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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