Kicking ass in the morning is better than cappuccino.
One of the best sitcoms to emerge in the past fifteen years or so is Garry Shandling's The Larry Sanders Show. This continuing mockumentary set in the crazy world of late night talk shows is angry, mean, sweet, funny and real. Season One has made its way to DVD courtesy of Columbia TriStar in a lackluster box set.
Facts of the Case
• "What Have You Done For Me Lately"
• "The Guest Host"
• "The New Producer"
• "The Flirt"
• "Hank's Contract"
• "Out of the Loop"
• "The Talk Show"
• "The Party"
• "A Brush with the Elbow of Greatness"
• "Hey Now"
Journey back with me to the early 1990s. With David Letterman leaving NBC for the greener pastures of CBS, the late night wars were beginning to kick into high gear. Yet, it is the late, late night wars that bring us to the disc on today's docket. Garry Shandling was a sometimes guest host on Johnny Carson's version of The Tonight Show and had already starred in a ground breaking situation comedy on the Showtime network. Called It's Garry Shandling's Show, it was in many ways television's first self-aware sitcom, and in more than a few ways set the table for what Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David would do some years later. But I digress. In a nutshell, NBC needed to replace Letterman, and Letterman needed a show to follow his at CBS. In the end, NBC found a former Simpsons writer named Conan O'Brian to fill Letterman's old haunts, while Letterman in turn approached Shandling about the late, late slot. In retrospect, it makes sense. Jay Leno was the pretender to the Carson crown, but if you turned to CBS you could watch two hours of late night talk with a couple of guys who Carson approved of. Yet, Shandling turned him down and the later spot went to Tom Synder.
Still, the idea of a talk show must have appealed to Shandling because in 1992 The Larry Sanders Show premiered on HBO. It was quite simply unlike anything that television had ever seen before. Here was a show dealing with celebrities with the actual celebrities playing versions of themselves. Here was a show unafraid to have all of its lead characters be selfish, bitter, narcissistic bastards willing to shove anyone aside to further their own agenda. These are characters that lie, cheat, and throw daggers behind the backs of their so-called friends, but a moment later will smile and ask how the family is. Or as Arthur, my favorite character in the show, says at some point, "I speak fluent bullshit." If Seinfeld was a show about nothing, then The Larry Sanders Show is a series about the mundane things that most people don't give a second thought to, but in the ego driven world of entertainment, these little things are tantamount to a declaration of war or invasion of territory. It's petty, childish, and does not speak well of our fascination with the glitter of Hollywood, but The Larry Sanders Show is almost impossible to not watch, and damn it's funny. Still, if that was all the show were, it would be difficult to stomach, but no matter how childish some of the characters act towards one another there is always an underlying feeling that the show's three main characters—Larry, Artie, and Hank—all share a deep love for each other. The problem is that none of these three men know how to express that love. There in that unspoken emotional conflict lays a great deal of the show's humor and in an odd way, its warmth.
The opening episode set the tone for what was to come, but this is a show that had the advantage of knowing it was going to get 13 episodes, thus the shows that are aired are not shown in the order with which they were shot. Indeed, it is the darker, more dramatic show that closes season one was actually the first episode shot. Closing the season it fit perfectly, whereas if it had been the introduction to the series, I don't know if it would have fared as well.
I was preparing my notes and trying to pick a couple of favorite episodes when I realized that I found something funny in each segment. I suppose if I were pinned down and had to pick a favorite episode, I would lean in the direction of any one that had a lot of Rip Torn (Men in Black) in it. In a cast of lunatics with wildly different agenda's and crazy ways of moving them forward, Torn's Arthur is the craziest of the bunch. A shameless ass kisser who serves as Sanders protector, confidant, and security blanket, Arthur is always good for a back stabbing one liner that rules the episode. It really is the part of a lifetime and Torn makes the most of every chance.
Part of the fun of a show like this is watch and wonder where does the person end and the actor begin. Seeing Garry Shandling go through his paces is kind of like watching Woody Allen. The character has to be a part of his personality, but how much? As Sanders, Shandling takes whining to a new level. His lack of trust of anyone around him to his need to be coddled at all costs makes for an endless minefield of comic explosions. A show is only as good as its lead and as far as the lead is willing to trust the talent of the people around him. Shandling scores major points on both points. I look at this show and at my worn-out VHS tapes of It's Garry Shandling's Show and I'm left wondering, where does he go next?
In a cast that is full of characters driven by their insecurities, none are most desperate for attention than Jeffrey Tambor's (Pollock) hapless sidekick, Hank "Hey Now" Kingsley. The butt of most of Arthur and Larry's jokes, Hank would be the lovable loser in most scenarios, but here he is just a loser who got lucky and is forever fearful that he will be found out. Paranoia and passive/aggressive behavior, thy name is Hank Kingsley. Hank is so afraid to enter Larry's office that he has his assistant ask Larry if its okay and then Hank enters asking his host if he wanted to see him. It's touches like this that seem so preposterous that you just know they must rooted in real life. I think therein lies the real appeal of this show. There is a palpable sense of reality to the entire production. It may not be blow-for-blow accurate, but the tone feels real. That and it's fun to watch bad things happen to rotten people who basically love each other, even though they could never admit it. Also, if the show has that real life façade to it then that sense is driven home by all the real "stars" who appear in the show. Dana Delaney, William Shatner, Jon Lovitz, Michael Richards, George Foreman, Robin Williams, and Billy Crystal are just a sampling of the star power The Larry Sanders Show has on display its first season. Every guest star seems to get the joke and play funny versions of themselves. It takes star watching to a whole different level.
If the writing and acting was razor sharp, then the direction of the series was something special as well. All of the on-camera talk show segments were shot on video tape, while everything that happened off camera was shot on film. Indeed, this handheld camera work gives the series a distinct documentary feel. It is an aspect that could be overdone, but the show balances everything out quite well. It's yet another layer that gives The Larry Sanders Show the feeling of truth. So hats off to season one's main directors, Ken Kwapis and Todd Holland.
On the tech end…well, the show is still really funny. Presented in standard format and filling up everyone's 4:3 television sets, the picture is a real letdown. As noted above, the show was shot on video tape, 16mm, and 35mm film. Thus, some problems are to be expected, but the image is soft and lacks detail. There is also a noticeable amount of grain, noise, and dirt apparent with colors often appearing washed out. On the plus side, there is a distinct lack of edge enhancement to be seen, but on the other hand there are many instances of compression artifacts. To say I was disappointed is an understatement. These episodes don't look a whole lot better than my VHS copies, and that is a shame.
Sound is a perfectly serviceable 2.0 Surround that really sounds more like a fat mono. Like an Altman film, there is a lot of overlapping of dialogue and it all comes through more or less clear. The soundtrack is fairly clean of hiss or distortions, so I guess we should be glad for that.
The set's only extra feature is a conversation between Garry Shandling and Washington Post television writer Tom Shales. The segment runs just under 30 minutes and was obviously produced for this DVD release. It has a nice sense of perspective to it and Shandling has several interesting stories to relate. It is curiously placed on the first disc, but I would recommend watching it after you have watched all the episodes first.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I try not to look gift horses in the mouth, but could Columbia have put less effort into this box set? Sure, the conversation with Shandling was great, but it only got my appetite warmed up for more. This is, after all, a groundbreaking series; surely a commentary or two would not have been so difficult to arrange. Deleted sequences? Shandling himself mentions some trims that were made to the first episode shot; where are they? Then there was the problem with the interview itself. Rather than concentrating on season one, the session covers episodes from the series' entire run. Where does this leave future box sets? Will they not even feature brief interviews? All anyone has to do is look around and see what Fox, HBO, and A&E do with their television properties to see that Columbia has really lowballed this effort. It's a shame and I hope there is improvement on the next set.
There are a lot of great names in television comedy. I think Garry Shandling belongs in that group. The Larry Sanders Show really is must see TV and it proves that HBO really knows what it is doing with its original programming. Too bad they were not allowed to produce this box set.
While the show itself is brilliant, the presentation by Columbia on DVD is much less so. Depending on how you feel about this show will dictate if you are going to want to buy or rent. I probably would have bought this on my own had it not popped up in my mailbox, but after looking at the way this release was butchered, I would not have felt so good about it.
Larry, Artie, Hank, and the gang are all released for funny, funny work. Columbia is given five to ten with a reduction in sentence possible depending on future behavior.
Case dismissed. "Hey Now!"
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