Heaven Is for Real
Faith-based film tries reaching past its audience, but falls back on preaching to its own choir way too much.
August 15 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 first 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.
Over the course of my lifetime, I've watched a lot of movies -- an old computer contained a program with an editable database of titles and allowed for the addition of new films. Back when I used that PC, my total hovered in the thousands. "The Larry Sanders Show" produced a mere 89 episodes in its six season run from 1992-1998 that began 20 years ago tonight on HBO. "I know it sounds cliché but -- honest to God -- it seems like it was just about a week ago. It's so odd that it's 20 years," Jeffrey Tambor said in a telephone interview.
Despite the vast disparity between the quantity of films I've viewed and "Larry Sanders" episodes, when I recently took part in The House Next Door's "If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot" series, I found it far easier to prune those pictures down to my ten favorites than I did when I applied the same task to "Larry Sanders" episodes. (Picking a clip or two from each show proved even more difficult as inevitably I'd want to include the entire half-hour.) Three or four episodes I knew had to be on the list, but then it got tough. I considered making a list of the best episode for each character such as the best Brian episode ("Putting the 'Gay' Back in Litigation"), the best Beverly ("Would You Do Me a Favor?"), the best Phil ("Headwriter"), etc. With all the priceless episodes centering on Hank and Artie, I imagined those two characters conceivably filling all ten spots alone.
A series that broke as much ground as "The Larry Sanders Show" deserves a grander tribute to mark the two decades since its birth than just a recounting of a handful of episodes -- and I had that intention. Unfortunately, my physical limitations and time constraints thwarted my ambitions. Rest assured though, that salute shall be forthcoming (MESSAGE TO BOB ODENKIRK: YOU STILL CAN TAKE PART NOW). As with any list, I'm certain my fellow "Larry Sanders" fans shall express outrage at my omissions (I already hear the shouts of "Where is the one with Carol Burnett and the spiders?" "No 'Hank's Sex Tape!' Hey now!"). Believe me, I'm as livid as you are and may join in the comments to give myself the thorough tongue-lashing I so richly deserve for these unforgivable exclusions. First, though, I'm going to fix myself a Salty Dog, using Artie's recipe of course. I want to be able to grab those olives, not fish for them. So, for good or ill, I submit my selections for my ten favorite episodes of "The Larry Sanders Show." Since bestowing ranks only leads to more trouble, I present these ten in chronological order:
Though "Law & Order" eventually sold itself as "ripped from the headlines," "The Larry Sanders Show" often found inspiration from the news as well, albeit vastly different publications and TV programs (or at least the differences seemed more distinct and less blurry in 1992 ). Even those dumbfounded when I write that "The New Producer" plays off the infamous Katzenberg memo should enjoy this early installment.
In the series' version, the memo comes from Larry's friend Jonathan Litman (Ian Buchanan), who fills in as the talk show's guest producer when an emergency appendectomy keeps Artie (Rip Torn) out of the office. Though intended only for the eyes of Larry (Shandling) and network executives, Litman's memo suggesting ways to improve the show spreads like the flu -- eventually reaching Artie, who sneaks into Hank's office, downing tequila and Demerol, convinced he's out as producer. He insists that Hank (Tambor) join him in tying one on, though Kingsley fears he needs antibiotics for the ear he pierced in an attempt to look hip. Larry's sidekick, in complete earnestness, asks Artie if he thinks he "skews to an older demographic." Grimacing, the sloshed industry vet slurs, "It's all bullshit. This is just change for the sake of change. (Think each Facebook redesign.) It's endemic in Hollywood. It has nothing to do with the way any of us do our jobs. It's flavor of the month...Competence, professionalism, loyalty -- these aren't words in the Hollywood vocabulary!" The sight of Tambor and Torn playing the intoxicated pair as they invade Larry's office alone earns this episode's spot in my top 10.
Buchanan became the first and one of the few "It's Garry Shandling's Show."* regulars to pop up on "Larry Sanders." While both comedies earned praise for their innovation and quality, the shows diverged widely in terms of tone, style and format. "The 'Sanders' show was very grown-up compared to the 'Shandling' show. It was film...and no audience," Buchanan said in an email interview. Buchanan first met Shandling in the parking lot at Sunset-Gower Studios when he played the role of Duke Lavery on "General Hospital" while Shandling shot "It's Garry Shandling's Show." at the adjoining studio. "I was invited to read for a recurring role they had coming up and, because of the close proximity, I could take the job and run from one studio to the other on a very regular basis," Buchanan said. Given the plot of "The New Producer." Buchanan missed out on sharing a scene with Torn. "I have always been a huge fan of Rip Torn and it would've been great to work with him, but I was there in his place to replace him," he said. "I had a great time on 'Sanders' as it was just (Shandling) and I and it was tightly scripted."
The series received one of its first two Emmy nominations for writing for this episode that thrust Larry into the middle of a tabloid scandal when he accidentally knocks a woman named Carol Biederman (Suanne Spoke) into a magazine rack at a grocery store and she tells her story to reporters and contemplates suing.
At first, Larry denies it, but when he sees the store's videotape that shows he did it, the embarrassed Sanders stands ready to apologize. However, the network's PR man posits a different point of view and we meet one of the show's great recurring characters -- David Paymer as Norman Litkey, a man who believes any publicity counts as good publicity and expresses excitement by declaring constant incontinence. Hollywood always loves star scandals and it's worse now than it was in 1992. (A particularly telling moment comes when Litkey giddily reports that CNN plans to air the video -- a sad harbinger of what lay ahead for the first and once great cable news (before those two words became an oxymoron) network that now exists as an utter mess without a purpose.
The episode contains many great moments such as when a depressed Larry locks himself in his office and won't come out for anyone -- until his wife Jeannie (Megan Gallagher) shows up and threatens to tell the entire office his nickname for his penis. Many talented writers worked on the show and this won't be the last time you see Peter Tolan's name on this list. Of the people involved with the show who I interviewed for this tribute, his name came up often. Penny Johnson Jerald mentioned being particularly fond of the work of both Tolan and Maya Forbes, who co-wrote this episode's story with Tolan. "I must say that when we got a script that said 'By Peter Tolan,' I became extra excited because I knew that Beverly was gonna have something tremendous to do in the script. Peter could always write for my character. He was one of the better writers in my book for my character -- he and Maya Forbes," Jerald said in our phone conversation. "When they wrote, Penny became very excited because they always gave Beverly something snazzy, brassy and on point to say." This episode only marked the first time Larry, Hank or the fictional talk show itself landed in a media controversy.
"Artie's Gone" (Season 2, Episode 8)Written by Paul Simms. Directed by Todd Holland.
When I asked Janeane Garofalo what her favorite Paula episode was, by pure chance (though she didn't name it by title) she said, "I loved the one where I got to produce the show and got to talk to the late, great Bruno Kirby." It's not an appendectomy that sidelines Artie this time, but a mudslide and he's not threatened because he's asking Paula to handle things for him until he gets to the studio. "There's a goddamn house sitting in the middle of the road," he informs Paula from his car phone. One important caveat: Larry can't know that Artie isn't there or he'll panic. One problem in need of immediate resolution concerns Ted Danson's cancellation as lead guest.
The bigger obstacle stems from Hank, who believes it's up to him to take over and find a new lead guest so the show ends up with two -- Paula gets Steven Wright while Hank calls Kirby, booked for the following night's show. "This would never happen on Letterman," Wright tells Kirby, who agrees. "It's amateur night in Dixie." Not only do the laughs accumulate in the script by Paul Simms, who would go on to create "NewsRadio," the episode moves at times like an action film thanks to Holland's always kinetic direction. Jerald compared Holland's limitless energy to the Energizer Bunny "and it was contagious," she said. Garofalo received her first major chance to shine as Paula as well as the gift of the always-brilliant Tambor, displaying Hank's worst qualities, as her main foil. Torn literally phones in most of his performance -- and he's superb. Finally, Shandling subtly shows Larry at his most oblivious and self-centered, even though most of the episode's spotlight lands on other actors.
"Off Camera" (Season 2, Episode 15) Written by Peter Tolan. Directed by Ken Kwapis.
This episode originally aired Sept. 15, 1993, yet when I watched it for the first time in about a decade when the complete series came out on DVD in December 2010, it not only remained as funny as ever, I actually recalled large chunks of Tolan's dialogue verbatim. As in "Artie's Gone," it's a particularly chaotic day in the office and backstage area of The Larry Sanders Show. Unfortunately, the accumulation of disasters coincide with the day an Entertainment Weekly reporter (Joshua Malina, who would return in the series' final season as ambitious new network exec Kenny Mitchell) spends the day on the set to see how the show runs.
Since Larry steers clear of the press, the reporter mostly shadows Artie, who leads Central Command trying to put out the various fires that spring up -- some that Artie himself ignites. This episode epitomizes how willing, by this time in the show's run, guest stars were to play with their public images -- and this installment offered four ready to take that plunge -- five if you count the stray dog Darlene (Linda Doucett) brings to the office that instigates much of the chain reaction that, once again, largely escapes Larry's notice. Elizabeth Ashley, John Ritter, Gene Siskel and Warren Zevon appear as themselves and get to deliver the gems in Tolan's hysterical script. In fact, Tolan himself performs, playing Ritter's unctuous agent Adam Loderman. "I'm not sure what prompted that casting decision, but I remember having fun -- even though acting and getting dressed up and having to put on make-up -- it's a pain in the ass," Tolan told me in an email.
Ritter and Siskel actually get to provide much of the heavy comedy lifting in this episode -- not surprising for Ritter -- but the film critic turns out to be quite adept himself, particularly in the priceless scene he plays opposite Tambor's Hank. "He was an über-fan (of the show)," Tambor said in a phone interview. Siskel's expressions prove priceless when Kingsley stops the critic during a commercial break to complain about his rave for "The Crying Game" because Hank didn't notice any surprise twist, which Siskel then proceeds to explain to the puzzled sidekick.
In an email interview, Malina shared an anecdote about Siskel that Wallace Langham (who played Phil), whom he became friends with during the making of the episode, reminded him about recently. "At one point, we were on a break, and we were sitting on the darkened talk show set having a chat. Suddenly, we saw Gene Siskel kind of creep in and take the Larry Sanders mug that was sitting on his desk," Malina said. "When he noticed us sitting there staring at him, he kind of fumfered a bit and said, 'Umm, Garry said I could have this. Yeah.' And then he slunk away. Aside from that one larcenous act, Gene seemed like a very sweet guy." Langham and Malina weren't the sole witnesses. "Amazing," Tolan responded in an email when I asked if he knew about the mug. "Because I was standing under the bleachers writing some notes and watched him take it off the desk! I never heard him tell anyone that Garry gave him permission, but yes -- that's a true story." As funny as "Off Camera" remains, now a touch of the bittersweet accompanies the laughs since of the four guest stars so important to its success only Ashley remains with us -- Ritter, Siskel and Zevon all having died far too soon. "John Ritter was wonderful to work with and a very sweet guy," Tolan said. "It's a well-known truth of Hollywood that the good guys die, and the assholes live on and on."
"Hank's Night in the Sun" (Season 3, Episode 6)Written by Peter Tolan. Directed by Todd Holland.
When compiling this list of favorites, this classic secured its spot immediately. My opinion of this episode's greatness almost reaches the consensus, at least among those I interviewed, that "Citizen Kane" held on the Sight & Sound list of best films for 50 years until earlier this month when "Vertigo" staged its coup d'état. Hank's attempt to overthrow Larry doesn't begin as one but blood spills figuratively in his plot as Tolan's Emmy-nominated script unfurls. Another crisis hits the talk show when Beverly takes Larry to the frozen yogurt shop close to taping time and a bout of food poisoning leads Sanders to vomit all over her car as well as Ventura Boulevard. "Any witnesses?" Artie asks Paula when she gives him the news but Beverly didn't see any. "Good. I've seen Larry vomit. It's not something you want to see over and over again on 'Hard Copy,'" the producer tells the talent booker. With a little more than 30 minutes to find a guest host and all the usual options unavailable, Artie braces himself and asks Hank to steer the show that night. "Jeffrey Tambor's performance is brilliant as he takes on the journey from paralytic fear to audience-alienating obnoxiousness," Joshua Malina said.
Indeed, Tambor always soars as Kingsley, but this episode shows multiple layers of Hank -- especially when he performs pretty well. Unfortunately, that's all it takes to swell his head and transform the shy, unassuming pinch hitter into the Ty Cobb (personality-wise) of late night talk shows, ready to move in to Larry's office the next day when he's out again. Jerald also cites the episode as "one of the funniest shows, I must say, that we made" and relished getting to play her scene with Tambor in particular. Holland also received an Emmy nomination for his direction and admits it's the favorite of the many episodes he helmed. "I have always had a very fond place in my heart for 'Hank's Night In the Sun.' It was an insane experience -- the first episode that featured so much Hank and Artie without Garry," Holland said in an email interview, "and so Garry was off the set! The rehearsal week was very trying without Garry there to navigate some big personalities. But the shoot itself was touched by some kind of magic. You could feel that it was just literally snapping together -- nothing was being left on the field -- and that we were doing a special episode."
When I put Tolan on the spot and asked which of the many shows he wrote he treasured most, he mentioned this episode as one of two. "I think 'Hank's Night in the Sun' might be the best. It's very well constructed -- and Jeffrey really shines," Tolan said. Malina especially appreciated one section of dialogue before Hank goes out to guest host the first time. "Arthur reassuring Hank pre-show with the tepid, 'You do not suck!' and Hank responding with 'That's one of the kindest things anyone has ever said to me.' One of the all-time great couplets of dialogue," Malina said. The Television Academy should bow its head in shame for eternity for never honoring Tambor with an Emmy for bringing Hank Kingsley to such vivid, multidimensional life but they didn't even NOMINATE him that year. Holland and Tolan also went home empty handed at the Emmys though the Cable ACE Awards still existed then and both won there for this episode. I hate to mix my TV show references since the Emmys sometimes get things right, but as denizens of the title town of another unjustly neglected HBO series might say, most of the time, Emmy voters act like hoople-heads.
"The Mr. Sharon Stone Show" (Season 3, Episode 8) Written by Garry Shandling and Peter Tolan. Directed by Todd Holland.
While Shandling earns justifiable praise for his brilliance in writing and conceiving the "Larry Sanders" universe (place no limits on those laurels; pile those plaudits until they reach Mars and Shandling shakes hands with Curiosity), his substantial acting gifts get pointed out far too little. This episode displays some of the best examples of Shandling's skills in that area as the single-again Larry begins to date Sharon Stone who -- in the show's reality -- recently ended an engagement. When this one aired on Aug. 10, 1994, Stone stood in somewhat the same position as Shandling. Since "Basic Instinct" turned her into a superstar, Stone had been tagged as little more than a sex object. That view largely wouldn't change until Martin Scorsese's "Casino" the following year. Until then, Stone arguably found her best role playing herself on "The Larry Sanders Show."
As with nearly every episode, this Emmy-nominated script doesn't skimp on the laughs, but it also contains a sweetness and poignancy for which the entire series fails to receive enough credit. "Garry and his staff always went beyond the joke to somewhere else and I thought that was a hallmark," Tambor said in our phone conversation. Shandling wonderfully shows that what Sanders feels toward Stone isn't just blind lust, but that he's genuinely smitten with the actress. Sanders' ego hasn't left the building by any means, but his insecurities and vulnerability keep it in a headlock for most of the episode. Stone believably displays real interest and affection toward the talk show host. "House" fans should keep their eyes peeled for Lisa Edelstein, who plays Stone's assistant and the episode also blesses viewers with another laugh-soaked appearance by Paymer as the network's PR man seeking to capitalize on Larry and Sharon's romance. "The Mr. Sharon Stone Show" not only provides some of the best examples of the show's humor, it also exemplifies how "The Larry Sanders Show" pierced more strata than merely satire and comedy.
"Arthur After Hours" (Season 4, Episode 3) Written by Peter Tolan. Directed by Todd Holland.
Finally, after four years and 29 Emmy nominations, the TV Academy saw fit to bestow its first award on "The Larry Sanders Show," honoring Rip Torn's portrayal of Artie in this episode -- the closest the series ever came to producing a one-man show, the second of the two favorites that Tolan selected among the many scripts he wrote. The legendary Torn, a vigorous delight from the first moment he introduced Arthur to television viewers, delivers a tour de force here as Artie. Made the fall guy by Larry when Sanders bumps Artie's good friend Ryan O'Neal from an appearance, Artie goes on a full-blown backstage bender after the show's staff departs for the night. In the process, he bonds with a janitor from Romania named Nicolae (Elya Baskin) and proceeds to get him soused as well. "You know why we get along Nick -- because we're brothers. We're the unsung heroes. I clean up shit all day, you clean up shit all night. It's different shit, but we're the guys pushing the brooms," Artie explains to the janitor at one point, adding later, "You're lucky, Nick -- 'cause the shit I clean up talks back."
The episode paints the fullest portrait of Artie that viewers ever saw in a single sitting. We view his almost omniscient ability to know what's going on at all times as when he reminds Paula that a question she prepared for Larry to ask a guest repeats previously covered ground and Paula blames her period. The producer reminds her that she used that same excuse 10 weeks ago so he knows she's lying. "How do you know I wasn't lying then?" she asks. "You were a little bit puffy," Artie replies. "Oh, you're good," she responds. "Good" obviously serves as too weak an adjective to describe Rip Torn in general, let alone this episode. Sometimes entertainment awards do end up in the right person's hands.
"Eight" (Season 4, Episode 16) Written by Peter Tolan. Directed by Todd Holland.
Of the 89 episodes of "The Larry Sanders Show," this stands apart as the flat-out, wall-to-wall funniest installment. "Eight" has no other mission than to leave the viewer doubled over in as much pain from laughing as Larry endures trying to hold his urine for the length of taping his 8th anniversary show. Larry forgot to go to the bathroom before the show and every time he tries to sneak off to relieve himself during a break, something interrupts him.
On top of the rising crescendo of laughs that comes from that premise, "Eight" also packs itself with the most guest stars until the series finale with appearances by Fred De Cordova, Farrah Fawcett, k.d. lang, Pat O'Brien, Rosie O'Donnell, Ryan O'Neal, Mandy Patinkin, George Segal and Noah Wyle. O'Donnell and Patinkin particularly score (both earned guest acting Emmy nominations) with their material. Patinkin argues with Phil and Wyle over the humor in a sketch comparing the actors' then-competing medical dramas, "Chicago Hope" and "ER," in terms of quality. O'Donnell arrives late because of a screw-up by the driver the show sent for her and forces Artie to apologize profusely until he finally declares, "I'll kill myself and all others like me." Hank and lang turn out to be feuding neighbors. When the singer suggests that the sidekick close his curtains to hide his nakedness, Kingsley only comes back with "Listen -- why don't you spell your name with capital letters like everyone else?" However, Larry's overflowing bladder provides the fuel that runs the engine of this comedic racecar.
"My Name Is Asher Kingsley" (Season 5, Episode 2) Written by Peter Tolan. Directed by Todd Holland.
You would think that by the fifth season of a series -- even one as great as "The Larry Sanders Show" -- a writer such as Tolan and an actor such as Tambor (despite their tremendous talents) must have explored every inch of the Hank Kingsley character, body and soul. You would be wrong -- especially when it comes to inner life. Comedian Jeff Cesario, who appeared as himself on three episodes, including "The New Producer," and joined the show's writing and producing staff in the fifth season, picked this episode as his favorite. "I loved it because it really pushed Hank past where he'd always landed, past the 'comic relief' and into a real dramatic commitment to an ideal -- and Jeffrey Tambor was brilliant," Cesario said in an email interview. "Because of that genuine commitment, the brutally short resolution is both shocking and crazy funny."
Kingsley experiences a religious awakening and decides to embrace his Jewish heritage, but as Hank tends to do, he goes a bit too far -- changing his name and wearing a yarmulke at all times (including during the show). Even Artie, for a change, seems powerless to get Hank to understand the problem that he has created for the show and the network, but Hank won't budge. When he brings his rabbi, Susan Klein (Amy Aquino), to the set, it becomes clear that he envisions joining more than just her temple. When she asks if he observes the high holidays or the Sabbath (he can't -- Friday night the show usually has a band) or keeps kosher, he admits with a laugh, "As a Jew, I'm not very good." Rabbi Klein responds, "As a Jew, you're practically a Methodist." Another aspect that separates this Kingsley classic from others comes from the presence of Scott Thompson, who joined the cast in the fourth season as Hank's new assistant Brian when Doucett's Darlene departed the series. "Jeffrey Tambor is such a great actor that I made the decision to just basically listen," Thompson said in a telephone interview. "You never know where he's going to go so I thought, 'I'm not in his league so I'm just going to listen to this guy.'"
"Flip" (Season 6, Episode 13) Written by Garry Shandling and Peter Tolan. Directed by Todd Holland.
Honest -- when I made this list I consciously avoided looking at the writing and directing credits of episodes under consideration. I didn't set out purposely to stack it with scripts that Tolan wrote or co-wrote or episodes directed by Holland. In truth, it's difficult mathematically not to hit those two men frequently since Holland directed 50 out of 89 episodes (or 52 half-hours as he phrased it) and Tolan wrote or co-wrote 25. (By the way, my training comes from journalism which translates to "Don't trust my math.") As I wrote in my intro to this favorites list, three or four episodes seemed certain to make my list before I began to compile. The two of those that I'd refuse to cut even under threat to my life are "Hank's Night in the Sun" and "Flip." (A threat to confiscate my box set of the entire series on DVD might be different -- I place a higher value on that.)
Final episodes usually end up being a crapshoot, leaving more viewers dissatisfied than pleased or dividing fans into separate camps such as with the endings to "St. Elsewhere" and "The Sopranos." However, some perfect series closers do exist: "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "Newhart" and "The Larry Sanders Show." One of only two hour-long episodes of the series, "Flip" contains so many memorable moments from beginning to end that I wanted to use them all. Obviously, that wouldn't be wise so I contemplated using no clip package at all. Better to let anyone who hasn't seen the episode experience it for themselves. Somehow though I narrowed it to three and, unlike the other packages where I avoided final scenes, I couldn't do it here because those final moments encapsulate all aspects of the series and utilize its three most important characters: Larry, Artie and Hank. It's funny, sad, emotional, biting but, above all else, human. Jeffrey Tambor gets a final chance to show most of Hank's contradictory sides within the span of a few minutes. Rip Torn's Artie decries the changes in the industry in which he has worked for so long one last time (while suitably inebriated, of course). Finally, Garry Shandling's Sanders still cracks jokes better than most anyone and looks forward to his blossoming relationship with Illeana Douglas, but one wonders what's to become of Larry since the most lasting relationship in his life -- his talk show -- has ended.
The Emmys saw fit to give the show two Emmys on its way out the door for the writing and direction of "Flip." Well deserved, but this series broke such new ground and influenced so many shows in its wake that it earned more honors than it received. Twenty years later, aside from the-then topical references that betray its age, "Larry Sanders" plays as fresh as it did originally and for a fan revisiting the show many years later, it resonates even more deeply. That's often true of the best movies, but rare for a television series.
* The period is part of the title of "It's Garry Shandling's Show." -- as in Spike Jonze's "Adaptation." (2002), written by Charlie and Donald Kaufman.
Part II of this series appreciation, including many interviews with the principals, is 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.
Special thanks to Ken Cancelosi for preparing the clips.
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