If one were to make a list of the most influential TV series that almost nobody watched, HBO's The Larry Sanders Show would be at the top. During its 1992-1998 run, it never got the industry accolades fans felt it deserved, and although it routinely ended up on critics' year-end Top 10 lists, it got a meager handful of Emmy nominations and just three awards, a paltry number for a series that was often called the best thing on TV. And it rarely drew more than a couple million viewers per episode, a decent number for a premium channel in the pre-Sopranos era, but puny by broadcast network standards.
History, on the other hand, has rendered a glowing verdict. Created by actor-writer Garry Shandling and Dennis Klein, The Larry Sanders Show changed the look and feel of TV comedy. Its influence was felt almost immediately, and its impact continues to resonate. Although it wasn't the first half-hour series to strip-mine the comedy of embarrassment, affect a laid-back, naturalistic style, or do without a score or a laugh track (except in the talk show sequences), the program's combination of these elements was so distinctive that they amounted to a new template—one that subsequent programs borrowed and customized. From actor-writer-producer Ken Finkleman's seriocomic Canadian series The Newsroom through the British and American versions of The Office and NBC's current hit 30 Rock, which often feels like Larry Sanders played at double-speed, the series evokes that apocryphal line about Velvet Underground: Three thousand people bought their first album, and every one of them started a band.
Legacy aside, The Larry Sanders Show was a quietly astonishing series. Its greatness is confirmed by The Larry Sanders Show: The Complete Series, a DVD box set by Shout! Factory, the patron saint of cult TV. (The company has also released sets of My So-Called Life, Mystery Science Theater 3000, Freaks and Geeks, and Shandling's other great comedy, It's Garry Shandling's Show.) This set represents the third try at making the show available on home video—and the first that can be called a success. It was preceded by stand-alone first and second season collections that apparently weren't popular enough to merit follow-ups; a subsequent sampler disc, Not Just the Best of the Larry Sanders Show was a frustrating grab bag that ruined the architecture of the series' season-long arcs (the cover appropriately showed Larry slumped in a chair, covering his face in shame). The Complete set won't win any awards for presentation. Image quality in the first three seasons is grainy and washed out, a fault that a Shout Factory! representative attributes to a lack of good masters. And in some episodes we see the entire image that was recorded in-camera during production rather than the so-called "safety zone" further in—which means boom microphones that weren't visible during the original broadcasts sometimes poke into the top of the frame.
But this set is still a treasure trove for Larry Sanders devotees—the first comprehensive set of episodes, with outtakes, commentaries and a separate disc of extras (many of them seen in previous sets, but still). Watching all the seasons back-to-back, it's hard not to appreciate the high level of craft that Shandling's cast and crew brought to every scene and moment. Larry's warning to viewers before cutting to a commercial, "No flipping," could double as praise for Shandling's series; once those white-on-black credits appeared, backed by the off-screen sound of sidekick Hank Kingsley (Jeffrey Tambor) warming up the crowd, the viewer was in a comic universe that was immaculately detailed and hermetically sealed: a snow globe full of bile. From its pitiless portrait of showbiz narcissism to its on-a-dime switching between videotape and film (establishing an art/life boundary that the characters willfully breached) to its then-innovative use of the SteadiCam to transform long, complex dialogue scenes into kinetic "walk and talk" setpieces (a technique pushed to the breaking point on Sports Night, E.R., The West Wing, and other programs), The Larry Sanders Show infused sitcom conventions with cinematic flair and refused to sugarcoat its corrosive wit. (It also made the greatest use of the final-kicker freeze-frame since Police Squad!) It bears favorable comparison to the original 1971 The Heartbreak Kid, Elaine May's A New Leaf, Mike Leigh's unsparing domestic comedies, and the early films of Albert Brooks—all of which cast a cool eye on limited, neurotic, self-regarding people, and staged comic confrontations so mortifying that viewers often found themselves watching the screen through the spaces between fingers.
The series even denied itself the one crutch that otherwise tart comedies often indulged: the so-called audience surrogate character, more sinned against than sinning, who stands at the center of the maelstrom, giving viewers a sweet, decent, "good" person to identify with. Mary on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Alex on Taxi, and Sam Malone on Cheers had flaws. But they were more grounded and sane than the oddballs, hustlers, and fools swirling around them—flattering mirrors held up to the audience. There is no such person on Sanders.
The title character—brilliantly underplayed by Shandling—is a vain, pampered jackass whose insecurity and self-regard destroys his relationships with women and leads him to delegate almost every important decision in his life to colleagues and employees (thus insuring that if anything goes wrong he can blame it on someone else). He's late night's Narcissus, holding court during the tapings, then going home to watch himself on the tube. (He sometimes invites his dates to join him; what a turn-on!) He throws himself into the show because he can't function outside of it. "You're like one of those goddamn creatures out of Greek mythology," Artie tells him. "Half-man, half-desk." At the end of Season 2, Larry quits the program in a fit of pique and moves to a remote cabin in rural Montana, where he watches old tapes of himself over and over. (To get back on the air in Season 3, Larry lies to the network's new owner that he's addicted to prescription painkillers; by the end of that season, Larry's addiction is genuine—and the metaphor is impossible to miss.) His sign-off prior to this short-lived retirement is, "You may now flip," and he delivers it dry-eyed, perhaps subconsciously realizing (as we do) that he doesn't mean it. Larry says something similar near the end of the show's multiple Emmy-winning 1998 finale "Flip"—a stunning re-imagining of Johnny Carson's farewell that replaces Bette Midler's farewell torch song to Johnny with Jim Carrey belting the Dreamgirls anthem "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going." But this time there's no backing out; that's why Larry's tears are real. Separate a man from his desk—or a junkie from his drug—and you get waterworks.
Larry's second banana, Hank Kingsley (Jeffrey Tambor), is one of the most venal and pathetic characters in TV history—a former cruise ship entertainer elevated to minor stardom by Sanders. He's sadly lacking in the charisma necessary to take the spotlight and plagued by fears of irrelevance and worthlessness, and takes out his insecurities by throwing drama-queen tantrums and casually insulting those lower on the production's totem pole. Larry's producer, Artie (Rip Torn), is a showbiz veteran of near-mythological awesomeness—a four-times-divorced Korean War veteran who seems to know everyone in Hollywood (and who once dated Kim Novak). But Artie is as damaged as Larry and Hank; he's a heavy drinker with a morose, self-pitying streak, and he has a knack for delivering brutal kiss-off lines with a raised eyebrow and a grin, so that the person on the receiving end doesn't quite know how to respond. ("Don't take this as a threat," Artie tells an interfering female executive from the network, "but I killed a man like you in Korea. Hand-to-hand.") In the Season 4 episode "Arthur After Hours," Artie gets drunk with the show's Russian janitor late at night on a deserted soundstage and belts "I Wanna Be Around," a song about rejection that's plainly directed at his egotistical, clueless boss, and a long-running TV show that he believes doesn't appreciate his devotion. ("I Wanna be around to pick up the pieces/When somebody breaks your heart/Some somebody twice as smart as I...")
The secondary characters are no less edgy and troubled. The show's first head writer, Jerry (Jeremy Piven), is a lazy, horny, substance-abusing screw-up who eventually gets axed for incompetence. (When Jerry tries to save himself with a self-pitying three-hanky monologue, Artie cups a hand to his ear and crows, "Do you hear that, my boy? I believe that's the sound of the needle breaking on the Bullshit-O-Meter!") Jerry's replacement, Phil (Wallace Langham), is a wheedling suck-up who undermines his colleagues at every turn. The program's hip, cynical talent booker, Paula (Janeane Garofalo), tries and often fails to focus her energy on a job, and a medium, that she secretly feels is beneath her. (She keeps it real by dating local rockers.) The series' closest equivalent to functioning people are Larry's loyal, tough right-hand woman, Beverly (Penny Johnson-Gerald), and Hank's two assistants, the kindhearted, voluptuous Darlene (Linda Doucett), and the quick-witted, openly gay Brian (Scott Thompson). But their willingness to subject themselves to unrelenting discomfort—sometimes outright abuse—makes you wonder what private demons they're wrestling with. (Brian's list of unpleasant tasks assigned by Hank includes "digging through Great Dane poop looking for a ring.")
The Larry Sanders Show also presents what other industries would call "inappropriate behavior" as the show business norm. Larry has little patience for any woman as strong or accomplished as he is, and often seems to be looking for a concubine rather than a mate. He dates and sometimes beds the female guests (some, like the charming man-eater Sharon Stone, are willing and unflappable; others only say yes for fear of offending a powerful talk show host). He has a one-night stand with Beverly following his divorce; briefly reunites up with his first ex-wife, a journalist named Francine (Kathryn Harrold, who acted opposite Albert Brooks in Modern Romance); and gets sued by a fan that claims Larry impregnated her (after denying that he knows her, Larry sheepishly admits that she gave him a hand-job in the parking lot of a Denny's). During Hank's own post-divorce crisis, he numbs his loneliness with booze and hookers, lamely flirts with female guests on- and off-camera, and puts the moves on a horrified Darlene. (In a creepy outtake included as a DVD extra, Hank reads over Paula's shoulder while stroking her shoulder and neck.) Late in the show's run, Brian gets fed up with the constant stream of homophobic jokes—mostly from Hank—and sues the program for sexual harassment. "Goddamn it, what has happened to courtesy and respect in this world?" bellows Hank, a prime suspect in their disappearance.
Given the show's head-on engagement with ugliness and pain, The Larry Sanders Show's knack for staying warm, funny and light on its feet is a triumph—and its warmth is a minor miracle. Shandling and his team (including head writer Peter Tolan and regular director Todd Holland, who helmed most of the episodes) regard Larry and company with wry detachment, scrutinizing them without fear or favor. But they also leaven the characters' misbehavior, cruelty, and pain with wry banter, elaborate profanity, rude slapstick, and empathy that wells up subtly, naturally, often when you least expect it.
In the Season 3 episode "Hank's Divorce," for example, Hank is in such pain—and projects so much of his agony onto others—that he's unbearable and nearly unwatchable. Artie, who is to divorce what Clint Eastwood's Heartbreak Ridge character was to war, visits Hank at the hotel where he's been getting drunk and bedding hookers, and witnesses a tearful breakdown too raw to be amusing; you can no more laugh at Hank's shuddering sobs than you can titter at a car wreck or a hanging. The moment pushes even further toward darkness when Artie pulls an automatic pistol and dares Hank to kill himself—the point being that if Hank isn't miserable enough to end it right there, things aren't as bad as they seem. It's a gruff gamble that no therapist would endorse, but in the straight male-dominated culture of ‘90s talk shows, it's just what Hank needs—and the episode's final scene reveals that the super-macho veneer is just that. Artie ambles into Larry's office to tell the boss that Hank will be returning to work and produces the pistol. Larry grins as if reuniting with a long-lost friend. "Is that the divorce gun?" he beams, then lights Artie's cigar with it. Freeze-frame; roll credits.
Matt Zoller Seitz is a writer and filmmaker whose debut feature, the romantic comedy Home, is available through Netflix and Amazon. His writing on film and television has appeared in The New York Times, New York Press, and The Star Ledger, among other places. He is also the founder of The House Next Door, a movie and TV criticism website.More articles by Matt Zoller Seitz
Author's Website: The House Next Door