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 SCOTT THOMPSON as Brian.
In last week’s commentary on what I suggested was The Larry Sanders Show’s finest season, I explained why, even though this fourth year has a high base level of quality and offers the same number of classic excursions, the third better represents the show’s peak characteristics and is generally responsible for most of these ensuing successes. You see, Season Four is largely an extension of the character-driven tonal sensibilities that permeated the series during its more ambitious and risk-taking predecessor. In other words, the good things about Season Four are good things that were fostered and came to the forefront during Three, allowing this year, like its forebear, to thrive. Nevertheless, because the offerings highlighted on this list are so strong, it’s difficult to form a rigid hierarchy between this year and the one I slightly favor; the truth is: they’re both healthy and rewarding seasons of an exceptional series, and it’s only because this kind of analysis requires qualitative delineations that it’s necessary to find and discuss some. So, this is exactly what we’ll do – starting with the more general shifts. First, we have our second workplace cast change in the departure of Darlene, as Linda Doucett, who was romantically involved with Shandling, left the series following the end of their relationship. She’s replaced by Scott Thompson as Brian, a gay character whose sexuality is designed to be a source of comedic tension with his new boss, Hank. Like Darlene, Brian isn’t as uproariously funny or dimensional as his cohorts, but he’s believable, has unique chemistry with Tambor, and fits within the environment. Second, and with regard to tone, I’d classify this season as minutely darker than the third, and while it’s still motivated by the psychological framework of the characters (specifically Larry, Hank, and Artie – our comedically nuanced triumvirate), this tonal weight is less dependent on weekly stories or multi-episode arcs (like Larry’s addiction or Hank’s divorce). That is, the tone is more fundamentally character-y now, not reliant on story; I, obviously like this.
But one of the more subtly pressing changes that starts to emerge during this season involves celebrity. So far, the stars entering these hallowed hallways have been complicit in the series’ structural promise of illustrating the unseen, and generally less-than-flattering, realities of the talk show world. They’ve been game to mock their respective images – mostly for the sake of both premise-fulfillment and the comedic usage of the regulars, off of whom the guests, naturally, bounce. The only real nitpick as to celebrities, thus far, could be that sometimes (not always or often), because the show is so focused on catering to its regular ensemble, the depiction of the guests has been generic — independent of the stars’ individual personalities. (Remember: a good cameo needs a guest-specific characterization.) Well, here in Season Four, we find the series starting – ever-so-slightly – to pander to the image of its notables. In an effort to flatter the guests and encourage a continually starrier patronage, the show begins separating the harsher realities illustrated through the regulars away from new (mostly) favorable portrayals of visiting celebrities. And even when the celebrities are allowed to participate in the dysfunction – like, for instance, Roseanne – there’s a tongue-in-cheek sense of camp that disconnects the text from the intense realism underscoring and defining the regulars. The effect is, while ostensibly trying to further the show’s claim on total honesty, the series actually plays up to its hyper-aware reputation, which I believe, contrary to most, is antithetical to this very objective and represents a rejection of the sincere, character-based foundation — where Sanders derives its best stuff. This kid-glove celebrity treatment jeopardizes our faith in the show’s commitment to truth; we want to see warts and all. Because the regulars are so real, the guests must be as well.
And yet, I must note that Season Four only finds us at the start of this campier and less-than-true movement in the show’s depiction of celebrity. This critique (which stands as a legitimate one because I think it undermines some of the evident dramatic integrity) doesn’t truly exert itself until the final two years, and even then, as you’ll see, it’s not the kind of problem that severely hinders our ability to delight in the character-driven comedy radiating from the regulars. In fact, most of the time, it’s easy to forgive. (Once again, I think this speaks to the solid ground on which Larry Sanders is standing by Season Four.) But frankly, this year’s relative strength may be somewhat of a blessing given the upheaval that was occurring in the writers’ room as Paul Simms, who executive produced the show last year alongside Shandling and Peter Tolan, departed at the end of that season – a year earlier than intended. In his place, Shandling hired Steven Levitan (Wings, Just Shoot Me!, Modern Family), who was released (and hopped on over to Frasier) after only four episodes here. (Interestingly, I think Frasier and The Larry Sanders Show, each unique MTM descendants, have more in common than most realize, and as for Levitan’s work, the four episodes on which he’s credited are all mentioned below in some capacity. So, go figure his quick ouster!) Nevertheless, the figurative ride smoothed out from there. Once Levitan left, John Riggi was promoted to Co-EP alongside both Maya Forbes, who’d been there since Season One and would depart after this year, and new hire Jon Vitti (The Simpsons, The Office). Additionally, Earl Pomerantz, someone with a real connection to MTM, became a credited Creative Consultant. Along with a few others, these folks made for a solid staff that could carry the season. But there’d be bigger changes ahead in the transitional fifth year…
There’s only one thing left to discuss about Season Four, and that’s the series’ growing popularity. The Larry Sanders Show’s high quality made it a veritable darling almost from the beginning (which, by the way, isn’t a surprise – by then, critics enjoyed raving about cable’s non-network possibilities). But because it was an HBO show, it never had the same audience size as a network hit like, say, Friends (which comes up several times and offers several cameos this year). As with Dream On in its first few years, every successive season found the show getting a little more popular, and by this point, I think you’d have been hard-pressed to locate someone who believed this to be a creative underdog. (Commercially an underdog, yes – because of HBO – but creatively, no. In fact, its recognized quality is one of the reasons it was able to attract more high-powered guest stars.) And finally, after three years of big nominations by the Television Academy, the series won its first Emmy – its first of a scant and shameful three wins – in the form of Rip Torn’s recognition as Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series, for two episodes mentioned below. Even though Dream On had won two major awards two seasons before, The Larry Sanders Show had long eclipsed Dream On in its volume of nominations and the accompanying prestige, and this was the first time it actually took home a statue as proof of its worthiness. So, with the HBO brand – as far as sitcoms were concerned – represented by this series in a way that Dream On only did tangentially, it’s hard not to see Torn’s win as a win for HBO: validation. A sign of what was to come… But, we’re getting way ahead of ourselves. As usual, I have picked seven episodes that I think exemplify this season’s strongest.
Here are my picks for the seven best episodes of Season Four. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)
01) Episode 49: “Roseanne’s Return” (Aired: 07/19/95)
Larry worries about the upcoming appearance of his ex: Roseanne.
Story by Garry Shandling | Teleplay by Maya Forbes & Steve Levitan | Directed by Todd Holland
Although the delicious idea of Roseanne being the one who helps Larry recover from his addiction to painkillers, and then embarking on a romance with him, should largely be credited to the finale of the season prior, this amusing premiere, whose script was Emmy-nominated, deals with the aftermath — and does so rather shrewdly. Picking up months later, the show neither obscures nor outright reveals what’s happened; we’re smart enough to figure out for ourselves that Larry’s sober and his short-lived relationship with the full-figured comic has ended. Now the amusing story of Roseanne appearing on the show following their split can easily play. Meanwhile, it’s a fascinating time capsule, as the office is captivated by the O.J. trial.
02) Episode 51: “Arthur After Hours” (Aired: 08/02/95)
Arthur drunkenly considers leaving the show.
Written by Peter Tolan | Directed by Todd Holland
One of two episodes for which Rip Torn won his Emmy as Outstanding Supporting Actor in A Comedy Series (the other is “The P.A.,” which I’ve selected as an Honorable Mention), this entry has Artie spending a drunken night in the studio lamenting, singing karaoke, and pouring his guts out to the janitor (Elya Baskin). All of this follows Larry bumping Artie’s friend Ryan O’Neal from the show, and then forcing Artie to take the blame. Obviously, the strength of this outing — a series classic — comes in the layered performance by Torn, who, like Tambor, knows how to earn laughs while playing tragic character truths. In general, Artie’s one of the broader presences on the show, and his episodes, like this one, really hit their laughs. A favorite.
03) Episode 52: “The Bump” (Aired: 08/09/95)
Larry and company deal with an overbooked show.
Story by Jeff Cesario | Teleplay by Judd Apatow & Garry Shandling | Directed by Todd Holland
This episode, like the one I’ve chosen as my MVE, centers around the simplest (and most effective) design the series can use to structure an outing: one single taping. The premise of this entry, which isn’t one of the exceptional offerings on today’s list, but is simply so solid and indicative of the series’ now-routinized brilliance that it can’t be ignored, involves a single overbooked show (in which Hank also wants to pay tribute to his late father). Something’s got to give — that is, someone’s got to be bumped. Featuring a story by comic Jeff Cesario, who joined the staff this year and appears in the show as himself, we also have appearances by David Duchovny (who’ll be more comedically utilized in later years), Rob Lowe, and Vendela.
04) Episode 55: “Hank’s Sex Tape” (Aired: 08/30/95)
An embarrassing home video featuring Hank makes the rounds.
Written by Jon Vitti | Directed by Todd Holland
The first script (but second to air) by Jon Vitti, a regular staffer for this season and the following, this entry features a comedic premise that’s easily likable (it’s one of those Victories In Premise that we discuss often on this blog), especially because its narrative is centered around Hank, who’s the star of a recently discovered sex tape. While it’s easy to be drawn in by the story alone, what most appeals to me about this outing is the strength of the teleplay, which seamlessly adopts the character-driven tone the show has recently established, designs itself so laughs are abundant, and showcases all the players — not just Hank — in their finest forms. So, though we’re grappling with an ostentatious story, the execution justifies our enjoyment.
05) Episode 58: “Conflict Of Interest” (Aired: 09/27/95)
Paula causes trouble for Larry when she dates his agent.
Story by Judd Apatow & Garry Shandling | Teleplay by Judd Apatow & Maya Forbes | Directed by Todd Holland
One of the most effective uses of Bob Odenkirk as Larry’s agent Stevie Grant, whose appearances are often based on story demands (which to be fair, is also the case here), this entry finds a way to make him more impactful to the ensemble as a whole, as we learn that he’s in a relationship with Paula. The premise has Paula being asked to stop booking so many of Stevie’s second rate clients. But after Steve promises to deliver Jennifer Aniston (now on the second season of a big NBC hit, which we’ll discuss next year), Paula’s unbooking of a lesser known client leads Stevie to pull Aniston. This entry works because it’s a fine utilization of both the cast and the show’s behind-the-scenes of Late Night premise. Among the best of its kind.
06) Episode 59: “I Was A Teenage Lesbian” (Aired: 10/11/95)
Brett Butler, with whom Paula once had an affair, is a guest on the show.
Written by Peter Tolan | Directed by Michael Lehmann
Brett Butler guest stars in this episode when she’s due to make an appearance on that evening’s show. The conflict? She once had an affair with Paula, which threatens to make the pre-interview uncomfortable. Butler, a troubled talent saddled to an uneven sitcom, is hilariously natural and doesn’t mind taking the figurative pies, making her a terrific guest. Also, the entry benefits from its heavy usage of Paula (as Garofalo’s star was on the ascent), who gets a potentially heavy distraction as she waits for news regarding a lump found in her breast. Meanwhile, the show adds more laughs in a wonderful Hank subplot as news that his agent has died leads to more offers and career opportunities… until it turns out to be a false alarm.
07) Episode 64: “Eight” (Aired: 11/15/95)
Larry’s eighth anniversary show is fraught with conflict.
Written by Peter Tolan | Directed by Todd Holland
A companion piece to Season Two’s “Off Camera,” this is the other quintessential representation of the series’ aforementioned show-taping focus, which deals directly with the main premise, makes room for a bevy of guests (especially this time, since it’s an anniversary show), and features all the regulars functioning as intended. Aired as the year’s penultimate, I consider it a climax of sorts to the show’s incredible middle era, representing the best of what this series had to offer — tonally, comedically, narratively — as guests like Rosie O’Donnell and Mandy Patinkin offer deliciously believable send-ups of their respective images. And at the same time, at the top of the mountain, we can see the other side: the too-popular star-kissing future, as the sheer volume of guests (which also includes Fred De Cordova, Farrah Fawcett, kd lang, Pat O’Brien, Ryan O’Neal, George Segal, and Noah Wyle) threatens to move our focus away from the regulars. Fortunately, it doesn’t happen here, as the premise utilization, big laughs, and distilled characterizations gives us Larry Sanders in its purest form. Sublime.
Other notable episodes that merit mention here include: “Larry’s Sitcom,” which spoofs the industry as Larry collaborates with Chris Elliot on a sitcom idea (the closest to making the above list — highly recommended) “Hank’s New Assistant,” which introduces Brian and guest stars Dana Carvey (another close contender), “The P.A.,” a solid entry that’s merely overshadowed by flashier outings, and “Brother, Can You Spare 1.2 Million?,” which reunites Shandling with his old co-star, Paul Willson.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Four of The Larry Sanders Show goes to…
Come back next Tuesday for my thoughts on the best from Season Five! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!