Maps to the Stars
David Cronenberg's film of Bruce Wagner's Hollywood satire-nightmare turns ludicrous situations into operatic tragedy.
August, 2012, marks the 20th anniversary of the debut of "The Larry Sanders Show," episodes of which are available on Netflix Instant, Amazon Instant, iTunes, and DVD. This is the third and final part of Edward Copeland's extensive tribute to the show, including interviews with many of those involved in creating one of the best-loved comedies in television history. Part 1 (Ten Best Episodes) is here and Part 2 (The show behind the show) is here.
"It was an amazing experience," said Jeffrey Tambor. "I come from the theater and it was very, very much approached like theater. It was rehearsed and Garry took a long, long time in casting and putting that particular unit together." In a phone interview, Tambor talked about how Garry Shandling and his behind-the-scenes team selected the performers to play the characters, regulars and guest stars, on "The Larry Sanders Show" when it debuted 20 years ago. Shandling chose well throughout the series' run and -- from the veteran to the novice, the theater-trained acting teacher and character actor to the comedy troupe star in his most subtle role -- they all tend to feel the way Tambor does: "It changed my career. It changed my life."
As talk show sidekick Hank Kingsley, Tambor embodied one of the greatest TV characters of all time -- alongside the legendary Rip Torn in his first role as a television series regular, playing Sanders' producer Arthur (Artie to most everyone, a shortening of the character's proper name that Torn said in a telephone interview originated with the actor's own initials). Writer-producer Peter Tolan said that Torn was contacted about the role based on his marvelous turn as Judgment City lawyer Bob Diamond in Albert Brooks' 1991 film "Defending Your Life." "[Garry and I] both thought that character shared some of what we hoped Arthur's characteristics would be," Tolan said in an email. On The Making of "The Larry Sanders Show" feature in the DVD box set, Shandling credits co-creator Dennis Klein with insisting that no one would make a better Artie than Torn. In an October 2010 New York Times interview, Shandling described his first two meetings with Torn.
"With Rip, he came in the first time, and his agent said he wouldn't read," Shandling recalled. "Weeks later, it was just him and me in a room with no one else, and I said to Rip, 'Could we read half of this together?' And he said, 'I don't want to read.' I said, 'That's totally fine,' and I pushed it to the side of the table. We talked for less than another minute, and he reached over and took the page, and he starts the scene. It's like trying to describe a good date to a friend the next day. I had to say to HBO and everybody else, 'Honestly, this is the best sex I have had.'" Torn said in a telephone interview that he had a very specific purpose in taking the role at that time. "I did 'The Larry Sanders Show' because I owed a lot of people money in my family. Some said I'd never pay them back -- but I did," Torn told me.
PAULA: Alright -- 45 minutes to find a guest host. Do I call the list of regulars?
PAULA: Howie Mandel?
ARTIE: You're right. Flop Howie and Louie. Bump Ritter to third from fourth and make sure that Seinfeld knows that he's our first choice. When he says no, make sure that Richard Lewis thinks that he's our first choice and so on down the list.
PAULA: Oh, your mind amazes me!
ARTIE: I'm just now comfortable with it myself.(dialogue from "Hank's Night in the Sun")
Columbo never had a first name and Artie never had a last one -- at least not that any viewer heard. Perhaps that's why he told Larry that one time that if he moved the talk show to New York, he would not follow, hinting at something sinister in his past. Most of what we know about Artie's past involves television, wives and starlets: His big break came on "The Jackie Gleason Show" in the 1950s, he walked down the aisle five times and while we witnessed his flings with Elizabeth Ashley and Angie Dickinson, we must take his word about Kim Novak and Jacqueline Bisset. One thing we do know for certain: Larry couldn't function without him. The classically trained Torn -- friend of Tennessee Williams and mainstay of stage and screen since the late '50s -- slipped on Arthur's starched suit and parsed the producer's profane parlance as if it were his own. In a long and storied career, Torn freely admits that he found the role of his life on "The Larry Sanders Show."
"Oh, by all means," Torn said. "I've got to say (Artie) is my favorite." The actor divulged that his years as a military policeman gave him the idea to provide Artie with the same background. He never let Artie slump, though he'd cheat sometimes if a scene called for sitting at a table. If you watch closely, even when Torn plays Artie drunk, his posture remains ramrod straight most of the time. As for the inspiration for the character himself, Torn said he based many of Artie's traits on his father. "He taught me when I was very young, 'Say what you mean, mean what you say and cover the ground you stand on,' and that's kind of the way Artie was. I wouldn't let anybody push him around," Torn said, acknowledging his father as the source of some Arthurisms such as "rolly coaster." The actor declined to name a favorite episode among the 89. "No, I liked them all," he said. "I liked some of the ones that they called me in at the last minute and I said, 'Give everyone else the lines and just give me a few.' I don't really think like that: I have six children -- four girls, two boys -- and that's like saying, 'Who is your favorite child?'"
His colleagues certainly recall the joys of working with Torn. "I shot a scene that called for me and Rip Torn to get into a physical altercation," said Joshua Malina, who played network exec Kenny Mitchell in the show's final season, in an email interview. "When it came time to rehearse, Rip says to me 'This first time through let's just mark it, then we'll figure out the physical stuff later.' I said, 'Sure.' We start to run the scene, and when we get to the fight, he throws me to the floor and starts pummeling me. Totally crazy, and I loved it." Malina wasn't alone when it came to tales of Torn enjoying his physicality. "When Rip Torn throws me up against the wall and fights me, he was so proud of himself because he really threw me hard against the wall," Bob Odenkirk, who played Larry's backstabbing agent Stevie Grant, said in a phone interview. "He's like, 'Did I hurt ya?' 'Yeah, you kind of did.' He smiled. He was just proud of his physical presence and his ability to bring it. Made me happy to make him happy."
Tambor talked about a time when an off-camera incident led to Torn giving him a helpful suggestion about playing Hank. "I remember I was on the set and I think I was rude to somebody or brought somebody up short. I apologized profusely and I said, 'That's not my character. I'm sorry about that.' I was talking to Rip about it and I told him how badly I felt and he said, 'Why don't you add that to Hank?' I did and it was very good advice," Tambor said.
Wallace Langham's acting career still was in its early stages when he began playing Phil, but working with Torn and Tambor offered great on-the-job training. "With Rip, it was 'Know your lines.' I developed a habit of 'playing it loose' sometimes that didn't fly with Rip. He's such a professional and I think it ruffled his feathers to have to put up with my improvs," Langham said in an email interview. "With Jeffrey, it was the opposite. 'What would happen if we did this?' Jeffrey teaches acting and loves actors, so I always felt that I could come at him with whatever I had and he would try and roll with it. It was absolutely the best training from both of these great men."
Torn, now 81, and his wife, actress/director Amy Wright, have constructed a theater in Lakeville, Conn., but Torn remains eager to work on other projects. "You can tell all of them out in Hollywood that I've still got a little gray matter left," Torn said during our talk. He also mentioned making the special feature for the "Not the Very Best of The Larry Sanders Show" DVD that reunited him with Tambor and Shandling at Shandling's home. "When we got together, I didn't boohoohoo, but a tear rolled out of my eye because I figured I'd never see those two guys again," Torn admitted.
"I think Hank Kingsley is one of the greatest characters in television history. So dimensional and so hilarious. Also very wounded and very deep." No, I'm not repeating myself. It just so happens that one of the future "Larry Sanders" regulars shared the same sentiment during our phone interview. "Obviously," said Scott Thompson, "the guy had to be good at what he did and there had to be affection from the Larry Sanders character towards him. An amazing performance." Now I will repeat myself, as I again express outrage at the Emmys for never honoring Jeffrey Tambor's beyond-brilliant creation. I'm grateful that they rewarded Rip Torn as Artie. However, never acknowledging Tambor (and not even nominating him for the season when the legendary "Hank's Night in the Sun" aired) borders on a crime against humanity. Sure, the Television Academy does select the right people and shows sometimes, but it seems as if they've become particularly adept at missing the most iconic performers and characters. Hank Kingsley shares space on the overlooked list with Jackie Gleason, Katherine Helmond's Jessica Tate, John Goodman's Dan Conner, Jason Alexander's George Costanza, Ian McShane's Al Swearengen, and, joining their ranks this year, Hugh Laurie's Dr. Gregory House. I could name many more (especially if I include those who were never even nominated), but I shall cease my digression and celebrate one of the most multilayered characters in the history of television as best I can. After all, the best the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences came up with for Alfred Hitchcock was a bust of the head of Irving G. Thalberg.
Now, I'm not alone in my love for that complex sidekick and former cruise ship entertainment director who one minute made you think he might be one of the most deplorable human beings on the face of the earth and -- seconds later -- made you feel true sympathy for him. "Larry Sanders" in general went to the humanity before the joke and found that element often dwelled in a very dark place. "Garry and his staff always went beyond the joke to something else and I thought that was a hallmark," Tambor said. In a telephone interview, Janeane Garofalo admitted: "I would say my favorite episodes are not Paula episodes, because I actually can't stand looking at myself or hearing the sound of my voice. I tend to love any Hank Kingsley. I just love Jeffrey Tambor so much." Specifically, she expressed fondness for anything that had to do with Hank's Look-A-Round Café, one of the best season-long running stories outside of "Seinfeld" or "Curb Your Enthusiasm" (somewhat ironic since Hank breaks down and misses his own grand opening and Larry and Artie find him passed out on the set of Jerry Seinfeld's apartment).
Another example: Hank tries to get Larry's ex-comedy mate, Stan Paxton (Eric Bogosian), to invest in the restaurant in season two's "Larry's Partner" (written by Drake Sather, directed by Holland), one of the series' darkest episodes. "So while you are eating, you and your food are going on an adventure," Hank explains. "That's great, Hank, because there's nothing I like better after a big meal than spinning around till I puke," Paxton replies.
Garofalo also said she loves (as do I) Tambor's scenes with his aging manager Sid Bessell (played by the late character actor Phil Leeds, who always turned up the laugh quotient, especially when he chewed out Bobcat Goldthwait for injuring him). Last, but certainly not least, Garofalo recalled the priceless scene where Phil tries to prove a point to Hank, who lives near the infamous Nicole Brown Simpson/Ron Goldman murder site but remains convinced that O. J. Simpson didn't commit the crimes. (Yes, it's a topical reference but, honestly, do O. J. jokes ever get old? Not when done this well.) While most of the other characters tended to belittle or mock Hank -- even his loyal first assistant Darlene (Linda Doucett) could grow tired of him -- Thompson made it a condition of his accepting the role of Brian that he wouldn't jump on that pile: "I made the decision to make my character respect him and I think I was the only character that really liked him and respected him. I thought, 'You don't need another character to mock Hank.'"
In the DVD documentary Tambor says the lengthy casting process paid off with the talents assembled. He remains grateful for the effect Hank "Hey now!" Kingsley had on his life and career, (In that same DVD feature, Shandling also cites Dennis Klein as the originator of the "Hey now!" phrase.) One of my favorite silent Tambor moments comes in the first season episode "Party" when Larry's wife Jeannie (Megan Gallagher), after hearing Hank recount the origin of his signature phrase, suggests, "Instead of saying, 'Hey now!' what about saying, 'Come here!'" His facial response, uncertain of how to react to the boss's wife, proves priceless. Tambor identifies with the multiple sides of the Kingsley character and still bristles when people emphasize Hank's more negative qualities: "He got petty -- I liked the pettiness of him too -- but this is also the guy that -- when someone fell out of the card party on Wednesday night and when Larry asked him to fill in -- burst into tears. I loved that part of him."
Right up until the series' final moments, Hank exhibited a love/hate relationship with Larry: "I think on a lie detector test, he would have passed saying he loved him," Tambor said. "I think he envied him. The episode that I thought was the epitome of all that was the episode ["Hank's Night in the Sun"] where Hank went on for Larry -- and Hank thought he could do it!" Like Torn, Tambor showed reluctance in selecting certain episodes over other ones: "It's like a mother -- they're all your children." Finally, I did get him to name two episodes that he felt showed the most different aspects of Hank's character: "One was one that Peter (Tolan) wrote about the yarmulke ["My Name Is Asher Kingsley"], where Hank refused to take off the yarmulke. That still makes me laugh, even in the retelling."
In a telephone interview Amy Aquino, who played the role of Rabbi Klein in "My Name is Asher Kingsley," described working with Tambor and on the show for a single episode: "He was lovely and real and generous as an actor. He was terrific. When you're coming in to do one episode, it can go a lot of ways -- especially on a very popular show -- but Jeffrey and everybody involved were instantly welcoming and gracious. They made you feel very special, that they were lucky to have you and it was a very nice feeling. That tends to lead to your best work as well, but it was genuinely sweet."
Aquino also shared a funny anecdote related to questions she had about the script: "When I auditioned for this episode, I went into the room and there were four or five of the writers there. Super nice, very enthusiastic. I started to ask some questions because in the script she's talking about keeping kosher and I said, 'If she's referring to practices that are Orthodox, but she's a woman... I don't think she would be a rabbi if it's Orthodox.' They all gave me these blank stares. I looked around and said, 'I'm sorry. Is this the only writers' room in Hollywood where there is not a single Jewish person? Am I the most Jewish person here and I am not Jewish?'" Concerns over branches of modern Judaism aside, Aquino found the "Larry Sanders" set to be quite welcoming. "It was a terrific set. It was really comfortable. It was really supportive. They were very much looking for my input," she said. Aquino serves as an officer in the recent merger of SAG (Screen Actors Guild) and AFTRA (American Federation of Radio and Television Artists). She is also appearing the recurring role of Donna, a woman who runs a soup kitchen, on the third season of SyFy's supernatural series "Being Human."
The second episode that Tambor chose as most representative of the many sides of Hank Kingsley shouldn't be surprising to anyone. "The one where I took over the show ["Hank's Night in the Sun"] because it had that mixture of comedy, and then it went to a very dark place which was the aspect of that show that I thought was brilliant." Of course, Tambor went on to create another indelible character on another terrific, albeit quite different, ensemble comedy called "Arrested Development." Approaching seven years since that Emmy-winning comedy aired its last episode, Tambor's George Bluth Sr. and the rest of his TV family are now filming a 10-episode fourth season to premiere via Netflix Instant and to be followed by a feature film. The busy actor also appears in the NBC midseason comedy "Next Caller," starring Dane Cook as a satellite radio host. As for his former "Larry Sanders" co-workers, Tambor has compliments all around: "Quite frankly, as an actor, everywhere you looked on that set -- from Rip Torn over to Penny (Johnson Jerald) over to Wallace over to Jeremy (Piven) over to Janeane and Mary Lynn (Rajskub) and Sarah Silverman -- everybody's position was held down so firmly."
I heard prolific "Larry Sanders" writer/producer Peter Tolan use the term "the troika" to describe how the staff referred to Tambor, Torn and Shandling. When that trio, or any combination pairing two of them, shared a scene, magic inevitably occurred. When "The Larry Sanders Show" reached its end after six seasons and 89 episodes, the series' final moments naturally focused on them. True, Larry's most satisfying relationship was between himself and his talk show, but in the final analysis, the most important interpersonal dynamic on the series concerned Larry, Hank and Artie. The chemistry of the three actors almost immediately set off sparks. "I felt that all of our sensibilities were on the same page," Tambor said. "Rip is a walking acting legend. By the way, Garry is a very dedicated actor and I think much underpraised for his acting," Tambor said. I understand why he feels the need to emphasize Shandling's thespian skills. Shandling the comedian, Shandling the writer, Shandling the creator and Shandling the boss -- all those Shandlings earn deserved praise, but Shandling's acting as Larry Sanders never received appropriate kudos. Too often people assumed that he merely played a thinly veiled version of himself, but Shandling wasn't really Larry Sanders any more than he was the Garry Shandling he portrayed on "It's Garry Shandling's Show."
"I remember once looking at his script on his desk and it was marked up, it had notes on the side," Tambor said. "He really did his prep. He really worked hard." That work paid off; Shandling only grew more assured as the series went on. In fact, he'd taken acting and writing seriously for a long time. Dissatisfaction with writing scripts for shows such as "Sanford and Son" and "Welcome Back Kotter" led him to standup comedy in the first place. While performing comedy, he also took acting classes with his revered teacher Roy London (director of season one's "Hank's Contract" and season two's "The List"), who died in August 1993 at the age of 50. A credit giving London special thanks appears at the end of every episode. One of Shandling's fellow pupils in London's early 1980s classes happened to be Sharon Stone, who at that time in her career faced the opposite dynamic with Shandling that she encounters with Sanders in one of the series' best episodes, "The Mr. Sharon Stone Show," since back then Shandling had achieved more fame via his comedy than the still struggling Stone had as an actress.
That episode provides fine examples of the troika at work (and gives Jerald's Beverly a hysterical moment of play with "the boys") as well as some of Shandling's finest acting moments of the series -- comic and dramatic -- to that point. Meanwhile, Torn and Tambor do most of the comedic heavy lifting. Hank corners Larry at the crafts services table before the show, seeking details of the big date. "Let me explain something to you. I know that never in this lifetime will I enjoy the act of lovemaking with someone of Sharon Stone's caliber," Hank pleads as Larry focuses on missing doughnuts and his weight. "I'm asking you to take pity on me and share with me some of God's bounty which He has seen fit to bestow on you." Sanders informs his sidekick that he sounds as if he's quoting scripture. Artie's take doesn't border on the holy as he encounters Larry at a low point when he feels as if the entire romance revolves around the actress. "I warned you didn't I? If you're involved in a show biz relationship and the woman's more famous than you, she's the one with the dick," Artie proclaims.
That episode, written by Shandling and Tolan, grows better each time I watch it. "Garry is an actors' writer," said Langham. "He's also an actors' actor. That was evident from the start. I have never seen one person work so hard to nail a scene, a line, a moment. He really put a lot of pressure on himself to be the best he could be. Within that, there was never any expectation or competition from him regarding the rest of us." As the series developed, finding new avenues through which its characters could careen, Shandling himself grew more confident as an actor. When you compare his work in the first season, even when he faced the slow deterioration of his marriage to Jeannie, his acting wasn't as assured as it became in later seasons. In the first season's "The Flirt Episode" (written by Fred Barron, directed by Ken Kwapis), Larry gets overly friendly with guest Mimi Rogers and asks her back for the next night, raising wife Jeannie's suspicions.
In the scene, Megan Gallagher's acting experience definitely shows when compared to Shandling. By the sixth season, Shandling easily switches from the serious yet still neurotic, self-absorbed Sanders, who can torture Illeana Douglas because her lack of talk-show guest skills makes him question a long-term commitment, only to spin and deliver dry comments on a pending lawsuit against the show and make it all sound as if it comes from the same person.
Though Torn admits to an ability to memorize lines quickly, he still enjoyed the last-minute changes that came with constant revisions. "I liked the fact that...a lot of times when we got there, even though we'd had some rehearsals, it had changed again because (Garry) had been working with the writers. It was just a lot of fun." However, he wasn't as eager to end the show after six seasons as Shandling was: "[Garry] said, 'What's wrong with six seasons?' I said, 'Seven's a better number.'"
PHIL AND JERRY
While the real writing staff of "The Larry Sanders Show" remained flush and full of talent throughout the show's run, the original plan was to cast a sole staff writer for the fictional Larry Sanders Show. As with all the casting decisions, Shandling didn't rush to make a pick. Wallace Langham attended his original audition with Francine Maisler, who headed the team in charge of the series' original casting. "I had three pages to work with, but I could tell that this was a project like nothing I'd ever seen before. The audition went well, Francine thanked me for coming in. Then, I didn't hear anything about it for six months," Langham said.
During this same time, other actors -- including Jeremy Piven -- were considered for the part of Phil -- the only writer in "The Larry Sanders Show" script that was read at the auditions. "I got a callback to meet with Garry and felt an immediate connection to him," Langham recalled. "He popped his head in the waiting room, looked around and said, 'Oooo, I don't like this room. Too much desperation. I think I'll go back to my room.' After I read for him, he told me that they were only doing 13 episodes. I said, 'Are you kidding? I'll be happy to be in one episode!' I guess he was right about the desperation." According to Langham, Shandling and company had narrowed down the choices for Phil to him and Piven, but couldn't decide between the two actors. "It was Linda Doucett who suggested that they hire us both. That was how Jerry came to be, and we were the first two actors hired," Langham said. In the office hierarchy of the show's early days, Jerry held the title of head writer though he also tended to be a screwup. While both were smart alecks, Phil tended to be more intent on doing his job -- at least in those early days.
As fate would have it, Piven decided to pursue a movie career early in the second season and that folded in perfectly with the show: Jerry lost his job for his misbehavior. As Artie tells him: "You come in late, you take naps in your office, you pick girls out of the audience lineup and ask for their numbers. You have fucked at least three interns that I know about -- one out there right behind the fucking desk. You have to be a genius to get away with that stuff." He added: "Don't sweat it, kiddo -- it's a good deal. You're getting fired -- they have to pay you for a month." Phil wasted no time trying to ingratiate himself with Artie and Larry, though it took some time before he officially earned the title of head writer himself. Many performers floated through the writers' room for various periods of time before and after Jerry's departure.
His immediate replacement, Mike Patterson, was played by John Riggi, who had written "The Hankerciser 200" episode and eventually became a full-time staff writer and producer on the show. "I did miss having Jeremy around," Langham said. "He was great to work with, always wanting to keep it all fresh and try things that would put us into the present moment. [But] having so many rotating writers illustrated the mercurial nature of being a writer. Sadly, TV writers can be used like Kleenex." In addition to Riggi, some of the other performers who passed through the on-screen writers' room included Mindy Sterling, Todd Barry, Sarah Silverman and Jon Favreau (who acted as Phil's partner in crime when they snatch "Hank's Sex Tape" from Kingsley's office). Of the real writers on the show, Langham admits to adopting some of Paul Simms' mannerisms for his portrayal of Phil. "Paul had a laid-back way of handling any drama that I found interesting. Also, he had a sneaky laugh that I ripped off," Langham said.
As for favorite episodes, Langham picks two. The second we'll discuss in more detail later. The first is the sixth season episode "Pilots and Pens Lost" by Peter Tolan, in which Phil abruptly quits with just weeks left to go on the talk show because he thinks he's got a shot at developing a sitcom only to see the network mangle it beyond recognition. "'Pilots and Pens Lost' was so great. Not only to be directed by Alan Myerson, an incredibly funny and gentle guy, but to have Dave Chappelle take control was fantastic! He kept saying to me, 'I can't believe I get to yell at Phil! I'm yelling at Phil!'" Langham said. The experience of working and with Shandling remains a high point for Langham. "He made an environment that was totally safe to work in and encouraged all of us to strive for better, even while in the middle of shooting a scene. It was the first time I had encountered that, and it taught me that we can find the truth of the material together as co-collaborators." Langham is currently filming his 10th season as lab tech David Hodges on the original "CSI" and plays legendary film title designer Saul Bass in the upcoming film "Hitchcock," about the making of "Psycho," starring Anthony Hopkins in the title role.
Without Artie, most work situations likely would overwhelm Larry Sanders. However, if Larry had never hired Beverly Barnes to be his personal assistant, the possibility exists that eventually the needy late night talk show host also would have lost the ability to feed himself. As I stated in the previous installment, of all the show's characters, Beverly stands alone in never showing a glimpse of insecurity about herself. She gets angry... and frustrated... and feels that her beyond-the-call-of-duty efforts for her boss earn little appreciation, but self-doubt fails to plague Ms. Barnes as it does the rest of the staff. Penny Johnson Jerald (who added her married name as an actress after the series' end) found "The Larry Sanders Show" a particularly enriching environment for a rising young actress and Shandling as nurturing an employer in real life as Sanders was the opposite on TV. "I think Garry was one of the most generous show creators that I've ever met still to this day. He duly considered our thoughts. He trusted our talents and he was wise enough to put together a chemistry of people who could truly play off one another -- and do it so it all looked as though it was unscripted," said the Juilliard-trained Jerald in a telephone interview. "I think I take away a naturalistic approach to acting from doing 'The Larry Sanders Show,' a way to put aside acting and just exist in the world of what's being handed to me. Having graduated shortly before that from one of the best schools in the world, you think, 'Well, what can this teach me?' Well, pretty much everything."
Her roles following "Larry Sanders" include Sherry Palmer, the conniving ex-wife of President Palmer (Dennis Haysbert) on "24" -- which would, at various times, also include in its cast "Sanders" regulars Garofalo and Mary Lynn Rajskub, who joined the "Sanders" family as talent booker Mary Lou Collins in the fifth season. I asked Jerald if her years in the entertainment industry, and on a show with such a cynical take on how it functions, informed her portrayal of the manipulative "24" character in any way. "No, playing that manipulative type of person later on in life -- that's called parenting," she replied. "I didn't (give credit) to anything else but raising a teenager." Jerald concurs with the other cast members about how the group assembled for the show aided her work and the series' success. "Working on 'The Larry Sanders Show,' everything was there on the paper and in the room and within the four walls when all of us were together. It was just all there," Jerald said. Her continued fondness for the show makes it difficult to respond whenever queried about a favorite episode -- or at least hard to give the same answer consistently. "I get asked that question a lot and I've noticed that every time I'm asked that question I have a different favorite episode," she said. "Today I think my favorite episode is when Beverly almost had it up to here with Larry and was not feeling appreciated and wanted to quit." We must have transmitted our opinions telepathically the day I spoke to her, because I'd select that third season episode -- "Would You Do Me a Favor?" (written by Maya Forbes, directed by Holland) -- as my favorite Beverly episode, too.
The episode shows Larry at his most self-absorbed and oblivious to those around him, at the same time he tries to avoid spending time with his visiting father. Hank delivers perhaps the most truthful intro to Sanders ever given as the host steps onto the stage: "And now because he needs you more than you need him -- Larry Sanders!" One story thread includes Larry's discovery that about $1,500 has vanished from his ATM account, though he admits to Artie that the only people with access to that account are Beverly, his business manager, his gardener, his housekeeper -- the producer cuts him off before he completes the list: "So technically your account is a slush fund for the entire Pacific Rim." Beverly finally takes it upon herself to force Larry to speak to his father on the phone, something Artie notes with suspicion. He advises her that she doesn't need to badger Larry about his father, to which she responds that she didn't see family therapist and a myriad of other things in her job description. Beverly's job requires her to "keep their little host happy, whatever that takes," he reminds her. "Sometimes I think it takes too much and do you think it would kill him to say 'thank you' just once?" Beverly replies. Artie eventually deduces from her frustration that Beverly took the missing cash.
In Jerald's best scene, Larry asks without accusing his assistant if she knows about the missing money and she calmly admits she took it before she explodes and explains that she wasn't stealing, she was simply charging for services rendered. A clueless Larry still can't grasp her point after she's finished making it, apart from suggesting that if some errands seem beneath her dignity (such as those involving his butt-ointment applicators), make "the weird intern" do them. In a brief appearance, we finally meet that weird intern, played by French Stewart. Today, Jerald is not only returning for a second season as police Capt. Victoria Gates on ABC's mystery series "Castle," but also attending law school, off-camera. After suffering a concussion from an accident and witnessing the legal system first-hand, Jerald decided to earn a law degree so she could help friends who couldn't afford attorneys if the need arose.
The brief scene above of Janeane Garofalo as a very emotional Paula from the first season episode "Party" (written by Forbes, directed by Holland) shows a side of the talent booker that viewers won't see again. At that point, Paula was a work in progress. Once the writers and Garofalo managed to get a better handle on who the character was -- cynical, pessimistic, acerbic as hell and damn good at her job -- how could you not love her? "That was my first acting job," Garofalo said in a phone interview. "I was lucky enough that Garry Shandling knew me a little bit from standup but Judd Apatow I think -- and I don't know if this is one of those stories that has been embellished over the years so I'm not positive, but I think Judd Apatow suggested me... and then Garry Shandling was doing the pilot of 'The Ben Stiller Show,' which I was working on, so I just got lucky and Garry took a chance on me. It was an amazing job."
Viewers got occasional glimpses of Paula's life outside the office. The young professional woman liked to date rock musicians and didn't care what band they belonged to as long as they were in one. She had a fling with Larry's weasel of an agent Stevie Grant. We even learned of her lesbian affair with comic Brett Butler while in college. If there was a problem with the character of Paula, it's that Garofalo's quick career success deprived viewers of Paula's presence in many episodes, including the entire final season, robbing fans of a true final Paula episode. If IMDb can be trusted (the I stands for "Inaccurate" too often), Garofalo appeared in a mere 52 of the series 89 episodes. She departed the series after the fifth season to live full-time in New York, where she moved to join the cast of "Saturday Night Live" in 1994 -- an unsatisfying gig that lasted less than a full season. However, movie roles and other television appearances kept her busy. "I have huge regrets that I left the show in the first place," Garofalo said. "As much as I love living in New York, I wish I had never left 'Larry Sanders' -- not only because it was such a great show but because it was such a great working environment."
While Garofalo named "Artie's Gone" as one of her favorite Paula episodes in my ten favorite episodes list, she also fondly recalled the third season episode "The Gift" (written by Shandling and Simms, directed by Holland), though she did miss out on working with one of her comic idols. The storyline involves Paula having a dry spell when it comes to booking prominent guests. When she promises Artie and Larry that Danny DeVito will be appearing, Paula turns extra-aggressive to try to get the actor to appear on the show, even though DeVito's excuses for canceling keep changing. Originally, Albert Brooks had been scheduled to fill the role of the reluctant guest, but a conflict prevented Brooks from making the episode and DeVito took the role. "Danny DeVito is a great guy, but Albert Brooks is an idol of mine, a comedy idol, so when I heard it was going to be a story that had a lot to do with Paula and Albert Brooks, I was unbelievably excited," Garofalo said. "It worked out with Danny DeVito -- and I also had the flu and strep throat while shooting that episode, but it still was fun." I'm a DeVito fan as well (he once picked lint off my sweater), but imagine the comic nirvana if Brooks had appeared on a "Larry Sanders" episode.
Two decades later, Garofalo continues to sing Shandling's praise as an employer. "Garry Shandling was one of the best bosses I ever had. He was fun and he made you feel confident and he encouraged people. He encouraged me to improvise if I so desired and I didn't realize it wasn't like that all the time when you work with people in this business. I really enjoyed how kind and supportive Garry was of me, especially since I hadn't acted before," she said. I asked Amy Aquino if she sensed what all the regular cast members continue to feel toward "The Larry Sanders Show" set from her single visit. While she couldn't confirm that idea based on her brief time there, she noticed this much: "They really loved actors. They were very open to what actors would bring to it. There are some writer-producers in this industry, believe it or not, who get a little threatened by actors coming in with strong ideas about a character -- and they [the 'Larry Sanders' producers] were hungry for that, they were looking for it. So that makes for a great, constructive working environment." As for Garofalo, she continues to perform standup and currently is making an independent film called "A Little Game" co-starring Ralph Macchio, F. Murray Abraham and Olympia Dukakis.
For the first three seasons Darlene (Linda Doucett) served as Hank's devoted assistant -- though Hank's demands and personality changes put her tolerance to the test at times. As in season two's "Broadcast Nudes" (written by Molly Newman, directed by Holland), where Hank pressures her to pose for Playboy (which Doucett did in real life as well) so he can promote himself and the restaurant as well. In the same season's "Life Behind Larry" (written by Tolan, directed by Holland), while preparing Hank's newsletter, Darlene inserts a string of the words "penis vagina" in the section called Hank's Memories, leading to this memorable exchange on the talk show couch between Hank and Richard Lewis. When she confesses to Artie, he actually commends her action.
An object of lust for most of the men in the office, Darlene briefly dated Phil and had a fling with Larry as well. The relationships that damaged her came from dalliances with celebrities such as Bruno Kirby and magician David Copperfield, eventually leading Darlene to place a moratorium on dating anyone in show business. "No comics, no actors, no magicians," Darlene declares to Beverly in the third season episode "Larry Loses a Friend" (written by John Riggi, directed by Holland), in which Jon Lovitz relentlessly pursues her. After the third season, Doucett left the show and Hank hired a new assistant, though at first he admits he misses Darlene, "and not just for the sweaters."
The last member of the original ensemble, Megan Gallagher, as Larry's second wife, only lasted through the first season, though she did return for one fourth season episode, "Jeannie's Visit" (written by Jon Vitti, directed by Holland). When you look at the actual production order of the first season episodes, while it still made sense to place "What Have You Done for Me Lately?" (aka "The Garden Weasel") first, the season traced the arc of the dissolution of the Sanders' marriage. Therefore, placing the first produced episode, "The Hey Now Episode" (written by Shandling and Klein, directed by Kwapis) somewhere else in the run and ending with the 13th show produced, "The Talk Show Episode" (written by Forbes, directed by Holland) would have made more sense in story terms. In "The Talk Show Episode," Jeannie arrives at a taping, threatening to leave Larry and move back to Chicago if he won't talk to her about their marital problems. Of course, as Larry struggles through each break to speak to his wife, something always interrupts. That episode would make a lot more sense as a season-ender, but it ran ninth with four shows after it in which Jeannie's ultimatum never came up again. We never learned much about Jeannie, either. She didn't seem to have a career of her own. It wasn't Gallagher's fault that her scenes failed to mesh with the rest of the show. However, Jeannie did get chances to tell Larry a few truths he didn't want to hear, as in "The Warmth Episode" (written by Simms, directed by Kwapis), where Sanders enlists a focus group to see where he stands in relation to other celebrities. He asks Jeannie if she thinks he's likable on TV. "People watch your show because you're partly an asshole," she tells him.
When "The Larry Sanders Show" returned for its second season, Larry began dating his first wife Francine (Kathryn Harrold) again. Francine was created as a more fully realized character -- she worked as a freelance investigative reporter. She still held grudges against Larry for actions that he took during their marriage, particularly his infidelities. As the show itself grew better with each passing season, her scenes integrated with a bit more ease into the talk show side of the series, especially since many of the show's staff disliked her. "So you cheated. Don't take it out on your People's Choice Award," Artie says, recalling one fit of Francine rage. Francine also showed much less of a tendency to indulge Larry's neurotic tendencies as in "The Stalker" (written by Shandling and Simms, directed by Holland). "I only have time to hear one neurotic obsession this time. Are we choosing this one?" she asks him as Larry prattles on, convinced someone followed him home. "Yes," he replies. "And next time we'll choose one of mine?" Francine requests. After a moment's thought, Larry agrees. The only part that seemed sudden came at the very end of the season when she informs Larry that she thinks they shouldn't have resumed their relationship. It came more or less out of nowhere and when season three returned, Francine was gone, never to be heard from again.
Once Darlene left, Hank needed a new assistant and he found one in Brian, portrayed by Scott Thompson, fresh off the end of the Kids in the Hall comedy series after its two seasons on CBS, following three on HBO. Thompson's casting came about when his agent called him while he was vacationing in Turkey with the news that Shandling wanted to see him. Thompson flew back to Los Angeles and met with him. "[Garry] told me that he wanted me to be on the show and he was a big fan and he only had one stipulation in that he wanted the character to be gay and he wanted him to be Hank's new assistant. Anything else was negotiable," Thompson said in our phone interview. Thompson did give Shandling three conditions before he agreed to play Brian: "I said that I didn't want the character to be a snap queen. I didn't want him to be flamboyant because I already thought that had been done to death. I said I wanted the character to actually like Hank and believe in him and he said that was OK. I said the third thing I wanted was the character to be Canadian." Shandling agreed and Thompson became Brian, former personal assistant to Barbra Streisand, now working for Hank Kingsley.
Thompson already loved the first three seasons of "The Larry Sanders Show" before he joined the cast: "They were incredible to watch. All my friends up here were obsessed with that show so when I got that call I could hardly believe it was happening," he said. For Thompson, the role offered a bit of an acting challenge. His experience consisted mainly of playing broad character types in the sketch comedy of The Kids in the Hall, such as his iconic bar monologues as Buddy Cole. "Brian was a lot subtler than most things I'd ever done. Garry basically prodded me to just let go of worrying about being funny and that was good for me. He said, 'You are funny and you're a good actor, you don't need to try to be funny,'" Thompson said -- and that really explains the philosophy behind the show. The comedy more or less took care of itself. To paraphrase the famous saying, whether it originated with Edmund Kean, Edmund Gwenn or someone else, "Comedy is hard, depicting humanity is harder."
While Thompson had writing experience, he didn't get a chance to do any for the show. "I would have loved to have done more of that but to be honest, those writers were pretty damn good," he said. The only instance he cites of objecting to a scene and reworking it came in the great season four episode "Eight" (written by Tolan, directed by Holland). In the scene, Brian and guest star k. d. lang walk and talk in the backstage halls. Originally, the conversation revolved around both being gay, but both Thompson and lang found that to be a bit clichéd and boring so they changed the dialogue to focus on their common Canadian roots. The other episode that he offered input on was the classic -- and second-to-last episode -- "Putting the 'Gay' Back in Litigation" (written by Richard Day, Alex Gregory & Richard Huyck, directed by Judd Apatow). Not only did Thompson select it as his favorite episode, it also came up as one of Langham's choices.
Thompson consulted with Day, the only gay writer on the staff, during the writing process of the story which concerned Brian, fed up with Phil's gay slurs, suing him and the show for sexual harassment."'Putting the 'Gay' Back in Litigation' absolutely stands out as my all-time favorite," said Langham. "What a great opportunity to work with my dear friend, Scott. And, to put it into context, Scott let me stay in his spare bedroom when I was divorcing, so we were roommates for a short time. When we got the script and I saw that we make out, I very emphatically told Scott, 'No tongue!' So, we rehearse all week, no tongue. First take, he slips his tongue in my mouth. I was a professional and waited until Judd said, 'Cut,' then I yelled at Scott. He was very unapologetic." Thompson admits to doing that, but says Langham didn't yell in any sort of angry way. "Wally as far as I remember wasn't that angry. He was good humored. I'm sure I did that with the tongue, but I wanted it to be realistic. Let's face it, I'm a dog. Wally is a great guy," Thompson said. "Three years ago, I got sick. I had to move back. I had cancer, but I beat it. It's taken me awhile, but I've been doing a lot of standup comedy." He soon embarks on another change in his career -- his first dramatic role in the NBC midseason series "Hannibal," where he'll play an FBI agent. "This is a huge deal for me... I'm sort of in a place like I was when I got 'Larry Sanders.'... It's a chance to reinvent myself so I'm very, very thrilled." As for The Kids in the Hall, the five men plan to go on a retreat later this year to decide what to do next, be it another tour, a movie, a television special or a series.
CAROL AND COMPANY
In the beginning, securing guest stars to play themselves proved a difficult task. One famous red-haired, ear-tugging variety star saved the day for "The Larry Sanders Show" by agreeing to play herself on an early episode, one of the most famous still: "The Spider Episode" (written by Shandling & Rosie Shuster and Simms & Tolan, directed by Kwapis). "I had worked with Carol Burnett and asked her to do one of the early shows -- and she was very game and fantastic -- and that opened the floodgates," Tolan said. "Once Carol did the show, people realized what we were doing and they were willing to come on board. God bless Carol!" Those guest stars began rushing in, many appearing more than once such as Burnett, who returned for the series finale "Flip" (written by Shandling and Tolan, directed by Holland). For a show that gave the entertainment industry some big lumps, many people who made their living in that industry couldn't wait to climb on the pile. "It was extremely well-received and very popular in Hollywood," Tolan said. "At one point I had an overall deal at Disney, which would have kept me from working on 'Sanders,' but my boss at Disney was such a huge fan of the show -- and a fan of my episodes in particular -- he allowed me to keep working on 'Sanders' while I was pulling a paycheck from Disney! That's rather amazing."
Even those associated with other talk shows dropped in, including David Letterman (twice), Jay Leno, Pat Sajak and Chevy Chase, who Larry runs into exiting the same psychiatrist's office that he's about to visit. From the Johnny Carson "Tonight Show" era, Ed McMahon made sure to attend Hank's bachelor party while Doc Severinsen and Tommy Newsom gave Hank advice as he tried to come up with a nightclub act to raise money for Hank's Look-Around-Café. Even Johnny's longtime executive producer Fred de Cordova (the model for the Arthur character) paid a visit on the eighth anniversary of The Larry Sanders Show.
In a priceless running gag, late Bruno Kirby was perpetually bumped, even from the final show. On the DVD "making of" documentary hosted by Greg Kinnear, a startling moment occurs when Kirby shows up to complain about being bumped from that as well. A title card afterward explains that he filmed that just a few weeks before he died. Kinnear and Kirby took part in one of the funniest one-liners from "Flip," delivered by Tom Petty, when the many guests in the green room start to get in a brawl and Kinnear tries to remind them they are there to honor Larry. Petty turns on Kinnear and starts to go after him, only to have Kirby intervene and interject, "Hey, he's an Oscar nominee!" "For what? 'Talk Soup?'" Petty replies.
Of all the episodes that took a page from real-life events, "Life Behind Larry" -- where Sanders seeks a host for the talk show to follow his -- ended up with the most amazingly prescient punchline. When it becomes clear that Larry's choice of Bobcat Goldthwait won't fly, he runs into Letterman, facing the same quandary, at an awards show. He grills his competitor as to whom he's thinking about for the show following him on CBS and Letterman tells him Tom Snyder, so Larry promptly gets his network to steal Snyder away. The episode, which aired July 7, 1993, implies that Letterman put one over on Larry and wasn't considering Snyder at all. In May 1995, Letterman did give Snyder the reins to "The Late Late Show" that followed his show on CBS. I asked Tolan, who wrote the episode, if Letterman tipped them off or they just stumbled into that ending. "I believe it was dumb luck -- although Paul Simms had worked on ['Late Night With David Letterman'], and he might have heard something. But I think we just thought it would be funny if Tom Snyder was resurrected one more time and wound up in that position. I think that was really all there was to it -- and then it happened!"
Four-time Tony Award winner Harvey Fierstein appeared in the fifth season episode "Matchmaker" (written by Riggi, directed by Holland). I asked Fierstein if he acted differently as himself on a fake talk show than he does on a real one. "Cookie, when you play yourself that way, it's nothing but confusion," Fierstein said in an email interview. "I must say, spending only a few hours at the show, I would have no other shoot with which to compare it. I was brought in, run through a quick rehearsal, fitted for clothing, shot and sent home. I didn't really even chat with a cast member. For most of the day, I was sequestered in a dressing cube." One of the plot strands of "Matchmaker" concerned Hank trying to cheer up a depressed Brian, who has just broken up with his boyfriend, by taking him to various bars, unaware that they were going to gay bars. Soon, the press reports spotting Kingsley in those establishments and an insecure Hank tries to reinforce his heterosexual image by bringing an attractive young woman named Rayneene (Siri 'Noi' Ruangbunsuk) to the show and getting all the guests to point her out in the audience. When Fierstein does, he admits that he knows her -- but from when she was a man. "My segment was completely scripted, which amused me since I thought I was going to go there and have a chance to improv, but I was more of a plot device than an actual guest on the show," Fierstein said. (Feinstein's current project is writing the book for the Broadway-bound musical adaptation of the movie "Kinky Boots .")
As on any real-world talk show, some planned guest stars had to be changed at the last minute. For example, at the table read for "Hank's Night in the Sun," the guest on Hank's first night hosting was going to be Eddie Murphy but ended up being George Wendt. Of all guest appearances (and running gags), perhaps none tops David Duchovny, whose crush on Larry began in the fifth season premiere, "Everybody Loves Larry" (written by Jon Vitti, directed by Holland).
STEVIE GRANT AND OTHER RECURRING CHARACTERS
Some characters kept returning to the "Larry Sanders" universe while not exactly serving as regulars, such as the already mentioned Bob Odenkirk as Larry's untrustworthy agent Stevie Grant, a creation that when combined with his role of Saul Goodman on "Breaking Bad," earns him a sidebar all his own. Stevie, introduced in season two's "Larry's Agent" (story by Victor Levin, written by Shandling, Simms, Forbes and Sather, directed by Holland) is a double-talking, double-dealing rep - but he gets Sanders what he wants -- at least in the beginning stages of their business relationship. I asked Odenkirk if he had any favorite Stevie episodes. "I like the one where I do cocaine for negotiations with the network. It's always fun to do fake cocaine or to pretend to do cocaine. I don't know what real cocaine is like but it's fun to pretend," he said. He also enjoyed getting to work with former "Ben Stiller Show" castmate Garofalo in "Conflict of Interest" (story by Shandling and Apatow, written by Apatow and Forbes, directed by Holland), where Paula and Stevie have a fling. And he expressed fondness for episodes involving Hank's Look-a-Round Café: "It's rare to find a show or project where there's no difference between what you're shooting for and what you're creating," Odenkirk said of "Sanders. "On most projects, you have a dream of what you're shooting for and you're very aware, especially when you're in production, that what you're making has fallen short. It's just inevitable. Not everything delivers like 'Larry Sanders' or 'Breaking Bad.'"
I've also mentioned the great Phil Leeds, who appeared as Hank's aging agent Sid Bessell. Another Sid, the late Sid Newman, began as an extra playing the cue card guy, but eventually earned more lines as Hank's inexplicable rivalry with him developed, leading to Sid's chance to do an on-air sketch. Deborah May often returned as network executive Melanie Parrish. David Paymer always proved hysterical when he turned up as the network's top public relations exec, Norman Litkey.
Others played themselves, such as Jon Stewart, who visited frequently during the final two seasons as the network groomed him to succeed Larry. The executive helping to lead this charge was Kenny Mitchell (played by Joshua Malina, who previously appeared as an Entertainment Weekly reporter in the second season's "Off Camera"). Malina's return came about while filming Warren Beatty's "Bulworth." Shandling, a close friend of Beatty's, frequently visited the set. "That movie shot forever -- months and months and months, so I got to know Garry a bit; we had a lot of laughs. He has the quickest comic mind I've ever interacted with. It's impossible to get off a good line that he doesn't instantaneously top. I love people like that," Malina said. "I was very pleasantly surprised when, shortly after the movie wrapped, I got a call offering me the role of Kenny. Usually after appearing on a show, there's no hope of coming back and playing another character. I was very psyched to get that call." Kenny, who appears to want to boost Larry's ratings, really could not care less about the show, seeing his late night assignment as nothing more than a stepping-stone. Artie hates him, especially when Kenny suggests getting rid of Larry's desk for two chairs. "This desk is the most lasting relationship that Larry's ever had," Artie tells the young exec. "He's married to this desk. It's there for him every night and allows him to come in from the rear." Malina loved his brief time on the show, but wished he could have done more. "There was a feeling of great creativity and collaboration there. If you had a good idea, Garry wanted to hear it," he said. Malina returns for a second season of ABC's "Scandal," this time as a regular, in his role of U. S. Attorney David Rosen. It premieres Sept. 27 after "Grey's Anatomy."
PUTTING WORDS IN THEIR MOUTHS
The list of writers who worked on the show at some point is quite impressive, both for their accomplishments before "The Larry Sanders Show" and the work they've done since. Sadly, three of those scribes are no longer with us. Marjorie Gross, who worked as a supervising producer in the first season, also penned that season's episode "Out of the Loop." Gross previously served as a writer and story editor on "Newhart" and a writer-producer on Chris Elliott's "Get a Life." Following her "Sanders" season, she worked as a writer and producer on the seventh season of "Seinfeld." She succumbed to ovarian cancer June 7, 1996, at the age of 40. Drake Sather wrote briefly for Dennis Miller's short-lived syndicated talk show and continued to work for "Saturday Night Live" while he wrote or co-wrote five "Sanders" episodes in seasons two and three, including the Emmy-nominated "Larry's Agent." Sather later went on to produce and write for "NewsRadio" and "Ed" and created the character and co-wrote the screenplay for Ben Stiller's "Zoolander." Sather committed suicide March 3, 2004, at the age of 44. Mike Martineau wrote the third season episode "You're Having My Baby" and co-wrote that season's "Like No Business I Know" with Peter Tolan. Martineau later served as a writer and producer on "The Job" and "Rescue Me." Martineau passed away in August, 2012, after complications from a series of small strokes in 2010. He was 53.
All the actors I contacted expressed how privileged they felt to speak their lines each week. "Monday mornings we got our scripts and had a table read," Langham said. "It was like Christmas for me." Jerald admits that those teleplays set a high standard for future acting jobs. "It was the best writing ever. You find yourself as an actor spoiled. You go, 'I still have to make this other stuff work because that's part of my job, but boy was I spoiled to have such great attention paid to words," she said. Thompson, who had spent much of his time prior to joining the show writing with The Kids in the Hall, also found himself impressed -- and a little jealous. "The writers' room was remarkable," he said. "The writing was so brilliant. We were in really good hands. I would have loved to have been a writer on that show." Tambor echoes the other actors' praise: "My respect for Garry is boundless and the writing staff -- my goodness -- they all had taste, they all had wit. They never went out to hurt anybody. We can all be ridiculous. You know, people are ridiculous. Sometimes, we're all ridiculous."
So many writers/producers passed through the "Larry Sanders" set, forgive me for not mentioning them all by name or in detail. The staff's alumni include Fred Barron (creator, "Caroline in the City"), Kelli Cahoon (writer/producer, "Psych"), Maya Forbes (screenwriter, "The Rocker, "Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days"), Steven Levitan (co-creator, "Modern Family"), Molly Newman (co-executive producer/writer, "Brothers and Sisters") and Jon Vitti (writer/producer on "The Simpsons"). Of the many other writers who worked on the show, the one name (other than Shandling) probably recognized the most without explanation belongs to Judd Apatow. Apatow didn't join "The Larry Sanders Show" as a writer and producer until the second season, having spent the first season as co-creator, executive producer and a writer on the sadly short-lived " "Ben Stiller Show," * whose ensemble included Garofalo and Odenkirk.
Among the many great "Sanders" episodes that Apatow wrote or co-wrote included "Ellen, or Isn't She?," which played into all the hype leading up to whether or not Ellen DeGeneres and her sitcom character would come out as lesbians, and "I Buried Sid," where Hank's constant mocking of the cue-card guy (Sid Newman) reaches its limit when Sid impersonates Liza Minnelli on the air, with dire consequences. In addition to Apatow's success in film comedies as a producer of films such as "Anchorman" as well as writer and director of his own projects, beginning with the hilariously sweet and raunchy "40-Year-Old Virgin," he recently dipped his feet back into TV at HBO by serving as executive producer of Lena Dunham's "Girls."
John Riggi, a former stand-up comic and an executive producer and writer on "30 Rock" until last season (now signed to a large development deal with Warner Bros. TV), managed to fill four roles on "Larry Sanders": actor, writer, producer and director. Riggi first popped up in small parts in the first season such as a reporter or photographer before his first script, "The Hankerciser 200," aired in the second season. Later that season, when Jeremy Piven left the show, Riggi played the recurring role of new staff writer Mike Patterson. He became a member of the real writing staff even after Mike was let go, and Riggi eventually rose to the rank of co-executive producer as well. He sat in the director's chair for the fifth season installment, "Artie and Angie and Hank and Hercules."
Coming to the "Larry Sanders" staff directly from the writers' room of "Late Night With David Letterman," Paul Simms turned out to be one of the most prolific scribes for the three seasons he worked on the series. Simms not only wrote or co-wrote many of the classic episodes such as "The Spider Episode," "The New Producer," "Larry's Agent" and "Artie's Gone," he began as executive story editor in the first season and had become an executive producer by season three. After departing "Larry Sanders," Simms created "NewsRadio," served as a consulting producer and writer on HBO's two-season delight "The Flight of the Conchords," and even penned an episode of HBO's "Boardwalk Empire."
Before Jeff Cesario joined the show as a writer and producer in the fifth season, he first pitched a story idea while still serving as executive producer of HBO's "Dennis Miller Live." That pitch became the fourth season episode "The Bump" (written by Shandling and Apatow; directed by Holland). "The show had developed a running verbal gag -- when Larry wrapped up the show, on occasion he would say, 'My apologies to comedian Jeff Cesario, we'll have him back on as soon as we can,'" Cesario said in an email interview. "It became just a funny inside joke. So I had a rough pitch that Larry felt bad after multiple bumps and promised to get me on for sure, and that promise led to havoc on an ensuing show." In the episode itself, Larry takes Cesario out to dinner after the show and tries to assure him that he'll get him back on. "Listen, you're still a bright young comedian," Sanders insists. "Jesus, Larry -- I'm 42. You've bumped me clean out of the young comedian category," Cesario replies.
While Cesario received the story credit for "The Bump," he freely gives others their due for the story's additional elements. "I went to Judd with this very broad notion while I was still exec producing 'Dennis Miller Live' for HBO. We wrote a pass or two together, and the brilliant notion of Hank's father's death was Judd and Garry's idea. Judd put in the 'ticking clock,' the idea that it would all come to a head the next night and Garry created the great twist that instead of the show being long, it wound up being short on time. Won't say more for any 'Sanders' virgins." Larry rushes through all his guests, not letting Rob Lowe finish a story. In the commercial break, Lowe complains, "My wife lets me talk more than that." Larry tells him, "Marriage is about communication -- this is a talk show."
After completing three seasons of "Dennis Miller Live," Cesario said he "was looking to try to grow as a narrative writer. Garry offered me a staff spot and I jumped at it." He wrote the fifth season episode "Pain Equals Funny" (directed by Holland) in which the quality of Phil's writing depends entirely on the status of his relationship with his girlfriend (Jenica Bergere). The episode also turned out to be the final "Larry Sanders" where we would see Janeane Garofalo as Paula, so the focus changed quite a bit. "That was an idea I had pitched and Garry responded positively to it," Cesario remembered. "Then at the last minute it also became Janeane Garofalo's final shooting week of the season and so Garry and showrunner John Riggi created the plot line in which Janeane's character gets offered a daytime show and decides to bolt and take it. That clearly became the main plot." Of his time spent in the show's writer's room, Cesario said, "It was like Narrative Camp -- I got to go every day and learn scriptwriting from some amazing storytellers, led by Garry, who was brilliant, and featuring the likes of Tolan, Apatow, John Riggi and Jon Vitti. One of the thrills of my career. Garry had a very personal vision and the guys who got closest to it on first drafts were Peter Tolan and Judd Apatow. I batted a much lower percentage than those guys -- they really had his voice." Today, Cesario continues to write and perform as well as work on projects such as "The Dick Rossi Show" on funnyordie.com.
Becky Hartman Edwards also joined the writing-producing staff in the fifth season. Riggi read an unproduced spec script she'd written for "Seinfeld" titled "The Napoleon Complex" which concerned George worrying about the size of his penis. Riggi liked it and Edwards met with he and Shandling where she pitched some ideas for "The Larry Sanders Show" and they hired her. "I think Garry liked the idea that I was a woman who wasn't afraid to write about risqué and taboo topics," Edwards said in an email interview. She and Shandling shared story credit on "The New Writer" (written by Edwards and Riggi, directed by Michael Lehmann), the episode that introduced Sarah Silverman's Wendy Traston character as a new writer on the talk show who can't get her jokes into the monologue because Phil ignores them because he doesn't think women can be funny. Edwards admits to basing the plot partly on herself. "I definitely drew on my experiences of being one of the only female writers on the staff of 'In Living Color.' It was a very male, very 'blue' room and you had to prove you could dish it out as much if not more than the guys did," Edwards said. "Of course, the character of Wendy had a lot of Sarah Silverman in her. She (both Sarah and the character she played) was much cooler and tougher than I was."
Unlike most of the people I interviewed, Edwards wasn't prepared to name the show as her best job ever. "I wouldn't say it was the greatest work environment I've ever had. Creatively, it was the most inspiring. Garry, John Riggi, Jon Vitti, Judd Apatow, Jeff Cesario and Lester Lewis were the best comedy writers around, but the show was so specifically from Garry's point of view, you really had to be able to mind-meld with him," she said. "Working on 'Larry Sanders' was inspiring, terrifying, and challenging. Garry really was and is a genius. Watching his process as a writer, actor and a producer taught me a lot. Whereas other comedies I'd worked on felt like high school, this felt like a grad school class on writing." Most recently, Edwards wrote for "Parenthood" on NBC and now serves as executive producer on "Switched at Birth" on ABC Family.
The name Peter Tolan has come up a lot in this series of articles. Of all the talented writers who worked on "The Larry Sanders Show," his name wound up on the most episodes either as sole or contributing author. Only Paul Simms' output approaches Tolan's total. Tolan achievement was all the more amazing -- not just because he wrote so many scripts or that so many of them rank among the best in the series' run -- but because he also had day jobs on other shows as well," Tolan recalled. "I had done an HBO series with Billy Crystal called 'Sessions,' and worked with a wonderful guy named Fred Barron. I was working on 'Murphy Brown,' the season was ending, and Fred called me and asked me to join this new 'Larry Sanders Show' as a consulting producer.
"I met Garry and talked with him about the show; for whatever reason, I hooked into Garry's sense of humor and his vision for the show, and I started writing like crazy. At the same time, Fred and Garry were butting heads for reasons unknown to me, and Fred was let go. I took over his job and stayed with it until I had to return to 'Murphy Brown.'" When you watch the show, you'll notice Tolan's producing credit change from supervising producer to consulting producer to co-executive producer to executive producer -- often within the same season. "The distinctions are very fine and mostly had to do with how much time I could give the show," Tolan said. "In the later seasons, I was technically not on staff and not there -- but I'd still write up to one-quarter of the episodes. I was lucky in that Garry trusted me completely -- we spoke in shorthand -- so if they didn't have an episode ready for the following week, we could talk on the phone -- talk story beats -- and I could have a draft to him within a day or two -- which we'd then both work on -- and it would go to the table on Monday." Even though he often worked as a "part-timer" on "Larry Sanders," he still holds his time there in high regard. "I remember having a great sense of pride in the show... 'Sanders' truly helped me find my voice as a writer -- something I've never stopped thanking Garry for," Tolan said. He hasn't slowed down since the series ended, writing screenplays such as "Analyze This" and co-creating "Rescue Me" with Denis Leary. With the end of that series, he and his former agent Michael Wimer launched a production company called Fedora Entertainment to develop new shows. "While nothing's gone all the way the last two seasons, we've done some wonderful work of which we're very proud," Tolan said.
While it might seem as though Todd Holland not only directed every episode of "The Larry Sanders Show," but that his gift for helming comedies resided in his genetic makeup, most of Holland's work prior to "Larry Sanders" came on shows with fantasy, science fiction or supernatural elements such as "Max Headroom," "Eerie, Indiana," Steven Spielberg's "Amazing Stories" and David Lynch and Mark Frost's incomparable "Twin Peaks." The first of the two episodes he directed featured one of the series' most striking and inventive openings.
"I love genre shows," Holland said in an email interview. "Love the supernatural. Never really felt I was a 'comedy' guy -- but I always find humor in dark moments. It's just very human to me. So when 'Sanders' became an opportunity, I responded to the darkness beneath the comedy -- as well as to the humanity of human shortcomings. My comedy brand has become something akin to that -- I don't understand broad comedy and shtick. It just leaves me bored. But rich character comedy with a leavening helping of darkness and/or pain. I can make that adjustment. Early 'Malcolm (in the Middle)' had a lot of subliminal pain -- later (as I was leaving) much less so." That spectacular opening from the second season of "Twin Peaks" features two actors who played roles in consecutive third season episodes of "Larry Sanders." First, Ray Wise, shown above in his remarkable role as Leland Palmer (not even nominated for an Emmy grumblegrumblebitchmoan), portrayed Larry's attorney Lloyd Simon in "You're Having My Baby."
The following week, Warren Frost, Twin Peaks' kindly Doc Hayward, turned up as Larry's crank of a father, Jerry Sanders, giving Hank a particularly hard time in this scene from "Would You Do Me a Favor?" Also appearing in that "Twin Peaks" episode, though not in that scene, was Ian Buchanan (Jonathan Litman in season one's "The New Producer") as Dick Tremayne. Through October, Buchanan will tour with The Citizens Band, a Weimar Republic-era cabaret collective that uses music, dance and trapeze to emphasize the importance voting to affect change. Buchanan kept a secret from me in our original email interview: He's also returned to "General Hospital" in the role of the long-thought-dead Duke Lavery, the character he was playing when he first met Shandling and won the role on "It's Garry Shandling's Show."
With regard to the technical challenges "Larry Sanders" presented, especially the attempt to make the talk show scenes feel live, Holland refers to "The Larry Sanders Show" as his "'Playhouse 90' years." "In truth, it was a bit like going to war each week -- and achieving some form of victory every Friday night," he said. Most cast members agree what an integral part of the show's success Holland became, having directed 50 of the 89 episodes (including both hour-long ones). "Todd was a big element," Tambor said. "Can't say enough about him. He really devised a way where we all were at our best." Since "Larry Sanders," Holland has helmed a variety of series, directing and executive producing the early years of "Malcolm in the Middle," and directing shows such as "Felicity" and "30 Rock."
Having directed 12 episodes, Ken Kwapis comes closest to Holland's total. Since "Sanders," his resume includes many episodes of "Malcolm in the Middle," "The Bernie Mac Show" and "The Office," as well as two episodes apiece of "Freaks and Geeks" and "Parks and Recreation." Kwapis also steps outside the comic realm, having directed a pair of "ER" installments, and has helmed several features, including "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants" and "He's Just Not That Into You." Alan Myerson directed eight "Sanders" episodes and since has worked on "Boy Meets World," "Ed" and "Judging Amy." Michael Lehmann, the director of the brilliant black comedy "Heathers," helmed five "Larry Sanders" installments. Today, he sticks mainly to television, especially cable dramas such as "True Blood," though he did direct Garofalo in "The Truth About Cats and Dogs." Shandling himself directed three episodes, all from the final season ("As My Career Lay Dying," "Adolf Hankler" and "I Buried Sid"). As previously mentioned, Roy London took the director's chair for two early shows. Eight individuals directed a single episode each: Apatow, Riggi, Dennis Erdman, Paul Flaherty, Michael Lange, Melanie Mayron, David Mirkin and Thomas Schlamme.
ABSENCE MAKES THE CLICHÉ RING TRUER
This epic tribute shouldn't be about me in any way, but this project morphed so quickly into something larger than I ever expected it to be that leaving out certain anecdotes that occurred on my journey makes me feel as if I'd be committing sins of omission. (In fact, as lengthy as this turned out to be, if I included everything I wanted, I might never have finished this series. I'm hoping to enlist Peter Jackson to help re-edit an extended cut for Blu-ray in time for the 25th anniversary of "The Larry Sanders Show." You think those tarantulas in "The Spider Episode" look like big hairy potatoes with legs now -- wait until Jackson gets his team to work on them.) I feel fortunate that in the short span of time in which this came together I managed to converse with so many involved with "The Larry Sanders Show." Granted, I didn't succeed in gaining access to everyone I sought. (I must admit that theater people spoiled me on my tiny blog with their willingness to speak about shows on their anniversaries when I reached out purely through social media. If I had started this process the correct way and gone through press reps [well, most press reps anyway], the voices of even more "Larry Sanders" alumni might be present in this series.) Unfortunately, that's how I tried in the beginning and I think it ruined my chances with some people and I apologize to them. I hope they know who they are. My worst misdeed happened to be my aggressive pursuit of Garry Shandling himself through Twitter.
One day, I discovered that I wasn't following Shandling anymore. I thought I accidentally unfollowed him but, when I pressed the follow button, I learned he'd blocked me. I obviously either annoyed or frightened him, which certainly was not my intent. Actually, it amused me because earlier that day I had rewatched the second season episode "The Stalker" (written by Shandling and Simms; directed by Holland) where Larry becomes convinced that he has an obsessed fan. I wish I'd known the facts before I'd bugged Shandling, but I learned them from every person with whom I communicated. I wrote Tolan and asked him to tell Shandling that I wasn't a loon. "I'll tell him you're harmless -- but just so you know, Garry doesn't get involved in answering questions about the show," Tolan wrote back.
When I spoke with Garofalo, I shared the story with her, including asking Tolan to tell him that I wasn't a stalker. "Isn't that what a stalker would say?" she replied. "Probably," I had to admit, though I expressed regret over not knowing in advance or I wouldn't have pestered him. "Lots of people don't know. How would you know?" she responded. "I have friends who want to do a story about him and ask, 'Would you please call him?' 'No! He doesn't want to do that.'" Jerald thinks that Shandling is right to move on. "He's a smart man in that -- because he was doing something fabulous and groundbreaking at the time.... When you are doing something so fabulous like that and you're turning out these great pieces of work, at some point you have to let it go and do something for yourself. I totally support Garry in that," she said. It all comes back to the incredible fondness those who worked with him still carry until this day. As Thompson succinctly put it, "There's an awful lot of loyalty to Garry."
So, I feel bad for bothering the key creative force behind not one but two great TV shows, the second of which stands as one of the all-time bests, breaking so much ground and influencing so many other shows in its wake. Shandling also assembled an astounding array of talents from the writers, directors and other behind-the-scenes crew members to the cast itself ranging from veterans such as Torn, who found his favorite role as a television producer after a long career; to life-changing work from Tambor, whose Hank Kingsley charted a new course for his future; to Garofalo, who got her first acting role and hasn't stopped since; to Thompson, whose career also took another direction after The Kids in the Hall and who now embarks on his first dramatic role. The list goes on and on. Though I do wonder -- what happened to that Jon Stewart fellow? I always liked him.
Given Shandling's accomplishments, what more do we need from him? Granted, I'm curious as to whether he might re-emerge with another wondrous surprise. I know he still does standup and he had that funny part as the senator in "Iron Man 2." Otherwise, he remains mostly quiet, except for those tweets I can't see anymore. I find interesting one of the last things he said on the subject of "The Larry Sanders Show" in that October 2010 New York Times interview: "There's probably a lesson for real life, which is that everybody needs to be our true selves instead of jacking it up and trying to make it faster and better, which is a reflection of the problem we're having in the country right now. Forgive me while I say the most important thing, which is this country seemed to be doing better when 'The Larry Sanders Show' was on."
"That show can't get enough accolades. It really deserves every review and overview that it gets. It was a really amazing piece of writing and production. Even more amazing, just on its own it's fantastic," Odenkirk said about "Larry Sanders." "It's still utterly relevant. Secondarily, when it came out, it was so far ahead of its time as far as the tone and shock of the situations that they portrayed -- it was not something you saw on TV. Nowadays, you've got 'Louie' and 'Girls' and 'Mad Men' and a ton of shows that go into this more real feely area that's about human interaction that's kind of mucky and you have lots of stuff like it."
When I spoke with Tambor, discussing the delivery method of those eagerly awaited new episodes of "Arrested Development," he expressed amazement at how fast everything changes. "The whole business is changing. Look at what we're doing right now. You're on a cell phone in Oklahoma. I'm on a phone [in California]. Hold on to your hats, ladies and gentlemen -- it's really a revolution," Tambor said, going on to describe a recent media gathering where he looked out at the sea of laptops and recalling a time without laptops. Yes, "The Larry Sanders Show" hails from a different era, but its humor still works, its humanity still warms and it even manages to touch you at times. Twenty years after its debut, its greatness only has deepened. You may now click.
* That's Judd Apatow playing Jay Leno in the clip from "The Ben Stiller Show" episode that aired Oct. 4, 1992.
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From an early age, Edward Copeland became obsessed with movies, good television, books and theater. On the side, he nursed an addiction to news and information as well that led him into journalism where he toiled for 17 years until health problems forced him to give up the daily grind of work. He ran the blog Edward Copeland on Film (later renamed Edward Copeland's Tangents and currently in hibernation) and has written for Slant Magazine's The House Next Door, Press Play, Movies Without Pity, Awards Daily as well as the political commentary site The Reaction.
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