The Larry Sanders Show is a show that I heard buzz about for years and years but never took the opportunity to watch. I heard all about its legacy as one of the most influential and funny shows in TV history, about its importance in the story of HBO’s development into the premiere network for original scripted TV programming, but it took last year’s death of Garry Shandling to finally push me into watching the show. I should have believed all the hype, because it’s all true.
The first thing to know about The Larry Sanders Show is that it is one of the earliest shows in the modern-day single camera sitcom tradition, a fact that makes it feel much more fresh and modern than most other shows that aired in the same era (1992 to 1998). Created by comedian Garry Shandling, the show is a workplace comedy set behind the scenes of a late night talk show – a format that was already bordering on decrepit at the time. It’s not an intensely serialized show, so there’s little story to follow from episode to episode; each episode is a well-formulated piece of entertainment that stands on its own.
Larry Sanders (Shandling) is the intensely vain, unoffensively amusing host who competes with Jay Leno and David Letterman for ratings, and tries (somewhat successfully, I might add) to bring the most attractive female celebrities home to bed. His vanity and self-centeredness is frequently the focus of the story, and Garry Shandling isn’t the least bit afraid to make Larry Sanders both the butt of the joke, and occasionally the villain, in his own story.
Accompanying Larry Sanders is his sycophantic sidekick, Hank Kingsley (Jeffrey Tambor, now perhaps more well known for Arrested Development), who seemingly quits the show every few months from some mild perceived slight from Larry. Hank is massively jealous and always trying to put himself first, believing himself to be a grandmaster in the behind-the-scenes office politics, when he’s really not much more than a pawn being used by others. He puts on a good front, but the veneer is frequently shattered. Jeffrey Tambor is in rare form here, regularly a highlight of the show.
The third and final main character of the show is Artie (Rip Torn), the show’s producer, and the glue behind the scenes that makes it all happen. The fictitious Larry Sanders Show would quite literally fall apart if not for Artie, a grizzled Korean war veteran who has seemingly done everything, knows everyone, and is somehow omniscient about the behind-the-scenes operations of the show. He is the shrewd political operator that Hank Kingsley wishes to be, manipulating people against eachother constantly for the betterment of the show. If Artie is the glue that makes the fictitious Larry Sanders Show function, Rip Torn is the glue that makes the real Larry Sanders Show so great. He plays Artie with just the right energy in every moment, and his performance is so strong that in season 4’s “Arthur After Hours”, he even gets a spotlight to carry an entire episode on his own.
The Larry Sanders Show also features a wide rotation of celebrity guests and musicians from the ’90s, and while some of them may no longer be relevant in 2017, enough of them are that you can rely on the fact that someone you recognize will turn up in every episode. The best thing about the appearances of these celebrities is how willing they all are to parody themselves and let themselves be the assholes and stereotypes that the public perceives celebrities to be.
The ensemble cast supporting the three main characters is also an incredible strong cast of actors who would go on to even greater success in their career. Actors like Penny Johnson (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, 24, Castle), Janeane Garofalo (Wet Hot American Summer, among many other places), Jeremy Piven (Entourage), Mary Lynn Rajskub (24), Wallace Langham (CSI), and Bob Odenkirk (Mr. Show, Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul) are all among the actors who had early runs in their career as cast members on The Larry Sanders Show; it’s indicative of the real eye for talent that the producers of the show had.
It also shouldn’t be a surprise that a lot of the behind-the-scenes talent of The Larry Sanders Show turn out to be big names in the modern sitcom world; although these names are less recognizable than some of the acting talent, it should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the comedy world to find that a young Judd Apatow wrote for, and later produced, The Larry Sanders Show.
The Larry Sanders Show turns out to be both an impressive assemblage of comedic talent as well as a groundbreaking show, both for its style as well as its ability to delightfully skewer Hollywood. It’s aged impressively, and for my money, remains very much timely and relevant to the modern audience. The Larry Sanders Show is a real gem, sitting right under all of our noses.