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, WALLACE LANGHAM as Phil, and LINDA DOUCETT as Darlene.
In Season Three, Larry Sanders graduates from being a unique show with an engaging structure and rich characters to a unique show with an engaging structure that’s entirely consumed and driven by its rich characters. Stories that might otherwise represent Victories In Premise (where the players are subordinate to plot) are often bolstered by both the rewarding character material reaped and the show’s overarching character-centric tone, in which an episode’s whole timbre is derived from the emotionality of its human drivers. As noted in past commentaries, I consider this specific quality to be a natural descendant of the character-driven writing we saw on another quintessential workplace comedy (also coincidentally set in the TV world), The Mary Tyler More Show, for not only are the stories here concerned with what they’re doing for the characters, the storytelling – the way stories are told – is, too. (We’ll see the same thing soon on Frasier, a show that brilliantly adopts its protagonist’s voice with a vigor that heightens its character comedy.) In this regard, there’s something incredibly earnest about Larry Sanders and its valiant character intentions, and as we’ve discussed before, I think the way the regulars are used here points less towards the hyper-ironic chronically-meta comedies with which this series is said to be a legacy-based influence, and more towards some honest-to-goodness character pieces of the past, where the relationship between characters and story was simple: the former leads the latter; no tricks needed. For as much as this work physically appears – because of its production methods, resulting from the onstage vs. backstage premise – and represents – because of its positioning as the finest comedy on an insurgent enterprise called HBO – its aims actually aren’t as structurally revolutionary or as comedically contemporary as press and critical opinion may have it. No, this show, at its core, is simple. And that’s why it works so well.
Given the elevated operational mode adopted during this time, Larry Sanders’ third season is the first year that we, as consumers seeking high quality, can afford to be nitpicky about the stories and how they’re motivated; because the show is generally soaked in character, our standards can rise and moments “less soaked” become more obvious. To this point, the scenes I like least now – and this is something you’ll see readdressed in later years, particularly the last two – occur when the show is building up to a story point, either as part of a season-ending cliffhanger that the year feels it must deliver, or even as part of an otherwise character-connected arc, and then the mechanics of story briefly overshadow the otherwise nobly conceived telling. In this case, I dislike the whole Montana cliffhanger of last season, from which the first few entries must be extricated. The obvious narrative necessity of returning Larry to his show and resuming the premise becomes more important than any character material that can be offered here, and these opening outings – the first two – don’t represent the truly great places into which the year will eventually evolve. In contrast, however, I appreciate Larry’s seasonal arc, in which he slowly becomes addicted to pills and, in the year’s finale, requires an intervention hosted by Roseanne. It’s a nasty story rooted in Larry’s emotional troubles — layered in darkness and irony, two elements that I think are overstated as a way of connecting this show to future works — that also makes time for laughs. Yet, this is probably his most overt personal arc following the dreaded wife drama (the replacement host maneuverings of later years belongs to a different, more premise-based category), and exists as somewhat of a welcome novelty – an undercurrent of focused narrative intention missing from upcoming otherwise character-drenched years.
Meanwhile, Season Three, aside from giving Larry a unique arc, also signals a turning point for his utilization. The end of Two found a few episodes, most notably “The Grand Opening,” pushing Larry into the background in favor of other characters, particularly Artie and Hank. But this becomes a trend here in Season Three, as whole excursions are thrown to other regulars, while Larry exists on the periphery. Although the obvious explanation for these shifting narrative dynamics is Shandling’s increased responsibility in the show’s production, the effect is ultimately similar to those in classic star-anchored but ensemble-crafted comedies like the aforementioned Mary Tyler Moore and even Seinfeld, to which many feel Larry Sanders has a kinship as a result of their mutually subversive reputations in the trajectory of the American sitcom. As in the case of both those other shows, Larry Sanders has added gravitas when it does right by its star – that’s vital to the notion of premise-fulfillment. But at the same time, as we’ve seen elsewhere, because the ensemble is so talented, his storytelling generosity begets greater comedy. This is especially true here in Season Three with Hank Kingsley, perhaps the show’s most popular player, due, I think, to the increased profile of his portrayer, Jeffrey Tambor, who’s since starred in both Arrested Development and Transparent. You’ll find that most episodes centered around the Hank character are fan favorites… almost obligatorily – and this year, which includes another deliciously dark arc in which his marriage falls apart and he spirals into a depression, has several big Tambor-heavy outings. I, however, insist that these entries prove their worth comedically, and, fortunately, because the character is so rich, they usually do. In fact, Season Three may be his finest showing. (This is reflected below in my choices.)
How does Season Three stand in comparison to the rest of the run? Quite frankly, it’s the best. Although you’ll see next week that Four suffers no shortage of classic installments and is largely an aesthetic continuation of this year (with a few key variations), Three represents the series’ at its prime. The tone has darkened as a result of its character-laden directive, the laughs have increased as a result of the regulars’ enhanced development, and the premise is still reinforced through the use of both Larry and the stories that this year is able to motivate. Furthermore, the show’s usage of celebrity, which we’ll need to discuss more in upcoming weeks, is well-calibrated: they’re in on-the-joke, but it’s (for the most part) not self-serving — more concentrated on the regulars. So, while Seasons Four and Three both seem to contribute the same number of classic excursions, bear in mind that the fourth year’s high base level of quality (the quality that defines the mediocre installments) is only due to the exceptional nature of Three, which has highs just as high and also better embodies the characteristics that make The Larry Sanders Show so praiseworthy. Like Frasier, it’s a descendant of MTM – albeit, an unlikely one — and this surprise is part of its oft-misrepresented charm, as Season Three shows us that The Larry Sanders Show is as much, if not more, of its wonderful yesterdays as its exciting tomorrows. Thus, I have picked seven episodes that I think exemplify this season’s strongest.
Here are my picks for the seven best episodes of Season Three (in AIRING ORDER).
01) Episode 35: “The Gift Episode” [a.k.a. “The Gift”] (Aired: 07/13/94)
Paula tries to book Danny DeVito after telling Larry she’s already got him.
Written by Garry Shandling & Paul Simms | Directed by Todd Holland
As with last year’s “Off Camera,” this series is at its most premise-fulfilling when it designs each of its stories (and it should be noted that this year also starts to cement the existence of a multi-story episodic structure) around a single taping of Larry’s show. This is what most appeals about this excursion, which also gives a lot of material to Janeane Garofalo’s Paula, whose personal rising profile translates into more screentime — which is good for laughs and smart for the general utilization of the ensemble. Now, compared to other entires here, this isn’t a classic, and it’s for the simple reason that the guest spots lack specificity; their characterizations, specifically Danny DeVito’s, are too general — not tailored to their personas. But, it’s premise-worthy.
02) Episode 37: “Hank’s Night In The Sun” (Aired: 07/27/94)
Hank’s ego enlarges when he hosts the show during Larry’s sick leave.
Written by Peter Tolan | Directed by Todd Holland
Evidence of two elements discussed in the seasonal commentary — both the emergence of Hank as the ensemble’s most comedic focal point for story and the occasional shifting of Larry into a peripheral position — this classic installment is a fan favorite. Tambor shines as his character goes from nervous fill-in host to power-hungry ego-maniac within these 20-odd minutes. This turnaround (seemingly both sharp and gradual) is brilliant, motivated by the darker depths of Hank’s psyche, which fuels some uproarious character comedy that not only exceeds expectations, but also comes directly from the character, who in turn dictates the episode’s skeezy, “only on HBO” tone. Both seminal and a favorite of mine as well, after much deliberation, I consider this the most rewarding installment from the exceptional third season.
03) Episode 38: “Office Romance” (Aired: 08/03/94)
The office deals with the sudden romance between Larry and Darlene.
Written by Maya Forbes | Directed by Alan Myerson
Forbes, who’d been on staff since the beginning, hasn’t shown up on these lists as often as other folks with as much longevity (like Tolan and Simms), because she tended to get thrown the more relationship-driven entries in the first two seasons. (That is, the ones focused on the unfunny relationships between Larry and his two regular significant others.) This entry is an extension of that design, but plays with far more laughs — simply because it’s focused on richer characters who are better able to motivate them: the workplace ensemble. In fact, more than any outing here, this is the best ensemble showcase, as Larry’s sudden relationship with Darlene (Shandling and Doucett really were an item) allows us to delve into the office’s dynamics.
04) Episode 39: “The Mr. Sharon Stone Show” (Aired: 08/10/94)
Larry dates Sharon Stone but has trouble dealing with her greater fame.
Written by Garry Shandling & Peter Tolan | Directed by Todd Holland
Well-liked by all involved, this entry pairs Larry with Shandling’s real-life friend, Sharon Stone, as the two start a romance. This ends up being a very funny episode — chiefly because its humor stems from Larry’s flaws (specifically, his ego, which prevents him from being in a relationship with anyone who may be more famous than he is), making it, ultimately, an outing that’s founded upon character and in-keeping with the year’s modus operandi. However, the depiction of Stone could feel overly flattering, and it pivots toward a trend that’ll develop in the seasons ahead (and one we’ll be discussing next week; stay tuned…) Fortunately, because the entry easily delivers its laughs, it hits. Julianne Phillips makes a cameo and Lisa Edelstein guests.
05) Episode 41: “Like No Business I Know” (Aired: 08/24/94)
Hank hopes to replace Regis Philbin on his talk show.
Written by Mike Martineau and Peter Tolan | Directed by Todd Holland
While usually overshadowed by others, this terrific entry from the show’s peak combines two of the era’s narrative strengths: a story with heavy focus on the emotionally complex (read: lovable, but often dastardly unlikable) Hank, and a topical buzzworthy story that makes use of the series’ talk show premise. Regarding the latter (the subplot), the show hosts Bobcat Goldthwait, who spoofs his own recent erratic appearances on both Conan’s and Leno’s shows. The A-story, centered on Hank, has him being offered a new show with Regis Philbin and then hoping to replace him alongside Kathie Lee. It’s another superb illustration of Hank’s unmitigated, but often disguised by bumbling, ego. Also, we meet Hank’s agent, played by the funny Phil Leeds.
06) Episode 44: “Hank’s Divorce” (Aired: 09/14/94)
Hank’s marriage crumbles because of Larry.
Written by Paul Simms | Directed by Todd Holland
In some ways, this is a narratively functional offering, designed only to wrest Hank from his obviously ill-fated marriage and prepare him for the deliciously dark installment highlighted below. Frankly, because of how story-concerned this outing is, it’s the one whose position on the list was least assured — not because the entry is weak, but because there are several episodes (the Honorable Mentions) that I enjoy just as much. Ultimately, this outing takes precedence because it both gears Larry up for his own season-ending arc of suffering, serving as a nice parallel to Hank’s, and also puts him in the center of Hank’s drama, as Margaret believes he is too in love with Larry to ever make their marriage work. That’s a narrative field day!
07) Episode 46: “Next Stop… Bottom” (Aired: 09/28/94)
Hank spirals into a depression following his divorce.
Story by Garry Shandling & Paul Simms and Judd Apatow | Teleplay by Judd Apatow | Directed by Todd Holland
If there was to be any rival for my selection as this year’s MVE, it would come in the form of this outing, which I think represents the single most depraved place the series ever went. (It’s an anomaly, but because it’s so darn memorable, many understandably associate these elements with the show’s regular operations.) Hank is once again at the center, as his depression over the end of his marriage devolves into a binge of hookers (including a seasoned trick played by Gloria LeRoy) and booze, culminating in a sequence where Artie, pulling us out of the darkness with a theatrical show of it, uses his “divorce gun” to scare Hank back to normal. Loaded with laughs, dripping in character-driven sadness, and unique to this series, this is a classic.
Other notable episodes that merit mention here include: “End Of The Season,” the aforementioned season finale in which Roseanne tries to help Larry kick his addiction (a close contender), and two especially fine Artie entries, “People’s Choice” and “Arthur’s Crises.”
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Three of The Larry Sanders Show goes to…
“Hank’s Night In The Sun”
Come back next Tuesday for my thoughts on the best from Season Four! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!