Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday and the conclusion 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.
Larry Sanders concludes with the shortest season of its entire run – ten half-hour episodes and a double-length finale – containing a semi-serialized year-long arc, an inundation of stars, and a general reputation for superiority to which I, to put it simply, don’t subscribe. Let’s start behind-the-scenes and note that, following the many changes within the writers’ room during Season Five, this year features almost an entirely new staff. Aside from Shandling, Tolan, and Apatow, the only non-new scribe is Adam Resnick, who entered the fray during the tumultuous fifth season. Joining this foursome for the series’ final stretch of episodes are Richard Day (Ellen, Mad About You) – who, like newbie Tom Saunders (NewsRadio, Just Shoot Me!), would also go on to work with Jeffrey Tambor in Arrested Development – along with Barton Dean (Newhart, LateLine), Kell Calhoon (NewsRadio, Just Shoot Me!), and Alex Gregory & Peter Huyck (Late Night With David Letterman, Frasier). All of these individuals know comedy, and to this extent, many viewers pinpoint in Season Six an acceleration of the show’s sense of humor. It’s an observation that I’d echo, even though I think the year’s ability to increase its laughs – while still adhering to The Larry Sanders Show’s aesthetic identity (which is why no matter how I may critique the season, my prior claims regarding the series’ brilliance remain sincerely rendered) – is a testament to the strength of the already defined and show-driving characters. Also, because the regulars are so well-established and, by now, inherently responsible for the series’ tone, the year doesn’t have to work as hard with regard to their depictions, finding more freedom within each script to pursue the comedic idea (or: Victory in Premise). We’re confident that the characters are rich enough to, with some logic, find a way to make most stories motivate-able.
Okay, I am a staunch believer that story only works when it’s organically motivated by the characters – not something they should be contorted to make sellable. However, the aforementioned strength of the “already defined and show-driving characters” is so great that there’s more figurative room to explore ambitiously comedic ideas without having to agonize over every little point. This machine is well-oiled enough to smooth over rough edges. (And frankly, when the laughs are earned, the need to critique becomes less relevant.) Additionally, this style of writing feels seamless because it feeds into the year’s general thematic objective of heavy premise-related entries, with stories based in the Late Night world they inhabit, taking advantage of opportunities – narratively, comedically, and star-ily – that only this show, based on its structure, could offer. On the episodic front, this is appreciated; as we’ve often noted here, a premise is a promise to the audience that should, theoretically, be fulfilled to some extent in every entry. So, I don’t find a premise-driven plot concerning. However, it can become troublesome when this story-led premise-fulfillment extends into the long-form seasonal arc, because, in general, serialization – be it intense or casual – is already heavy on plot, often redirecting focus away from the players and onto the narrative beats that must be hit. I think Season Six is guilty of this. There are a few episodes here, particularly at the start, that prioritize setting up the yearly narrative over the characters. We’ve seen past stories – like Larry’s drug addiction or Hank’s divorce/depression – that worked because they were so fixated on exploring the players, but Six’s big arc – the demise of the fictional The Larry Sanders Show – is much more narrative-based, having to make time for character moments, instead of naturally delivering them.
Nevertheless, I think it’s also possible to make an argument for why this year’s overarching narrative is both necessary and actually commendable: it shows the harsh, business-minded, and entirely unglamorous machinations that accompany the end of a fairly successful network staple. It’s a potent form of premise-fulfillment that more than just prepares the series for its finale; it plays to the show’s darker (and initially character-inspired) tone, while also engaging with the oft-discussed irreverence that’s regularly used as a focal point when discussing Sanders‘ impact on future works. (As noted in our opening commentary, I think this point is valid – if one is careful not to overstate its presence, recognizing that there’s more earnestness here than anything else.) So, I wouldn’t disagree with any of the above, nor would I try to pretend that the seasonal arc is a major hindrance to the year. Yes, I do think the best seasons (Three and Four) have already passed, but this belief has more do with their quality than any others’. In fact, it’s only in a few of this year’s previously mentioned outings – like the first two, where there’s heavy story stuff involving Jon Stewart (Larry’s chosen replacement) – that I think the show isn’t playing to its strength: character. The year still entertains with ease, and the only other real issue, which I think makes itself more explicit in these episodes than in the two prior collections’ (when first discussed), is the sometimes reality-disconnecting use of stars, either those who don’t engage with the dysfunction rampant among the regulars, thus letting down the premise, or those whose portrayals border on camp, removing us from the total truth suggested of this universe. Larry Sanders’ popularity has proven a Catch-22 on this front. It’s attracted better guests, but has had to become more fawning and indulgent – the opposite of what we expect.
In this regard, one could read The Larry Sanders Show as moving subconsciously away from the sensibilities associated with the abject reality fostered backstage through its regulars and closer to the fictional world that constitutes the “on-air” portions of its structure. That is, in the process of contrasting the two worlds, the “fake” maybe became too powerful to be subjugated. If true, this would both represent a loss on behalf of the show’s character-driven reality-based foundations (the kind that warrants a connection to the quintessential ensemble workplace comedy, and the first to really establish the merit of character-led humor, The Mary Tyler Moore Show) and would exist as an odd dichotomy against the “realism” suggested by the grim seasonal arc. Indeed, this was how I viewed this season when I saw it for the first time, for I was struck by the evolution of the show’s gooey treatment of celebrity (and I maintain, this was not how it began when an underdog in Seasons One and Two). Because of the very integrity with which the series approached its main characters, this didn’t jibe. However, continued study has provided a different outlook. I discovered that I kept anticipating the show to make a comment on the difference between the real and the fake – each of which became more obvious as the series progressed – because I was expecting the show to be like many of the similarly conceived or tonally comparable comedies of the 21st century, where “importance” is derived from some lofty thematic objective. Yet, Larry Sanders doesn’t do that; it presents the maladjustment of its regulars with the same sincerity that it presents the larger-than-life (either ridiculous or sublime) nature of its guests. It’s the audience who can reach a conclusion about the difference between real and fake, on and off. The show isn’t going to do that. When I discovered this, my whole perspective changed on the finale, which I initially found overly celebratory and emotional.
Now I find the hour-long closer, which won two Emmys (for its script and its direction) and is littered with big-name guests (including Jerry Seinfeld, whose own series went out in ’98 with too much fanfare), in-keeping with the show’s seldom discussed emotional core (character-based), standing as the ultimate example of the series layering the “fiction” of the talk show, on top of the reality of the people behind it – yet not making a direct remark about the difference. It’s not like the hyper-ironic shows of today; the only winks (and the show probably engages its most overt one here when it features Larry Sanders talking about Garry Shandling – the series usually never stooped to such camp) are situational and few. Actually, we’re supposed to take these characters seriously. Sure, the sexiness of the premise, in which tape and film are used to contrast fantasy and reality, and the inherently subversive nature of its home, HBO, are easy distractions, but at the core, Shandling created a show about believable characters in a believable environment. The emotional depth of these figures allowed good writers to use them for the procurement of uproarious comedy, making The Larry Sanders Show the best ‘90s sitcom that HBO – and all of cable – had to offer. Its success not only impacted future works, but it allowed the series to define HBO as it went into the 21st century: as a place where complex, quality-laden programming could thrive. By virtue of the show’s excellence, it changed the course of American television. And to think, just like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, it did this all through the comedic utilization of well-developed characters. So, while Six is defined by its story and can’t compete with prior seasons by way of character exploration, the show’s reputation remains well-deserved, and for the last time, I have picked five episodes that I think exemplify this year’s strongest. (For seasoned fans, there may indeed be a few surprises!)
Here are my picks for the five best of Season Six. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Remember, outings originally broadcast as an hour are considered two separate entries.
01) Episode 81: “As My Career Lay Dying” (Aired: 03/29/98)
The staff makes plans for when the show ends.
Written by Peter Tolan | Directed by Garry Shandling
The third aired episode of the season, this entry is often lumped alongside the first two as the “trilogy” that enacts the aforementioned storyline regarding the end of Larry’s show. My thoughts regarding the story-driven nature of the first two installments have already been discussed, and it’s because I don’t consider this entry comparable to its predecessors that it makes this list. In fact, instead of being encumbered by story, this entry is loaded with character-driven comedy, all centered around the idea that the staff needs to find new gigs in advance of the show’s inevitable end. As usual, the best stuff comes from Artie and Hank, the latter of whom, among many beats, auditions for a game show and gets a guest spot on Caroline In The City.
02) Episode 83: “The Interview” (Aired: 04/12/98)
Larry embarrasses himself in an interview and Mary Lou damages Hank’s car.
Story by Kell Cahoon & Tom Saunders and Garry Shandling | Teleplay by Kell Cahoon & Tom Saunders | Directed by Todd Holland
This is actually a fairly routine and inconspicuous outing for this late in the series’ life — which, incidentally, is probably a benefit when it comes to the quest for character-based comedy (as so much of the year involves the glorification of funny narrative ideas). The A-story, of Larry trying to get his spontaneous tears removed from an interview about the show’s end, is a solid plot for the title character, true to what we know of his presentation. But the real big laughs come in the subplot, in which Mary Lou is so afraid of confessing to Hank her culpability for his damaged car that she starts sleeping with him instead. It’s depraved, it’s awkward, and it’s hilarious — especially when Hank damages Vince Vaughn’s car in mistaken retaliation.
03) Episode 84: “Adolf Hankler” (Aired: 04/19/98)
Jon Stewart fills in for Larry and tries to make changes.
Written by Alex Gregory & Peter Huyck | Directed by Garry Shandling
A Larry-lite outing, this is the first of two scripts written by Gregory and Huyck, a duo that just came from writing for David Letterman. (Their second script, written with Day, is a popular entry that — in a rarity for this series — prizes the story over the characters so much that there’s too much believability forsaken in the process. But I digress…) This hilarious outing feeds into the seasonal arc involving Larry’s departure and Jon Stewart’s ascent, thereby deliveing some good premise-connectivity when it comes to the former’s dealings with the network. The best laughs, though, come from Tambor, as Hank makes a fool of himself in front of the Wu Tang Clan and then plays Hitler in a sketch that’s in deliciously poor taste.
04) Episode 86: “I Buried Sid” (Aired: 05/03/98)
Hank believes he drove Sid, the cue card guy, to suicide.
Story by Garry Shandling and Judd Apatow & Adam Resnick | Teleplay by Judd Apatow & Adam Resnick | Directed by Garry Shandling
Although you’ll probably never see anyone else cite this installment as being the year’s finest — you’re more likely to find one of the others highlighted today (or even one of the Honorable Mentions touched upon below) — I think this entry is the most representative of the character-oriented tonal darkness that made the middle years of The Larry Sanders Show so special, and worthy of being compared to classics like The Mary Tyler Moore Show for its clear-eyed presentation of character. This episode delivers this notion with breathtaking mastery, chiefly in the brilliant subplot in which Hank jealously berates Sid (the cue card man) following a rare comedic bit thrown to the latter. When Sid is revealed the next day to have committed suicide, Hank feels guilty… but he now gets to do the bit himself. It’s a return to that bilious, but sincerely presented (no winks here), depravity that made the series, and his character, in particular, such a show-defining asset. And in the face of some star posterior-kissing (this one is guest filled — Laura Dern, Jerry Stiller, Larry Miller, Heidi Klum, Rosey Grier, Char Margolis, and Paul Willson), this character-focused entry shines bright. Another gem for Hank.
05) Episode 90: “Flip (II)” (Aired: 05/31/98)
The Larry Sanders Show broadcasts its final episode.
Written by Peter Tolan & Garry Shandling | Directed by Todd Holland
My evolving thoughts regarding the season, and this finale especially, were discussed at length above, but I’ll reinforce my belief here that by presenting the perhaps empty glitz and sentiment on display in the “talk show” segments, honestly and sans commentary, alongside the more truthful (not dark or gritty, like legacy-tinged discussions suggest) backstage moments between the regulars, the show nobly fulfills its premise, reveals itself to be a substantive character piece with roots that can be traced back to MTM, and ensures that we can enjoy the parade of guests (and forceful big laughs) without fearing the series is being untrue to its identity. Originally broadcast in an hour block, this second part (in syndication) begins with Carol Burnett’s segment — and it’s got the richer material, although both halves are recommended.
Other notable episodes that merit mention here include: “The Beginning Of The End,” in which Larry is driven, without warning, to announce the upcoming end of his show (it’s a bit too story-heavy, but it’s got plenty of laughs), and “Pilots And Pens Lost,” a Phil-centric entry in which his original pilot script is unnaturally paired with star Dave Chappelle. Also, the first half of the finale is a de facto Honorable Mention.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Six of The Larry Sanders Show goes to…
“I Buried Sid”
Come back next Tuesday for my thoughts on the best from the first season of Newhart! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday!