"Great Television About Trivial TV"
The New York Times
September 29, 2002
by Julie Salamon

 

Four years 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 Tomorrow?"

That shrewd 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.

"The Larry 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.

It may 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.

"The Larry 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.)

HBO has 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.

I didn't 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.

Most of 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.

Larry's 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 humor flows.

Ms. Rogers 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 self-doubt.

But this 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.

The most 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 them.

Nothing 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?

Larry, 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.

Luckily, 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.

Artie the 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 counts.

 

<< back


Copyright © 2002 The New York Times. All rights reserved.

main - pictures - transcripts - multimedia - desktop - links