April 15, 2007


Still anxious after all these years: New 'Larry Sanders' DVD set brings back Garry Shandling in all his unnerving glory (Mark Feeney, April 15, 2007, Boston Globe)

"Larry Sanders," you might say then, was the "The Birth of a Nation" of the cable series. That's a compliment big enough to assuage the insecurity of even a Larry. In fairness, he has every reason to feel insecure. Larry's show is his life, and he knows all too well he's never more than one bad ratings book away from being canceled -- or, worse, replaced. The only reason he behaves decently, and he usually does, sort of, is because it's part of his job description: lovable TV host, benign boss, (theoretically) functioning human being.

Shandling, who created the series with Dennis Klein and wrote several episodes, didn't exactly sugarcoat his character. If Larry were any more self-involved, he'd be twins. Yet his considerable personal shortcomings are as nothing compared to those of his second banana. As played with oblivious perfection by Jeffrey Tambor , Hank Kingsley is Ed McMahon as Malvolio , all booming voice and empty grin. He's obtuse, oafish, oleaginously lovable.

In contrast, there's nothing empty about the grin of Artie , the other main supporting character, who's the show's producer. It's the grin of a great white shark, sinking his teeth into the flesh of anyone who dares in any way afflict Larry. Rip Torn, all glorious alpha male strut, revels in the part.

Tambor and Torn set the standard for a remarkable cast. Jeremy Piven , who played a writer on the show for several seasons, says in an interview on the box set that membership in the "Sanders" cast felt like being the seventh or eighth man on the Chicago Bulls bench. Air Shandling? It's not that much of a stretch. The teamwork was of that high a caliber.

The greatest sitcoms have all been group efforts. Confined in both duration and location, the genre always risks becoming a rep company production of "No Exit. " Sitcoms require that actors play well together -- or else they don't play at all. "I Love Lucy" could just as easily been called "...and Ricky and Ethel and Fred. " The titles of her subsequent shows indicate why they were so much less successful. "The Lucy Show " and "Here's Lucy " were about a her, not a them. The interplay among Mary , Rhoda , Lou , Ted , et al. on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" set a standard for ensemble that remains unmatched. And "Seinfeld " with just Jerry wouldn't have lasted a season.

"Larry Sanders" is, in some ways, the anti-"Seinfeld." (Seinfeld, who twice appeared on the show, gets the final celebrity guest visit on the box set, a walk with Shandling in Central Park.) Both shows are about a Jewish comedian playing a Jewish comedian -- only one's in LA, the other New York. Both have a maddening bald sidekick -- Larry's is tall, Jerry's short. One show was cable, the other network. And one has been a blessing for its cast, while the other turned out to be cursed.

"Blessing" may be a bit strong. But part of the "Seinfeld" mystique has been how difficult it's proven for cast members to meet with subsequent success. There is no DVD box for "The Michael Richards Show ." "Larry Sanders" alums have fared notably better.

Tambor earned raves for his dual role on "Arrested Development. " Torn resumed his busy movie career, memorably swaggering his way through everything from "Men in Black" to "Marie Antoinette. " Piven has his own HBO hit, "Entourage. " "24 " has been home to both Penny Johnson (Larry's assistant, Beverly ), playing Dennis Haysbert's wife, and Mary-Lynn Rajskub (assistant booker Mary Lou), as Chloe Martin . Jon Stewart , who Larry feared would take his job, took over "The Daily Show" instead. And Sarah Silverman (who briefly played a writer) and Janeane Garofalo (Paula, the talent booker) have done rather well, too.

The greatest sitcoms have also been about the highly permeable membrane between star and character. Lucy always played a Lucy. Everyone knew that the woman who could turn the world on with her smile wasn't Mary Richards but Mary Tyler Moore. Jerry Seinfeld took an ax to any idea of a characterological fourth wall, naming his character Jerry Seinfeld . Shandling didn't go quite that far, but Garry/Larry have a lot more in common than just the rhyme.

Coincidence or no, all four shows touched on show biz. (Just ask Ron Burgundy if local news in the '70s wasn't a form of entertainment.) Ricky Ricardo was a bandleader. Mary was a TV news producer. Jerry was a stand-up comic. And Larry, well, Larry had more show-biz oomph than the rest of them put together.

Oomph will take a main character only so far, though. What may have been the show's real genius (there's that word again) was recognizing that show biz was a setting and point of departure rather than an end unto itself. "No flipping!," Larry's catchphrase, urged viewers not to change channels during a commercial break. The real meaning, perhaps, was as a pledge that the Larry viewers saw behind the desk would be the same one they got to see backstage. He was just as funny, just as awful, just as human. It's not everyone who can turn the world on with his grimace.

Ronald McDonald can.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 15, 2007 2:22 PM

Hey now! Now I know what to tell the wife to get me for my birthday. I'm a lawyer, and I work in the TV business. The only law or show biz program from the last 30 years that I can even watch is "Larry Sanders." Just a great show.

Posted by: Foos at April 15, 2007 3:38 PM

What? No mention of the Larry David show?

Posted by: H.D. Miller at April 15, 2007 8:34 PM