By Cory Barker and Les Chappell
The Larry Sanders Show
Season 1, Episodes 5 and 6: “The New Producer” and “The Flirt Episode”
Original airdates: Sept. 12, 1992 and Sept. 19, 1992
Previously on The Larry Sanders Show: Carol Burnett showed up and got a glimpse of Larry’s balls, Dana Carvey showed up and unintentionally threw Hank into apoplectic fits. Also, there were giant hairy spiders. (Les, come out from behind the desk.)
Les: For this week’s chat Cory, I thought we’d try something a little bit different and take these episodes one at a time. Partially it’s because the network saw the memo and thinks it’s a good idea, but mostly because for the first time I felt a noticeable difference in my appreciation of each episode.
So, let’s start with “The New Producer,” which in my mind is the best of the episodes the show’s done so far. It’s another spin on a theme the show just covered last week when Dana Carvey was stepping on Larry’s toes, but this time there’s a differing scope in that Artie’s the one who’s out of the office due to an appendectomy (which he’s treating with a cocktail of Demerol and tequila, a move that doctors condemn and I see no problem with). His replacement Jonathan Litman, an old colleague of Larry’s, has decided to use the opportunity to suggest a few changes to the show, which range from clamping down on the guitar player’s marijuana habit to proposing Hank has no appeal to that juicy 18-34 demographic. And from there, it spirals into a power play that sees Litman trying to take the show away from Artie permanently, right down to his precious background plants.
Why I think this episode works so well is for the impact that it has on the entire show, rather than just the egos of Larry or Hank in the more limited way Carvey upset the status quo. Here, Litman and his precise speech patterns are threatening everyone from Larry to Jerry to Darlene, and the repercussions are moving throughout the entire staff. Witness the way the memo gets passed around in an ugly office game of telephone, that leads Hank to mutter prayers under his breath (that Darlene helpfully fills in for him after a desperate agent call) and the custodian to interfere with Larry’s sacred quiet time during the commercials. Both the real and fake The Larry Sanders Show are programs with a lot of moving parts, and it’s interesting to see what happens when the whole ecosystem is threatened. It even gives us the most proactive thing the confrontation-adverse Larry has done all series, with his rather clever move of calling Jonathan’s bluff and reaching out to Sheldon–only to turn around and have it be his wife on the other end.
It also helped that this was an incredibly funny episode, from the way Larry turned his back to let the entire staff plonk down their hidden copies of the memo (and Hank’s own denial/reveal of his own copy), to the way Larry played of Hank’s insecurities and phobias re: his new piercing, to Artie and Hank’s angry drinking session and debating what show they thought they could transplant to. (“Does the name Sally Jesse Raphael mean anything to you?!”)
“The Flirt Episode,” on the other hand, fell flat to me. Larry gets a little too close with one of his guests Mimi Rogers – at the expense of poor Michael Richards – and breaks precedent by inviting her back for a second night in a row. Understandably, he’s freaked out by her attentions, and does his best to diffuse the situation the only way he’s capable of, dispatching Beverly to tell Mimi not to flirt and asking Artie to devise a signal to warn him off of flirting.
This one didn’t work I think in large part because it moved the focus away from the show business side of things to dwell on Larry’s neruoses and marriage, two things I’m not nearly as interested in. The relationship between Larry and his wife hasn’t been fleshed out enough for me to care about the stakes of it, and while Jeannie talks about being more worried about Larry on the show as opposed to Larry in real life, I don’t feel they’ve established the disconnect between the two versions well enough. And the resolution, where the human interest guest leads an off-key rendition of “Camptown Ladies,” feels too abrupt compared to other episodes and is undercut almost immediately with the gag about Michelle Pfeiffer being the next guest. (Frankly, I’d have enjoyed the episode more if it was about Richards trying to get back at Larry for bumping him, as he’s woefully underused here.)
At the same time, I think the episode does at least give some context to Larry’s character, revealing that he’s committed to making this marriage work after evidently making a colossal mess of his first with a fair share of affairs. He admits as much to Artie: “All I’m saying is I’ve played this course, and I know right where it goes – hand on hand, flirting backstage, and then I’m fucking ’em in Hank’s Malibu pad.” (Artie’s reply: “You don’t want to do that. He’s had terrible septic problems.”) So much of this show is about what a colossal mess Larry is, and it helps that he’s humanized to some degree by being aware that he’s a mess.
What did you think?
Cory: You’re right about the possible creative changes impacting the entire staff in “The New Producer.” The way the fear and paranoia seeps through the office in such a rapid fashion produces scenes that are intense, funny, and quite believable as well. This episode crystallized one of the elements of the show I’m enjoying the most thus far, and that is the realism. Maybe it’s because I’m used to something like 30 Rock (or even something like Studio 60), but I’m a little surprised at how even-keeled The Larry Sanders Show is in its portrayal of the behind-the-scenes drama that goes on in Hollywood. None of the characters are particularly unnatural or cartoonish–Hank is a larger-than-life character at times, but that’s about it–and even when “terrible” things happen to them at the office, they react like normal people worried about whether or not they’ll have paychecks come next week. That atmosphere extends to Jonathan Litman, who openly admitted that he wanted Artie’s job, but didn’t necessarily twirl his mustache while doing so. It’s a competitive, high-stakes environment, but it’s still a workplace where people’s livelihoods are on the line.
Still though, I say all that and now want to praise Rip Thorn’s verbose, somewhat outrageous outbursts when Jonathan was about to take Artie’s spot. His heartfelt, yet hurt rant to Larry near the end of the episode fortified the bonds of their relationship in an important way.
However, while I really enjoyed the episode for the reasons we both detailed, I’m very curious to see how consistently the show keeps coming back to the “outside force disrupts the show’s structure” well. I imagine that the answer is “quite often” considering what we have seen thus far, but one of the strengths of a show like 30 Rock (and I know the comparisons aren’t totally fair and after this post I’ll try not to bring them up again) is that it has always been able to tell compelling stories that don’t necessarily deal with the day-to-day operations of the the show-within-the-show. Larry Sanders is a much more straightforward behind-the-scenes look, but I hope the story goes elsewhere.
Which, is why I actually liked “The Flirt Episode” quite a bit. Mimi Rogers is not someone I particularly enjoy, but she’s charming here and I enjoyed how something show-related ended up having a larger effect on Larry’s home life than it did on the show’s operations. I like the wife character and even though it is still early, I’m anxious for the world to expand past the show’s set more. Plus, Mimi’s flirting allowed Gary Shandling to flex his acting muscles a smidgen more and he did fine work as the uncomfortable, but stimulated Larry. The story didn’t provide the same kind of laughs as some of the show’s other episodes, I’ll give you that, but it offered possible avenues for the different kinds of stories I hope The Larry Sanders Show tries in the upcoming episodes.
Programming note: Les and Cory will be taking the next two weeks off due to the holidays, so reviews of The Larry Sanders Show will return on Monday, January 7, 2013.