BLOGGERS NOTE: This post originally appeared on the Wonders in the Dark blog for their Top 80 Greatest Television Shows.
The Larry Sanders Show took a look behind-the-scenes at a fictional late night talk show featuring its vain, neurotic eponymous host (Garry Shandling), his weasely sidekick Hank Kingsley (Jeffrey Tambor), the gruff, ass-kissing producer Arthur (Rip Torn), and the other long-suffering staff members that cater to his selfish needs as they try to get a show on the air. Larry lives in constant fear, either worrying about if he’s funny every night or if the show’s getting good enough ratings to justify its existence, and do almost anything to achieve both.
The show was notable for being one of the first sitcoms to push the envelope in terms of truly uncomfortable moments mixed with laughs. Of course, this practice is commonplace now with shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm and the short-lived Starved. These uncomfortable moments, like snide asides between Hank and guests in between commercial breaks, have a ring of honesty to them and make one wonder if that’s what it’s really like on these shows. Garry Shandling used to guest host for Johnny Carson, had appeared on all of the major late night talk shows, and must’ve had plenty of experiences to draw from and it shows as there is a real insider authenticity to how a show like this operates.
And there are certainly several classics, like “Everybody Loves Larry” where Larry is afraid that the network is going to replace him with Jon Stewart and fends off what he thinks is romantic advances from David Duchovny. This episode playfully toys with the notion of whether he is gay or not, which drives Larry crazy, of course. There is a funny bit where Larry asks Hank’s assistant (Scott Thompson) if he thinks Duchovny is gay. The final scene that they have together is priceless as Duchovny keeps poor Larry constantly guessing and on edge.
In “Another List,” network executives give Larry some ideas on how he could improve the show, like a more energetic opening like Jay Leno, a new part in his hair and a new theme song – all of which he duly ignores in favor of trying to date Winona Ryder. Of course, by the end of the episode, he has incorporated some of these ideas because at the end of the day, self-preservation is Larry’s strongest instinct.
“The Interview” starts off with Hank insulting guest star Vince Vaughn when he fails to pick up on the actor simply messing with him. This episode poses the question, how does a celebrity do damage control? Larry cries during an interview for Extra! and Artie tries to get the interviewer to edit it out with little success. This episode underlines the often-vain nature of celebrities. Their image lives or dies by how they are covered by the fickle media.
The Larry Sanders Show demonstrates what a fearless performer Garry Shandling was as he wasn’t afraid to play a thoroughly unlikable character. Larry is a vain coward that only loves himself and that’s on a good day. Shandling is also not afraid to use comedy to bring out the uncomfortable truths about Larry.
Jeffrey Tambor matches Shandling beat-for-beat with his portrayal of Hank, which is, at times, almost too painful to watch as he is such a pathetic, sad sack character. We never feel one iota of sympathy for him because he is his own worst enemy. He is obviously patterned after another famous show biz sidekick, Ed McMahon, swimming in Larry’s wake. Hank is petty and always trying to get out from under Larry’s shadow. During the course of the show, Tambor explores what it takes to play someone who is the sidekick. What kind of person is able to do that and how does it affect their personality over time?
Artie’s job is to build up Larry’s confidence. He’s an expert at catering to people’s egos, making them feel good about themselves. Larry and Artie have a funny, cantankerous relationship that sees the producer simultaneously appease and bust Larry’s balls. In many respects, Artie keeps Larry grounded and is one of the few people he can be honest with. They bicker like an old married couple but one senses that they truly are friends.
The Larry Sanders Show is a brilliant snapshot of what late night talk shows were like during the ‘80s and ‘90s when Leno and Letterman ruled the airwaves. It takes us behind the curtain to show that Larry is a selfish narcissist, Hank is a pathetic loser, and Artie has mastered the art of kissing ass while savaging people behind their backs.
The Larry Sanders Show was ahead of its time, pushing the envelope in mining comedy out of awkward and uncomfortable situations, anticipating shows like The Office by many years. It showed the messiness of life intruding on a bunch of show biz types trying to put on a T.V. show. It makes you wonder if this is what it actually takes to do one of these shows and if so it is amazing that new episodes air as often as they do.