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.
A related article about Bob Odenkirk and his characters, Stevie Grant and Saul Goodman (on "Breaking Bad"), is here.
by Edward Copeland
"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."
Psychologists say that depression is rage turned inward. Stand-up comedy, on the other hand, is rage turned back outward again. (I believe George Carlin had a routine about the use of violent metaphors directed at the audience in comedy: "Knock 'em dead!" "I killed!") In the documentary "Heckler" (now on Showtime and DVD) comedian Jamie Kennedy, as himself, plays both roles with ferocious intensity. The movie is his revenge fantasy against anyone who has ever heckled him on stage, or written a negative review... or, perhaps, slighted him in on the playground or at a party or over the phone or online.
"Heckler" (I accidentally called it "Harangue" just now) is an 80-minute howl of fury and anguish in which Kennedy and a host of other well-known and not-well-known showbiz people tell oft-told tales of triumphant comebacks and humiliating disasters, freely venting their spleens at those who have spoken unkindly of them. At first the bile is aimed at hecklers in club audiences (with some particularly nasty invective for loudmouthed drunken women), then it shifts to "critics" -- broadly defined as anybody who says something negative about a figure whose work appears before a paying public. Some of the critics are actually interested in analysis; some are just insult comics who are using the Internet as their open mic. It gets pretty ugly, but it's fascinating -- because the comics, the critics and the hecklers are so much alike that it's no wonder each finds the others so infuriating.
View image The evil queen and her dwarves. How clever. This was the shot that almost prompted me to walk out. I can't believe they used it for a production still. Yes I can.
Sometimes I doubt Richard Kelly's commitment to Sparkle Motion. The first time was the "Director's Cut" of "Donnie Darko," which de-emphasized all that was mysterious and exciting about the original film by insisting on a literal explication of the time-warp theories of Roberta Sparrow (aka "Grandma Death"). Huge mistake -- as bad as showing us the inside of the mothership in the "Special Edition" of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." At least Spielberg knew that was an error, and removed it from his Director's Cut: He'd wanted to tweak things he'd had to rush in order to meet his deadline (after all, the fate of Columbia Pictures was riding on this picture), and to flesh out some character details. But Columbia let him go back and fine-tune his blockbuster on the condition that he show Richard Dreyfuss inside the ship -- something we really didn't want to see, because it ruined the uplifting momentum of the ending, and who wants to see Richard Dreyfuss crying over anti-climactic special effects anyway?
"Southland Tales" is the product of the same literalist sensibility that produced the second version of "Donnie Darko." Part of me questions whether it's even worth writing about, mainly because it offers so little of cinematic interest. It's fussy and inert, like Part 4 of a PowerPoint slide-show based on a set of elaborately drawn storyboards that explain in excruciating detail the minutiae of the mythology behind "Hudson Hawk." There's nothing close to a movie here.
There's an obvious channel-surfing aesthetic to mimic "information overload," but nothing's on, anyway. One shot could just as easily be followed by any other shot -- they aren't cut together with any verve or intelligence, so the effect is flat and linear. We flip by a beachside talk show ("The View" with porn actresses), and that's as sophisticated and penetrating as "Southland Tales" ever gets about sex, politics and media. (He said "penetrating"!) Is it hard to follow? Not really. The voiceover makes sure everything is explained (often more than once), but it could just as well not have been explained and it wouldn't matter, because nothing is illuminated in the explanation.
Like "Hudson Hawk," it's a bloated, white-elephantine vanity production (for the writer-director, not the star) -- a strained, deliberate, joyless, big-budget, star-studded Hollywood effort to manufacture a "cult movie" by pandering to what some studio execs probably consider to be "the comic-book youth demographic." It wishes it could be "Repo Man" (or "RoboCop" or "Starship Troopers") but it's not even "The Postman." Actually, "Southland Tales" -- co-financed by Universal, which is distributing the film internationally but dropped any domestic plans after the disastrous reception at Cannes -- isn't "big-budget" by today's Hollywood standards ($17 million). But the feeling of waste and desperation behind it -- "Let's throw money at the screen for big sets and unimaginative digital effects!" -- is not unlike that dead-lump-in-your-stomach feeling you get while watching your average Michael Bay movie. [Since writing this, I have learned that the time and (Sony) money spent re-tooling "Southland Tales" after Cannes has included cutting 20 minutes, adding to Justin Timberlake's too-literal voiceover, and beefing up the special effects. That's what I was afraid of. It shows.]
People have been asking me if I've seen "The Critic," ABC's new animated series. Maybe they think I can identify with the hero, a critic named Jay Sherman who reviews movies on television and has certain points of similarity with Gene Siskel and me: He's bald, and he has a Pulitzer.