season Two, the stories are mostly centered around the regulars and their relationship with the premise; the real-life personalities who float in and out of the action only provide premise-affirming atmosphere, or ideally, a logical accessory to the weekly narrative. In many ways, this represents the show’s most ideal usage of celebrity. And because this is still a niche show (a classification all but guaranteed by its presence on HBO), the mix of stars is eclectic, representative of the Late Night roster, and not too A-list, ensuring that the star wattage isn’t so bright that it blinds us to all the good character stuff being produced. (As we’ll see, while the character material improves, so does the celebrity booking power, and sometimes the show’s calibration of the two isn’t stellar.) Thus, with the second season’s developing success – it’s now a better show than Dream On, which took a hit in ’93 with Kauffman & Crane’s reduced roles – the show reaps its rewards and steps into the identity of a hip, chic, and star-attracting critical darling. There are better years ahead, but this is the one where HBO discovers its big comedic success – the one that will represent this brand for the rest of the ‘90s.
As mentioned above, the season is a clear improvement over the debut excursion, and aside from the general benefits that come simply from having endured a whole year of growth and exploration, Season Two also improves its standing with several key additions to the creative staff. With Shandling, Paul Simms, Maya Forbes, and Chris Thompson (the Bosom Buddies creator who joined at the tail end of last year) carrying over from the prior season, and Peter Tolan rejoining the crew after finishing up his commitment on Murphy Brown – replacing Brad Isaacs, who lasted half the order – the show is already on solid footing. But this footing becomes even more solid with the arrivals of – in order of impact – Molly Newman (Murphy Brown, Brothers And Sisters), Drake Sather (SNL, NewsRadio), Judd Apatow (Freaks And Geeks, Girls), and John Riggi (30 Rock, The Comeback). The latter two are especially good hires, and their later successes make a strong case for this series’ far reaching legacy, as elements of The Larry Sanders Show persist in a lot of their future works – either in structural similarities, or simply comparable attitudes. With these last two, in particular, staying involved over the next few seasons, the show is really allowed to follow the direction already being suggested here by the characters, with more delectable laughs and moments of earnest humanity – the kind that I likened last week to fare found on the quintessential character-driven ensemble workplace comedy, The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Nevertheless, you’ll naturally find that the best writers are the ones who, though different, best understand the show. Tolan and Simms, though different, both love the concept and do a lot for building the characters believably and comedically. They’re the MVPs.
Last week, I promised I’d share some of my general thoughts on the show’s cast. As far as the workplace is concerned, there’s not a weak link. (Even Linda Doucett’s Darlene, who’s best in smaller doses, proves her worth often.) In fact, those who may not be designed as comedically as others – i.e. Beverly – make up for their intermittent humor with a hearty, welcome sense of reality, which aids the series’ overall directive. But, as is usually the case in ensemble comedies, certain characters are better for anchoring stories – either because their personalities are more conducive for narrative-driving or because the plots they inspire make better use of the show’s premise and its particulars. For instance, I find that the oft-sequestered writers – Phil and, until he’s written out at Piven’s behest, Jerry – don’t center as many good ideas as, say, Paula, who, as the booker, really gets down into the nitty gritty of the office mechanics and the production of the show. Also, Garofalo’s energy is a boon to the series’ cultivating reputation. As the show starts to realize her value – explicitly proven in an episode highlighted below – she starts to emerge as one of the ensemble’s shining stars. Of course, no one comes close to matching the aforementioned core trio of Larry, Hank, and Artie, three wonderfully nuanced players whose relationships with each other form the crux of both the show’s surprisingly developed emotional center and its unsurprisingly comedic dysfunction (reflected in the narratives, and soon the tone). Tambor’s talents have come to be more recognized in the decades since he was Hank Kingsley, but this series – especially in the years ahead – may be his best work. Meanwhile, Rip Torn is one of those effortlessly funny actors who, even without some of the deeper character moments offered by Hank or Larry, earns supreme guffaws.
The only part of the cast this season that doesn’t work is the same part that didn’t work last season – Larry’s full-time love interest, this time: his ex-wife Francine, played by Kathryn Harrold. After having crafted a terminally unfunny arc for Larry and his wife last year, the show has the good sense to have her ousted by the premiere… But then the entry essentially does a search and replace, putting Larry with another wife – albeit, one to whom he is no longer married. It’s basically the same arrangement, and even though their tension isn’t so forced and thick, the tortured and un-comedic fog still persists. (It’s shockingly repetitive and unnecessary!) Nonetheless, the show does craft a slightly more interesting character in Francine, as her history with Larry makes for a darker presence than her predecessor and, thus, a better fit for the show. Additionally, the writers now know that Larry’s house is not a source for great laughs (especially in comparison to the office), so more effort is made to integrate Francine into the rest of the ensemble – which usually means that she comes to the workplace, instead of the workplace coming to her. It’s the only viable solution until the series drops the humorless shackles of a regular love interest for Larry and finds other mostly non-story solutions for exploring his inner neuroses. But, once again, this arc represents the show having learned from what came before… and still continuing to learn even more. So, before we get ahead of ourselves, I have picked seven episodes that I think exemplify this wonderful season’s strongest.
Here are my picks for the seven best episodes of Season Two. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Remember, installments originally broadcast as a single hour are considered two separate entries.
01) Episode 16: “The List” (Aired: 06/09/93)
Larry is uncomfortable with his ex-wife’s romantic past.
Written by Maya Forbes | Directed by Roy London
Evidence of Francine being better utilized than Jeannie, this episode features a narrative focused on Larry and his love interest — a subject that couldn’t be comedically employed last season. The teleplay smartly takes the personal storyline and plays the majority of it in the workplace, where the characters we’re growing to love — especially Rip Torn’s Artie and Tambor’s Hank — are able to shine. Furthermore, the installment finds an organic way to bring the guests (including Alex Baldwin) into the narrative, making this, in general, a well-constructed excursion by Forbes, who often does these more romantically inclined outings. Also, note that this offering was directed by Shandling’s mentor, Roy London, who passed during the season.
02) Episode 18: “Larry’s Agent” (Aired: 06/23/93)
Larry replaces his agent with someone younger and more vicious.
Story by Victor Levin | Teleplay by Garry Shandling & Paul Simms and Maya Forbes & Drake Sather | Directed by Todd Holland
Bob Odenkirk makes his debut in this outing as Larry’s new smarmy viper of an agent, based off of Ari Emanuel, who’d also serve as the inspiration for Larry Sanders cast member Jeremy Piven’s future role in Entourage. This series’ premise promises to show us the seedier, grittier side of the industry, and these quintessentially “show biz” episodes (this entry being among them), satisfy more than just a commendable comedic quotient — they actualize the show’s prime raison d’être. And while there are better episodes in this season (and certainly in other seasons), this is one of those classic Golden Era (even though it’s not the best era, it’s the most fertile and opportunity-filled one) excursions. This is the show doing what it should be doing.
03) Episode 19: “The Hankerciser 200” (Aired: 06/30/93)
Hank endorses an exercise machine that may be defective.
Written by John Riggi | Directed by Dennis Erdman
Last season, in episodes like “Hank’s Contract” and “Hey Now,” we got a taste of how the series could be able to depend upon Tambor’s Hank for both drama and hilarity. Although next year is the one in which it will become clear just how valuable the episodes centered around his character will be in filling the series’ catalogue of finest excursions, Season Two — and offerings like this one — point the show in this obvious direction. This installment, the first written by Riggi, is a terrific showcase for the character (it’s probably his first stellar outing), and actuality delights without any bells and whistles: no guest stars, just the core cast. Additionally, the premise integrates Francine into the story, mingling Larry’s personal and professional lives.
04) Episode 20: “Life Behind Larry” (Aired: 07/07/93)
Larry is involved in who gets to host the new talk show that will follow him.
Written by Peter Tolan | Directed by Todd Holland
Tolan, who returned to the series with this episode (which was produced as the year’s tenth, but pushed sightly forward because of its strength) is responsible for the two strongest outings from the second season — one of them being this excursion: a prescient entry that taps right into the buzz surrounding the Late Night talk shows. While the story contends with finding the host to take over the spot following Larry’s, it’s interesting to note that in ’93, as Letterman was leaving for CBS, both NBC and CBS courted Shandling to take over the spots following Leno and Letterman, respectively. (And the show predicts the future: Tom Snyder will follow Letterman.) But beyond the premise, this is a laugh-heavy script with great character moments.
05) Episode 21: “Artie’s Gone” (Aired: 07/14/93)
Paula has to produce the show when Artie is late.
Written by Paul Simms | Directed by Todd Holland
Mentioned above in the seasonal commentary, this is the episode that grants Jeanane Garofalo, whose own career was on the ascendant as a result of her work on this series, the chance to handle a lot of material where she can prove herself as one of the show’s greatest assets. As you can guess, she’s up for the challenge, making for one of the year’s finest episodes — due, also, to the simplicity of the premise, which takes place over a relatively short period of time, as Paula has to scramble to produce the show on her own (and keep Larry from finding out that Artie isn’t there). Simms is the perfect author for this kind of script, because it’s heavy on the nuts and bolts of the talk show world, and the tight telling is a boon to the comedy. A hit.
06) Episode 29: “Off Camera” (Aired: 09/15/93)
A reporter visits the show during the taping of a particularly eventful episode.
Written by Peter Tolan | Directed by Ken Kwapis
Without a doubt: the finest offering of the season. It’s the purest and strongest representation of the show effortlessly exploring its premise, for like the above installment, it employs a simple story that takes place over a finite period of time — on a single show night that features a reporter and an eclectically starry array of support: Elizabeth Ashley, who’s hot and heavy for Artie, John Ritter, who’s feuding with another guest, Gene Siskel, and Warren Zevon, who doesn’t want to perform “Werewolves Of London.” These performers aren’t afraid to lampoon themselves — without going overboard into camp — and it’s exactly what we want when it comes to the utilization of celebrities. We want them committed to the series’ premise of showing the dichotomy between what happens on-screen and off — going for the joke like ego-free good sports, while the regular cast is allowed to play organically off them. Perfect.
07) Episode 30: “The Grand Opening” (Aired: 09/22/93)
Hank prepares to open his own restaurant.
Written by Paul Simms | Directed by Paul Flaherty
The season has been quietly building to this entry, the penultimate, all the way since “The List,” which followed the two-part premiere, as Hank’s Look-Around Cafe finally opens! As with most of the series’ Hank-heavy outings, which are almost obligatorily beloved, this offering features a lot of terrifically funny moments — not just from the nuanced Tambor, but also from the ensemble and the guest stars, which include Burt Reynolds, Martin Mull, and Jerry Seinfeld (the set of whose show we also get to visit in the final scene), who help make this among the most memorable. Additionally, this entry, in which Larry’s usage is relatively light and the laughs have a sadder edge, pivots toward more of what can be expected next year…
Other notable episodes that merit mention here include: “Larry’s Birthday,” a deliciously dark outing that explains Jeremy Piven’s departure from the series by having Larry fire the Jerry character, and “Hank’s Wedding,” which pays greater comedic dividends in the forthcoming season than even this excursion suggests.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Two of The Larry Sanders Show goes to…
Come back next Tuesday for my thoughts on the best from Season Three! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!