The Larry Sanders Show: The Final Word

This essay originally appeared in The Larry Sanders Show: The Complete Series.


In its time, The Larry Sanders Show was a Bethlehem star in TV’s panoramic constellation of comedies, miles and miles above the crowd. And good news: Garry Shandling’s transcendent talk-show satire is not only as hilarious today as when it lit up HBO in the 1990s, but also as hilariously relevant. I mean, just look at this millennium’s TV landscape, still thick with talk shows after all these years. And were you not on the planet when suicidal NBC imploded during the bloody jihad of Jay Leno vs. Conan O’Brien? If the public side of this sent body parts flying in all directions (while becoming a fat target for CBS rival David Letterman and others), imagine what went on behind the scenes.

Actually, you don’t have to, for behind the scenes — the concealed sewers of TV Entertainment Inc. — is the biting aroma that wittily and memorably permeatesThe Larry Sanders Show. Machiavellian, yes. Hand-to-hand infighting, yes. Narcissism and pettiness, yes. Hypocrisy, absolutely,for the preferred mode of communication here — bullshit — is spoken fluently by just about everyone. AndThe Larry Sanders Show — much of it written by Shandling himself — is wondrous in its capacity to laser in sharply on all of this while maintaining a sense of fun.

It wasn’t just hip show-biz sophisticates and other Americans who got it. Take the middle-aged couple from Ireland I met a while back. Although in the U.S. only three years, they informed me that The Larry Sanders Show was their favorite. Its wonderful blarney had traveled across cultures to register with them and, what’s more, they could even quote the show’s characters.

Three of them were bolted to center stage:

Larry Sanders (Shandling): The host. Talented, very funny. At once ego-driven and insecure, wearing neuroses like a neon sign. Able to communicate or connect mostly on a surface level. Relies on others to do his dirty work.

Artie (Rip Torn): The producer. Show’s backbone and Larry’s nursemaid. Smart, experienced, pragmatic, reliable, steady hand. Glib almost to a fault, a Vesuvius of spin and obfuscation.

Hank Kinsley (Jeffrey Tambor): The announcer/sideman; think Hayohhhhhing Ed McMahon. Valuable but troublesome and troubling. Dark, angry, relentlessly self-serving and often cruel. Obsessed with lucrative side jobs as a commercial pitchman. Smarmy, untrustworthy ass-kisser.

Years of covering TV as a journalist have taught me how perilous and terribly difficult it is to navigate and do good work in this minefield of a medium. And extraordinary work? Don’t ask. Bucking those odds, however, The Larry Sanders Show is such a fabulous hoot that its pedestal deserves a pedestal.

Great expectations can be lethal, applying tonnage too weighty even for high achievers; think way-too-heavy lifting, think hernia. No wonder so many elite comedy series depart in ways that don’t match their grand reputations. In fact, some of the funniest — Seinfeld and M*A*S*H come to mind — left behind clunkers on their way out the door.

On May 31, 1998, however, the 89th episode of The Larry Sanders Show kicked ass — one of television’s true masterworks ending its run of six thunder-clapping seasons with a double-sized finale that hit 10 on the Richter scale and kept rocking. HBO’s final episode of this series chronicled the tumultuous and bittersweet final episode of The Larry Sanders Show, Shandling’s series and the show that it depicted bowing out together.

The finale opens with a pensive Larry in his office with Artie, watching a tape of Jack Paar famously ending his Tonight Show stint in 1962.

Larry wonders aloud if he should mention God in his own farewell to viewers. “Well, we plugged everybody else on the planet,” Artie responds. “Let’s give the deity his due.”

And give The Larry Sanders Show its due. What a series, what a way to end it.

Six years earlier . . .

It’s video, but for the opening minutes the screen is black, a throwback to radio that asks you to imagine the TV studio that you’re not seeing: monitors, cables, lights, cameras, an entire tech forest attached to the ceiling.

Imagine, also, the audience, seated in tiers, 20 to 30 feet from a now-vacant set featuring a generic desk for the host and a chair and couch for guests. Screw star maps, star tracking and Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Take the Walk of Fame and shove it. For Larry Sanders fans, this is Hollywood, the bustling intersection of Norman Rockwell and La La Land, and as a bonus, not a bad seat in the house.

They’re out-of-towners, mostly. All were probably at the studio that morning to pick up freebie tickets, then returned in the afternoon to queue up for the taping. Joe and Louise from Portland, Del and Margaret from Kansas City, the chubby Beroni brothers from Sacramento and scores of others just like them, the wide-eyed, and the hips and fat lips, all juiced and primed to laugh. But just in case . . .

The warm-up, delivered by his Hey-Nowness Hank Kingsley.

A deep, resonant voice, soft at first, then building slowly.

“You folks see that flashing sign up there? Now that sign says . . . applesauce!

The studio audience laughs.

“No, no. I . . . I’m kidding. It says applause! Ray, do me a favor. Could you flick that once?”

The studio audience applauds.

“All right. Now remember, you’re all . . . you’re all a big part of the show, so the better you are, the better Larry is.

“Lookit — see this gentleman? He’s giving me this, uh, this sign, and it says we’re on in ten seconds, so get ready to have a good time. All right, here we go. This is exciting, isn’t it?”

A different voice:

“In five, four, three, two . . . ”

Cue the band . . .

“Live, on tape, from Hollywood, The Larry Sanders Show . . . ”

Cue opening . . .

The blue curtain soon parts, and out he comes like Superhost from a telephone booth, saluting the audience while striding toward the unseen cue cards, obviously pleased by the affection, the rehearsed applause he’s receiving. “Thank you . . . thank you. Thank you — thank you. Welcome . . . welcome. Thank you very much. Welcome, thanks for coming to the show tonight.”

Then, on to the first joke:

“You are already so much better than last night’s audience . . . who came in here and looted the place.”

Then another joke about Bill Clinton playing the sax on Arsenio Hall’s show as Hank, ever the practiced cheerleader, is grinning behind a mic and Artie is off camera, viewing it all on a monitor.

I watched it on my own TV, taking notes for the rave review I would write. I was then TV critic for the Los Angeles Times. Translation: I made my living encountering alien life-forms, the vast bulk of them unpleasant Klingons. But even among the occasional highlights, rarely had I encountered a UFO the likes of The Larry Sanders Show. I’d greatly admired Shandling’s earlier innovative funhouse of a series on Showtime, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show. So my hopes were high for Shandling II as I popped in the VHS cassette (it was 1992) and prepared to be amused.

Amused? I was wiped out, and have been ever after when replaying various episodes of The Larry Sanders Show, either for kicks or when touting it as satire supreme to my TV classes at the University of Southern California. No generation gap here; they love it, not only finding it funny as hell but also digging its characters and moral ambiguity, its commentary on the conduct of talk shows and talk show hosts in the larger cosmos of TV Entertainment Inc.

At one point in The Larry Sanders Show, Hank asks, “What religion is Larry?” Artie replies, “Larry’s a talk show host.”

Droll line, and not entirely frivolous. Hosting a talk show does embody some accoutrements of religion. More than just a national jester, the host is a celestial icon around which all things on the show orbit. He is an Entertainment Inc. deity, someone asking for love, devotion and donations of our viewing time, someone who controls human destiny between commercial breaks, and someone whose acolytes adhere to a particular set of beliefs that preach the healing power of humor. Is ritual not also involved, the ritual of monologue, interview and studio audience laughter at bad jokes along with the good? And is worship not involved — worship of celebrity, of ratings?

Think of Rome’s St. Peter’s Square, where Catholics historically gather to await word of a new Pope. Now flash back to 1992 when so much expectation and buzz surrounded Johnny Carson stepping down from The Tonight Show that you half expected NBC to signal a successor by sending puffs of white smoke billowing from its roof.

Carson’s papacy went to Jay Leno. On The Larry Sanders Show, Jon Stewart gets the gig when Larry packs it in as the HBO series winds down. And what pushes him to this point, what transpires behind the scenes to make it happen, is hardly sunny.

Shandling didn’t invent the laugh-laden talk show send-up. Robert DeNiro and Jerry Lewis sharpened it to a needle point in Martin Scorsese’s The King Of Comedy. On the small screen, let’s not forget straight-faced farceurs Martin Mull and Fred Willard spoofing it up in Norman Lear’s Fernwood 2 Night. NorSCTV’s The Sammy Maudlin Show, with Joe Flaherty as nitwit Sammy, John Candy as his obsequious sideman and Gene Levy as recurring guest Bobby Bittman, a garish club comic all cheaped up with clunky jewelry.

The latter two centered, not subtly, on the lowbrow riffs of talk shows on the public side of a closed curtain. In contrast, The Larry Sanders Show throws open that curtain like a flasher and bares all.

Many first episodes do not accurately represent the series that follows. But The Larry Sanders Show’s premier was a template for what it would deliver during the next six years..

We meet Larry as “the network” — its only designation — is on his case.

Recurring theme: Larry’s battles with “the network” thread much of the series.

In this instance, “the network” is personified by Melanie Parrish (Deborah May) — a Diana Christensen type right out of Network. She’s the drop-dead (if only she would) sexy programming veepee, a dominatrix who terrifies Larry . . . and turns him on.

“The network” wants to meet with Larry, who naturally resists.

Recurring theme: Larry flees confrontation.

He agrees to the meeting if Artie is there to run interference.

Recurring theme: Larry relies on Artie to bail him out of uncomfortable situations.

Parrish tells Larry his show “isn’t cutting it,” and that the solution is for Larry to do live commercials, beginning with a product called the Garden Weasel. Larry recoils, instead suggesting Hank, who aggressively pitches himself to do the spots.

Recurring theme: Hank’s greed and lust for attention.

But “the network” holds out for Larry, who complains to Artie that promoting a product he has not used would be unethical. “Unethical?” Artie snaps off. “Please, Larry, don’t start pulling that thread or our whole world will unravel.”

Recurring theme: From episode 1 through 89, crackerjack writing.

Calling the Garden Weasel “the amazing rat stick,” Larry jokes his way through the commercial.

Recurring theme: When his back is to the wall, Larry tries to wisecrack his way out of tough spots.

Parrish is outraged. And when Larry tries Garden Weaseling the next night, only to fumble, he summons Hank to rescue him mid-commercial, and the professional huckster does just that.

Recurring theme: Hank is something of a savant a doofus in most respects, but reliably competent at the job he’s paid to do on the show.

Great, great stuff, and at points in the series, viewers could have tuned it in and sworn they were watching an actual talk show.

It’s no wonder that the talk show format is so familiar, durable and transportable, utilized in many forms not only for its primary purpose — Entertainment Inc. — but also to establish rapport in commercials and infomercials that depict a host and guest or guests. As a sales tool, it can generate instant credibility. How ironic, then, that talk shows were once thought of as disposable, so much so that NBC gave no thought to erasing the first decade of Carson’s 30-year reign onThe Tonight Show.

TV talk shows were spun from radio, beginning in earnest in 1954 with The Tonight Show starring Steve Allen, and continuing through the years with Ernie Kovacs, Paar, Carson, Leno, O’Brien and, famously, Leno again. Carson, in particular, was the man, just about bulletproof, outlasting the likes of Dick Cavett, Joey Bishop and Merv Griffin. And a frequent guest host for Carson was a young writer/comic named Garry Shandling, who later applied to The Larry Sanders Show much of what he had observed and experienced as a talk show insider.

So no wonder that, in broad strokes at least, The Larry Sanders Show is as believable as it is witty and ultimately dark, projecting authenticity whether behind the scenes or out on the talk show set with Larry and his guests.

Authentic, if not always in details, then in tone and ambiance.

Like the talk shows Shandling and his collaborators parody, the one headed by Larry Sanders is heavy on banter and light on actual communication, almost as if it were an extension of the host himself. Guests are booked for these symbiotic, ritualized encounters usually to promote a book or movie or some other project, or themselves, and in exchange for that spotlight they grant Larry use of their celebrity for a few minutes.

In that manner, the last two decades have found talk shows of all stripes becoming strategic pit stops for Presidential candidates hoping to woo voters with their talking points and scripted ad libs. That doesn’t happen with Larry, but office-seekers and office-holders do show up in other ways as he mocks American values while peppering his monologues with a brand of contemporary political humor that mimics real-life talk shows of today:

“McDonald’s is opening its first kosher restaurant in Israel. It will also be the first McDonald’s to have the Never Happy Meal.”

“This Monica Lewinsky scandal. My goodness, would we have ever thought we’d end up back here with Monica Lewinsky. I remember when this show first started, it was just enough that Reagan brought the Soviet Union to its knees.”

And an episode in which a deranged Montana woman claims she’s having Larry’s baby can easily be read as lampooning President Clinton’s tryst with Lewinsky and his TV denial that they had sex. Larry, too, denies having sex with his accuser, although it turns out that she can identify the mouse ears-like genitalia birthmark that Artie describes as “Little Mickey.”

There’s cynicism galore here as well, some of it epitomized by Larry’s backstabbing agent, Stevie Grant (Bob Odenkirk), who sleeps with Paula the talent booker (Janeane Garofalo) presumably so she’ll favor his clients as guests. And when their relationship flames out, she reignites it to ensure that another of his clients, Jennifer Aniston, does appear on the show. Much later, after “the network” has nudged Larry aside in favor of the younger star-on-the-rise Stewart, deceitful Stevie signs him behind Larry’s back, denigrating Larry as “a fucking horse and buggy . . . ”

It’s an example of ridicule looming large in the show’s arsenal. In “Life Behind Larry,” “the network” plans to follow Larry’s show with another talk hour hosted by Bob Saget, whom Larry rejects. When “the network” resists Larry’s choice of screwballsy Bobcat Goldthwait, the job goes to Tom Snyder after Letterman persuades Larry that CBS wants Snyder (“His hair is back, he’s ready to go)” for a talk show following his own show. The real-world irony: After his appearance here, Snyder was, indeed, hired to head a CBS late-late show following Letterman.

It’s no surprise that Snyder is dismissed here as a bit of a dinosaur, for the show habitually disparages show-biz celebrities. Here is Larry (you could read it as Shandling mocking himself) on comedian Richard Belzer playing a cop in NBC’sHomicide: Life On The Street: “These stand-up comics who think they are fucking actors make me sick.”

Other celebrities are derided as second-tier guests. Pauly Shore is the show’s go-to pincushion and butt of jokes about guests who get booked as a last resort. Also in the crosshairs are William Shatner, Richard Simmons, Howie Mandel, Jamie Farr, Sally Struthers, Charles Nelson Reilly and singer/guitarist Jeff Beck.

Sometimes the ridicule is self-inflicted, as when the famous play themselves in provocative or unflattering ways — quite amazing in an industry where fortunes are spent shaping positive images through press agentry and where even a minor public relations zit can be seen as calamitous.

When Fox had aborted his own talk show after just three weeks, for example, a bummed-out Chevy Chase encounters Larry in the office of a shrink. “What are you doing here?” he asks Larry. “Did you get your show cancelled?”

Some of the edges are sharper. Early in the series, David Spade plays David Spade as a “little prick” — Artie’s quote — and wewatch Dana Carvey lie to Larry for career gain, John Lovell Jon Lovitz portray himself as a bore, Saget spool out a nonstop ticker tape of chatter that has Larry squirming impatiently, and just look, will you . . .

There is Tim Conway, of all people, going against type by exploding at someone for asking him a lot of questions, and Ben Stiller having a snit after getting bumped by Larry from People magazine’s Ten Sexiest Men Alive list.

Not that making that list shortens Larry’s roll of neuroses, and at times you can almost envision him curled up in the fetal position.

Terrified of connecting on a personal level, he’s unable to schmooze off-the-cuff with show staffers when trapped into throwing a dinner party for them at his home; Phil the writer (Wallace Langham) gets it and feeds him party jokes. Larry’s so tightly wound that when he takes Helen Hunt on a date, his stiff dinner chatter with her resembles an interview on his show.

Speaking of dates, Sharon Stone’s appearance on the show has Larry panting and fawning over her like a zitty teenager. And there they are later, frolicking in bed with her on top doing a sort of lap dance while undressing him. But so disturbed is he by her greater celebrity that he can’t get it up — not until watching his favorite TV program. Hearing about it, Artie is Inc.redulous: “Are you telling me you couldn’t get an erection until you turned on your own goddamned show?” The brief fling ends abruptly, and Larry learns she’s ended it only when his assistant, Beverly (Penny Johnson), gets the word from Sharon’s assistant.

Hank has his own wide-ranging sexual tastes. When a video of him having wild sex with a pair of women surfaces, he fears it will cost him a rich commercial gig. He rationalizes his conduct by defining sex as “a loving act between two or more consenting adults,” but the tape speaks for itself.

Larry: “Is it just me, or is Hank really hung?”

Artie: “Well, the camera adds ten pounds.”

In “My Name Is Asher Kingsley,” meanwhile, a usually secular Hank suddenly gets religion when resurrecting his given name and wearing a large white yarmulke in observance of his Jewish roots, announcing: “A spirit filled me inside Temple.” It’s obvious, though, that what he desires most is to fill the attractive female rabbi. And when his Judaism and lucrative product-pitching collide, off comes the yarmulke.

How dark is Hank? So dark that he morphs into demonic Mr. Hyde, raging at the staff when last-minute subbing as host for an ailing Larry. “You changed, Hank,” says his guileless assistant, Darlene (Linda Doucett). “There’s a darkness about you.” Of course, he hasn’t changed at all; his darkness has always existed, peeking from the wings.

I used to debate in my head whetherSeinfeld or The Larry Sanders Show was funniest. Let’s call it a toss-up. One big difference, though. On those rare occasions when Seinfeld didn’t cut it as comedy, there was no reason to watch. But The Larry Sanders Show was irresistible end to end, offering reasons to watch even at its blackest, when it wasn’t trying very hard to be funny.

I think of angst-ridden Larry botching an interview with a miffed Billy Crystal because his mind is on his faltering marriage, a real human drama that travels across several episodes.

And the tone is bittersweet if not melancholy when Artie hires as a production assistant his 35-year-old screw-up son, Cully (Colin Quinn), whom he hasn’t seen in years. It’s a guilt move that ends badly, for Cully turns out to be Ivan the Terrible, to say nothing of Inc.ompetent. After making excuses for his son, Artie realizes his mistake and fires him. However, the payoff is poignant as Cully finally gets his dream short-pants job delivering parcels for UPS

Coming to mind, as well, is Sid, the cute little cue-card guy (Sid Newman) who commits suicide after a brutal dressing down by Hank. Although we learn later that Sid was depressed over weightier issues, his jolting demise is a most unusual scenario for a TV comedy.

Even as it darkens, though, The Larry Sanders Show never forgets that its central mission is humor, whether playing shrink with its characters or exploring the psyche of the business that drives them. It helps when the writing and the performances by Shandling, Torn and Tambor soar as they do in this series — never more so than in that high-wattage finale

Things look grim when Larry, desperate for one more superstar to enhance his exit — and add a big, bold exclamation point to his ten-year legacy — is rejected in the parking lot by a ho-hum Warren Beatty. Later there’s a near brawl in the greenroom, Tom Petty and Clint Black both claim tear-jerking rights to the customary farewell serenade and, on the other side of the curtain, Jim Carrey, Carol Burnett, Ellen DeGeneres, Sean Penn, Jerry Seinfeld and Tim Allen deliver distInc.tive adieus.

As for memorable, don’t miss Carrey’s thunderous kiss-off. Nor David Duchovny, reprising his role from an earlier episode as a sexually vague David Duchovny with a crush on Larry, whose cheek he touched affectionately after assuring him he was straight: “But sometimes I do wish I was gay . . . because I find you so very attractive.”

It’s this Duchovny who’s again a howl in the finale, seeming to flirt with Larry while wearing only a white bathrobe and crossing and recrossing his legs provocatively in ballsy homage to Sharon Stone and Basic InstInc.t.

The episode is a classic, as Larry, Artie and Hank wrap unpredictably in a twisty sequence for the ages that is tender, stormy, riotously funny and ultimately quite moving.

And now, live on DVD, from Hollywood, here is The Larry Sanders Show again, every bit of it.

Applesauce! Huge applesauce!

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