We Did It All For Larry
by ELEANOR MORROW
Garry Shandling would have been the perfect host of late night talk show, but instead he gave us The Larry Sanders Show, 89 brilliant episodes about being backstage at one. It was the first multi-camera sitcom that took advantage of the form, and probably the best ever done. They could run it on HBO today, promote it like a new show, and it would feel like one except for the noticeable lack of cell phones.
Garry Shandling has a puffy, round face like a blowfish, and a gee whiz surface personality. You don't expect a blowfish to have charisma, but Larry had it, and a Jewish sex appeal, and a likeability that would have made him the perfect person to come home to every night. Fortunately, he was a better sitcom star.
Unlike Larry David and Woody Allen, Sanders doesn't hate himself. He loves himself more than anything, except for perhaps his show. Bill Carter's classic recounting of the war over The Tonight Show proved how lonely and depraved such people were to try and do comedy day after day. You can't do comedy in this fashion, to offer something fresh and new is impossible.
This format is the epitome of The Show Must Go On. Larry is a trooper. He may not do his show live, but he does it live on tape.
Airing on HBO from 1992-1998, Larry took the backstage showbiz cliche and perfected it until it was startlingly original. No show had ever had such a perfect ensemble cast, but Larry was the bulbous center. He was the name on the show, the man who has to go out there every night and brave the elements.
What we learned along the way was that he had to survive a constant barrage of backstage elements, too: producers jostling over how to handle him, office assistants who need to be appreciated and loved, network suits that wanted to replace him with someone younger and less Jewish, writers who needed his approval and their jokes on the air. Oh to be Larry!
Above all, there was the sex. Near his happy home (it once belonged to Johnny) Shandling has a strange sex life. The sexual politics of The Larry Sanders Show were those of the early 1990s, when this weird Victorianism that was floating back into American culture began to take root. For now, the guests of The Larry Sanders Show loved to have sex with anyone and everyone, but they didn't feel that great about it afterwards.
Between these encounters, the behind-the-scenes was generally fraught with envy and hatred. The Larry Sanders Show is supposed to be a satire, but it was also just as good doing real life.
In one episode, Larry got Ellen DeGeneres on the show, slept with her before the interview, tried to get her to admit her character on Ellen was gay on the air, and got ambushed by Ellen on the show for his trouble, and yelled at by his lesbian fuck-buddy afterwards. It simply doesn't pay to try to draw ratings.
Underneath his persona, Larry loved being in the business, but he didn't like being in the business. He was more comfortable with his ego being the biggest in the room.
Larry was constantly buttressed by two polar opposite figures. The first is his producer Artie, played by Rip Torn in the finest comic performance since Basil Fawlty.
This was the role of Torn's life, and you can see the cheeky fun he has playing someone who will do anything for the show, and anything for Larry, even though he may not completely like it. As a result, Artie spent most of his days lying to his friend, and keeping other people off Larry's back.
Jeffrey Tambor immortalized the role of Larry's sidekick Hank Kingsley, doing Leaving Las Vegas but as a comedy bit and stringing it over six marvelous seasons. Hank is the saddest loser in the history of American television, and Tambor gave himself over to the role of bald-headed insecure prick. These three elements would have been enough for a fantastic sitcom, but the rest of the cast was just as good.
Janeane Garofalo played the crass booker Paula before giving way to Mary Lynn Rajskub's more understated performance. Garofalo never found a better role. Wallace Langham and Jeremy Piven were Larry's writers, before Larry fired Piven for banging Hayden Panettiere. Sarah Silverman also made several amazing appearances as a writer on the show.
Penny Johnson was Larry's assistant, a strong black woman in a time when network television tended to avoid them, and Linda Doucett (later Shandling's girlfriend) was Hank's bosomy, hilarious assistant. Bob Odenkirk was Larry's agent, among many young comedians who burst onto the national stage with a small part in play in Larry's sad little life.
Larry's wives were also fascinating. I preferred Larry's more dickish first wife, Francine, but his second wife Jeannie had her moments too.
Utterly obsessed with himself, Larry has a hard time dealing with a woman as an equal since he is the only man and the only woman in his life.
Underneath that surly veneer was a comedian who just wanted to be liked. The Larry Sanders Show was funny people before Funny People; shit, Judd Apatow did his best writing for this HBO gem. Every comedian has something inside them that needs more approval, now, faster. When you have to watch yourself every single night, it's a bear. Larry does it though; otherwise, he can't appreciate what other people see in him.
Eleanor Morrow is the senior contributor to This Recording. She tumbls right here for your pleasure.
You can download the first season of The Larry Sanders Show here.
"In Inner Air" - Ateleia (mp3)
"Threaded" - Ateleia (mp3)
"Nightly" - Ateleia (mp3)