The Larry Sanders Show

views updated

The Larry Sanders Show

The Larry Sanders Show was a dark, hilarious, caustic satire of the behind-the-scenes world of late night television. Conceived by comedian Garry Shandling, it ran on HBO for six seasons, from 1992 to 1998. With a brilliant premise—the show chronicled the goings-on of a fictional late night talk show—The Larry Sanders Show starred Shandling as Sanders, the self-obsessed host, and the onstage/back-stage structure of the thirty-minute weekly comedy provided for very provocative, innovative television. The show-within-a-show construct revealed the talk show world as the characters really wanted it seen, while simultaneously showing the back stabbing, ugly showbiz world in which they actually lived. None of the characters on the show ever seemed to learn anything from their mistakes, and there were no happy or moralistic endings anywhere in sight.

The show was groundbreaking on a number of fronts (though it certainly owed a debt to Norman Lear's syndicated 1977-78 talk show satire Fernwood 2-Night). Unlike the major network half-hour sitcoms,Larry Sanders had no laugh track. The network powers-that-be had said that the lack of a laugh track was disconcerting to viewers, but HBO apparently had no problem with this, and it served to pull the audience in more, making them a part of the backstage world by letting them in on the joke instead of pointing the joke out to them. Because the show broadcast on HBO, it could utilize mature subject matter and language, without which the satire would not have been nearly as biting. HBO also allowed it less ratings pressure than the networks would have been able to, giving it time to build a loyal following while earning numerous Cable Ace awards and Emmy nominations. There were no sponsors to enrage, which can make for very edgy television.

As the show's chief plotline, Larry's self-loathing and egomania was alternately fed and assuaged by show staffers, girlfriends, and guests. Throughout the series, a number of characters came and went, but there wasn't a sympathetic one in the bunch. Larry's ex-wives and girlfriends paraded through, each one less likeable than the one before. Emmy award winner Rip Torn played Artie, the foul-mouthed, ego-soothing, Machiavellian producer who was perfectly suited to deal with Larry's raging insecurities and paranoid delusions. Jeffrey Tambor played his incredibly mean, stupid, obsequious sidekick Hank ("Hey now") Kingsley. Janeane Garofolo spent a few seasons as Paula, the smart-ass talent booker. Wallace Langham played Phil, the insensitive pig head writer. Scott Thompson played Hank's terribly efficient gay assistant Brian. All of them were preoccupied with losing the place in the showbiz food chain that they had scratched out for themselves, and they spent lots of energy trying to reinforce their positions by eliminating any obstacles, real or perceived. Larry and Artie occupied much of their time worrying about the ratings and the network bosses. It sometimes got very ugly. The characters seemed to be human shells, with no morals or consciences.

The show's guests were celebrities played by themselves, though they seemingly played exaggerated, distorted versions of themselves. Dozens of major stars, including Roseanne, Warren Beatty, Jim Carrey, Ellen DeGeneres, Dana Carvey, Sharon Stone, Robin Williams, Barry Levinson, and Carol Burnett, appeared on the program. David Duchovny had a very funny recurring role as a guest. Larry believes that David has a crush on him, and Larry's homophobic discomfort makes it nearly impossible to maintain his composure around an A-list star that he can't afford to lose as a guest.

In 1997, after the fifth season, Shandling announced that the 1998 season would be the last. In the first episode of the 1998 season, Larry performed the only brave act of the entire show. After getting pressure from the network bosses to make uncomfortable changes to the show in order to attract more and younger viewers, Larry tells the bosses off, and announces that he is quitting. The rest of the final season dealt with Larry's unraveling at the realization that the show is ending, and thus, he is losing his entire identity.

In a brilliant bit of real life irony, Shandling announced in early 1998 that he was suing his former manager, Brad Grey, a partner in Brillstein-Grey, the production company for The Larry Sanders Show. Shandling claimed that Grey made millions of dollars using his association with Shandling as leverage for attracting other clients, and that he should be entitled to money as a result. Shandling also claimed that Grey steered writers away from The Larry Sanders Show and toward other shows he produced. Grey countersued. The case continued, even as The Larry Sanders Show ended, taking its place in popular culture history.

—Joyce Linehan

Further Reading:

Shandling, Garry, David Rensin, and Lawrence Sanders. Confessions of a Late Night Talk Show Host. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1998.