By Cory Barker and Les Chappell
The Larry Sanders Show
Season 1, Episodes 11 and 12: “The Warmth Episode” and “A Brush With (the Elbow of) Greatness”
Original airdates: Oct. 24, 1992 and Oct. 31, 1992
Previously on The Larry Sanders Show: Larry’s marriage proved to be less than perfect, with fights during commercial breaks, dirty laundry aired in front of Catherine O’Hara, and a disastrous dinner party no amount of Salty Dogs could make less awkward.
Les: Well Cory, it seems the scheduling gods were apparently smiling on our discussions, as for the second week in a row, we have a pair of episodes that are thematically similar to each other. And once again, it’s a pair of episodes that deal with a subject we’ve debated on multiple points during this journey through the first season of The Larry Sanders Show, more specifically the likeability and empathy of its main character. “The Warmth Episode” features Larry concerned about whether or not his audience actually likes him, so much so that he’s willing to submit to the dreaded focus group and see directly how his show tests. And “A Brush With (the Elbow of) Greatness” has him involved in an unnoticed altercation that balloons overnight into a scandal, one where against his better instincts everyone around him wants to keep it in the spotlight.
While I thought “The Warmth Episode” felt a little bit amorphous plot-wise, I enjoyed how the entire episode was littered with examples of how much Larry’s narcissism and desire to avoid conflict wind up painting him in a bad light. He inadvertently gets the security guard fired and then rehires him chiefly because he’s in the middle of an interview, an interview where he’s already alienated the photographer by shooting down a photo idea. He tries to get advice from Beverly, and can’t stop himself from an off-color joke (“‘Pluck your nerves,’ what is that, a black thing?”). He tries to say something nice to the writers, and still can’t stop himself from tearing down the cartoon on the conference room door. And when Jeannie points* out that he’s a bit of an asshole, he falls right into her trap of proving it when she calls him out for eating in the dining room.
*Between that trick and her ability to get him out of his office with penis nickname blackmail, a much better pair of episodes for Jeannie as a character. She gets to be someone who can actually spar with Larry, as opposed to simply being frustrated at being married to show business along with him.
I loved the way the episode presented Larry as the architect of his own destruction, unintentionally or not, and he seems to know it but have no interest in changing it. I’ve talked before about how I have the impression that Larry doesn’t like anyone, even himself, and we get some sharp evidence when he offers his frank assessment of how little the focus group actually means to him: “If 20 people said they liked me, I’m telling you, I would be thinking 17 of them are lying, two of them have severe emotional problems, and one of them’s probably confusing me with Larry King.” Artie tries to offer a pearl of wisdom that he has to learn to like himself first, and all Larry can do is make another joke: “Then I’m fucked!”
What do you think: is it all Larry’s fault that these things keep happening to him?
Cory: This is my favorite pair of episodes of the season. No offense to wacky guests, behind-the-scenes production hijinks or Jeannie, but this show hums when it highlights Larry’s prickly personality and it turning the focus inward, and asking Larry to consider just how much his disposition impacts those around him, worked very well. We’ve talked some about the show’s ability to take us inside the minds of people in comedy, and if there’s one thing pop culture has taught me about comedians is that despite their outwardly sarcasm or coldness, they just want to be loved. That idea is on full-display in “The Warmth Episode,” with Larry simultaneously freaking out about his popularity rating and refusing to do much of anything about it. Not only did the episode key in on a more unknown minutia of the talk show production culture, but it nicely reflected Larry’s warring sides. He can’t ever stop fretting about Arsenio, Leno or Letterman, but he’s also so established in his rhythms that he doesn’t actually feel like making an effort to be better. And this isn’t the first time we’ve seen him get up in arms about the staff’s perception of him, just as it isn’t the first time we’ve seen him flail when trying to improve those perceptions. It’s another variation on “Out of the Loop,” but a better one, I think.
You’re right about the episode’s little moments. I love the random runner with Larry and Artie trying to ignore Richard Simmons, leading to that final moment where they think they see him again, only for it to be a doting fan who they offend with inside jokes from the focus group. Even when Larry tries to be cordial, he can’t help but be a bit of a prick. He’s always “on,” which is a byproduct of his talent, but I think also how uncomfortable he is in most social situations when Artie isn’t around. Even though the episodes were produced out of order, there is a nice little arc here developing with Larry crumbling, both personally and professionally. He’s alienated everyone around him except Artie and even though he can recognize the error of his ways, he simply cannot–or maybe, will not–break down and make the right reconciliations.
This week’s second episode wasn’t as strong as the first, but I enjoyed how such a stupid, small event spiraled out of control and how the origin of said event stemmed almost entirely from Larry’s awkward nature in social situations. What’d you think of that one?
Les: Definitely in agreement with you that this is the best pair of episodes in the season, for the reasons you’ve described. Before watching this show I had absolutely no background on Garry Shandling – I believe I may have confused him with Billy Crystal many times over the years – and now there’s no chance of that. He brings such a wonderfully hangdog quality to Sanders, the beleaguered sense that he’s never quite satisfied and at most moments of the day he’d rather be somewhere else.
And there’s no question he’d rather be somewhere else in “A Brush With (the Elbow of) Greatness,” which shows both how much a little thing can turn into a scandal and how bad Larry is at dealing with his problems. The degree to which Elbowgate gets started is ludicrous, going from one lone person’s complaint about a banal moment to something that CNN and E! jump on and continue to inflate in what must be the slowest of slow news days. I don’t know how much sense it makes in the show’s universe for something this small to make a difference, but it’s definitely amusing to see the buildup. I love the way the anchors keep adding terms like “the petite Ms. Biederman” and “the former honors student”, purposely steering the public’s perception of events to cast Larry in the wrong. And Larry being Larry, it’s hard to feel really sorry for the guy – you mentioned below the fact that Larry always has to be “on,” and it’s telling that even when he’s watching this potentially damning security video he can’t stop himself from making a crack that a magazine rack isn’t a lending library.
I also particularly enjoyed the presence of Norman (played by David Paymer, an always welcome presence on my television). Other than Sheldon popping up occasionally, the involvement the network in Larry’s show has been pretty nonexistence since the pilot, so it’s good to see the business side of show business playing a part in the story again. Norman’s a wonderful example of the Hollywood phoniness I commented on back in “Hank’s Contract,” a master of double-talk, twisting Larry’s expectations by treating the incident as a publicity goldmine for the show and comparing it to Roseanne’s own surge in the ratings following the National Anthem incident. And when it backfires, I love how effortlessly he switches to saying that they have to stop the scandal in its tracks, a move that leads Larry to call him a sick fuck and Norm to cheerfully take that as a compliment. And I love the way all the spin works on Artie – I’m sure he’d prefer to sweep the whole thing under the rug for Larry’s benefit, but he’s also keenly attuned to how a disaster can set a show apart from the legion of competitors (his joyful celebration of the tarantula incident back in “The Spider Episode” stands as proof of that), and knows just the right words to say for Larry to go along with it.
In terms of comedic work, I thought the scene of everyone trying to get into Larry’s office was spectacular. Artie dismisses the seriousness of it and then becomes very worried when Beverly says Larry’s turned down his typical Excedrin, but can’t stop himself from backing Larry up by laughing at the joke about John Tesh. Jerry and Phil want to help, but they’re so desperate to impress their boss their best solution is a Tony Danza impression. Poor Hank’s completely unaware of the problem as usual, but this time it’s because he’s busy trying to score another endorsement* deal, and as a result his boss tells him to fuck off right in front of the chicken magnate. And as I mentioned before, Jeannie’s blackmail of Larry to get him to open the door is the character’s best moment on the series yet in terms of non-nagging substance. It’s just a great sequence, and one that shows how the office reacts when the man at the center drops off the grid.
*Speaking of endorsements, the way Hank sold the virtues of the fridge to Carol betrays not only what a master salesman he is, but also the obvious fact that Antarctic is one of The Larry Sanders Show‘s sponsors and the network shamelessly decided to kill two birds with one stone. And is anyone else not surprised that Hank knows all the details about Cindy?
Cory: This one had a slew of great individual moments. You mentioned the sequence with everyone on the team coming to console Larry. But there are two others I’d like to point out. First, the surveillance video of Larry’s shove at the store was simple, but effective in its use of humor. I love the way that Larry just stands there for a few moments, totally uncomfortable and unsure what to do, and then eventually just decides to shimmy by in the worst way possible. It’s great that the show figured out a way to tell this story without creating a plot where something like Larry’s cliched “celebrity attitude” got him trouble. Nope, here, it has nothing to do with Larry being famous; he’s just an impatient ass.
Second, the final scene, with Larry coming face-to-face with his “accuser” on the show was squeamish, but realistic. Larry almost refuses to admit that he did anything wrong, leading to a tense moment where it seems like the decision to bring Biederman onto the show might turn against Larry (but work out just fine for Norm, Artie and the network, I’m sure). If it wasn’t for Hank’s ability to cut the tension between the two, who knows where that scene could have gone. (Frankly, I’m surprised the show didn’t actually take that tension further.)
Ultimately, what these two episodes express is the show’s great ability to put Larry in tight spots, mostly of his own doing. It’s interesting to me that the supporting characters often well, support, Larry in his misadventures or tantrums, even when his actions have negative consequences for them. We know that the writing staff just wants to kiss his ass to his face (and mock him mercilessly behind his back), but just about everyone else manages to find a way to help Larry, even when he doesn’t deserve it. On one hand, this allows the show to let Larry off the hook a bit. But on the other, Larry’s always miserable, no matter what, so it doesn’t totally matter if his staff cares about him or not. I think he wants them to care because he’s selfish, but seeing them care only makes him feel good in the moment.