A masterful behind-the-scenes satire of the late-night talk show wars, The Larry Sanders Show premiered on HBO in 1992 and ran for six seasons. It is the first and best of HBO’s celebrity-themed series, with Entourage, Extras, and The Comeback its beholden successors.
Not Just the Best of the Larry Sanders Show showcases 23 episodes of the landmark show, and with the exception of a few dated references to Arsenio Hall and the Clinton sex scandal, they feel just as fresh, funny, and relevant now as they did when they debuted (some as long as 15 years ago). Not surprisingly, the series launched or cemented the careers of some of today’s most successful comic stars, like Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman, Jeremy Piven, and writer/director Judd Apatow (of Knocked Up and 40-Year-Old Virgin fame).
Employing a “show within a show” format, creator and star Garry Shandling exposed and skewered Hollywood’s hypocrisy from the inside out. Larry Sanders’ struggle to secure higher ratings for his beleaguered talk show revealed the sort of dirty backstage dealings that audiences weren‘t used to being let in on. Talent bookers were asked to schedule female guests whom the host wanted to sleep with; waning stars were bumped from the lineup in favor of more popular ones; and network executives planned to oust Larry in favor of up-and-comer Jon Stewart (playing himself).
The talk show’s commercial breaks were depicted as long, awkward silences between Larry and his guests, who ignored each other until the cameras began rolling again. And bolstering the verisimilitude, many actors (e.g., Sharon Stone, Winona Ryder, Alec Baldwin) and comedians (e.g., Carol Burnett, Jerry Seinfeld, David Letterman) contributed self-mocking cameos.
The most memorable turns were courtesy of David Duchovny, who fell madly in love with Larry, and Ellen DeGeneres, who bedded Larry just as the rumors about her sexuality were swirling. “Flip”, the series’ terrific final episode (which could stand alone as an hour-long film) seamlessly integrates more than 10 big-name celebrities, including newly minted superstar Jim Carrey, whose riff on “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going” from Dreamgirls is an uproarious reminder of his comic (and musical!) gifts.
The show’s regular cast was stellar all around, but Jeffery Tambor and Rip Torn were standouts as, respectively, sidekick Hank Kingsley and executive producer Arthur. The former was characterized as a pompous, ass-kissing sellout. Over the course of these 23 episodes, he exploited his devoted assistants, Darlene (Linda Doucett) and Brian (Scott Thompson); attempted to persuade Drew Barrymore to “show [him] her tits” a la her notorious flashing of David Letterman; tussled with Elvis Costello and Vince Vaughn; and shilled dubious products, like the Garden Weasel and the Hankerciser 200.
But because Tambor rendered Hank’s desperation so richly and hilariously, the character emerged as one of the most sympathetic ever on television. The episodes in which he is spotlighted (“Hank’s Divorce”, “Hank’s Night in the Sun”, and “Hank’s Sex Tape”) were also among the series’ funniest.
The brilliant Tambor found an equal, though, in Torn’s performance as Arthur. A grizzled, barrel-chested Hollywood veteran, Arthur was Larry’s advocate and henchman, defending him against ruthless corporate higher-ups, treacherous lovers, and Larry’s own rampant insecurities. He was the only person Larry truly trusted, and their working friendship—the warmest of the show’s relationships—tempered the series’ pervasive cynicism.
Indeed, The Larry Sanders Show took pains to illustrate how relationships, especially romantic ones, are almost always corrupted by the Tinseltown backdrop. When Larry began dating actress Illeana Douglass in “Putting the ‘Gay’ Back in Litigation”, he obsessively fretted that she wouldn’t make a good impression—not on his friends or his parents, but on the audience of his show.
In “The List”, Larry was forced to make small talk with Alec Baldwin, whom he had just learned was one of his wife’s former lovers. An awkward situation under ordinary circumstances, to be sure, but Larry happened to be interviewing Alec on television, so their conversation unfolded in front of an audience of millions. Such are the oddly relatable occupational hazards of late-night talk show hosts.
The troublesome gap between on-camera and off-camera reality is a subject Shandling pursues in the DVD’s extra features, as well. His conversations with his male friends, like Duchovny, Tom Petty, and Jerry Seinfeld, make for interesting, affable listening, especially when he and Seinfeld argue about the essence of great comedy (one senses the subject has been a matter of longtime debate between the two).
While Shandling believes humor springs from the dysfunctions at the comedian’s core, Seinfeld takes a different tact: “God forbid it’s not all a yawning chasm of human insecurity. God forbid some people just have talent.” It’s clear Shandling and Seinfeld make each other think, but they also crack each other up – and hearing the usually reserved Seinfeld giggling with abandon at one of Shandling’s off-the-cuff jokes is a rare pleasure.
Shandling’s interviews with women tend to take on a different tone, one much darker and more complicated. His talks with former girlfriends Linda Doucett and Sharon Stone (both of whom played his lovers on his show) are almost morbidly fascinating. After Shandling and Doucett’s relationship ended, she was fired from The Larry Sanders Show and eventually sued him for sexual harassment.
The two hadn’t spoken in years, and she surprises him on-set as he’s prepared to speak with another colleague. Shandling and Doucett sit side-by-side and face the camera, not each other. As they dissect their relationship, she laughs with exasperation while wiping away tears. At one point, she directly addresses the camera operator (or perhaps the audience), remarking that “Garry wasn’t always available” to her, which may prompt viewers to wonder if they’ve stumbled onto a couple’s counseling session rather than a DVD special feature. Shandling apologizes for causing her pain, and Doucett squeezes his hand. Shandling remains still, without reciprocating the gesture.
Shandling’s visit with Stone begins more light-heartedly, as they chat in her pool house over breakfast. But Stone, looking ravishing, coyly evades most of Shandling’s questions. She smiles, teases, or laughs, then presses him to answer pointed questions of her own. At first, he demurs but later he is more forthcoming, and when their interview ends, a title card in Shandling’s handwriting appears that simply says, “I was shaking the rest of the day.” After watching Stone push his buttons, it’s not hard to see why.
Less clear are Shandling’s reasons for broadcasting these deeply personal conversations. He tells Petty his driving motivation for producing Not Just the Best of the Larry Sanders Show was to reconnect with old friends and to achieve closure regarding the show. But surely there was an easier way to satisfy these goals, or at least one that didn’t require recording equipment. Even as he attempts to reveal himself, Shandling always maintains a safe distance.
On the DVD menu screens, the interviews are described (in cursive script, rather than in the type that appears elsewhere) as “intimate, personal, indulgent visits with my friends meant for only me to see.” This gesture speaks to Shandling’s self-awareness as well as to his self-defensiveness. From a few steps away, he surmises how other people will perceive his behavior and attacks himself before they have a chance. Perhaps the biting, meta-critical humor of The Larry Sanders Show sprung from precisely that space–the yawning chasm that Shandling seems to impose between himself and other people. Or maybe he’s just really, really talented.
Either way, Not Just the Best of the Larry Sanders Show is damn funny stuff.