Every single episode of “The Larry Sanders Show” is quotable. How many shows can you say that about? Or is that one of the things we use to measure our favorite TV shows? With comedy,
The first episode of the series had its voice and identity in place immediately. There’s no growing pains at all in “What Have You Done For Me Lately?” The central dynamic that drives the show… Larry, Hank, and Artie… is firmly in place, and each of them is as clearly defined in the first half-hour as they were in the last episode years later. In this season, Larry’s married to Jeannie (Megan Gallagher), and his personal life is one long hall of mirrors, watching his own show at home after spending all day awash in it. Hank’s desperate need for recognition and love is already on display, and I love when “Kingsley’s Queens” come to visit, his fan club of middle-aged ladies. There’s a tension between Larry and the network from the very start, and I like that they never name the network in the entire run of the show. It’s just “the network.” It’s wild how little the landscape has changed for late-night talk show guys, and after the last year of Conan and Leno and hoopla, oh my, it feels appropriate to watch this series again as a sort of chaser.
The episodes that follow are just as strong. “The Promise.” Great stuff. Big laughs. “The Spiders Episode.” The simple thrill of hearing Carol Burnett say, “I saw your balls.” “Guest Host” taps that recurrent anxiety of being replaced that fuels almost all the choices people make over the course of the series.
One of my favorite moments is in the episode “The New Producer Episode” where Hank walks into Larry’s office to show off an earring he just got, and Larry begins to torture Hank by suggesting to him that it might be infected. The more Hank squirms, the more Larry twists. It’s a great moment between Shandling and Tambor. And as funny as it is, the scene that follows is almost pure drama, with a piss-drunk Rip Torn and a morose Tambor talking about the end of their careers. Great stuff. It escalates into Hank and Artie breaking into Larry’s office and throwing a fit at him. It’s amazing and real and naked and there’s almost no laughs built into about ten minutes of the show, and that makes it even better when the laughs do start paying off again.
“The Flirt Episode” is one of the smartest dissections I’ve seen on the bigscreen or the small screen about why Hollywood marriages fall apart. It lays out the way opportunity and weakness of character combine to sabotage even the happiest of unions, and although it lets Larry off the hook, the seeds are sown. We as an audience know that he absolutely is capable of self-destruction. Hank shaking the keys to his beach house at him (“I’m impressed. You usually give in by the third time.”) is a reminder of all of Larry’s transgressions in the past, and an admission that it will happen again.
In “Hank’s Contract,” there’s an amazing moment where a stripper pops out of a cake at a party for Hank, and it’s all fun and laughs until she recognizes Hank from a one-night stand and the party turns into an ugly confrontation. When I saw these episodes the first time, I’d never seen television like it. There’d never been television like it.
And as with “The New Producer Episode,” it’s the escalation. Hank storms into Larry’s office for an amazing meltdown, and it’s got some of the ugliest moments and funniest lines of the first season. It all comes to a head with a cough on a speaker phone. The reason Tambor’s portrayal of Hank Kingsley is one of the finest things ever done for television isn’t because of what a buffoon he is, it’s because of the dignity he holds onto with both hands even after his most insane moments. Tambor makes him real.
By the end of the first season, the show’s purpose has come into focus. It is all about stripping ego away from these characters whose whole world runs on ego. It is a beautiful thing to watch. No matter how much “uncomfortable comedy” people create, and it is everywhere these days, rewatching “Larry Sanders” from the start has got me realizing that the genre erupted in the wake of this show for a reason. It is a re-education.
In the first episode of the second disc, “Out Of The Loop,” there’s a weird little meta moment that reminds me of the surreal silliness of “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show,” his earlier sitcom, in which Larry remarks to Artie about the rhythm of the patter that the show had already established. I adore the moment where Darlene (Linda Doucett) is transcribing “Hank’s Thoughts.” The punchline to that is outstanding. “No, no, no… we never edit ‘Hank’s Thoughts.'” By the way.. Linda Doucett? I’d forgotten. Oh, my. The way the episode deals with the notion of being “connected” is really interesting, because it ultimately makes the case that it’s better for a boss to know nothing about the people who work for him.
The second episode of the second disc, “Talk Show,” is where the cracks in Larry’s marriage suddenly erupt into a separation, moments before he’s going to walk out on stage for his monologue. It’s a hell of a way to start an episode, and a lovely illustration of just how weird things can be for a performer, and what a skill it is to be able to perform under that kind of emotional barrage. He does his whole monologue, never betraying his real mindset, and only afterwards does he try to get Artie to cancel the show. They can’t, of course, and so the episode becomes the back and forth between the public and the private. “They get you for eight minutes, and I get you for ninety seconds. That’s pretty much the whole problems right there, isn’t it?” she says, just before he goes on for his first interview. It’s a wrenching look at the end of a marriage, and there are phrases that seem brutally frank. Right before they come back from commercial, Larry mumbles “This show is a miserable, torturous hell” within earshot of Catherine O’Hara. Gallagher’s work captures all the misery that potentially exists in a show business marriage. I barked out loud at the exchange between Artie and Jeannie about Larry, when Artie says, “You have to think of a performer like a small, helpless child.”
“No, Artie. I have sex with him.”
“I’m so sorry,” Artie purrs as he makes his exit. And when the episode wraps up, it’s a great wrap, making the point that backstage friction can sometimes create great onscreen energy.
The third episode of disc two is a direct follow-up to the previous one, with Jeannie making an effort to invite Artie and his wife to dinner at Larry’s house. It’s an unspoken violation of a boundary, and the episode expands our understanding of all of the characters, seeing them out of context for the first time, and it introduces a wonderful bit of tension with the idea that Larry would like to retire and move to Montana. Rip Torn does one of his great terrifying drunks here as the party wears on, one of many that he does over the course of the series, and even if it’s a shade less funny in light of some of Torn’s recent troubles, there’s no doubting how genuine his performance is.
The weakest material in the season is on this disc, with “The Warmth Episode” and “A Brush With The Elbow Of Greatness” exploring the idea of Larry as an asshole, but it makes a strong finish with “Hey Now,” an episode that’s all about the tenuous bonds between Larry and Hank, which is always always always fertile ground. As I watched it, I remembered the feeling at the time, the excitement at what it felt like they were getting away with. Television had always been the same as I was growing up, and cable series were almost always weaker by design than network programming. I had a real hard time accepting that network TV had any juice left in it after seeing a season of this show, and watching the entire first season again, I feel like it’s still as brave as the best of what’s on the air right now.
It’s going to be a real blast to revisit these seasons in the months ahead. God bless Shout! Factory for all their work in getting this out there. I was told at one point by someone in a position to know that Shandling didn’t want to put out the entire series, that he didn’t think people would really want every single minute of it. Obviously, they finally convinced him to change his mind, and fans, hopefully old and new alike, are richer for it.
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