ago, as "The Larry Sanders Show" ended its six-year run on HBO,
the song playing over the final credits was "Will You Love Me
send-off, perfect for a character whose exquisite narcissism
was matched by his sustained insecurity, has new relevance:
the show is about to become available to a much larger audience,
as it appears on basic cable for the first time. Tomorrow night
Bravo will begin replaying all 90 episodes of the half-hour
comedy that satirized late-night television and the entertainment
business in general.
Sanders Show," starring Garry Shandling as the host of the struggling
talk show-within-a-show, quickly made its mark as something
fresh and daring when it appeared 10 years ago. David Chase,
the creator of "The Sopranos," told me recently that "Larry
Sanders" was the last television show he followed on a regular
basis. "That show inspired me to want to do something really
good for television," he said.
seem like a big leap from "Larry Sanders" to "The Sopranos,"
but it's not, really — not if the crucial measurement is the
willingness to risk an audience's affection to get a character
or a situation right. Tony Soprano may explode cruelly while
Larry Sanders merely whines, but neither of them panders, the
way most television characters inevitably do.
Sanders Show," which was created by Mr. Shandling and Dennis
Klein, became a cultural reference point and a critical darling.
(In a precursor of how the Emmy voters would treat HBO's "Six
Feet Under" this year, it was nominated for 56 Emmys over its
six seasons and won just 3.) But not many people actually saw
it. HBO had 17 million subscribers in 1992, compared with 26
million now, according to Kagan World Media, and only about
1.5 million of them watched "The Larry Sanders Show." "The Sopranos,"
by comparison, reached 13.4 million people with its season premiere
earlier this month, rivaling many network shows. (Bravo reaches
65 million homes.)
repeated "Larry Sanders" on its HBO Comedy channel, whose audience
is tiny, but wider syndication outside of cable wasn't likely.
The show was too sophisticated, the language too earthy. It's
a perfect fit, though, for Bravo, the film and arts cable channel
whose most popular show is "Inside the Actor's Studio." (Almost
perfect: being on basic cable requires some snipping of language
here and there.) James Lipton, the amusingly fawning host of
"Actor's Studio," appears in promotional spots for "Larry Sanders,"
and that seems appropriate too, because both shows have been
places where celebrities wanted to be seen. Over the years,
Larry's "guests" included Warren Beatty, David Duchovny, Jim
Carrey, Carol Burnett and Jerry Seinfeld.
see "Larry Sanders" during its original run, and I wondered
if a talk-show satire would have a topicality whose effectiveness
had expired. Not a problem. There are some wincing moments,
like an opening monologue built around Princess Di's bulimia.
(The joke probably worked when she was alive.) But Clinton sex
jokes told in 1992 now look prescient.
the material that might seem dated simply becomes an amusing
pop-culture footnote. Jon Stewart appears as a guest host who
Larry thinks is being groomed to take over the show. Now the
joke has a different spin, since Mr. Stewart has become the
host of his own late-night news parody, "The Daily Show," on
Comedy Central. And Larry, well, Larry is in reruns.
competition, Leno and Letterman, are still around, and the cult
of celebrity still thrives, even though celebrity status comes
and goes faster than ever. When was the last time you thought
about Mimi Rogers? She appears as a guest on an early episode.
But in a way, Ms. Rogers's present obscurity only emphasizes
how silly the celebrity game can be, how little it can take
to become one and how quickly it can all be over. That harsh
reality feeds the neurotic spring from which much of the show's
gives a fine performance as herself in a first-season episode,
flirting with Larry so vigorously that he drops his usual aloofness
and flirts back on camera. But even though Larry's wife gets
jealous — as you might expect — the episode ingeniously riffs
on the cant and brutality of show business, the show's recurring
theme. Mr. Shandling captures the triviality of late-night banter
by mimicking it so well. The rest may come naturally to a neurotic
stand-up comedian: the understanding of fragile ego and morose
was never a one-man show, despite its title. The durability
of "Larry Sanders" depends on its marvelous cast, including
a superb Janeane Garofolo as Larry's snarly talent booker, and
a broader agenda than simply mocking show-biz patter. Its cruelest
wit and funniest moments come in the back-stage machinations,
the entertainment world's version of office politics. Larry
asks Dana Carvey to be his guest host for a week, thinking they
are friends — they've even scheduled a roughing-it male-bonding
holiday together. But during his week as guest host, Carvey
seems intent on stealing Larry's job. I say seems, because in
Larry's world, where paranoia rules, every smile is subject
to interpretation, especially Larry's.
truthful character is Artie, Larry's worldly wise producer,
played by Rip Torn with an exquisite blend of cynicism and sentimentality.
He conveys an encyclopedic knowledge of Hollywood treachery,
which doesn't stop him from occasionally demonstrating true
affection for Larry. In fact, the show thrives by acknowledging
the careful interplay of affection and treachery. These people
love what they do, even as they suspect it might be destroying
captures the chilling banality of Larry's world — of television
itself — better than Jeffrey Tambor's superb portrayal of Hank
Kingsley, Larry's sidekick. Unlike Larry and Artie, who understand
how ludicrous their world is even as they are completely absorbed
in it, Hank is a true believer. He warms up the audience before
the show by assuring them, "You are all part of the show; the
better you are, the better Larry is." Larry is embarrassed when
called on to do a live commercial for the "garden weasel," a
gimmicky gardening tool. ("I'm a day away from being the funny
weatherman in Houston," he laments.) But Hank is happy to do
anything for an extra moment of air time. He is a product of
our media-sated culture, in which any appearance on-camera,
no matter how humiliating, self-defeating or brainless, is an
opportunity. It would never occur to Hank to ask the obvious
question: An opportunity for what?
on the other hand, faces every opportunity with dread, fully
understanding the price exacted. It's that understanding that
makes him poignant as well as funny, even when he's being an
incredible jerk. Mr. Shandling has yet to find another vehicle
to showcase his specialty act the way "Larry Sanders" did. Not
that he hasn't been busy. He's been in a couple of movies that
came and went quickly: "What Planet Are You From," directed
by Mike Nichols, and a Warren Beatty picture, "Town and Country."
He was host of the 2000 Emmy Awards and has been doing stand-up.
He's working on a film project with Jim Carrey called "Over
the Hedge," an animated picture about a raccoon and his best
friend, a turtle, trying to fight the encroachment of suburbia.
there is no yesterday on television. "The Larry Sanders Show"
can seem fresh and funny all over again, and Mr. Shandling remains
one of the most incisive commentators on the medium. In one
episode, a spider trainer has been booked; Larry is supposed
to allow two tarantulas to crawl on him, and he is terrified
by the prospect. "Why are you doing this stupid spider stunt?"
his wife asks him.
producer understands the potential of the spider act — the bravado,
showmanship and desperation it can take to hold onto an audience
that's always ready to click away for some new cheap thrill.
"This is great television," he says, with the understanding
that in television "great" has many meanings. "Survivor" has
been called great television, while fans of "The Sopranos" often
compliment it by saying it isn't like television at all. "The
Larry Sanders Show" works both ways, great television on all