The Larry Sanders Show

One of the best American situation comedies of the 1990's, The Larry Sanders Show presented television viewers with a rather unlikable lead character who personified some of the worst aspects of modern show business. But it gave The Larry Sanders Show a depth and context that lingered long after the jokes and quips were forgotten. It was also a signal that pay cable network HBO could produce series that were at least the equal in quality to the best that broadcast TV had to offer.

Stand-up comic Garry Shandling was the man behind Larry Sanders (he co-created and produced the series and starred as the neurotic talk show host). But it wasn't Shandling's first attempt at series comedy. In 1986, he starred in the funny and irreverent It's Garry Shandling's Show, which aired on the pay network Showtime. Shandling essentially played himself-a single comic living in a Southern California condominium, interacting with people such as his platonic girlfriend Nancy (Molly Cheek) and guest stars such as rock singer Tom Petty and the late comic Gilda Radner. What made It's Garry Shandling's Show so special is the way Shandling broke television's "fourth wall". True, George Burns directly addressed the audience on his 1950's sitcom with wife Gracie Allen. But Shandling took it a step further, starting each episode with a monologue; followed by the show's silly theme song ("This is the theme to Garry's show/The theme to Garry's show...") and then the action would begin. During the episode, Shandling would encourage the live studio audience to help him resolve the week's major problem -in one episode, he even urged the audience to use the set while he went to a baseball game!

When It's Garry Shandling's Show began, Shandling was the designated "regular guest host" on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson (he would sit in when Carson was sick or on vacation). But after a year on the sitcom, Shandling relinquished the guest host role; it was given to Jay Leno. It's Garry Shandling's Show never had a large audience on Showtime (critical acclaim helped keep the show afloat), but it was one of the first cable series to be picked up by a broadcast network. Fox aired "Shandling" on its fledgling Sunday night line-up from 1988 until 1990, when the star ended the series. It's Gary Shandling Show and its irreverent format would have an influence on subsequent comedies, including the much-admired Seinfeld.

For his next series, Shandling looked no further than the world of late-night talk. In 1992, Carson reigned supreme and was about to abdicate his throne as the "King Of Late Night"; Jay Leno was ready to step in as his successor; and David Letterman was (unsuccessfully) angling for Carson's seat. Also that year, Arsenio Hall had the hot talk show for the young, hip crowd who felt "Tonight" was stale and musty. (It was no accident that presidential candidate Bill Clinton chose to wail "Heartbreak Hotel" on the sax during an appearance on "Arsenio Hall".)

Shandling himself was being offered deals to host his own real talk series but later told Entertainment Weekly that "doing a real talk show would have been unfulfilling". He also pointed out that "Larry Sanders" was not a parody of "Tonight" or Johnny Carson: "Some of it is similar to what goes on at The Tonight Show. But it's also my experiences from every talk show that I've done."

The Larry Sanders Show even looked surreal. The actual talk show was shot on videotape to give it the live feel of other talkers. But once the show cuts to a commercial, or we go behind the scenes to the "Larry Sanders" production offices, those segments are filmed-an indication to viewers they would see the friction and neuroses of a driven star and an overworked staff.

Larry Sanders was a mixture of several real-life hosts: he had the cold aloofness of a Carson; the insecurity and neurosis of a Letterman; and the excessive competitive zeal of a Leno. Larry could only function behind his desk on the talk show set ("No flipping" he would tell his television audience before each commercial). But when the cameras went off and the audience went home; he was lost. Unable to praise his hard working staff or have meaningful relationships with women (he had two divorces to prove it), Larry spun into temper tantrums, addictions, and eventually isolation into his own world. In short, Larry was the stereotypical Hollywood prima donna who never learned to be an adult. His "Ed McMahon"-sidekick and second banana-was Hank Kingsley, wonderfully played by Jeffrey Tambor. The rather talentless Hank respected Larry (to a point), but was a buffoon in real life; nasty to staffers and always feeling that he was worth more to the show. He also envied Larry's success, leading to clashes between the two.

The man who had the job of cleaning up the messes Larry and Hank made was the experienced executive producer, Artie (Rip Torn), who always managed to navigate egos and sooth guest stars, staffers and network executives while keeping up a jocular, salty-tongued image. (He also knew how to play Larry's neuroses for his or the show's purposes). But the staff behind The Larry Sanders Show was in a state of constant fear and paranoia, taking their cue from the show's host. Only Larry's assistant Beverly (Penny Johnson) managed to put up with Larry's neuroses, while still maintaining an even keel. One fun element of "Larry Sanders" was the real-life stars that came into the show's unusual world. Dana Carvey, Jon Stewart; Roseanne; Ellen DeGeneres; Carol Burnett and David Letterman were among the celebrities who appeared on "Sanders". Probably the best known encounter between Larry and a celebrity came when David Duchovny appeared on the show. In the much-cited 1996 episode, Larry's homophobia led him to believe The X-Files star had a crush on him. Duchovny fed that paranoia, and later told Larry that while he was straight, he found Larry...well, rather appealing. (Like Artie, Duchovny knew how to manipulate Larry's paranoia for an advantage.)

It was Shandling's decision to end "Larry Sanders" after its six year run. But the final season mirrored what could have happened in real life. Lower ratings for the fictional show emboldened network executives to "suggest" changes, and there was praise when real-life talk show host Jon Stewart took over for Larry-and walked away with higher ratings. Both Larry and Artie realized they were powerless to stop the "suits" from taking over the show-up to and including possibly replacing Larry and the staff. After much soul searching, Larry announced he would not sign a new contract to continue as host, leaving the staff scrambling to find new jobs while real-life celebrities said good-bye to the fictional Larry on the final episode ("Flip"), which aired on May 31st, 1998.

The Larry Sanders Show was the first cable series ever to win Emmy nominations in the awards' major categories; it was among the nominees for Best Comedy Series Emmy during each of its six seasons. (That was due in part to new Emmy rules, making cable programs eligible for the same awards as network series.) "Sanders'" respect within the industry certainly made the awards possible, and certainly deserved. But the members of the Academy of Television Arts and Scientists kept passing "Larry Sanders" over in favor of Frasier, which won for Best Comedy nearly every year "Larry Sanders" was nominated. The show did take home several major Emmys, including one for Rip Torn's acting; and three more for writing and directing the final "Flip" episode. (Shandling won one of the two writing Emmys, but never won for acting). The critical success of "Larry Sanders" gave HBO major credibility with producers tired of fighting with the broadcast networks over content and language. By the late 1990's, HBO gave network executives real headaches with the even more successful comedy Sex & The City; and the acclaimed dramas The Sopranos and Six Feet Under.

Because relatively few people have seen either of Gary Shandling's television series, It's Gary Shandling's Show and The Larry Sanders Show are pretty much cult favourites. But few comics have been able to use cable's relative freedom of content to push the limits of the television sitcom format as successfully as Shandling.

Review: Mike Spadoni 2003

for Television Heaven