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Larry Sanders – The Show That Invented Modern Comedy

by Justin Quirk
28 March 2011 13 Comments

Fan of Entourage? Extras? 30 Rock? The Office? Well without this comedy gem none of them would exist. Missed it in the 90s? Now you can mend your ways as The Larry Sanders Show box set is available from today.

This month finally sees the UK release of the entire series one of The Larry Sanders Show. From 1992 until 1998, Garry Shandling created a postmodern comedic masterpiece that completely redrew the boundaries of television comedy.

Without The Larry Sanders Show there’d be no 30 Rock, no Extras, no Entourage, no Studio 60 On the Sunset Strip and very probably no Office (Ricky Gervais described it as ‘Probably the most important sitcom of a generation’). Shandling and his prolific team churned out 89 episodes of the blackest, most toe-curling comedy without dropping a single dud episode. There’s barely a dud line.

Shandling played the titular Sanders, the anchor of a struggling syndicated talkshow in the Letterman mould. With his bungling, venal sidekick Hank Kingsley (Jeffrey Tambor) and ball-breaking producer Artie (Rip Torn), Sanders lurched from one near disaster to another, forever getting stuffed in the ratings, palmed off with b-list guests and forced to jump through ever more humiliating hoops by the network.

The programme’s crucial conceit was to actually film the chatshow as a show-within-the-show, with real celebrities playing mildly more gruesome versions of themselves. With the two sections delineated by different filming styles (videotape for the chatshow, film for ‘behind the scenes’) each episode was a masterful skewering of television’s faux-congenial artifice.

Even now, having spawned so many imitators, Larry Sanders remains a deeply strange comedy – there are very few ‘jokes’ in the traditional sense, with the humour inducing winces as often as it does belly laughs. If the classic premise of a sitcom is ‘men trapped in a situation’, then the men in Sanders aren’t just trapped – they’re floundering wildly and dragging each other down to the bottom of the river. All of them exist in the depressing hinterland of the nearly man – not total failures, but never quite able to grasp the prize to which they’re so close.

In Shakespeare’s tragedies, the classic mark of the protagonist is that they have a huge self-awareness, but are unable to halt their own disaster. The three main characters of The Larry Sanders Show fit this model perfectly: Larry is neurotically aware how far below its rivals his show ranks, obsessively rewatching his performances while swaddled in dressing gowns and demanding hollow reassurance; Hank is painfully conscious that it’s only Larry’s indulgent patronage standing between him and a one-way ticket back to the cruise ships; the razor-sharp Artie knows that he should clearly be doing something better at his age.

Hank in particular is a masterful tragicomic creation – a hateful, whoremongering, self-serving dolt, willing to screw over anybody and everybody to cover his own back and protect his position, no matter how demeaning and foolish that position might be.

“Shandling and his prolific team churned out 89 episodes of the blackest, most toe-curling comedy without dropping a single dud episode. There’s barely a dud line.”

But from this toxic swamp of insecurity came a superb – and strangely moving – portrayal of men desperately keeping it together. Assailed from all sides by divorce, vengeful girlfriends, backstabbing bosses, leaked sex tapes, and catastrophic errors of judgement (Hank dressing up as ‘Adolf Hankler’ for a Nazi-themed skit) the three main characters stuck together. Maybe out of desperation, maybe out of an awful mutual dependence – but they still stuck together.

The celebrity cameos were perfectly pitched at just the right side of grotesque (the predatory homosexual ‘David Duchovny’, job-stealing ‘Jon Stewart’ and the recurring ‘Roseanne Barr’ all deserve a special mention), but it was always the regular staff who stole the show.

After six seasons, Larry Sanders ended with a triple-length finale in which the ailing chatshow was finally taken off air. The final episode – in which the fault lines that run through the team’s relationships finally rip open – won two Emmy awards for its writing and direction. As Larry, Hank and Artie sit in the abandoned studio, Hank finally vents on the two men who have both tormented and protected him for so long. ‘No more, you fucking assholes!’ he explodes like a less articulate Willy Loman. ‘No more!’ He then storms out, crashes his car into a skip and returns to tearfully embrace both of them.

The Larry Sanders Show succeeded because it took the most difficult elements of high drama – naturalistic acting, word perfect dialogue and slow, gradual plot arcs – and applied them to a comic form which is all too often lazy, debased and predictable. BBC2 used to show it back to back with the hugely inferior Seinfeld, frequently punting it the wrong side of midnight whenever they wanted to show the snooker, or the ski-ing or a few pages of Ceefax. As a result, far too few people ever saw Larry Sanders the first time around. Treat yourself to the box set, book a week off work and immerse yourself in a work of absolute comic genius.

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Dan Fitch 8:46 am, 8-Oct-2010

Great article about a great show, but disagree that Seinfeld was 'hugely inferior'. They were very different shows and both were innovative in their own way. One thing that they did have in common though was the fact that they featured largely unsympathetic protagonists.

Juzzy Jenkins 9:54 am, 8-Oct-2010

I agree with Mr Fitch. Spot on apart from the Sein-dig. I've just been through the Garry Shandling show first season. Funny,fluffy- haired fun.

Justin Quirk 10:11 am, 8-Oct-2010

Thanks for the comments - and I accepted long, long ago that I'm in a minority of one on Seinfeld...

Ryan H 12:50 pm, 8-Oct-2010

"People think of Hank Kingsley as a, just a 'meat-and-potatoes' guy. You know? A guy you can invite over for dinner. 'Hey Hank, what are you doing tonight? Do you want some dinner? Come on over! We're having some meat and potatoes. What's that? You can't make it? You're busy? What are you doing?' WELL I'M JUST FUCKING TWO WOMEN!"

Justin Quirk 1:42 pm, 8-Oct-2010

@Ryan H. If I could ever write a line as funny as that, I'd retire happy.

Rob 10:12 pm, 8-Oct-2010

I loved Larry Sanders. This is a great epitaph to a great show.

Thai collie 3:29 pm, 9-Oct-2010

Said it before- best sitcom ever. Complete series is released on nov 2. Think its region 1 only but thats no biggie. Easy to change on your player. I've pre-ordered and cannot wait.

Kev 11:44 pm, 12-Oct-2010

As well as the BBC2 graveyard slot, they also stashed it away on UK Play (Remember that?!) in the early 2000's - but they seemed to muck around with the order of the episodes. Typical BBC - an absolute gem of a show and instead of giving it a regular 10pm slot, they hide it so they can show repeats of Gimme Gimme Gimme.

Keith Wildman 2:15 pm, 13-Oct-2010

Even more frustrating is it's taken so long to get on DVD. It was bad enough trying to trace it's movements across the BBC schedule, but only to be able to buy a 'best of' compilation and then later just the first season is scandalous. The last ever episode was superbly done too. When Hank snapped: HANK[testy rage] No more, no more! I swear to god no more! One more -- one more remark an' I -- I -- I -- I swear, I -- I -- I'll fuckin' choke you, with my hands! [breathing heavy, sees they've stopped laughing at him yet are apparently pointless to talk to, he is walking away] I'm sorry, muh -- I'm just sorry. [turning to them] I mean -- uh but -- there is a -- There Is A Book Called "Hank, [indignantly gestures up and down his body] Kingsley." But there's a new Chapter, and you! sir, are not In it. And you! Sir. Are Not In it. [turns completely around once, stops] An' all I gotta say, is, "Fuck You." Fuck you. Fuck You for the way you've, for the way you treated me, and the Joke, the Joke you made me out to be. [calm, waves index finger 'no'] Fuck you. [dignified, calm, walks away]

Justin Quirk 2:18 pm, 13-Oct-2010

@Keith Wildman. You're right, that scene in particular was an absolutely superb piece of writing. Good news though - from what I can tell from the PR, each subsequent series is being released in its entirety; think the next one is out a month from now (series 2) and then so on after that. The American market's had them released as one giant box set (17 discs, I think) but at least this way we'll get them all eventually.

DrRic 4:02 pm, 28-Mar-2011

Nice article, about a show I am now very tempted to go back to. But which tart keeps slapping the "Fresh Stuff! Just In!" graphic on 6 months old stories? ("Old stuff, still good" would surely be better and more accurate).

Mac 5:12 pm, 2-Apr-2011

Excellent article. No Hank Kingsley - no David Brent. There's even a scene where Hank, having an age-crisis, gets an earring, is overly blase about it, then confesses that it really stings. Just as Brent does. That apart, David Brent is a great character, and if you're going to borrow, borrow from the best. Watching Brent's desperation to be loved and accepted, as entertaining as it was, felt a bit Hank-lite to me. Interesting that you describe Hank as "hateful," which he certainly was, but somehow you couldn't hate him (well I couldn't). To me that it's genius - creating people who behave abysmally and should be loathsome, but somehow aren't. And it's funny. All friggin' 89 episodes are very, very, funny.

Dan Alland 8:39 am, 26-Apr-2011

"hugely inferior Seinfeld" They're two completely different styles of sitcom. It's like saying The IT Crowd is hugely inferior to The Thick of It... you shouldn't be making those kinds of comparisions. Basically, you're talking bollocks, mate.

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