[Ed. This piece was originally written/posted in 2011. It’s reprinted here to mark Gary Shandling’s recent passing.]
I’ve never subscribed to HBO. There may have been a month here and there when it was provided to us here in New Gloucester, by mistake, or as part of some promotion, but when the cable monolith inevitably attempted to charge us, we balked. The movie-watching we missed as a result of this cultural diminishment we didn’t see as relevant.
However, many is the time I wish I had seen all those episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Larry Sanders Show.
Last year, from some Bangkok street vendor, I procured up first four seasons of Curb, for a ridiculously small sum. It was good. I had seen the odd show here and there. But ultimately I had trouble watching them en masse. After 5-6 episodes, not even a full season, I found myself worn out but the sameness of each plot: No, Larry. No, don’t do that. Oh geez…
By contrast, IFC started rebroadcasting The Larry Sanders Show in January and with a deft flick of my DVR settings, I have proceeded to record each and every episode, in order, from the very beginning of the show’s run in 1992. It’s hard to keep up. My family rolls its eyes when they glimpse the list of recorded shows and spy this sea of Larry.
I’ll temper my ultimate, unfettered enthusiasm by saying the first two seasons of Larry Sanders were only slightly better than average — and something of a letdown when contrasted with the glowing tributes this series routinely garners from TV cognoscenti. These episodes didn’t suffer from a sameness, a la Curb, but I did find myself wondering why it is I am supposed to care about any of the main characters who are unfailingly funny but rather shitty.
Well, I can report that by Season 4, the show officially hits its stride. It’s not just easy for me to sit down and watch 2-3 episodes in a sitting; I make time for it. Indeed, I recently watched the fictitious talk show’s 8th anniversary special, and it struck me that a number of things have come together, revealing the show’s genius and explaining all the accolades I’d read and listened to over the years.
First and foremost, the cast has turned over a bit. Now, in the fourth season, a glut of young comic talent — well, they were young in the ‘90s, when the show first aired on HBO — has been assembled and appears regularly. Phil the head writer and Larry’s assistant Beverly have been joined by:
• Janeane Garafolo, who plays Paula the alt-obsessed talent booker. In one recent episode, she’s obliged to appear on the show and, though ambivalent about the exercise, takes heart that it might be seen by members of Pavement;
• Sarah Silverman, who has just come aboard as the new writer;
• Scott Thompson, of Kids in the Hall fame, who has taken over as sidekick Hank Kingsley’s personal assistant, replacing the shapely but boring Darlene; and
• Bob Odenkirk, alum of both Mr. Show and The Ben Stiller Show, who “guests” recurringly as Larry’s prick agent.
These characters — along with Garry Shandling’s Larry Sanders, Jeffrey Tambor’s Kingsley, and Rip Torn’s Artie the Producer — form the comic core of the show. As an ensemble, this small group of lead actors is superb. Kingsley is one of the more hilariously execrable characters ever created for television, a vain, callow, needy/greedy, ultimately obtuse douche who, as we learned in a recent episode involving a sex tape he made, happens to be hung like Affirmed. Shandling and Torn are priceless. It just works.
And this isn’t the half of it really, because what truly makes the show is the constant stream of real-life celebrity guests who come on the show — The Larry Sanders Show and the fictional talk show — where they parody themselves, show business, and their particular shows/films with startling honesty, irony and crudity. Four seasons in, many of these folks have appeared often enough, or been pilloried by other cast members frequently enough, that they come off as minor show characters in their own right.
The 8th anniversary show drove much of this meta-smorgasbord home, for me: The fictitious show writers have concocted an on-air sketch whereby guests Noah Wylie (from the ‘90s hit hospital series ER) and Mandy Patinkin (from its contemporaneously rival hospital drama Chicago Hope) are to participate in a mock shit-slinging match, on camera, right there on the couch, thereby sending up a contrived rivalry between the two shows and their respective casts. When they are briefed on all this in the Green Room, backstage, Patinkin refuses and proceeds to shit all over ER for real — calling it a superficial day camp for beautiful actors and actresses. What’s a put-on — in this show within a show, this green room within a green room — and what’s not, is difficult to parse. It’s also a scream. Meanwhile, another guest, CBS sportscaster Pat O’Brien, is across the green room trying to watch the show on a monitor and keeps yelling, “Would you two shut the fuck up?!” Another guest, Rosie O’Donnell sashays about bemoaning the fact that her limo never came, a fact that obliged her to drive herself to the taping and park her own car.
These cameos are part of the show’s meta-bolism. KD Lang is a guest, too, and apparently she’s Hank’s neighbor in Malibu. They hate each other because squirrels living in a tree on her property are dropping acorn shells into Hank’s pool — and he recently responded by downing the entire overhanging branch with a chainsaw. They bump into each other backstage, getting coffee, and she dresses him down, salty as can be — adding that she wishes he’d stop vacuuming his pool in the nude. The casual profanity combined with the audience’s knowledge of Lang’s bisexuality (real), not to mention Hank’s giant schlong (?), is hysterical.
Linking all these disparate bits in a mere 30 minutes of narrative is the fact that Larry is so keyed up for the show, he forgets his ritualistic pre-air whiz. So he keeps trying to slip out for a pee between guests, or when Lang is performing, only to be foiled each time. During one break, he runs into Fred Corcoran, legendary producer of The Tonight Show and the model for Artie’s character. Larry tries to pull away (cuz he really HAS to go) but Corcoran offers, offhandedly, that “Johnny says hello.” Larry’s supreme vanity trumps any urethral discomfort, preventing him from leaving. “Johnny says hello? Really? Does he watch the show? If you could arrange a lunch sometime…”
20 seconds, Larry!
Another piss-attempt is scotched right at the bathroom door when Farrah Fawcett shows up. She’s the one who apparently hit Rosie’s car in the parking lot and is trying to find her. She’s quite flirty with Larry. This doesn’t help when husband Ryan O’Neal emerges from the bathroom — still angry with Larry for bumping him from an earlier show (the actual subplot of an earlier episode). This is just the sort of meta-celeb character history that continually loops through the series. In this same anniversary episode, George Segal stands around in a tux shamelessly hoping to fill in, in case a guest no-shows… The whole Ryan/Farrah vignette takes all of 45 seconds, and you gotta love the fact that these two would agree to show up, if only to send themselves up, for less than a minute of face time on The Larry Sanders Show. Even so, it takes long enough to foil Larry’s desperate plan to drain the Main Vein.
15 seconds, Larry!
For fans of the show, none of this is news. Indeed, it’s more than a decade late. However, I’m telling you, it’s all very well done and to those who’ve been similarly remiss I heartily recommend a DVD purchase or perhaps the IFC/DVR route. Another sanguinary aspect? The show is set in the 90s, when some of us were still young (Sharon still is), O.J. was still on trial, ER still ruled the Thursday time slot, Boris Yeltsin jokes remained current, and Farrah still walked the Earth. It’s also an entertaining window on the Clinton Era. With Season 4 behind me — wherein Larry also slept with Ellen Degeneres and fends off the sexual advances of the X-Files’ David Duchovny — I’ve got a feeling the best may yet be to come.