The Big Sick
Finds that laughter-through-tears sweet spot, often in the unlikeliest of places.
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 Part 2 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.
"Unethical? Jesus, Larry. Don't start pulling at that thread; our whole world will unravel."-- Artie (Rip Torn)
by Edward Copeland
Unravel those threads did -- and often -- in the world of fictional late night talk show host Larry Sanders. On "The Larry Sanders Show," the brilliant and groundbreaking HBO comedy that paid attention to the men and women behind the curtain of Sanders' fictional show, the ethics of showbiz were hilariously skewered.
Twenty years after its debut and more than 14 years after its finale, "The Larry Sanders Show" resonates more deeply even than it did originally. Heralded by critics in its time and since, embraced by the business that bore the brunt of bruises from its sharpest jabs, its influence hovers over numerous series that followed. On his website, Ricky Gervais lists his top sitcoms and writes, "'The Office' owes more to 'Larry Sanders' than anything British, just in terms of realism. It has real people, acting normally. It's filmed very rugged, very warts 'n' all. No laughter. Almost filmic. I think we stole the white-out-of-black credits as well." Other half-hour shows had ditched the laugh track by 1992, but the label "dramedy" got slapped on most of those. No one mistook "The Larry Sanders Show" for something akin to "The Wonder Years" or "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd" and, if someone did, "Sanders" viewers couldn't hear them over the sound of their own laughter.
Watching it two decades later, the sharply drawn human portraits reveal themselves more obviously amidst the satire, exposing layers viewers may have missed at first when bowled over by the wit and sarcasm. "'The Larry Sanders Show,' it's actually about love, which would sound like a paradox at first," Garry Shandling told The New York Times in an October 2010 interview prior to the Shout! Factory release of the complete series on DVD. "But if that love didn't exist, the darker attitudes would not play. You would have a one-dimensional, cynical show, which I don't think the show was." It truly wasn't, something I didn't recognize when the show first aired, but that became more apparent in the later seasons and as I revisited episodes on my well-worn home-recorded VHS copies, waiting for our long national nightmare to end and the show to get the DVD release it so richly deserved. (Truth be told, I lobbied Shout! Factory to release the complete series before they even had the rights, based on other superb sets the company produced for "Freaks & Geeks" and "Undeclared," two wonderful and gone-too-soon series produced by "Sanders" writing and producing alum Judd Apatow.)
"I wish I could describe what it was like on the set. You would come through the door and there was this din at the other side of the soundstage and this huge laughter after a take and huge exuberance," said Jeffrey Tambor, the actor who breathed such astounding life into the character of Larry's TV sidekick Hank Kingsley, in a phone interview. "Everyone knew that we were making something that was just fun." Two decades later, Tambor's continued enthusiasm for his former workplace hardly sticks out as a unique opinion. Each person that I communicated with for this salute expressed the same fondness for the job and Shandling. "I love (Shandling) dearly -- he's a great brother," said Rip Torn, who played Arthur, Larry's producer and protector, in a telephone interview. From my own small sample of recollections, the distinct impression forms that the set of "The Larry Sanders Show" likely provided one of the greatest work environments in history -- a sharp contrast to the depiction of the office in charge of putting The Larry Sanders Show on the air.
"The Larry Sanders Show" stands as HBO's first great continuing series (no offense "First and 10" fans) and, though revered by the industry it mocked -- earning 54 Emmy nominations over the course of its six seasons, it won a measly three during its entire run. Not surprising since, in general, the Television Academy (as most entertainment awards do) usually gets more things wrong than it does right. Shandling got it right though when he and Dennis Klein co-created "The Larry Sanders Show." It marked Shandling's second innovative comedy series for a pay cable channel, coming two years after the end of the four-season run of Showtime's "It's Garry Shandling's Show." (yes, the title contains a period), which he co-created with Alan Zweibel. As brilliant as that show could be, particularly in its first two seasons, "It's Garry Shandling's Show." didn't prepare its fans for the light-speed acceleration in quality, style and depth of "The Larry Sanders Show." It's as if Woody Allen had immediately followed "Take the Money and Run" with "Crimes and Misdemeanors." (Credit must go to Janeane Garofalo for planting the seed of that metaphor in my mind during our phone interview.)
While show business satire comes to most people's minds first when you mention "The Larry Sanders Show," the comedy covered so much more ground than that. Its presentation of workplace dynamics applied anywhere -- the tensions, rivalries, brief romances, office politics and the possibility of being fired or losing your job if the company went out of business. It just happened to take place at a TV talk show. Those universal notions were felt as well in Larry and Artie's dealings with the network, just as a department in any business must cope with upper management. The series also contained examinations of relationships -- romantic and otherwise -- in an insular world where emotions cut to the bone as sharply as humor.
"Garry essentially wrote it like a drama as opposed to any form of sitcom," Jeff Cesario said in an email. Cesario appeared first on the show as a guest star, playing his comedian self, before joining the staff as a writer and producer in the fifth season.
While I'm a big Ricky Gervais fan, I disagree with part of his capsule description of the show on his top sitcoms list. He writes, "The 'Larry Sanders' characters are successful media types, so you can't feel sorry for their petty insecurities, their jealousies, their backbiting." I object on two counts: 1) Outside of Larry, Artie and Hank, I wouldn't say the office staff live particularly pampered lives; and 2) One of the show's premier achievements comes from making us care for Larry, Artie and Hank, despite some of the horrendous things they do, especially in the case of Kingsley. "'Sanders' had heart. The character of Larry Sanders, even at times when you were being shocked at what he would do, you knew he was always fighting to do the right thing," Scott Thompson said in a phone interview. "That's what I found so compelling about the Larry Sanders character: he was always trying to the right thing -- in the midst of a sea of sharks." Thompson joined the cast in the fourth season as Hank's new assistant, Brian.
Mentioning "Crimes and Misdemeanors" reminds me of Alan Alda's obnoxious sitcom producer in that film explaining, "Comedy equals tragedy plus time" and in comedy, timing truly is everything. "The Larry Sanders Show" debuted at the most opportune moment for its subject, premiering in the midst of the escalating real late night talk show wars, in which shows fought booking battles over which guests would appear first -- or exclusively -- on whose couch. Less than four months before "Sanders" premiered, Johnny Carson, the undisputed king of late night, abdicated his "Tonight Show" throne a few months shy of his 30th anniversary. NBC nudged him to crown permanent guest host Jay Leno as the franchise's new monarch. (Shandling himself once shared the title of permanent guest host with Leno until he gave it up to concentrate on his Showtime series.) The move passed over Carson's preferred heir, David Letterman, who soon bolted his "Late Night" show on the peacock network for CBS to duel Leno head-to-head. Two months before "Sanders" hit the air, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, the then-Democratic presidential nominee, played the saxophone on Arsenio Hall's Fox talk show, forever marking entertainment shows as a required campaign stop. The battle for ratings dominance and Carson's chair, well-chronicled in New York Times media reporter Bill Carter's 1994 book "The Late Shift," provided great fodder for "The Larry Sanders Show," particularly inspiring memorable moments in its third season premiere, "Montana," written by Shandling, Peter Tolan and Paul Simms, and directed by Todd Holland.
"Montana" picks up after a frustrated Larry (Shandling) has abruptly quit the show and moved to the title state. His seemingly all-knowing producer and protector Artie (gloriously played by the legendary Torn) arrives, betting that after several months away, Sanders' itch for his show needs serious scratching. Naturally, Artie also brings ingredients for his fabled drink of choice, the Salty Dog, assuming Sanders lacks the mixings, which he does -- his sole beverage offering consisting of Snapple. "Salty Dog -- that was a drink my dad took," Torn said. "It's vodka, tequila and grapefruit juice and a little salt in it. I made a lot of stuff up -- Garry would encourage me to do it." Larry admits that he made a terrible mistake. Artie tells him that he knew that he wouldn't be happy without his show. "You're a talk show animal. You're like of those goddamn creatures out of Greek mythology -- half man, half desk," he declares. The two head to L. A. to plot a return of The Larry Sanders Show to the air.
Once back, Artie asks if Larry read the book he gave him (without mentioning "The Late Shift" by name). "Man, I can't believe Leno actually hid in the closet so he could hear the whole network meeting," Larry replies. "That's a sickness -- to be so obsessed with what people are saying about you," Artie comments. "I know. That is a sickness," Larry says, before briefly pausing to ask. "What did people say about me not being mentioned much in the book?" "Everybody in town's talking about it," Artie responds. "Good," Larry declares. Later in the episode, when Artie meets with new network president Richard Germaine (David Warner), the episode kicks Larry's hypocrisy and insecurity up a notch by having Sanders himself hide in a closet to eavesdrop as well. In order to get the show back (the network ratings saw a rise when it replaced his show with "Cheers" reruns), Artie and Larry create the fake story that Sanders had to enter rehab for a drug problem -- even though Larry thinks that excuse should be saved for when he really develops an addiction, something Artie unconsciously starts by the end of that episode and which turns into a full-blown problem by the end of the season that only a Roseanne-led intervention solves.
Satirizing elements of show business reached the boiling point in more than just Shandling and company's creative coffee pot in 1992. Four months before "Larry Sanders" premiered, Robert Altman's film of Michael Tolkin's adaptation of his own novel about the movie industry, "The Player," opened. As on "The Larry Sanders Show," "The Player" filled itself with stars appearing as themselves. One crucial difference separates most of the cameos in "The Player" from how celebrities portrayed themselves on "Larry Sanders." In the movie, very few of the cameo players toyed with their own public image. If they had a target, it was either the movie industry or the fictional characters. On "The Larry Sanders Show," the guest stars willingly played along with the behind-the-scenes aspect of the show, even allowing themselves to be seen in less-than-admirable lights. Lori Loughlin lets herself be labeled as a compulsive thief who steals $200 from Larry's wallet. Laura Leighton displays a fetish that runs parallel to Larry's need to watch himself on TV before or during sex, turning on "Melrose Place" while dating Sanders. Booked guests such as Rob Reiner and Danny DeVito cancel appearances at the last minute over perceived slights or dissatisfaction with gift baskets. Elvis Costello wrecks a dressing room one time and sells Hank a lemon of a car another.
Few appearances though touched the ingenious hilarity of those by David Duchovny insisting that he's a straight man attracted to Larry in the same way he felt when attracted to a woman -- a running gag whose idea originated with Duchovny himself. You can draw a straight line from the willingness of celebrities to do such things on "Larry Sanders" to future shows such as "Curb Your Enthusiasm," "Entourage," "Extras" and "30 Rock," whose executive producer through last season, John Riggi, served four roles on "Larry Sanders." Apatow also employed celebrity self-mockery, as when Adam Sandler played himself on "Undeclared" and various cameos in Apatow's films "Knocked Up" and, to a lesser extent, "Funny People."
Earlier, when I named "Larry Sanders" as the first great continuing series on HBO, some probably thought of another HBO original and Robert Altman work that preceded it by four years and won Altman a well-deserved Emmy for direction in a drama series. "Tanner '88" ran only 11 episodes, though, and Garry Trudeau's writing blurred the line between drama and satire nearly as often as "Larry Sanders" did comedy and pathos, making "Tanner '88' resemble a miniseries in half-hour installments more than the usual drama series fare. Despite the difference in stories and approach, looking at "Tanner '88" now, its parade of politicians appearing as themselves and use of different types of video places it as somewhat of a prehistoric ancestor of "Larry Sanders" on the HBO series evolutionary chart. Altman and Trudeau produced "Tanner '88" for HBO cheap and on the fly. The "Larry Sanders" budget also swam in shallow waters, but the show had the benefit of time (not that it wasn't frenzied, but the show wasn't chained to a primary calendar ricocheting across the U. S.) to finesse, polish and constantly improve the show. "When we started making it, we were sort of in a bubble. HBO then was not the HBO now. We were making a whole bunch (of episodes) before we went on the air," Tambor said. "I think I knew, maybe more certain than anybody, that it was going to get critical praise. When I read that script, I went, 'This is very, very different. This is going to be a game changer.'"
The clip at the top of this tribute comes from the first episode of "The Larry Sanders Show," titled "What Have You Done for Me Lately? aka The Garden Weasel." If you watch new television shows closely, more times than not, it takes four or five episodes (for the great ones anyway) to accomplish what they want to do. For example, it took four episodes until "Deadwood" roped me in. (Exceptions exist: "Hill Street Blues" and "Breaking Bad" hooked me from the beginning.)
The first "Larry Sanders" to air was not the first episode shot. Its production number was No. 104, which should indicate the fourth episode, though on the DVD commentary track for that episode by Shandling and Tolan (who co-wrote the episode directed by Ken Kwapis), Shandling calls it the fifth or sixth show they did. It occurred to me that Shandling might have misremembered years later because they shot all talk show footage once every three weeks. That places those scenes for "The Garden Weasel" episode in the second batch of talk show production -- the six-week mark. (The "real" first episode, "The Hey Now Episode," ended up running last in the first season's batch of 13 installments.) Regardless of its number, the decision not to go the traditional route and air the pilot first served the series well because "What Have You Done for Me Lately?" set the show's basic template in the best light (until later years when they began smashing the mold and taking "Larry Sanders" to an even higher plane). "Garry felt 'The Garden Weasel' episode was our best version of what he wanted the show to be (at that point) - so it was his decision to move it up. HBO may have had a say in that, but I remember Garry being a huge fan of that episode and ultimately choosing to move the episode up into first airing position," Tolan said in an email interview. This clip from that episode's opening moments exemplifies how soon into that show it became obvious to viewers that "The Larry Sanders Show" stood apart from other TV comedies.
For the first time, we see those opening credits of "The Larry Sanders Show" while, instead of a theme song, Tambor's distinctive voice as Hank Kingsley warms up the audience until it leads into the show-within-the-show's opening. The crisp video image displays the stage as the curtains part and Shandling enter the screen for the first time as Larry to deliver his monologue, talking about Clinton playing the sax on "Arsenio." The studio audience's laughter might fool some viewers brainwashed by laugh tracks that HBO's new sitcom sounded no different than the ones on broadcast networks but -- about 2½ minutes into the episode -- the moment occurs when those watching realize that "The Larry Sanders Show" was not typical TV. The video image suddenly switches to film and the image pulls back so we see the cameramen as Larry continues his monologue. We still hear the studio audience respond to his jokes, but the sound reverberates differently, in a slightly jarring way. Before your brain wraps itself around that change-up, video returns and focuses on Larry again. We see Hank for the first time (on video) standing at his post with his microphone stand, darkness shielding an actual audience behind him. So far, we've only seen the public images of Hank and Larry. Before the monologue sequence ends, it shifts to film again to introduce Torn as Artie at his producer's monitor while Larry still jokes in the background. Finally, we hear Larry use a variation of what eventually we'll come to know as "No flipping," only he says, "Don't flip around" this time.
Only occasional topical references throughout the series' run, particularly in monologues, place "The Larry Sanders Show" at a fixed moment in time. If effects wizards swapped out references to long-gone shows and inserted mentions of Jimmy Fallon, Craig Ferguson, Jimmy Kimmel and the Conan O'Brien-move-Leno-to-prime-time debacle, the show would play as if made last week instead of in the 1990s. Not to make light of people losing jobs, especially in this economic climate, but the recent news that NBC's continued overall bungling forced a downsizing at "The Tonight Show" and led to Leno taking a pay cut made me wonder if karma finally came knocking at the network's door for its many late night misdeeds. (Personally, I'd also like to think NBC earned some punishment for only producing 18 episodes of "Freaks & Geeks" -- three of which the peacock never even aired). The story also instantly reminded me of this scene from the second season episode "Larry's Agent" (story by Victor Levin; written by Shandling, Simms, Maya Forbes and Drake Sather; directed by Holland). In the scene, Larry's longtime agent Leo (John Pleshette) gives Larry an update on the progress of his contract negotiations with the network.
The switching from video to film in the show's opening moments surprised one particular viewer when he first watched -- and he happened to be part of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation/HBO co-production "The Kids in the Hall," whose last episodes for HBO aired around the same time. "I remember when I was first watching it and they went from the videotape to film and we were like, 'What's going on?' It was revolutionary," Thompson said from Canada. The equipment, staff and process used to give "The Larry Sanders Show" its unique look both in its talk show and non-show scenes turns out to be so complex that 20 years later, it still amazes if you hear about it for the first time. When producing the talk show sequences, three film cameras and three video cameras ran simultaneously. As daunting a task as that sounds for a director, Holland, who helmed more than half of the show's 89 episodes, found other issues grabbed his attention on talk show nights.
"The talk shows were only a challenge because of the pressure of keeping the vibe 'live' -- as a real late night talk show feels. Garry tolerated very few delays on those nights. So it was always 'on with the show' at any cost," Holland said in an email interview. "Most guest stars on talk show nights were only with us for a very, very brief window of time and Garry was very self-conscious about inconveniencing any of them -- so we had to act decisively and move quickly. It made those nights intense -- but exciting." Directors also handled the switches between video and film in these sequences live, not in editing as one might suspect. "The talk show was always live switched because we could see it on the 'prop' monitors mounted within the set -- so it had to look real. We also got the three camera feeds in post -- so we could later recut anything we felt needed a second pass," Holland said. While that still strikes one as tricky to master, after learning how the crews pulled off office and backstage hallway scenes, it makes the talk show techniques seem as easy to operate as the old Polaroid One Step. The scene that immediately follows Larry's monologue in "What Have You Done for Me Lately?" sets up two fixtures of the show and introduces two more regulars, without betraying the complexity used to capture it.
In that short scene, in addition to giving viewers the first glimpse of the offscreen Larry and the first sounds of Artie's voice, we meet Paula (Garofalo), the show's talent booker, who follows Artie and Larry through the doors from the talk show set. (Is everyone who watched the clip trying to visualize Harrison Ford imitating Carol Channing right now?) The scene also establishes a recurring theme for the series as well as the dynamics of two of Larry's central relationships: Artie as the person stuck with handling the unpleasantries that Larry wants to avoid, network interference chief among them; and his assistant Beverly (Penny Johnson Jerald) as the one in charge of trying to keep the host happy. "That's what (Artie's) job is -- you protect the star. He's the main man," Torn said. In fact, of all the regular characters on "Larry Sanders," Beverly was the only one who never seemed insecure about herself. From time to time, she felt unappreciated, but she alone lacked self-doubt. "I think it was essential because of the Larry character. He was so very insecure and to make him work I think they needed a foundation for him," Jerald said in a phone interview. "Garry the writer was brilliant enough to put that in another character and be able to play off that. Otherwise, it would have been just that character's neuroses with no character of strength. I think that's what made Beverly work."
Now, about the mechanics involved in that scene with the characters walking and talking as the camera moves down the hallway of the dressing room area. As Aaron Sorkin fans know, those shots aren't unusual on television today. Though rare, "The Larry Sanders Show" likely didn't invent the technique 20 years ago either. However, I think little doubt exists that the show had to be the first to employ one particular piece of equipment. Correction: a pair of them. "Peter Smokler was our director of photography and one of three camera operators. He was also a skilled hockey player. Rollerblades were second nature to him. I can't comment on whether we invented the backpedal walk-and-talk (It would be hard to imagine we did) -- but we were definitely the first and only show to do them on rollerblades," Holland said, emphasizing that the series' low budget required such unusual methods. "There was no money for Steadicam and so the rollerblades were really born of necessity -- it was so much more flexible than a dolly. Peter became so skilled that (with the help of a grip/spotter) we began to do not just 'pull' moves where Peter was towed ahead of the walking actors filming backwards, but also compound 'push/pull' moves as well. Here we would chase someone down a hall, for example, and then, once landing, Peter would reverse his skate position and we would then continue the shot pulling backwards as the actors turned and walked toward camera. It was easy for Peter, but really impressive to watch." If only more footage existed than the small portion included in The Making of "The Larry Sanders Show" feature on the DVD that enabled fans to watch Smokler's amazing feat. When they shot the scenes set in the talk show's office, hearing it described makes it sound as much like choreography as direction.
On the DVD commentary for "Hank's Night in the Sun," Holland says that typically present during the office scenes were a dolly, a cameraman, a dolly grip, two camera operators and their assistant operators, who all danced around the actors. "The thing of it is, the actors have it the easiest: The words are there, your face is made up, your clothes are provided for, the cameras are in position, there's a director to tell you where to be and when to be there," said Wallace Langham, who played the show's writer, Phil, in an email interview. "All you gotta do is remember some words and show up. So, watching Smokler on the rollerblades was a thing of beauty. He wanted it to be easy. It really speaks of the dedication of our entire crew to making 'Sanders' the best it could be. You'll notice in the episodes how small those hallways were. I think that was on purpose to get everyone as physically close and uncomfortable as possible."
If you watch the first clip in this package from that classic episode, you'll notice a man in a blue shirt sticking out of the makeup room when Artie and Darlene (Linda Doucett), Hank's assistant for the first three seasons, escort Hank there. Holland explains on the commentary that the mystery man was shooting the coverage on Torn, but they left him in the shot, assuming viewers would think he was an anonymous member of the talk show's staff. In all those film scenes, three cameras ran simultaneously. "'Larry Sanders' is not a badly lit single-camera show. It is an ingeniously lit multicamera show," Holland said on the commentary track, telling how Smokler dimmed and raised the lighting manually as needed but that people accepted it since most offices suffer from that kind of illumination. "When I really think of all the years Peter stayed on those rollerblades -- they give out so many awards but they don't have awards enough for him," Jerald said. "He'd carry that camera on his shoulder. He would do squats. It was an aerobic workout, truly."
Despite Larry's fears of facing the network honchos, he accompanies Artie to the meeting where we meet network President Sheldon Davidoff (veteran character actor James Karen, who would appear in four early episodes) and Vice President of Programming Melanie Parrish (Deborah May), a ballbreaker of the highest order -- though her character survives all the changes in network ownership to make nine more appearances through season six. (Says Artie: "I could swear she was this guy I killed in Korea.") The other times Parrish pops in, she never gets to be quite as in-your-face (specifically Larry's) as she's portrayed in the "What Have You Done for Me Lately?" episode. "I have fond memories of that terrific show and the actors," May said in an instant message. Shel announces that Melanie relocated to L. A. to take charge of late night programming and she immediately hits Artie and Larry with some unpleasant facts. "We all know what the economic climate is like out there in network television right now. We're getting kicked in the balls," Parrish begins. "It's trench warfare. Our number one problem mathwise: Lost viewers equal lost advertisers equal lost revenue. What do we do to keep our advertisers happy -- other than giving them free hand jobs?" That certainly captures Sanders' attention and then Parrish unloads what the network wants from the talk show host. Larry must begin "live" commercials during his show. "Knowing the sponsors the way I do, I just think they would respond more to the hand jobs," Larry replies, amusing everyone except Parrish. Sanders, as would be his custom for most of the series' run, turns to Artie to bail him out, and they suggest Hank as a better pitchman -- but the execs disliked Hank's overexposure because he sells anything and everything. Now, he even portrays the Jolly Green Giant, which comes as news to Larry and Artie.
As Sanders continues to hesitate, Parrish warns him that Unidac Electronics (the network's corporate parent described by Larry as "the garage door opener people") won't carry his show at a deficit. He asks what the product would be and another executive (Rif Hutton) tells him that it's The Garden Weasel. "Now, that is no way to talk about Ms. Parrish," Larry responds. (I never realized the product actually existed until I listened to the episode's commentary track.) Artie and Larry eventually exit the meeting with little resolved. Since all the real networks get a mention during the run of "Larry Sanders" and we know from Parrish's speech that the show isn't on cable, I've always fantasized that Larry airs on the UBS network, the one Paddy Chayefsky invented in his prescient 1976 screenplay for "Network." (Once, when Hank tries to renegotiate the terms of his contract, he claims to have an offer to be Dick Cavett's sidekick on CNBC, but Artie pleads ignorance of the channel, saying his TV only goes to 13 "like it's supposed to.")
While "The Larry Sanders Show" started out great from the outset, if any part of the series could be excised during those first two seasons, it was the scenes showing Larry's life at home, first with wife Jeannie (Megan Gallagher), and in the second season with a renewed relationship with ex-wife Francine (Kathryn Harrold). The fault wasn't with the actresses -- Gallagher had great success in series such as "The Slap Maxwell Story" and "China Beach," and Harrold soared before, most notably opposite Albert Brooks in "Modern Romance." In the premiere, Jeannie advises him not to do The Garden Weasel commercial if he doesn't feel right about it, but Larry fears that he won't look like a team player and the network will punish the show as a result. Tolan said that the domestic scenes with Larry were one of two major disagreements he always had with Shandling about the show. On the commentary, Shandling says establishing Larry's home life was crucial in emphasizing that his true relationship was with his talk show, not with either Jeannie or Francine or any of the many women that float through his life once he re-enters the singles market in season three.
"I was very vocal with Garry about two things: I didn't think the home life did anything for us, and I always thought we should pare down the actual talk show," Tolan said in our email interview. "Garry's a great interviewer and host, and I think the talk show parts of the show allowed him to satisfy his jones for that job -- so he'd always want more of it included. I'd argue that we were doing a show about backstage at a talk show, so I'd make the argument for trimming the talk show stuff down. Sometimes I won -- sometimes I didn't, but I stand by my feeling that the home life was never going to sing the same way the workplace stuff did." Back at the office the next day, we get to see more of Beverly, who briefly informs her boss that four messages await him from Melanie Parrish -- and Larry relents and tells Beverly to call her back and inform her he'll do The Garden Weasel commercial "with great delight." Beverly also bears the news that one of the night's guests, actor Robert Hays, slipped in the shower, but still plans to make the show. Then we get what once was a staple of the show in the early years. It arrives with our first off-camera scene of Hank as Darlene enters Larry's office seeking permission for Hank to see Larry. As Hank's assistant exits, Kingsley enters, acting as if Larry summoned him.
Hank Kingsley -- if I designed such a structure and selected the inductees -- belongs in the pantheon of the greatest television characters of all time. Our first exposure to him in "What Have You Done for Me Lately?" barely scratches the surface of the depths and shadings of his personality mined by Tambor and the "Larry Sanders" writers over the course of its six seasons and 89 episodes. Strike the vein bearing his competence as a pitchman one minute, as in this episode, you'll hit one the next indicating how slow on the uptake Kingsley can be. He endears himself as he asks Larry why no one consulted him about doing the live Garden Weasel commercial (which truly would be Larry's preference). "The thing is I know The Garden Weasel. I use The Garden Weasel. I know The Garden Weasel people -- they're good people," Kingsley tries to sell to Sanders, who admits he suggested the idea but stumbles for an answer when Hank wants to know what the execs said. Hank knows intuitively that the suits rejected him and he knows why as well. "That one Green Giant spot has really been a monkey on my back," Hank confesses in defeat.
I asked Tolan in our email interview if Hank's complexity existed in the development stage or whether that evolved as Tambor brought his ample talents to the role. "Hank was a well-drawn creation before we cast Jeffrey -- but God -- he took it to another level. There were points in later seasons where we didn't know if we were writing Hank or Jeffrey. He and Rip were both incredible -- and I was involved in the casting process for both parts. The troika -- as I called it -- of Garry, Jeffrey and Rip -- there was always gold when the three of them were on the screen," Tolan said. Twenty years after he first slipped into Hank Kingsley's skin, Tambor still defends the character he brought so vividly to life. "There's that adage in acting that you're stuck with the character, but the character's also stuck with you. Hank was very real to me. I never thought he was a fool," Tambor said. "When people said he was a buffoon, I would take real umbrage. I liked him. He made me sad, but he also made me laugh. I thought he was petty. I also thought he could be great. I never thought he was stupid. I thought his emotionality could make him do stupid things."
After Hank's exit, we meet the first guest to play himself as Paula escorts Robert Hays to his dressing room. The "Airplane!" star begins the tradition of celebrities mocking themselves that only grows richer and more stunning as the series progresses. "We had real trouble early on getting celebrities to do the show. They'd ask, 'What am I playing?' and we'd say, 'Yourself' and they'd run screaming," Tolan said. Hays acts as if he remains woozy from his earlier shower slip, worrying Paula who asks if he needs a doctor when Hays clutches a corner of the hallway wall saying, "Mommy? Mommy, why can't I ride the dog?" The actor then stands upright and smiles at the talent booker. "Had you goin' there, didn't I?" he teases. "That's really funny, Robert," Paula responds, less than convincingly amused.
"Well, I was in 'Airplane II,'" Hays says, acknowledging that disaster of a sequel (that also features Torn). After Artie and Larry engage in their pre-show ethics discussion, we see Larry's first interview with Hays where they discuss his bathroom mishap before the band interrupts the segment to indicate that it's time for the first live commercial for The Garden Weasel.
Larry tries to hide his reluctance about doing the spot by using his most effective defensive weapon: his humor. He jokes about green thumbs, turns the gardening tool into a golfing reference, sprinkles a little sexual innuendo and, for good measure, tosses in an allusion to the possible whereabouts of Jimmy Hoffa. Larry even accidentally breaks off one of the Weasel's blades and sends it flying toward the band. On the technical side, viewers briefly see Arthur monitoring Larry's work on his display in a quick switch to film while in the background we see Larry enact the same precise movements to let home viewers experience that "live vibe." Afterward, Larry and Artie head backstage, pleased with the effort. Melanie Parrish doesn't share that sentiment, despite Sanders' pride in saying the word mulch. Parrish calmly informs Larry that what he did bore no resemblance to an acceptable commercial spot. "What we're trying to do here, Mr. Sanders -- Larry- - is to please the sponsors, not antagonize them. I feel fairly confident that our client did not expect to hear the name of a dead Teamster used as a selling point," Parrish tells him, a bit more bile seeping into each syllable she speaks. As will be the pattern for most of the show's episodes, a flustered Larry starts to say something, but then calls for Artie in distress. "Ms. Parrish, let me clarify something for you. Now, rumor has it, that this is a very funny guy. When you ask Larry Sanders to do a commercial, you get Larry Sanders. I mean the commercial was funny. I think it worked. Your sponsor should be delighted," Artie springs forth in defense. An exasperated Parrish declares that she lacks the time for this discussion and advises Sanders to "stick to the copy" as she marches away, which Larry admits turns him on.
Before returning to the main plot, "What Have You Done for Me Lately?" pays another visit to the Sanders' household where Larry and Jeannie meet with a dog trainer (played by pre-"Drew Carey Show" Kathy Kinney) to try to stop their pet canine from jumping all the time. It's not really important now because I believe in an unaired scene Richie Cunningham's older brother Chuck adopts the pooch, and we never see or hear about Chopper again. The trainer tells Larry that she bought a Garden Weasel based on his commercial and she loves it. When she asks if he uses one, Sanders lies and says he does. That night on the show, he returns to the scene of the crime and tries to sell again, but he can't discipline himself. Larry Sanders wasn't born to deliver straight lines as we see in our final clip from that episode.
I'll refrain from revealing the rest of the episode except for a few tidbits. After Melanie yells at Larry, the two return to his office and it's a rare moment where we see a more assertive Sanders stand his ground and defend himself (though he doesn't have a choice since Artie can't be found when he looks for him). Shandling and May's verbal sparring comes off very well, especially with the follow-up visual punchline. Also worth noting: actor Sam Whipple plays the makeup artist but the budget restrictions on "The Larry Sanders Show" limited hiring actors for small roles and in future episodes many crew member parts were filled by actual crew members. For example, in later episodes when Bruno puts on the characters' makeup, that's actually the series' makeup artist Bruce Grayson. Finally, though both names appeared in the opening credits, the first episode didn't introduce us to the show's main writers Jerry and Phil (Jeremy Piven, Langham). Viewers would meet them in the second aired episode "The Promise," which actually came fifth in production order of that first season of 13 episodes.
"Everyone in front of and behind the camera was at the top of their game, plus there was a small dose of madness added to the mix," Joshua Malina said in an email interview. Malina appeared as an Entertainment Weekly reporter in the classic second season episode "Off Camera" and then returned in the series' final season to play ambitious network exec Kenny Mitchell, engineering the demise of Larry's talk show as a rung in his planned climb up the corporate ladder.
While "The Larry Sanders Show" scored as one of the best series on television in its very first season, its sharpness and quality deepened and evolved with each passing year -- a rare feat for a series in any genre. Even the best shows usually reach a plateau of excellence and hold (provided they don't overstay their welcome and start to slip). It's not that all 89 episodes of "The Larry Sanders Show" measure an equal weight on the brilliance scale, but consider that from seasons two through four, "Larry Sanders" filled orders not faced by the best cable series airing today. The number of episodes produced for those three seasons reached, respectively, 18, 17 and 17 -- so a little slack here or there shouldn't surprise. Compare that to a typical pay or basic cable series today that usually only makes 12 or 13 installments a season or HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm," which always produces a mere 10.
"I honestly don't remember doing that many episodes of 'Sanders' during a single season -- so yes, if they sag -- it's because we were doing so many," Tolan said. "Ten or 12 episodes is a humane number for any show -- and a MUST, I think, for any show with a writer/star/producer at the center. That single distinction makes a shorter order much easier to handle." Shandling served as that nexus and, before the series shot a single scene, he deliberated thoroughly until he satisfied himself that he'd assembled a support team of writers, producers and actors that when combined provided the best chance to bring his vision for "The Larry Sanders Show" to fruition. "It was amazing," Thompson said. "Garry Shandling is a genius and a nice guy. That combination is pretty remarkable. It really was a remarkable work environment. It really is true that it all comes from the generals and he was a really great general."
The third and final part of this 20th anniversary tribute to "The Larry Sanders Show" focuses on the show's characters and the actors, writers and directors who made them so vivid. Read it here.
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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.Reveal Comments comments powered by Disqus