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, WALLACE LANGHAM as Phil, MARY LYNN RAJSKUB as Mary Lou, and SCOTT THOMPSON as Brian. JANEANE GAROFALO recurs as Paula.
When discussing the qualitative trajectory of The Larry Sanders Show, it’s important to keep in mind that it always exists far above an acceptable base level – even during the tonally insecure first and comparatively belabored final seasons. The operative word regarding the decline we’ll be discussing over these last two years is “comparatively,” for while any descent in series television is ordinarily a negative observation, this slide has less to do with the quality of these specific years than it does the strength of the two middle seasons, which represent the series’ best. You see, once the show spent several years establishing and exploring its characters, the writing was then able to mine from them consistent guffaws (not unlike The Mary Tyler Moore Show), and after effectively adopting a character-driven tone, the company was then able to ensure that nearly every installment – even the “comparatively” lesser ones – fit the show’s aesthetic, allowing for a terrific episodic success rate. None of this is truly disrupted here in the final seasons. But, as with most series wonderful, there comes a point where either an audience’s interest or a show’s merit (and sometimes both) grows stagnant. For Larry Sanders, that’s Season Five. By now, we’ve become accustomed to its rhythms; the premise is not as exciting, and familiar highs require more force. You might say, as we’ve seen before, that the show’s novelty has worn. It’s inevitable, and sometimes has nothing to do with the writing itself.
At the time, the show’s profile had been rising with each ensuing year – as the ongoing favorable publicity and the increase in HBO subscriptions meant new eyeballs arrived annually. But, in Season Five and for the first time, the quality doesn’t ascend in tandem with the series’ relevance. Why? Well, for starters, while Season Six certainly finds ways to distinguish itself – mostly through story (which is an interesting turn of events for a show that has been so character-led; stay tuned…) – Season Five is a bit aimless. Unsure of whether it wants some semi-serialization, like in Season Three, or just episodic greatness, like in Season Four, this year opens and closes with two prescient arc-like samples of the direction the series will take, in which Larry’s standing with the network is threatened. (However, both of these outings were produced very early in the schedule, perhaps indicating plans for a more formal storyline that was postponed for the following year.) They don’t do much for character. Also, this 13-episode season, the smallest count since the series’ debut showing, aired in a far different sequence than how it was produced, and if you track the year by its production order, you’ll find the season, comparatively, running out of steam in its latter half. That is, while the initial outings produced here are generally good – an extension of the kind of material seen in Four – it’s the end of the year that solidifies Season Five’s slight-but-noticeably-weakened standing in comparison to its predecessor. In addition to the problem discussed last time regarding the indulgent treatment of guest stars, the stories now are less character-driven, and instead vaguely character-utilizing.
A little research indicates that there may be a connectable reason for this slight change: instability in the writer’s room. Shifting producer credits and waves of both entrances and exits make this difficult to track – although it all points to a lack of consistency within an already transitional year. This was the final season for staffers John Riggi (who came aboard in Season Two) and several who joined last season: Lester Lewis, Jeff Cesario, Jon Vitti, and Consultant Earl Pomerantz (of MTM). New writers this year included Adam Resnick (Late Night With David Letterman, Get A Life), who stayed until the series finale, and John Markus (The Cosby Show, LateLine), a one-season wonder. However, there’s one swap that accompanies the aforementioned shift in quality, after the eighth produced episode (aired as the fourth) — that’s when Maya Forbes’ new replacement Becky Hartman Edwards (Living Single) was herself replaced by Carol Leifer (Seinfeld) as Supervising Producer. Neither were around long enough to make a perceptible imprint, but there’s a downturn in character understanding in the final few episodes here that may not be caused by, but seems to happen alongside, this staff change. (It’s likely that neither were complementary to the others, for their tenures were each so short-lived, and by the time Leifer joined, the room was probably in such flux that their dynamic was exhausted and good ideas were strained.) Only one entry from the year’s final five makes this list – and it’s written by a veteran with proven consistency, Peter Tolan.
Shake-ups both behind and in front of the camera would also punctuate the final year (and, of course, we’ll be discussing those soon), as either a necessity or a chosen tactic following this year’s good-but-not-as-great results. As it stands now though, the only tangible change in Season Five that translates on screen is a casting one; with Garofalo ready to move on to greener pastures, Paula appears only twice (in a reversed broadcast order that disrupts continuity), and her character is replaced by the naïve Mary Lou (Mary Lynn Rajskub of 24 fame). Mary Lou isn’t as good for story as Garofalo’s Paula, but she’s a seamless addition to the ensemble, and she pushes the show toward the awkward-quirky-cringey style of comedy found in many of The Larry Sanders Show’s perceived descendants – especially NBC’s ‘00s hits… (There’s also an episode that suggests a recurring role for Sarah Silverman, but we don’t see her again until just before the series’ finale.) At any rate, despite the transitional turbulence and the stagnating quality, The Larry Sanders Show remains among the era’s brighter spots. So, it’s all relative, and out of 13 total episodes, I have picked five that I think exemplify this season’s strongest.
Here are my picks for the five best episodes of Season Five. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Note: because of our above discussion on production order, I’ve included that info as well.
01) Episode 66: “Everybody Loves Larry” (Aired: 11/13/96)
The network loves Jon Stewart, but David Duchovny loves Larry.
Written by Jon Vitti | Directed by Todd Holland | Production No. 503 (68)
The problems that I personally have with the show’s evolving treatment of celebrity — and how I feel it’s counterintuitive to the series’ identity — were highlighted in last week’s seasonal commentary, but this discussion is more applicable for these final two seasons. This installment, which is nevertheless laugh-heavy and a classic actualization of the series’ premise, threatens to indulge in some reality-killing camp via David Duchovny, whose suggested crush on Larry delivers hilarity, but takes us to a place of character broadness we haven’t seen. (For instance, Carol Burnett’s episode in Season One featured a broad comedic centerpiece, but her characterization was grounded.) Also, this episode sets the stage for next year’s lengthy arc.
02) Episode 67: “My Name Is Asher Kingsley” (Aired: 11/20/96)
Hank’s decision to embrace his faith causes problems for the show.
Written by Peter Tolan | Directed by Todd Holland | Production No. 505 (70)
Although I believe Season Three to be the finest showing for Tambor’s Hank (given the heady arc thrown to the performer and the succession of truly superb character pieces housed in that year), he is still given many whole episodes to anchor. This is his best outing from the fifth season — not to mention the year’s funniest — and because it’s written by Tolan, it’s no surprise that this is also among the year’s most character-connected excursions. The premise, of Hank deciding to ostentatiously embrace Judaism on the show, in an effort to win the affections of the Rabbi (Amy Aquino, veteran of many shows, but best remembered in my figurative book as the Cookie Lady from Raymond) to whom he is attracted, is hilarious and perfect for Hank.
03) Episode 69: “Ellen, Or Isn’t She?” (Aired: 12/11/96)
Larry books Ellen DeGeneres during the height of debate about her orientation.
Story by Garry Shandling and Judd Apatow & John Markus | Teleplay by Judd Apatow & John Markus | Directed by Alan Myerson | Production No. 508 (73)
Produced as the year’s eighth, this entry was the last made before the addition of Leifer, which as discussed above, is a (perhaps unintentional) marker of the season’s own quality-based trajectory. The installment is one of the year’s most memorable, for it capitalizes upon the wave of publicity surrounding Ellen, whose own sitcom (which, following a readers’ poll, I’ve decided to cover next year) was gearing up for her character’s coming-out. Yes, the use of this story is one big gimmick, and I must admit to struggling with its design on principle. But because the entry connects to the show’s topical Late-Night premise, and because Ellen shagging Larry in an attempt to dissuade him from asking about her orientation is very funny, it all works.
04) Episode 71: “The Matchmaker” [a.k.a. “Matchmaker”] (Aired: 01/08/97)
Paula’s replacement seems inept and rumors swirl about Hank.
Written by John Riggi | Directed by Todd Holland | Production No. 506 (71)
Janeane Garofalo filmed her last appearance on the series for this entry, although it ended up airing before her only other fifth year outing (an Honorable Mention discussed below) and therefore makes little sense. The A-story has Paula attempting to help her replacement, Mary Lou (who actually made her first aired appearance in the installment highlighted above — but produced later), handle the responsibilities of the show. It’s a bit like the Season Two entry in which Paula had to solely produce the show, and the action is centered mostly around the taping of a single entry (a good construct) — with guests Nicollete Sheridan, Tim Conway, and Harvey Fierstein. Also, there’s an amusing subplot with Hank and Brian at a gay bar.
05) Episode 73: “Artie, Angie, Hank, And Hercules” [a.k.a. “Artie & Angie & Hank & Hercules”] (Aired: 01/22/97)
Artie dates Angie Dickinson, Larry dates Laura Leighton, and Hank gets cast in Disney’s Hercules.
Written by Peter Tolan | Directed by John Riggi | Production No. 511 (76)
This is the only episode from the final part of the season (as discussed in our seasonal commentary) to make this list, and its relative superiority makes sense — it was written by Peter Tolan, who not only wrote the year’s MVE, but is responsible for most of the show’s finest installments. (I think it’s because he ended up understanding the regulars the best, which made him the most in sync with Shandling’s character-based intentions.) This is a busy entry with a lot of moving parts, but because the core triumvirate — Artie, Larry, and Hank — are each ensconced in funny stories showcasing their characters, the episode does right by its most important players, and therefore gels. Not a classic, but the best of the season’s back-half.
Other notable episodes that merit mention here include: “Where Is The Love?,” in which Larry finds conflict with critic Tom Shales, “The Book,” in which Larry plans to write an autobiography (the closest to making the above list — it was written by ex-Co-EP Maya Forbes), “Pain Equals Funny,” which has an amusing Phil-centered Victory-In-Premise and helps explain Paula’s departure. (The latter was the first filmed of Garofalo’s two appearances.) Also, for Sarah Silverman fans, she guests as a new writer in the well-titled “The New Writer.”
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Five of The Larry Sanders Show goes to…
“My Name Is Asher Kinglsey”
Come back next Tuesday for my thoughts on the best from Season Six! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!