Ordinarily one would hesitate before using terms like “forgotten masterpiece” because it’s phrase that suggests either partisan over-enthusiasm or that you’ve somehow left a Rubens on the tube. This week though, things are different. This week we are talking about The Larry Sanders Show. For those lucky ones that do remember it, the six series that ran from 1992-98 were the epitome of late night, late 20th century comedy,. But it has never been aired in its entirety on UK television before, and there has never been a comprehensive DVD release. And if that explains “forgotten” then “masterpiece” can be justified by saying that without it, the best of today’s cutting edge comedy-and especially shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm and Extras-might not have evolved at all.
The series is a spoof of a late night US talk show (in the mould of Letterman and Leno) hosted by Larry Sanders. Sanders was played to perfection by the comedian Gary Shandling, the guests on the “show” were played by themselves and the rest of the action concentrated on the iniquities and insanity of the programme’s production process. Though the format wasn’t totally original, nothing had taken such a relentlessly dark, frank, obscene and hilarious look at show business before or has done since.
Though Shandling/Sanders is nominally the centre of the show the core of the comedy comes from a three-handed exchange between him, his producer Artie (Rip Torn) and his on-screen sidekick Hank (Jeffrey Tambor). Sanders is vain, neurotic, utterly self-obsessed and desirous of all the perks of fame while tired of putting in the effort. While Shandling bought years of stand up experience to his role Torn, brings four decades as an actor (most recently as demented coach Patches O'Houlihan in Dodgeball) to his. Their character’s co-dependency on the vile realities of the entertainment industry (insincerity, substance abuse, marital strife, ego, and cash) whilst ending up alone at the end of most episodes watching their own show on TV makes this one of those rare shows about Hollywood that leaves you with absolutely no desire for fame.
It’s an effect that’s underwritten by their treatment by the astonishing roll call of guest stars and their willingness to take part in exercise that so brutally satirised the mechanics of fame. Both Sharon Stone and Roseanne Barr appear as sexual conquests of Larry. Alec Baldwin is described as “gayer than a French Horn,” and an endless list of A listers is welcomed aboard each episode with a deeply sincere “we’re huge fans of your work here,” only to be ridiculed, physically attacked or ignored. In addition to the famous guests the supporting cast (the show’s crew) are played outstandingly and the whole thing is held together by script that would snap if it got any tighter.
The default hero of the whole escapade is though Hank Kingsley, arguably the second funniest bald man on TV after Homer Simpson. The whipping boy for the entire cast and crew, Hank’s regular misfortunes (a failed revolving restaurant, tapes of him having sex, endorsing exercise equipment that harms people) are further undercut by his own grotesquely inflated self belief and moderated by an inexplicable pathetic charm. At typical mid-show exchange between him and Larry would be when Larry asks him if he were a rapper, what his rap pseudonym would be. “I dunno,” deadpans Hank, “Hank the rapper?” To quote Artie "That's great television, my friend."