By Cory Barker and Les Chappell
The Larry Sanders Show
Season 1, Episodes 9 and 10: “Talk Show Episode” and “Party”
Original airdates: Oct. 10, 1992 and Oct. 17, 1992
Previously on The Larry Sanders Show: Hank tried to get a raise and Larry tried to connect with his staff. This went about as well as you would expect. Oh yes, and Robin Williams showed up in a green suit that’s still burned into our retinas.
Cory: Les, last week we talked about The Larry Sanders Show‘s early establishment of a rhythm and formula. Although I enjoyed those episodes well enough, I was ready for the show to try something a little different. This week’s pair of episodes brought that, albeit a little. Instead of exploring the petty frustrations that make Larry’s workplace intriguing, “The Talk Show Episode” and “Party” focused much more on Larry’s strained relationship with his wife. More specifically, these offerings examined how Larry’s dedication to his job negatively impacts his home life. This is time-tested material that we’ve both seen all across popular culture. Yet, I really liked both of these episodes because of how muted, yet nerving they were. Larry’s wife and their marriage has been given a lot of time throughout this first season, but it’s here that Jeannie feels like a real character. I know that you didn’t care for the other effort that she was prominently featured in (“The Flirt Episode”), so what did you think about these two?
Les: I thought both these episodes were a step above “The Flirt Episode.” While the first episode failed to make me care about the Sanders marriage, these episodes really focus on the relationship as a relationship, rather than the side note of “Yeah, Larry’s married” it’s been treated as previously. More to the point, these are episodes that do a better job of meshing the relationship and show business parts of the show by illustrating–as you say–how difficult it is for both of those things to co-exist.
And I think in “The Talk Show Episode” in particular, it’s compelling because this is the first time we’ve seen Larry legitimately upset about what could happen, rather than his general levels of squirming discomfort. I’ve said multiple times during these discussions that I don’t really think Larry cares too much about other people as he’s both too self-centered and disconcerted to really connect with others*, but this is legitimate emotion. He’s off his game on the show, cutting his monologue short, glancing off to the side during his bits, and fumbling his conversations with Catherine O’Hara and Billy Crystal to the point they’re speculating if he’s drunk during the commercial break. (God bless Artie in these circumstances, the ultimate support system, who keeps reinforcing to him that this is the best show they’ve ever done, and half the year-end retrospective already done.)
*Which, incidentally, makes talk show host the best job in the world for him, as he’s protected by a desk and gets to limit his interactions with others to seven minutes or less.
I’m less convinced about Jeannie as a character, largely because her behavior in “Party” seems so short-sighted in comparison to how she’s been depicted before. We know she barely knows any of these people, but the stories she tells about Larry–dry-humping in Aspen, crying at Ghost, voicing Larry’s inner desire to move to Montana–seems less like making conversation and more about saying things she knows will embarrass her husband. This impression is only compounded by the fact that she bolts from the party after she and Larry argue and spends the rest of the night watching TV, refusing to even open the door and let people get their coats. Sure, she has a right to be upset, but this makes her seem childish.
I was far more swayed by her in “The Talk Show” episode, because I thought Megan Gallagher did a good job conveying both the frustration and emotion of just how frustrating it is to be married to Larry, and how depressed the state of her marriage has made her. (The scene where Paula, Beverly and Darlene try to console her is marvelous black comedy, as they make it worse with each suggestion and eventually reduce her to tears.) Jeannie’s line at one point in “The Talk Show Episode” about how she gets him for ninety seconds and the audience gets him for eight minutes is a cutting observation, and one that Larry acknowledges on some level–yet despite that he can’t fight his nature and throws out a “No flipping!” reference to get her to wait for him.
You mentioned that this is where she first started to feel like a character for you, is she a character you liked?
Cory: “Like” might be too strong of word, but Jeannie is certainly more effective in these episodes. You’re definitely right about the success of “The Talk Show Episode.” That one, as you suggest, puts Larry in a more curious and uncomfortable position and then just leaves him there to squirm. “Party” includes a lot of build to the namesake event–though the quickly increasing number of attendees as the news gets around the office amused me–and then unspools in a bit of an awkward fashion. One of the things that bothered me about that second episode is that at least at the beginning, it seems like Jeannie and Larry’s problems from “The Talk Show Episode” are fixed, or worse, didn’t happen. There isn’t much continuity between the two episodes, despite the fact that they are tied together thematically. Yet, at the end of the episode, Larry and Jeannie start fighting again, which makes all the material from the previous episode relevant again — even if it’s not directly referenced. It’s an odd way to approach two episodes with the same focus.
And yeah, “Party” disrupts some of the value to Jeannie’s frustrations, I think. Though her concerns are generic, we see them manifest much more clearly in “The Talk Show Episode,” whereas at the party, she goes from jovial to full-on breakdown really, really quickly. She referenced sleeping too much in the “Talk Show,” so perhaps the show is setting up a bigger story about depression (or worse), but in this vacuum, the characterization is inconsistent, yet still mostly effective.
I also enjoyed how these episodes found little moments for a number of the show’s supporting characters, who, as we’ve talked about, have gone a little underdeveloped thus far. You mentioned the great scene with all the ladies pulling Jeannie further into her emotional nadir, which was a season highlight for me, but I also loved Jerry writing Larry party jokes (the two of them have a weird and deeper connection than they ever realize) and Paula’s breakdown about not getting invited to the party and/or not getting the promotion she deserved. Those kind of moments aren’t necessarily profound, but they give the characters and the show more texture. What else stood out for you with these efforts?
Les: Quick note on the continuity: I did a little research and according to the production codes and Garry Shandling’s commentary on the DVD, it looks like the episodes weren’t shot in any order, nor were they aired in the order they were shot. “The Talk Show Episode” was the last one filmed for the season, while “Party” was shot five episodes before that. (And according to the codes, the season finale was actually the first episode shot, which I’m sure will make for an interesting topic of conversation in a couple of weeks.)
What stood out for me the most was actually not so much on the character side, but on the structural. You mentioned how you didn’t think these episodes did too much different from earlier episodes, but structurally I thought these were two of the more interesting ones we’ve seen to date. “Talk Show Episode” was exactly what it said, an episode where all the action surrounds one episode of the fictional Larry Sanders Show from beginning to end. I think this was a very clever choice on the show’s part as it really highlighted the core problem of Larry splitting his work and home lives, how much time he has to give one in favor of the other–a choice accentuated by Artie popping in constantly to remind him how much time until he goes back on the air–and by spending more time with the guests it let us know how Larry’s behavior was being perceived by outsiders. And it made the final resolution of the conflict, Larry inviting his wife directly on the show to talk to her there, all the more meaningful as it finally broke the boundaries between the two, or at least bent them enough to show Larry was making an effort. Bottle episode doesn’t seem like the right term, but it’s the first one that comes to mind.
“The Party” on the other hand was almost completely different, featuring none of the show’s footage outside of the monologue, not even featuring a guest star–but still finding a loophole by making Martin Mull Larry’s next-door neighbor. I think this is also a change the show purposely made because it illustrated just how strange it is for Larry to lose that disconnect between work and home, and how he loses some of that sense of control amongst his staff, folding the minute any one of them implies they’re hurt not to be invited. (His weak justification to both Hank and Paula about how this is his way of inviting them was a delight.) I also particularly loved the choice to never show us Artie’s wife, when the whole party was born out of Jeannie’s well-meaning gesture to get to know the two better–all we see is Artie, swigging Salty Dogs and vowing to tear a photographer limb from limb. And character-wise, plenty of great moments. Hank’s fake-out with the Holyfield tickets (a thing of beauty, particularly as Larry saw through it within ten seconds), Beverly’s frustrated reaction to Larry and Jeannie’s spat (“You wouldn’t catch black folks doing this. The man takes charge, and the woman gets what she wants without making a fuss”), Darlene’s increasingly ditzy reactions calling to mind Cerie from 30 Rock (take a shot!), Paula’s freakout that someone may be promoted over her, and of course that wonderful awkwardness from the entire staff as Larry first says he can’t get their coats and then comes back with an armful, talking about how Letterman probably does the same thing.
Plus, one of the best interactions on the show to date:
Artie: Larry’s a good man, but he is a performer, and you should try to think of a performer as a small, helpless child.
Jeannie: No, Artie—you know I have sex with him.
Artie: I’m so sorry.
So, we’re three episodes from the end of what I would say has been a very solid first season. Is there anything additional you’d like to see the show cover before the end?
Cory: Quickly, I want to pose a question to you, or actually, re-pose a question to you. After seeing more of the show within the show, do you think The Larry Sanders Show, the talk show, is actually any good? It’s been disastrous in recent episodes, and the show within “The Talk Show Episode” is best-described as a disaster. Late night television is always hit and miss, but the segments we’ve seen have been quite terrible, right?
Les: I would certainly say so. I’m not sure how much of that is due to my own usual aversion to late-night talk shows, but there’s no question that the bits we’ve seen (Robin Williams, Peter Falk, Billy Crystal, the Dana Carvey monologue) have been pretty damn cringe-worthy. Thankfully, it has the decency to be self-aware about it – Jerry and Phil keep complaining about how bad he’s butchering their jokes, the guests between segments are clearly uncomfortable to be there and don’t treat it as anything more than a business transaction, and even Larry seems to focus only on his worst moments. I think that going back toour earlier discussion on the subject, we’re supposed to think that the show is unremarkable, and they’re just showing us the bad parts because that makes for better comedy. Do you think we’re supposed to think it’s always this bad?
Cory: Perhaps. It does seem that in recent episodes, Larry and the show have been more incompetent. The upheaval behind-the-scenes and in the host’s personal life lends credence to the decline in quality, so it’s possible that the show is building towards something (so even if the episodes were filmed out of order, I’d guess that they were written more coherently). Thus, the final three episodes should be very intriguing.