By Cory Barker and Les Chappell
The Larry Sanders Show
Season 1, Episodes 7 and 8: “Hank’s Contract” and “Out of the Loop”
Original airdates: Sept. 12, 1992 and Sept. 19, 1992
Previously on The Larry Sanders Show: Artie came close to leaving the show over a scathing memo, Larry came close to cheating on his wife with Mimi Rogers, and Hank came close to getting blood poisoning from an earring. (The last one didn’t happen, but Larry convinced his sidekick it would.)
Les: Happy New Year to you Cory! Hope you had a good holiday, and you’re as excited as I am to flip back to our discussion of The Larry Sanders Show.
So, let’s start with “Hank’s Contract.” Much like “The New Producer” from our last installment, this is an episode that deals with just how tenuous one’s position show business is, only this time it’s Hank fighting to hang onto his position in the contract negotiations with the network. Sadly, he’s far less of a fighter than Artie is, and his strategy revolves chiefly around emotionally manipulating everyone in the office with the possibility he might be leaving, a move he’s clearly pulled out so often it’s lost all efficacy and is now as regular as the company Christmas party.
Much like “The New Producer,” I enjoyed this episode for its focus on the ugly business of show business and the office dynamic, but what struck me the most about it was the near complete and total lack of sincerity. Hank’s going-away party is such a sham that it seems to have looped around in terms of who’s manipulating what—Darlene, Hank and the writers are all in various stages of pretending to be surprised or touched, and all Larry and Artie can do is bet about which saccharine story he’s going to tell. Larry’s incapable of having a serious discussion with Hank without backup, so he puts Artie on speaker phone, leading to an incredibly painful moment when an inopportune sneeze gives him away to Hank. Hank continues to emphasize he’s got the upper hand in the negotiations with a CNBC offer, but he’s without a leg to stand on in desperate times. Then there’s that last reveal of Larry’s, that he never had an offer to do a show after Nightline after saying over and over he did, which just exposes how phony so much of this business is.
And yet that vacuum of sincerity works to the show’s benefit, because it turns those rare instances of honesty into surprisingly poignant moments. Hank’s reaction to learning Artie was on the phone—coming after the jokes about him chipping a back tooth on a urinal—is terrifically delivered by Jeffrey Tambor, a moment of raw hurt and anger as he spits out the line “I’m tired of being your personal village idiot.” You can see a rare moment of understanding and regret on Larry’s face in response, which he then carries over into playing his cards with Sheldon. I always get the feeling that Larry doesn’t like many people because he doesn’t like people in general, including himself (which I’m sure we’ll touch on in the next episode) but he definitely feels some form of affection for Hank beyond having a handy punching bag.
So, thoughts? Or now that that’s all out of the way can we just talk about Robin Williams’ green suit?
Cory: This episode was all about Robin Williams for me. GREEN suit and HORRIBLE BLONDE hair that I knew happened in the back of my mind, but chose to forget until this very moment. Goodness. Cocaine is, indeed, a hell of a drug.
More seriously though, your thoughts about “Hank’s Contract” mirror what I would have said right after I watched the episode. The faux sincerity permeating through this episode made for a number of uncomfortable, yet memorable interactions between Hank and various members of the the production team. You highlighted some great beats, but I think my favorite was probably that full moment where Larry finally sticks up for Hank; if Hank goes, so does Larry. It’s a nice moment of presumed honesty and shows us Larry’s good nature. However, I’d be curious to see if Larry would actually stick to that little speech if the executive said, “Okay, fine, you’re both gone.” I’m actually a bit surprised that the show didn’t at least entertain that last-second jab.
I did some traveling this weekend and in the back of my mind, I knew I had this discussion with you waiting, so I tried to pre-plan my responses. It was there that I started thinking about the first eight episodes of the show and how they are—and we’ve already alluded to this—somewhat repetitive. Now, I don’t want the word repetitive to immediately connotate “not good,” yet, I’ve also been surprised at how quickly the show has settled into a very specific rhythm. On one hand, that’s good news. Critics spend a lot of time discussing the early developments and growing pains of comedies, and the common thought is that it takes a little bit—sometimes a dozen episodes, sometimes a season—for the writing to match the acting, to get the tone correct, and more. The Larry Sanders Show doesn’t really have that problem. It came out of the gate fully-formed and just keeps doing its thing over this first season.
But on the other hand, the show’s ability to find that comfort zone early means that we get these episodes that explore not only similar themes, but very similar plots as well. I wouldn’t say I’m bored or completely disappointed in the show, but this week, I felt impatient, if even a smidgen about the show’s direction. Is this just me? Is Larry Sanders‘ formula fine for you right now?
Les: I do definitely agree with you that the show is running in place on some plots—I compared “Hank’s Contract” to “The New Producer” at the start of this chat, and a couple of weeks ago I compared “Promises” to “Guest Host” as both being episodes where a comedian shakes up the show’s status quo. The show hasn’t yet figured out everything it can do within the confines of its story structure, and it’s sticking to stories where the status quo of Larry Sanders is threatened once a week and in such a way that the issue is resolved within 30 minutes. I hate to keep mentioning 30 Rock in these discussions as it’s too easy of a comparison to make*, but even in the early goings 30 Rock was more willing to get outside the writers’ room and drive plots with the personal lives of its characters. At the same time, Larry Sanders is a far more sedate show than 30 Rock, with Larry shying away from all confrontation and Hank using passive-aggressiveness to get what he wants, so it doesn’t shock me it’s taking them a while to get outside the comfort zone.
*Though this does allow us to introduce a new This Was Television drinking game the way Julie and Emma did with My So-Called Life. Audience, take a shot every time one of us in these discussions mentions 30 Rock or Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.
I’m a little more patient than you about the direction the show’s taking, for many of the same reasons you’ve mentioned. As you say, sitcoms take a while to develop, or at least to get more ambitious with what they can do, and so many people talk about how phenomenal Larry Sanders became that I’m prepared to cut it more slack in the early goings. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that I’ve enjoyed all of these episodes quite a bit (except for “The Flirt Episode” for reasons I discussed last week) and if a sitcom has constraints but remains funny within its constraints, that takes away some of my concerns.
Case in point, “Out of the Loop,” a terrifically funny installment that our friend Noel Murray liked so much he selected as an entry for The A.V. Club‘s “A Very Special Episode.” I know you just love Entourage like nobody’s business, so what was your reaction to a story that centers on your boy Jeremy “The Thermometer” Piven?
Cory: “Out of the Loop” certainly undercuts my barely-baked theory about the show’s early formulaic nature. Not necessarily because it introduces a new narrative structure, but because it finds better moments within the familiar beats and structure we’ve seen thus far. You mentioned that Larry doesn’t really like anyone, and while that’s definitely true, it’s also clear that there is one person Larry likes: Larry. And this episode does a fine job of exploring what happens when Larry decides that he wants to be more involved in the day-to-day process of making the show and the lives of his co-workers, not for their betterment, but for his. He’s not that upset that Jerry is having sex with a new runner; he’s upset that Jerry is 1.) having sex with the runner by his desk and 2.) everyone knows but him. There are great moments at the beginning of this new office plan where Larry thinks he wants more information and interaction, but everyone else realizes it’s a terrible idea—and of course, they’re right.
Furthermore, the scene where Larry’s selfishness really comes out is in his confrontation with Jerry. He’s in the writers room to put Jerry in his place and perhaps even fire him, but once it’s just the two of them in there, Larry can’t help but start posturing. He gloats about a similar experience of his own and how he ultimately quit his job for Norm Crosby. It’s a moment where Larry can’t begin to be the stuffy old boss because he’s too concerned with being perceived as fulfilling that role. He’s more interested in being cool and relatable to a writer that he doesn’t even care for—but that’s Larry. I want to see more of this version of the character. If the show is going to use this clear framework every week, I hope it leads to deeper, more complex character work. Your thoughts?
Les: Definitely this is the best episode for Larry’s character work that we’ve seen to date—”The Flirt Episode” shone a bit of a light on his personal difficulties, and this is the one that showed the conflicting neuroses that consume so much of his life. He wants to be liked, but hates having to get close enough to people to earn more than surface respect. He has no interest in knowing the salient details of people’s lives, and then acts offended when no one tells him about them. It’s a delight to see the increasingly uncomfortable look on his face when Paula keeps asking him about what she should do about her mother, and he offers the absolute worst advice possible as a result. Similarly, his pleading with Artie* to be disconnected is probably his most honest moment, and I love the moment of realization on Shandling’s face when Larry realizes Artie saw this coming a mile away and can pull him back out without any difficulty. There’s yet another divide for you: it’s his name on the show, but he needs more coddling than anyone else there.
*And I also loved how the episode emphasized just how much of a fixer Artie is around this show: he cautions Larry about trying to reinsert himself after eight years of careful work to put him in a bubble, he knows the names and salient details of every member of the staff, and he knows the gossip before anyone even tells it to him. (“Lorne Michaels and I go way back from when he was trying to get his green card.”)
And while character work is fine, I can’t emphasize enough how damn hard I was laughing for the vast majority of this episode. Jerry’s indiscretions kept coaxing some wonderful reactions out of everyone, particularly Artie showing up with binoculars to witness some parking lot indecency. (“If he bangs her any harder, the airbags are going to inflate!” “Hey now,” Hank quietly agrees.) Coming on the heels of our mystery roundtable, it was fun to see Columbo star Peter Falk on the show insulting Larry, only to then cheerfully greet his old friend Artie and gaze up into the rafters with the same curious expression Columbo would wear at a crime scene. And of course, there’s the gift that keeps on giving in Hank’s column, first with what Hank considers his deep thoughts (“It’s October, and we all know what that means. … I’d kill for a Dreamsicle right now!”), then when he looks down on Jerry (“I am telling you, nothing beats that missionary position!”) and then the delayed payoff of sending them out in their entirety, letting us close the episode with the greatest slow-motion “Shiiiiiiiiiiiitttt” this side of Clay Davis.