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Beyond and Before: Three Seasons into The Larry Sanders Show

August 26, 2011

Welcome to a new feature, where I re-examine a television show that influenced many of the greats within our Golden Age (Community, Parks and Recreation, etc). In order to provide a unique take on the program, I’ll offer my analysis before I’ve completed the run of the series. In my opinion, particular elements of greatness can be found within a creation that is yet to be fully-formed (just like the early Yes song that inspired the title). Bad idea? We’ll see…


As the 1980s finally rolled over in our temporal odometer, Stand-Up Comedy as an entity was hotter than ever. Aided by cable upstarts like The Comedy Channel and HA!, in addition to programs on Arts & Entertainment, and MTV, a flood of fresh comedic talent invaded our homesteads on a fairly regular basis. Several successful appearances on The Tonight Show or Late Night with David Letterman, while helpful, were no longer the only ticket to the big time. Prior to this transformation, outside of the aforementioned late-night offerings, the only real TV options were the pay cable networks like Showtime and HBO, both of which willing to take risks on talent deemed too “niche” by the major networks, save another upstart in Fox. In 1986, Showtime aired It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, a clever sitcom satire that served as the natural predecessor for Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Split between text and subtext, IGSS introduced us to an embellished version of Shandling’s world, and featured one of the most memorable theme songs in TV history. When Fox decided to air edited versions of the entire series in 1988, its audience had another groundbreaking program to add to its Sunday night lineup of The Tracey Ullman Show and Married…With Children. Following the run of the series, Shandling’s next move was to take the same meta-approach with the realm of late-night TV, a milieu in which he was particularly familiar.


1992 saw the HBO debut of The Larry Sanders Show with almost instant critical acclaim. While it may be simplistic to divide the public with statements such as “there are two kinds of people – Letterman fans and Leno fans”, in my surrounding scene, it was equally easy to apply the same criteria, as it appeared that everyone I knew either found Sanders to be one of the funniest shows on TV, or absolutely hated it. Due to a busy academic and extra-curricular schedule, I was only able to catch the first few episodes, and as I began my collegiate experience, I no longer had access to HBO. So for the past decade, I’d only been able to catch random episodes posted by YouTube scofflaws (I eschewed rental of the compilation DVDs that did not feature the complete run). The wait ended when Netflix placed the entire run within their streaming options. Currently, I’ve completed the first three seasons (about half of the series), and here are my favorite elements as of this moment:


1. Artie’s production. The erstwhile producer, portrayed by Emmy Award winner Rip Torn, is always willing to take the heat for Larry. Whether it’s an unruly guest (Bobcat Godthwait in Season 3 – Episode 10); a writer from Entertainment Weekly seeking gossip (2-16); his sidekick Hank getting too big for his boots (3-6); or a distraught wife locking herself in the bedroom (1-10); Artie’s willing to make himself look ridiculous to save face for “The Head Rooster”.  Just when it all appears to be cracking like a Michael Bay-directed update of Humpty Dumpty, in comes our hero with a smile on his face, ready to bring the business to anyone that dares attempt to get in the way of a successful show, even that person is Larry. When Artie hands you a Salty Dog, it’s best not to ask questions – just “driiiink it, you…pu-see”.


2. Larry’s idea of the traditional “dinner and a show” date. Yes, the show portion is the Larry Sanders Show. No matter the love interest, no matter the status (married, divorced, engaged, disinterested…), when we see Larry with a special lady friend, she’s usually relegated to joining her date in watching his own television program. The best exaggeration occurs in Episode 4-8, where the show-closing dialogue is mirrored by Larry to a bemused publicist (“We hope you come back tomorrow”). Perhaps this adds significance to the whole Mimi Rogers flirtation, as they were outside gazing at the stars through a telescope (although we are never told if the scope picks up VHF signals).


3. The men-vs-women dynamic. While they are all share the same jersey on Team Sanders, the women (Paula, Beverly, and Darlene; played by Janeane Garofalo, Penny Johnson, and Linda Doucett) are basically the parents of the male Sanders “children”, especially the “adolescent” Hank Kingsley (Jeffrey Tambor). The first four episodes of Season 3 examine this extensively, with (using Artie’s inflections) predictable awkwardity and hilarity.


Other observations of note:


-I love how Larry judiciously employs his references to Letterman. What could have easily been a oft-used well was instead viewed as the fine china rolled out solely for special guests (mixed metaphors au go-go!) In the aforementioned episode 1-10 (“Party”), Larry responds to inter-spousal conflict by retorting, “I’m sure Letterman gets in fights with the woman that claims to be his wife!” In “Larry’s Big Idea” (4-13), the man himself shows up to cast scorn upon their shoddy attempt to copy his incorporation of the staff into comedy bits. And in a very meta-satirical fashion, both booker Paula and head-writer Phil (Wallace Langham) become minor celebrities for their brief moments on the boob tube, because that’s how easy it is (or so we’re told).


-Ricky Gervais and Steven Merchant must have observed how seamlessly the show inserted guest stars as either exaggerated versions of themselves (Bobcat Goldthwait, Elizabeth Ashley, David Duchovny) or bizarro-world variations (Martin Mull, Ryan O’Neal) when crafting Extras. When a known quantity appears, we never know the side of the Guest-Star Continuum for which they will fall.


-Hank Kingsley, Ubiquitous Pitchman. With his booming voice and affable attitude, Hank sells everything from cheap frozen corn to exercise equipment of dubious quality. Not even his turn as the sex scandal du jour (4-7) can stop the force of a man with his own fan club jacket (“Kingsley’s Queens”). When confronted by Larry regarding the on-screen commercial for a popular gardening implement, Hank replies “I know the ‘Garden Weasel’ people. They’re good people…” Of course he does.


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