Classic Comedy: The Larry Sanders Show

Modern LCD HDTV. Clipping path for both screen and tv outline.

Anyone who still persists in claiming that Americans don’t do or get irony is either a) stupid, b) making an annoyingly tedious generalisation or c) hasn’t seen any American comedy of the past two decades. They’ve also definitely never watched The Larry Sanders Show. One of the finest situation comedies made on either side of the Atlantic, it’s a rare tv programme in that it’s consistently intelligent and incredibly funny, where there isn’t a single bad episode, and despite having characters who are largely shockingly self-centred it’s strangely lovable too.

The late, great series creator Garry Shandling started out as writing for series like Sanford and Son and Welcome Back, Kotter, and as a stand up comedian, before getting his own show in 1986, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show. Despite being a tad cheesy at times, it was fairly groundbreaking material, breaking the fourth wall around the same time as Moonlighting did, but taking the idea a step further with Shandling regularly talking to the studio audience, walking between sets and mocking the show’s plot. As much as I love Shandling it was a little too neurotic on occasion (one long running joke concerning the state of Garry’s hair soon became more than tiresome) and the supporting characters were patchy at best, but it was knowing enough to be enjoyable, and certainly far more innovative than the majority of the sitcoms of the time.

After it finished in 1990, Shandling disappeared out of the spotlight for a short while, before returning with The Larry Sanders Show in 1992. Some may argue that he was essentially playing himself again, but this really is questionable, and more importantly Larry Sanders was a far more complicated character, needy, egotistical, and filled with self loathing, doubt and pity, and with a sometimes vicious wit that was far more cutting than Shandling ever was in TGSS. Set behind the scenes of a popular late night chat show, it was a mix of satire and farce, always smart and always satisfying. But what makes it worthy of a “Classic Comedy” slot? The sharpest of scripts, certainly helped matters. Unlike most US product of it’s time, it really has a feel of being uncensored, with strong language and dark subject matters. As Shandling explained in 1994: “We can show people in the show-business world talking as they really do, which does include profanity. Also, we explore a dark side of people’s personalities that often network shows aren’t willing to explore, because it is not always pleasant.”

The series didn’t bother with a traditional beginning, launching straight in to the action as Larry is forced by the network to do adverts for the first time in the show’s history. It was the first sign that this is a chat show in decline, and this is what the whole series is about, the gradual demise of a tv show. But what it also often did best was highlight the differences between how celebrities act in public and in private, revelling the dark, twisted truth about fame. Considering this, the amount of celebs prepared to send themselves up during the series run is really quite astounding, and unlike in The Simpson’s they walked away with dignity and their reputations not just intact but always improved. For instance, David Duchovny’s crush on Larry must go down as the funniest thing he’s ever done, Bobcat Goldwaithe silenced the critics who thought he was a lunatic, and Jim Carrey’s appearance in the final episode is often cited as the best work he’s ever performed. This list could go on and on, but hey, we don’t want to spoil the show for you all.

Another of the great things about The Larry Sanders Show is it’s huge cast of incredibly well developed and complicated characters, and not just Shandling’s neurotic, self-obsessed but semi-lovable Sanders. Rip Torn’s Artie is quite simply one of the all time classic comedy characters, full of passion, and intelligence, yet all too aware of the hypocrisy, madness and general insanity that makes Hollywood what it is, and he loves it all despite that. Janeane Garofalo as Paula added an acerbic wit to the show, Wallace Langham’s head writer Phil is one of the most unpleasant character’s you’ll ever see on a tv show, yet still oddly appealing at times, whilst Penny Johnson Gerald’s Beverly provided much needed warmth to the show. She know’s Larry’s an arsehole, but that deep down, somewhere, there’s something left of a human being there. But if it wasn’t for Hank, well, this would only have been just a quite special show. Hank’s a former cruise director and a “poor deluded bastard,” and so self-pitying, such a horrific failure of a man, who is desperate to hide his far too many failings, that it’s simply quite hilarious. All it takes is for me to hear his infamously terrible catchphrase “Hey Now” and I’m chuckling loudly every time. So many moments, so many painful yet godamn funny moments are due to his perfect portrayal of this pitiful man. He’s so good, you just cant help loving him, despite, well, despite everything.

Unlike too many sitcoms that we could mention, TLSS didn’t suffer after losing cast members either. When Hank’s assistant Darlene (Linda Doucett) left the series (reportedly after ending a relationship with Shandling, who rather unfortunately she later sued for sexual harassment), she was replaced by The Kids in the Hall’s Scott Thompson. He injected even more bite in to the series, in two seasons turning from a naive innocent to a fully paid up member of the jaded generation, threatening to sue the show in the episodes leading up to the finale, reflecting Doucett’s real life situation. Refreshingly it was one of the few US sitcoms from the nineties where characters didn’t learn something about themselves each week, it had no real moral centre, if anything the characters often became more and more shallow with each episode. By the final series Larry would only date attractive celebrity guests, and was obsessed that they had to be “Good Guests” at that, and Hank became consumed with panic over the fact that it was all coming to an end and that it was only a matter of time before everyone realised what a “Talent-less fuck” he really was.

As an aside, it also serves as a perfect education for working in tv. I worked in the industry for a few years back at the turn of the century, and on my first job I managed to avoid making so many mistakes that others didn’t, all thanks to TLSS. So I didn’t talk to any of the “talent” unless they talked to me first, I never suggested to producers that they were doing something wrong even when they clearly were, and I made sure that it always looked like I was working hard, even if I maybe wasn’t…

So, you’ve got dark, twisted comedy, farce, satire, celebrity guests sending themselves up delightfully, and the best education for working in tv that you could ask for. Plus countless laugh out loud moments in every single episode. And a series which never jumped the shark, which never went on for far too long. Can you think of any other show that has managed all of this? If you can please let me know, because I’d love to devour every second of it.

Alex Finch.
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