By Cory Barker and Les Chappell
The Larry Sanders Show
Season 1, Episodes 3 and 4: “The Spiders Episode” and “Guest Host”
Original airdates: Aug. 29, 1992 and Sept. 5, 1992
Previously on The Larry Sanders Show: Late-night talk show host Larry Sanders proved it’s not easy to be on top of the comedy game, dealing with network-imposed commercials within his show, a double-booked opening act, a needy sidekick and a boss who may have killed a man in Korea.
Cory: Well Les, after two more episodes of The Larry Sanders Show, I’m starting to see what so many folks have gushed about. These two episodes were stronger than the first two (though those weren’t bad by any means), I think mostly because they managed all the different parts of the show better. “The Spiders Episode” featured that great comic set-piece with the spiders causing real chaos on the set. That shot of the spider on top of Hank’s head was magnificent and unsurprisingly, Carol Burnett did good work as well. But that all worked because the episode built to it quite well, with Larry’s initial fear, Hank’s false gusto and ultimate hesitance, and Carol’s general annoyance with both of them. “Guest Host” brought the show back to more insider-y chatter, and really, followed nearly the exact same format as “Promise” (something that’s just coming to me as I type this), but did it better, I think. Mostly because Dana Carvey is more sympathetic and believable than David Spade, which I think allowed the story of Dana guest hosting and then ultimately getting a swag deal from NBC to be more textured and complex than the one in “Promise.” What’d you think?
Les: Once I got past my own crippling fear of large hairy spiders (shudder) and my sense of regret that since The Master of Disguise Dana Carvey essentially disappeared from the public eye, I would definitely agree that these were a pair of strong episodes that stepped up from last week’s introduction. The show continues to balance its insider approach to show business, adding just enough information about the turf war between the networks* and the daily business of putting a show together that it doesn’t feel like it requires additional context to appreciate the humor. Which is, by the way, getting stronger as it goes–none of it’s been side-splitting as of yet, but I laughed much more consistently at these two episodes, particularly Artie’s “I saw this coming” recurring joke in “Promise” and of course the utter chaos of the climax of “The Spider’s Episode.”
*Artie’s comment about how NBC‘s a sinking ship that can eat shit and die is certainly the most timeless reference the show’s had so far. Poor NBC.
What’s been the most interesting part of The Larry Sanders Show‘s structure to me has been how while it’s a show about putting on a show, it’s even more a program about the business of comedy. We saw some of it last week with the relationship between Larry and Spade and the former’s pride in discovering him, and we had more of it this week with both Carvey’s plot and the brief appearance by Jon Lovitz at dinner. I’m a regular listener to the Nerdist podcast, and some of my favorite episodes are the ones where Hardwick and company discuss what it takes to make it in comedy, the war stories that everyone has about their best and worst gigs. It’s a hard business to break into, and in its way an insular one where the dynamics seem strange unless you’ve been there. Small wonder that Larry’s wife (who is far more of a non-entity than I was expecting in the early going) is so frustrated with him after the dinner with Lovitz, where she can’t even get a word in edgewise to their banter, and similarly is exasperated by how his relationship with Dana immediately turns into a rivalry once the idea of a new show comes up. So far, that aspect of it is trumping my earlier disinterest in the talk show format.
Now that we’ve got more of a feel for the ensemble, I’ve got to ask: of our three main players (Larry/Hank/Artie) who’s your favorite in the early going? Personally, I’m drawn most to “Hey now!” Hank Kingsley, who is at turns the most honest and yet the most pathetic member of the ensemble, a far cry from Tambor’s more recent work as amoral George Sr. in Arrested Development. In many ways it calls to mind his character from Bent (a show where I think you, I, Andrew Rabin and a half dozen other critics were the sole audience), an actor with a fragile ego who’ll grasp at any opportunity but turns petty and depressed the minute something goes awry. The scene where he’s trying to get into the meeting Larry and Dana have in the writer’s room–and Larry’s ability to run across the room and close the second door before Hank even gets close–is wonderfully tragicomic, as is his breakdown and subsequent overreaction when Artie offers one piece of constructive criticism about his presentation style. Are you on Team Kingsley, or has one of the other leads won you over?
Cory: Good point about the show’s focus on comedy. Sometimes I get a little burnt out texts that seemingly turn the world of stand-up comedy into this mythic, almost inexplicable place, but Larry manages to highlight its importance without diving too much into halcyon navel gazing. It’s insider-y without the fawning, I think mostly because the show has emphasized the competitive nature more than anything else. That was on full display with Spade, but there with Carvey as well (in a more subtle, satisfying way).
Tambor’s quite good, and really, the whole cast is. His performance in Hank’s audition scene was wonderful; weird line delivery, the awkward glances and the way he kept talking over his “guests.” Rip Thorn is strong as well. But right now, I think Shandling’s Larry is my favorite. I’m not overly familiar with Shandling’s other work, or really even his star persona, and though Larry is about who I assumed he would be, Shandling brings a lot of layers to the character, even early on. Larry’s an egomaniac, but it doesn’t manifest in any real explosive manner. He’s neurotic, but not in an annoyingly Woody Allen kind of way. He feels like a real person, one who is pretty talented but also aware of the instability of his job, his spot, and everything around him and sometimes, he can be kind of a prick. That feels honest and real to me. Is there anyone in the supporting cast you real like? What about the guests thus far? Distracting? Good?
Les: On the supporting cast, I don’t think anyone’s made that much of an impression early on. Janeane Garafalo’s doing her typical understated work as the booker, but what’s been most surprising to me is how comparatively understated Jeremy Piven is as head writer. This is probably one of those instances where an actor’s later work is coloring how we see them beforehand, but after an ungodly amount of Entourage episodes, it’s strange not to see him portraying a character who needs to be the center of attention. Penny Johnson as Beveryl and Linda Doucett as Darlene add some continuity between episodes, but that’s about it. As I said last week, I can still see the flickers of an ensemble, they’re just not trying very hard this early.
As to the guests, I think they’re being used in exactly the right amount, largely because they’re there to get a reaction out of Larry and Hank as opposed to simply taking the spotlight away from them. Carol Burnett for instance is a goddess of variety/sketch comedy, but she’s not on the episode to do a sketch that forms a centerpiece of the show-within-a-show – rather, she’s there to be part of a sketch that everyone acknowledges is terrible, and to gripe about having to do it in the first place. (She also provides probably my favorite line of that entire episode, and the full payoff to the running gag about Larry’s indecent exposure, when they’re busy making small talk over the commercial break and Larry tries to say something nice about it, and she comes back with “I saw your balls.”) Similarly, while Carvey’s going through some of his own greatest hits* the real value of him being there is the indignant reactions produced in Hank, where Hank seems every bit as obsequious with Carvey as he is with Larry only to yell “That snotty little shit!” when he’s in makeup. In that regard, they’re doing exactly what any guest of a typical talk show is there to do: get something new out of the host, and plug their own work at the same time.
*I mentioned dated references before? Good lord was that opening monologue of Carvey’s painful 20 years later. Felt like the sort of thing your desperately uncool friend would break out at a party to seem clever.
Though mentioning the quality of the aforementioned sketch, something I’ve been thinking about in these early episodes, particularly in context of other show business shows. On Studio 60, everyone was expected to think that the sketch comedy show at the center was the greatest show ever, and all of the bits we saw indicated it was not that at all; whereas on 30 Rock, no one thinks TGS With Tracy Jordan is anything other than dreadful, so they’re able to get away with increasing absurdity. So my question is: do you think The Larry Sanders Show (show within the show that is) is supposed to be a good show, a bad show, or is the quality irrelevant?
Cory: I’m glad you asked about the quality of the show-within-the-show, because that was my next question. I’d say that The Larry Sanders Show falls somewhere between Studio 60 and TGS; It doesn’t seem particularly good, but isn’t unbelievably incompetent. Though the pilot alluded to declining ratings, it didn’t seem like the network executives were threatening to bring the axe down on Larry and company. What we’ve seen of the show follows this logic as well. It hasn’t been spectacular, but also hasn’t been egregiously bad. Which, frankly, basically describes every late night show since like 1995, other the occasional great segment. I don’t think the show (meaning the HBO show, the the show-within-the-show, oh god this is already confusing) would focus so much on the competition if we weren’t supposed see some value in The Larry Sanders Show. What do you think?
Random thing: Does it bother you that Larry’s show isn’t on a real network, or at least they haven’t referenced it? I know that it couldn’t have been on NBC or CBS, but why not ABC? Maybe we’re supposed to get that, but I much prefer it when these inside baseball shows actually commit to the insider-y stuff whole hog.
Les: I’m in agreement that the quality of the fictional The Larry Sanders Show is meant to seem unremarkable, and I think that honestly that’s the best decision for the show to make. If if was meant to be the top of the ratings, it’d seem like a much more high-pressure environment to maintain their slot at No. 1, which seems like it would detract from the show’s laid-back approach to comedy. Similarly, were the show supposed to be at the Nielsen nadir, they’d have to spend a lot of time showing just how bad it was, with more goofing off in the writers’ room (an equivalent of Frank Rossitano alongside Piven’s character perhaps?) or showing Larry continually bombing night after night.
And network-wise, I don’t think it bothers me we never say what network the show’s on, partly for the reason you mentioned that other talk shows on the major networks are established as being Larry’s direct competition. Moreso though, I think if it was on an existing network, the show would be in an uncomfortable position of having that network as a regular target. 30 Rock makes its living by skewering NBC’s incompetence and corporate ownership, but it can get away with that because it’s on NBC in the first place. For a show on HBO to take that route and say, for example, that ABC doesn’t know what it’s doing in programming for late-night, just opens up a whole new can of worms.
Personally, I’m happy with the way things are: a fictional network and a fictional show means that the show’s under no obligation to grind any axes or take any stands. The quality of the fictional Larry Sanders Show is meant to be just enough to satisfy the network suits and the advertisers, which means the real show can focus on the important things, like just where the draft in Larry’s office is or whether or not Artie really saw that coming.