Judge Chris Claro's experience with Sanders is limited to his seventh-grade shop class.
Garry Shandling broke ground—and the fourth wall—with It's Garry Shandling's Show. With a Dadaist's sensibility, Shandling deconstructed the sitcom and reassembled it by turning the conventions of the form in on themselves. Stepping off the set, addressing the audience directly, having Rob Reiner do his dishes—Shandling was the progenitor of the anti-sitcom, laying the pavement for everything from Seinfeld to Family Guy.
Once his first series ended, Shandling returned to television with something more conventional but equally ingenious. At first glance a standard workplace comedy, The Larry Sanders Show was, and remains, a scathing, insightful indictment of the ego-immolating business of funny. Defined by his neurosis, insecurity, and anger, Shandling's Sanders was the proverbial man behind the curtain, one that bifurcated his life: the handheld, contrasty film of his offstage day-to-day on one side, and the polished, locked-down, high-gloss sheen of his show persona on the other. For six seasons on HBO, Larry was capable of being engaging and entertaining and petty and spiteful, all within the same six-minute interview with Bob Saget.
Facts of the Case
In an ego-bolstering move that would make the title character smile—for maybe a minute—Shout! Factory has gathered all 89 episodes of The Larry Sanders Show into a box that is larded with riches, rife with commentaries, new interviews, a commemorative booklet, and a stunning documentary about the history of the show.
With celebrities playing "themselves," the fractured showbiz saga that was The Larry Sanders Show found much of its comedy in the way that Larry's guests mercilessly lampooned their own foibles. Whether it was Tom Petty coming to blows with Greg Kinnear, Lori Loughlin filching dough from Larry's wallet, or Ben Stiller battling Larry over who's the sexiest, the real vs. "real" cred that came with a Sanders appearance made the series that much more layered. Through its run on HBO, The Larry Sanders Show made meta its mantra and did so in tight episodes that were sometimes as short as 21 break-free minutes.
1992 saw the first salvos in what have become known as the Late Night Wars. (I was always sorry those wars weren't followed by summits, peace talks, and eventual trade agreements.) Carson retired, Leno horned in, Arsenio made his mark, Letterman fled and waters that had been calm for 30 years or so started to roil.
Shandling was well-briefed in the ways of late night, having served as Carson's primary fill-in in the wake of Joan Rivers' departure for her own short-lived gabfest in 1986. It was only natural for Shandling, with his experience writing for Sanford and Son and Welcome Back Kotter that he would be able to turn the jockeying and back-stabbing of latenight into compelling television.
And compelling it was, as Shandling made Larry's vulnerability his most relatable trait and his sharpest weapon. In the season 1 episode, "Guest Host," Larry enlists Dana Carvey to sit in, but the pull of the desk proves too strong for Larry and being away from it arouses suspicion in him about Carvey's true motives. The final act for the two comics is a masterpiece of passive-aggressive joviality hiding their true rage and insecurity in the name of maintaining Hollywood "friendship." It's among the earliest examples of the way Shandling and writer Peter Tolan (Rescue Me) were able to delve beyond the false-front Hollywood facade to the bubbling core of self-doubt that plagued Larry, his guests, and his staff.
Though Larry is captain of the ship of narcissism that is his eponymous show, his staffers, true to their chosen industry, are as heartily unbalanced and self-obsessed as their skipper. Larry's nightly couchmate, Hank Kingsley (Jeffrey Tambor, Arrested Development) a fragile, obsequious man-child whose relentless self-promotion masks—barely—his pathological neediness, is both Larry's friend and his supplicant, dependent on the show host for his job and his emotional sustenance, only one of which Larry can provide without suffering his own nervous breakdown.
As devoted as Hank is to Larry and the show, his insecurity and cupidity lead him into ill-fated business ventures, like investing in the Look-Around Cafe, a revolving restaurant "where you and your food go on an adventure." Never one to let a bad idea pass him by, Hank, in episode 19, gets a gig promoting the Hankerciser, a contraption that injures Larry's wife and leads to an epically funny scene in which Hank blurts out the slur of all slurs about her and almost literally self-destructs the second it crosses his lips. Though Hank means well, his emotions outpace his intellect by about a block and a half. As his producer reminds a network suit about Hank in episode 45, "The Fourteenth Floor," "His heart's in the right place, but he keeps his brain in a box at home."
Hank's certainty that showbiz is vicious even if you're a success like his "good friend" Ray Combs is seconded not only by Larry, but by the Sanders show producer, Arthur (Rip Torn, Men in Black). Four-times divorced, veteran of flings with Angie Dickinson and Elizabeth Ashley, amateur horticulturist and aficionado of Salty Dogs, Arthur is Larry's producer, protector, and father confessor. With the devotion of a St. Bernard and the jaws of a pit bull, Arthur runs interference for Larry with the network, using bluster, brains, and balls to keep the eternally teetering talk show host from losing his grip.
Add to the Sanders brew the sardonic and insecure guest booker Paula (Janeane Garofalo, Ratatouille), witty and insecure writers Jerry (Jeremy Piven, Entourage) and Phil (Wallace Langham, CSI), and Larry's insecure and efficient assistant, Beverly (Penny Johnson, 24, and the Sanders crew is a junction of dysfunction that somehow manages to create sixty minutes of nightly television.
Shout! Factory has done a stunning job of amassing a museum of Sandersabilia to supplement the episodes in the box. In addition to in-one interviews with Johnson, Piven, and Linda Doucett, who was Shandling's real-life girlfriend and sued him after their relationship ended and she was fired from the series, the box includes what are called "personal visits" with Shandling and such guest stars as Jon Stewart (The Daily Show) and Sharon Stone (Bobby). Shot verite style, with no cuts, the one-on-ones are a fascinating look at the off-camera Shandling, whose deliberate cadence and thoughtful mien contrast Larry's silence-filling badinage. Whether he's talking to Tambor and Torn in his living room, or in the ring sparring with Alec Baldwin (30 Rock), Shandling's investment in Sanders is palpable, and hearing him reminisce about the production of the series with his co-workers gives the episodes a subtext that makes a densely layered show even more so.
Adding to the depth of the set is a documentary hosted by Greg Kinnear, about the production of The Larry Sanders Show that benefits from the recollections of many of the principals and closes with a touching callback to the show's final episode featuring Bruno Kirby (Donnie Brasco), a Shandling friend who died just a few weeks after his appearance was shot. The box also includes a thirty-minute segment of a conversation between Shandling and Los Angeles Times critic Howard Rosenberg in front of a class at USC. Finally, the keepsake booklet in the set is well researched, if sloppily edited—the former SNL regular is certainly not named "John Lovett,"—and beautifully laid out against a backdrop of script pages covered with notes.
Technically, The Larry Sanders Show: The Complete Series looks as alternately gritty and glossy as it did back in the day. On one of the show commentaries, director Todd Holland recalls how HBO pushed Shandling and Co. to prettify the film portion of Sanders, but he pushed back, wanting to emphasize the contrast between the low-lit grain of backstage and the taped sheen of the talk show. Though there's a measure of compression artifacts in the filmed segments, it doesn't detract from the show itself. Audio is on a par with visuals, with the stage segments notably brighter and more sharply mixed.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As raw and penetrating as many of the episodes in The Larry Sanders Show: The Complete Series are, it's impossible over the course of 89 episodes not to have a few misfires. Occasionally Shandling and his writers found themselves resorting to sitcom contrivances that weren't worthy of the show, chief among them episode 10, "Party," in which Garry's soiree entime mushrooms into an affair to forget that includes his entire staff, his pissed-off wife, and an uninvited Martin Mull. As well, episode 72, "Make a Wish," with its stewpot of terminal illness, Cuban cigars, and Ben Stiller, plays almost like a rejected Seinfeld script. But even the too-wacky sitcommery in these episodes is not a total disaster, thanks to the actors, who remain totally committed to their characters and the situation.
The Larry Sanders Show: The Complete Series is a compendium of one of the finest comedies about show business ever made. It cuts with a singular precision and gives an inside-out view of popular culture that makes it as relevant today as it was nearly twenty years ago.
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