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From the DVD Shelf: The Larry Sanders Show: Season One

Last week I wrote about season one of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, the ahead-of-its time sitcom created by and starring Garry Shandling, that aired on Showtime from 1986-1990.  As I have been watching It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, I have simultaneously been re-watching Mr. Shandling’s second TV show, The Larry Sanders Show, which aired on HBO from 1992-1998.  (It’s absolutely incredible to me that, after a LONG wait, BOTH of Mr. Shandling’s TV shows were released in complete-season sets within just a few months of each other last year.  I was originally going to watch It’s Garry Shandling’s Show all the way through, and then revisit The Larry Sanders Show, but frankly I just couldn’t wait that long before diving into one of my favorite television shows of all time.)

Garry Shandling plays talk-show host Larry Sanders, and the show is clearly inspired by Mr. Shandling’s many years on the talk-show circuit, both as a frequent quest and eventually as a regular guest-host for Johnny Carson.  (Mr. Shandling was at one time a candidate to replace Johnny Carson as host of The Tonight Show — but ultimately he decided he’d rather play a talk-show host on TV than actually BE one.) In every episode, we see some snippets of the Larry Sanders Show talk-show, though the bulk of each episode takes place behind the scenes, as we follow all of the Hollywood back-biting, self-aggarndizement, and other forms of ridiculousness involved in creating a five-nights-a-week talk show.  In one of the show’s most brilliant creative conceits, the footage of the Larry Sanders talk show was shot on video, while all of the behind-the-scenes material was shot on film.  This simple visual device is a great hook for the show (and also an easy way for less-attentive TV viewers to keep track of what’s what in each episode).

Mr. Shandling is supported by a remarkable ensemble, most notably Rip Torn as Larry’s loyal, bull-dog producer Artie, and Jeffrey Tambor as Larry’s dim side-kick Hank Kingsley.  Artie and Hank represent two of the greatest characters ever created on television — a testament to the magnificent writing on the show as well as the formidable acting talents of those two men.  I’m laughing right now, as I type these sentences, just thinking about all of the ridiculous antics those two characters got up to over the course of the show’s run.

The rest of the group is pretty phenomenal, as well.  Janeane Garofalo turns in a star-making performance as Paula, the show’s deadpan, seen-it-all booker.  Jeremy Piven and Wallace Langham are a riot as the show’s two head writers, each of whom presents a sarcastic, tough-as-nails affect but who are both actually hopelessly needy and neurotic.  Linda Doucett plays the perky, naive Darlene, Hank Kingsley’s assistant, and Ms. Doucett is the perfect foil for Tambor’s Hank.  Their scenes together are consistently terrific.  Last but not least is Penny Johnson as Larry’s unflappable secretary, Beverly, who serves as something of a hall monitor trying to keep a lid on all of the craziness in the Larry Sanders office, though she gets to exhibit plenty of peculiarities herself.

The Larry Sanders Show was also notable (and incredibly ground-breaking) in its regular use of celebrity guest-stars, the vast majority of whom played themselves (or, more accurately, horribly twisted and over-exaggerated versions of themselves).  Season one boasts some terrific guest appearances, including David Spade, William Shatner (via speakerphone in a hilarious scene in which he gets wise to the writers’ mockery), Jon Lovitz, Dana Carvey, Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, Catherine O’Hara, and many more.

Because season one of The Larry Sanders Show was the only season that had previously been released on DVD (it was actually one of the very first complete season sets EVER released on DVD), I’ve seen these episodes many, many times before.  But they remain just as funny even upon the umpteenth viewing.

I had commented, in my review of season one of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, that while I could respect the incredible innovation and creativity on display, in many ways the show had become quite dated.  I don’t feel that’s the case at all for The Larry Sanders Show. If you told me these episodes had aired, brand-new, last month on HBO, I wouldn’t have any trouble believing you.  OK, some of Garry-as-Larry’s monologue jokes date the show, but in terms of the cinematic style of the show, and in terms of the biting humor and personal story-lines of the characters, The Larry Sanders Show still feels extraordinarily of-the-moment.  This is quite an achievement, and a rarity even among GREAT, classic TV shows.

Hank:  “What about the time I chipped my tooth on the bathroom urinal?  What the fuck is so comical about that??”  Larry: “It was a back tooth, hank.”

Season one starts out incredibly well, right out of the gate, with “What Have You Done For Me Lately? (AKA The Garden Weasel).”  This episode displays such confidence in its storytelling, and the characters are already so well-developed and with fully-formed interpersonal relationships, that it’s hard to believe it’s the very first episode.  (Indeed, the commentary track reveals that the episode was produced later in the season — they just decided to air it first.)  In this episode, Larry butts heads with the network (the first of many such interactions — Larry’s tenuous relationship with the network “suits” would become a long-running theme on the show) over their insistence that he begin performing live commercials on the show, as a way to keep the sponsors happy.

There are thirteen episodes in season one, and there’s nary a clunker in the bunch.  Other highlights include “The Promise,” in which Larry gets pissed at David Spade for appearing on another talk show the night before he was scheduled to appear on Larry’s; “Hank’s Contract,” in which Hank tries to play hard-ball with the network during his contract renegotiations (the scene in which Artie sneezes while listening in on Hank and Larry’s conversation over speakerphone is a classic), and “The Hey Now Episode,” in which Larry and Hank’s relationships hits a speed-bump after Hank falls asleep during a taping.

Really, the only-off moment in the whole season is early on, towards the end of episode 5, “The New Producer,” in which Artie tearfully professes his love for Larry.  While I appreciate any effort to bring some humanity to these characters, it seems like very un-Artie-like behavior, and is an oddly schmaltzy beat so early in the show’s run.  Had that scene come in season three or four, after we’d spent some time with these characters, I don’t think I’d have thought anything of it.  But at the end of only the fifth episode, the moment seemed out of place.

The Larry Sanders Show has appeared on countless Best-Of TV lists — including TV Guide’s top 50 TV series of all time, Time Magazine’s 100 greatest TV series of all time, and many more.  It deserves all of this praise, and much more.  The show is brilliant, biting, and very, very funny.  It was a delight to revisit season one, and I am very excited to move on to season two…!

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