Before Entourage, before 30 Rock, before any of the seemingly infinite number of behind-the-scenes-of-Hollywood programs currently clogging the grid, there was The Larry Sanders Show, starring Garry Shandling as a needy, self-centered pretender to Johnny Carson’s late-night talk-show throne. And it was good. Actually, it was perfect.
Of course, it never became a phenomenon. The critically acclaimed series from Shandling and coproducer Peter Tolan (Rescue Me) somehow stayed on HBO from 1992 to 1998, but it always drew puny audiences. In retrospect, that doesn’t seem surprising. Larry Sanders didn’t carry itself like a hit. It was stylistically subtle (no score, no laugh track, numerous pregnant pauses), verbally much rougher than any sitcom made up to that point (in the pilot, the title character’s producer, Rip Torn, playfully offers to shove a red-hot poker up the hero’s ass) and probably too insular in its approach to the subject matter. Its showbiz characters talked about their industry in shorthand, which gave the series a documentary vibe—a feeling heightened when the characters made selfish or clueless spectacles of themselves. Spectacle No. 1 was Larry himself, a hapless narcissist who would finish a taping, then run home and critique himself. No wonder the show didn’t catch on: Watching it was a masochistic experience. The laughs hurt.
Yet the series’s long-term impact has been immense. Larry Sanders perfected the comedy of mortification, seen on the likes of Arrested Development and The Office. It also brought a cinematic camera technique, the “walk-and-talk”—in which characters walk down a hallway delivering reams of exposition at high speed—to TV, where such glossy drama series as The West Wing and ER made it a cornerstone of their own style. It was arguably the most-influential show that few people watched.
Aficionados and newcomers can savor the series when it hits DVD this week in a box set titled Not Just the Best of The Larry Sanders Show. Die-hard fans will be disappointed that it’s not comprehensive; the set offers just 22 episodes from the series’s 89-episode run. (The whole first season came out on DVD a few years ago but didn’t sell well enough to merit follow-ups.) Luckily, the set adds outtakes; commentary from Shandling, Tolan and writer Judd Apatow (Freaks and Geeks, The 40 Year-Old Virgin); and interviews with supporting players (the peerless cast included Torn, Jeffrey Tambor, Jeremy Piven, Bob Odenkirk, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Penny Johnson, Janeane Garofalo and Jon Stewart, the latter portraying a would-be replacement of Larry).
The selection includes the premiere, “What Have You Done for Me Lately?,” in which a network boss pressures Larry to do on-air ads for a tool called The Garden Weasel; “The Spiders Episode,” which climaxes with an on-air disaster involving guest star Carol Burnett and some tarantulas; “Hank’s Sex Tape,” in which Tambor’s character, sidekick Hank Kingsley, gets caught on video with two special lady friends; “The Mr. Sharon Stone Show,” in which Larry lands a date with the Basic Instinct star; “Putting the 'Gay’ Back in Litigation,” in which Hank’s assistant (Scott Thompson) sues him for making homophobic jokes; and the melancholy, deeply weird series finale, “Flip,” which reenacts Carson’s farewell telecast while also closing out a long-running subplot involving Larry’s odd relationship with frequent guest David Duchovny, who might or might not be hot for him. (Duchovny’s deadpan has never been more lethal.)
In a commentary track, Shandling reveals that one of Larry’s tics—nervously touching his stomach—began as an actor’s choice, but as the series wore on, it became a medical reflex, because “I had four ulcers.” That’s the price an actor-producer pays for sweating every detail. The payoff, though, is worth the pain—a blisteringly funny sitcom that stands the test of time.