Rewind: The Larry Sanders Show
The trailblazing satire that paved the way for ‘The Office,’ ’30 Rock,’ ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm,’ and others
The world of showbiz has never been so cruelly, or hilariously, dissected as it was in HBO’s satirical sitcom, The Larry Sanders Show. The series follows Garry Shandling’s portrayal of the eponymous talk-show host in documentary style, interspersed with ‘footage’ of the show itself. It’s not quite a ‘mockumentary,’ as there are no interviews with the characters, nor any acknowledgement of the cameras (except when the fictional show is being shot). But the lack of a laughter track and the appearance of genuine celebrities playing (exaggerated) versions of themselves – both as guests on the show, talking about real-life projects, and behind the scenes – means Larry Sanders blurs the line between fiction and reality. Numerous shows (many very good ones, notably 30 Rock, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Modern Family and The Office) have been influenced heavily by Larry Sanders. But none of them has yet matched its consistent excellence.
Shandling, in real life, had stood in as host of The Tonight Show on numerous occasions, and undoubtedly drew on that experience when writing Larry Sanders. The result has been hailed as “the greatest sitcom of all time,” and is often ranked among the top TV shows ever.
What makes it so great is a combination of fearless writing (as much as the celebrity guest stars are made fun of, it’s the main characters who always end up looking like the biggest dicks) and pitch-perfect performances from an ensemble cast of fine character actors who are always mindful not to play for cheap laughs by hamming it up.
All the supporting roles – from Janeane Garofalo as Paula, the show’s constantly put-upon, fantastically sarcastic booker, to Wallace Langham as the socially inept writer Phil – are well-rounded and beautifully acted, always seeming natural. Even the real-life celebs who turn up on screen playing themselves (ranging from Winona Ryder to Burt Reynolds) manage their egos so that the show remains the star throughout. Rip Torn’s portrayal of the show’s producer, Arthur (or “Artie”) – fiercely loyal to and protective of Larry, an expert schmoozer with celebs and network execs and, often, the voice of sanity (when Larry asks him, “Isn’t that a little unethical?” when he’s asked to promote a product on the show, Artie responds, “Unethical? Jesus, Larry. Don’t start pulling at that thread, our whole world will unravel.”) – is consistently brilliant.
At the heart of the show and its success, though, are two of the finest comedy performances you’ll ever see. Shandling’s painfully truthful portrayal of Sanders – a man whose quest for the adoration and approval of his peers and his audience constantly brings him into conflict with his morals and his loved ones – is a forerunner of Larry David’s role in Curb Your Enthusiasm, and a model for plenty of others (including the curled-lip rictus grin of insecurity perfected by Ricky Gervais as David Brent in the U.K. version of The Office) in its realism and unflinching examination of the character’s flaws. You can see the battle played out on Larry’s face throughout the series, and it’s a tribute to Shandling’s ability as a writer and performer that you’re never sure which side of his character – the sniveling showbiz coward or the decent, caring man – will win out.
But it’s Larry’s sidekick, Hank Kingsley, played by Jeffrey Tambor (who went on to star in another brilliant ensemble comedy clearly inspired by The Larry Sanders Show, Arrested Development) who comes closest to overshadowing the rest of the cast (he doesn’t, but only – you suspect – because he knew it would diminish the show if he did). Hank has all Larry’s insecurities plus a whole pile of his own, exacerbated by the fact he’s so firmly stuck in his sidekick role. He knows, deep down, that he’ll never be the ‘face’ of a talk show, any talk show. He knows that everyone else knows it. He knows that everyone else knows that he knows it. And yet he’s never quite able to admit it to himself. And so Hank is doomed to forever strive for a kind word from Artie or Larry, some glimmer of hope in his hopelessness. Always hovering on the edge of conversations, and of life. It’s tragic. But very, very funny.
Which is a good description of the show itself. There are plenty of laugh-out-loud one-liners, and some great physical comedy, particularly in the cast members’ reaction shots. At the same time, though, there are numerous moments when we get a glimpse of the humans behind the showbiz facades that is genuinely touching, such as when Larry threatens to leave the network if Hank doesn’t get what he wants in his contract negotiations. Of course, he’s then unable to admit to Hank that he cares enough to have done that. Which, it’s later revealed, may be because Larry didn’t actually care, at least about Hank, but wanted to test his own power over the network (he moans to Artie that the network didn’t respect him enough to grant all of Hank’s contract demands). And that’s a pretty good summary of the kind of complex motivations that underlie most of the characters’ actions in Larry Sanders. Even when they’re being sweet, they’re probably being assholes.
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