Television Time Machine: 'The Larry Sanders Show' (1992)
Ladies! Germs! Internet Trolls!
Welcome to another edition of the Television Time Machine!
We've completed yet another slip-slide through the cathode rays of history... from the 1950s where we discussed 'You Bet Your Life,' the 1970s that delivered us some T&A with 'Charlie's Angels'... and now we're back to the 1990s, the decade we all know well.
But here's the thing: many of you crazy kids were too young in the 1990s to develop an appreciation for television that wasn't hosted by big birds or grouches. So Baddie is here to show you what you missed!
Think of my Television Time Machine as a companion to your Netflix viewing experience; as we all wait, frustrated, for our favourite shows to resume (what the hell is a half-season finale, anyhow!? Grumble...) I am here, steadfast, to suggest some gems throughout history that you can dip into and familiarize yourself with in the meantime. Aint you lucky?
And this week I have served up for you what will become your favourite new 90s comedy. Head into your Netflix cache and click on a little HBO series called 'The Larry Sanders Show'....
What do you think of when you think about HBO? Do you think about cutting-edge programming? Hilarious adult situations? What about big-name celebrity guest stars and high-profile regulars?
While HBO has managed to earn themselves this reputation, they have to send an awful lot of thanks in the direction of 'The Larry Sanders Show,' which the New York Post called "one of the greatest achievements in television." Unfortunately, there are far too many people out there who have never caught a single episode of the series, as HBO wasn't anywhere near as pervasive in 1992 as it is now, twenty years later. So what was the show about?
The show was about a show. Garry Shandling, the eponymous star of the broadcast, drew upon his experiences as a temporary guest-host of 'The Tonight Show' to craft a different kind of sitcom. 'The Larry Sanders Show' is about a late-night talk show in competition with 'The Tonight Show' and 'The Late Show,' striving to get the best guest stars and come up with the funniest monologue quips; but the HBO series focuses on the making of such a show and the backstage panic involved in bringing such a show to air. This should remind you of '30 Rock,' a series which has borrowed heavily from the 'Larry Sanders' premise and format.
The main way that 'Larry Sanders' differs from '30 Rock' is that for the portions of the talk show that were included in each episode, HBO would actually film the fictional late-night show in front of a live studio audience, complete with guest-stars and A-list musical performances. What that means is, audiences in LA could attend a taping of 'The Larry Sanders Show,' involving guests and musical numbers akin to 'The Tonight Show'... even though Larry Sanders doesn't exist.
The stage production was only a small portion of the HBO show itself. All of the work involved in bringing the staged show to air was the main highlight, as Larry Sanders (Shandling) worked with his side-kick Hank (Jeffrey Tambor, in the role that put him on the map), defended by his tireless, gruff producer Artie (Rip Torn).
Behind the scenes was Penny Johnson as Larry's beset-upon assistant Beverly, Janeane Garofalo as the show's acerbic booker Paula, and Jeremy Piven ('Entourage') in a career-making role as the head comedy writer Jerry. As you can see, the talent assembled by HBO is a rich ensemble and every single one of them had their stock rise thanks to the ground-breaking series that Shandling brought together.
Which brings us to the other stars of 'The Larry Sanders Show:' the endless parade of celebrities who would appear on the series both in their public on-air personas... and lampooning themselves in the behind-the-scenes candid moments of the broadcast. Sometimes the celebrity would be understated backstage and wild on-stage (like Bobcat Goldthwait) but more often than not, the polite and classy image they would offer on-stage would be counter-balanced by irrational, over-the-top insanity backstage (often drawing from real rumors about the celebrities' behavior on set). This included more than one star cursing out Larry through a plastered grin as they wait for the talk show to return from commercial... or Larry himself being the one to put his foot in his mouth, as he does with Alec Baldwin here:
Sometimes the stars would become a tad amorous with Mr. Sanders... including Sharon Stone flirting shamelessly on and off the set, or the gag that ran over multiple seasons where Shandling's real-life best friend David Duchovny appeared on 'The Larry Sanders Show,' pursuing Larry romantically despite repeated assertions that both men are straight.
But the metafictional relationships and celebrity mockery wasn't the only way that 'The Larry Sanders Show' took advantage of HBO's willingness to push the envelope. The series took the opportunity to include controversial guests and celebrities who wouldn't be able to appear on the traditional talk-show circuit (due to network censorship). The very best part? The show could depict the network discomfort with these controversial bookings, showing even Larry himself getting uncomfortable behind the scenes.
This sort of double-dealing shows the true genius of 'The Larry Sanders Show:' in order to offer the spotlight to an act that deserves a wider audience (such as musical guests Porno for Pyros), the show could not only put the act on the air but they could glean endless comedy from the behind the scenes hand-wringing by network execs. The show truly gave viewers the best of both worlds.
No act was more controversial than the critically-acclaimed episode where Larry urges his staff to book some edgier guests... and quickly eats his words when Paula (Garofalo) books openly-gay performance artist Tim Miller.
Miller was very controversial for network television in the 1990s, and the show took advantage of the controvery in grand fashion. The character of Larry Sanders was far from a bastion of progressive ideals; the man was slime in many ways. We didn't watch the series to root for Larry but out of a desire to see what on earth he would say or do next--almost in the vein of the smash hit 'Curb Your Enthusiasm.' But Shandling, the real-life Sanders, is far more progressive and admirable, having Miller on the show at a time when Miller's acclaimed stage shows (like the breathtakingly beautiful one-man show "Naked Breath") were only reaching a narrow, niche audience.
Fans of 'Arrested Development' owe it to themselves to give 'The Larry Sanders Show' a look, if only to enjoy a completely different character played by Jeffry Tambor. Hank Kingsley is, in many ways, the real star of 'Larry Sanders:' the racist, homophobic, egomaniacal sell-out buffoon provides endless laughs in each and every episode--often at his own expense. The pair of assholes (Larry and Hank) are managed and handled by Artie, played to perfection by the aging but physically imposing Rip Torn. A hard-drinking man of the world, Artie will do what he can to keep his talent happy... until they go too far and need to be checked by a steady, fatherly hand. The relationship between Artie and Larry is one of the best-developed male friendships in television history.
So have I convinced you? If you have Netflix, give 'The Larry Sanders Show' a look--I wager you'll find yourself queuing up a few more episodes after the first.
No matter what you think of the show itself, 'The Larry Sanders Show' is perhaps the most important program in HBO history and a massive landmark in television. The multi-award winning show is simply one of the best sitcoms of all time.
That's our Time Machine Trip for this week! Next time, we're way back to the 1950s! But I promise, it'll be more fun than a history lesson. C'mon back, won't you?