By Cory Barker and Les Chappell
The Larry Sanders Show
Season 1, Episodes 1 and 2: “What Have You Done For Me Lately” and “Promises”
Original airdates: Aug. 15, 1992 and Aug. 22, 1992
Cory: Welcome back to my regularly scheduled Monday morning programming. But as you have hopefully noticed, I have done a little redecorating. Gone are NBC, the 1980s, cops, and unfortunately, GO FAST BOATS. I wanted to move away from my coverage of Miami Vice and take on a completely different show from a totally different era. I asked for your ideas—and weirdly, so many people suggested that I cover things like Dick Van Dyke and Blackadder, so thanks for “reading”—and my buddy Tim Bavlnka suggested a pretty damn good idea: The Larry Sanders Show. So here I am, and to mix it up even more, Les is joining me for these opening 13 episodes (we’ll be doing two a week).
Like so many of the older shows that I have written about here (or elsewhere), The Larry Sanders Show has always been on my list. You know the list. Everyone who loves television but doesn’t have all the time in the world (so, everyone, except maybe Alan Sepinwall) has a group of shows that they’ve missed that they want to catch up on. Sanders has always been near the top of my list, mostly because of its place in history and its subject matter. Although I don’t want to generalize too much, it seems fair to suggest that The Larry Sanders Show has been… overlooked as time has passed. It was the first cable comedy to be nominated in the big Emmy category and clearly had a big influence on a number of HBO comedies followed it in the 2000s (Curb Your Enthusiasm, Entourage, and Extras most notably). It’s a little odd to me that an Emmy-winning behind-the-scenes-like show about Hollywood—covering a topic that the media enjoys discussing and mythologizing, the late night talk show—produced for HBO has slipped through the cracks at times, but I rarely hear it mentioned in the “greatest comedies ever” discussion. And maybe it doesn’t belong there, but I’m hoping this conversation over the next few weeks will get me closer to an answer.
Along the way, Larry Sanders manages to get a handful of solid laughs out of the material—most notably when Garry Shandling’s Larry is begrudgingly doing the live commercial for the Weasel for the first time and when Jeffrey Tambor’s Hank is describing his mindset while doing promotional work—but for the most part, these episodes take more time establishing the plot, stakes, characters, and rhythms. And despite the recognizable nature of those things, I don’t find the approach here troublesome whatsoever. Shandling, like he typically does, plays Garry with some charms and some awkward egocentricity. Tambor brings wonderful gusto to Hank and Rip Torn does Rip Torn stuff as Artie. That’s a wonderful core that will surely continue to thrive.
One of the byproduct’s of the show’s focus is that it has multiple points of entry. The pilot was definitely funnier and more accessible, particularly with the clear drama between Larry and the network, but the second episode “Promises” had a surprising amount of pathos to it in the story with Spade deciding to do Leno. While the behind-the-scenes processes and “unspokens” are on display when Spade pulls the seemingly dick move—and that stuff was all fine, and I very much appreciate that I was quickly able to suppress the weird positive feelings I felt towards Spade in his first moments here—the last few minutes of the episode are really strong because it takes a turn for the introspective. Larry thinks about when he came up as a stand-up and did The Tonight Show even though Merv Griffin gave him his break, and although Larry tries to justify his choice because of the different timeslots, he ultimately (or perhaps, momentarily) recognizes that he probably acted selfishly all those years before. He knows that’s what it takes, but certainly hates it when someone does it to him. This is further reinforced when it turns out that both Spade and Larry were feigning remorse in their discussion about the proper etiquette, which I thought was a nice little biting conclusion to a story that was momentarily moving.
Thus, even if Larry Sanders never produces a heap of laughs in each episode, I can hook onto it quite easily if it continues down this road where it seems more interested in bringing a little dose of reality and pathos to its insider-y storytelling. Les, what did you think? What was your relationship to the show before this?
Les: Truthfully, my experience with the show is next to none. Like you, it’s been in my Netflix queue for quite a while now, but it’s always been there a show I felt like I should watch as opposed to one I wanted to watch. I generally find late night talk shows bland at best and insufferable at worst, so a show about the process behind them didn’t push it to the top of my list, and despite liking both Tambor and Torn’s work in other things I don’t think I could name a single other project of Garry Shandling’s without the aid of Wikipedia. However, it was starting to inch up the list even before we came up with this project, thanks to a bit more exposure in the wake of HBO’s fortieth anniversary—both Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz had it high on their lists of the network’s most important shows.
After two episodes, I don’t yet see the greatness that everyone preaches—not that I expected to given the track record of comedies taking time to find themselves—but I do see the show is in possession of elements that can lead to greatness. As you say, the subdued nature of these early episodes means we get to see the rhythm of how these characters interact with each other, and the dynamic of the office seems to have all the right beats for a solid workplace comedy. It’s also clearly a show that’s familiar with the workings of show business—the “unwritten rule” that Spade violates is an obvious example—and doesn’t appear to be on a soapbox about it Aaron Sorkin-style.
A large part of my early confidence also comes from Larry himself. What I love the most about Shandling’s portrayal of Larry is how he doesn’t even try to conceal when he’s not happy about the things his job makes him do, partially because he sees himself above it and partially because it strikes him as simply a waste of time. His discomfort with having to do the Garden Weasel commercial is the most obvious example—the increasingly desperate grin on his face as the commercial fell apart was a delight—though I think I appreciate even more the little moments like discarding his pilot’s cap prior to his opening monologue in the second episode. He’s not a character I found myself sympathizing with as he doesn’t seem to be a creative comedic genius being held back, what he is is a man who’s gotten used to doing things his way and who gets twitchy when something upsets the process. That strikes me as rich territory for comedy.
And while Larry’s name is in the title, there’s plenty of indications the show will move toward being more of an ensemble piece, and it’s a good ensemble to start out. Rip Torn is being his Rip Torn-est as the man fighting the show’s battles with hints of a deeply disturbed personal life (“I saw Buddy Ebsen’s head floating above the dresser!”) and Jeffrey Tambor’s Hank is both an ignored child begging for just one “attaboy” from his coworkers and a source of surprising wisdom. (Plus he does have his own fan club—Kingsley’s Queens!) There’s a few bit players scattered throughout—Janeane Garafolo as the show’s booker Paula, Jeremy Piven as head writer Jerry—who we know from experience are strong comedic voices and who I expect we’ll be seeing fleshed out in future weeks. And Larry’s string of guests means there should be evidently no shortage of actors willing to poke fun at themselves, with Robert Hays* and William Shatner serving as the early examples.
*As a huge fan of Airplane! it caused me no small amount of joy to see it was the less-regarded sequel Hays chose to use as proof of his sense of humor.
What struck me as the most interesting part of these episodes came from the structural decision to include the bits of Larry’s actual show—opening monologues, celebrity interviews, etc.—as they would be seen by a television audience. It’s a move that adds to the context of the show, particularly as most of them are too short to really distract from what’s going on behind the scenes. I’m trying to think what other shows this would work on—I suppose modern equivalents would be if 30 Rock included one or two TGS live sketches per episode, or if Smash made its musical numbers look like actual Broadway shows and not moments where I’m always convinced the singer is drinking tea made from hallucinogenic mushrooms. Going forward, I’m curious whether or not this will be more integrated into the show’s action, or if like Sports Night’s single-cam/multi-cam hybridization it’s a stylistic experiment that will be gradually removed post-pilot.
The other thing that interested me in the early going, which I’m sure will come up again as we discuss this series, were the ways in which the show both did and didn’t feel dated. We obviously watch a lot of older television for this site, but the references here make one of the rare times that it felt like an anachronistic show—witness Larry’s opening monologue discussing Bill Clinton’s appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show, or Dana Delaney plugging her upcoming work on Wild Palms. (A thought occurs: I wonder if perhaps that’s a reason the show’s been somewhat overlooked in discussions of great comedies, next to something more timeless like Cheers or Dick Van Dyke. Hm.) On the other hand, the stories remain driven by fairly timeless ideas in entertainment, with the uncomprehending nature of network notes and the continued segmentation of the audience pushing past those “oh, the 90s” moments.
So, like you, I’m not entirely sold on the show yet, but I think it’s a promising start and I’m certainly intrigued to see where it goes. Looking forward to having a conversation about this series.