There are plenty of reasons why you may have never seen Garry Shandling’s ‘The Larry Sanders Show,’ a 90’s comedy series chronicling the inner workings of a fictional late night talkshow and its host, Larry Sanders (played by Shandling.) Maybe you missed it because it was on HBO before we all had HBO, or maybe it’s because it aired in the era of ‘Seinfeld,’ and your comedy cup had already runneth over. At this stage of 2020, you’ve already rewatched ‘The Sopranos’ three times. Netflix murder documentaries? Seen them all. ‘Hubie Halloween?’ I’m not going to say it was great, but I am going to say that I watched it. Now, in the midst of a pandemic having binged the catalogues of entire streaming platforms, the time for you to watch ‘The Larry Sanders Show’ has come.
I know a common tactic when suggesting a new show to someone involves comparing it to another one they enjoy. “You like ‘The Office?’ You have to watch ‘Parks and Recreation.’ ” “You love ‘Grace and Frankie?’ ‘The Kominsky Method’ is literally just that, but with men.” It’s difficult to make these same types of recommendations with ‘The Larry Sanders Show.’ Some might liken it to ‘30 Rock’; both are workplace comedies centered on late night comedy shows, but the series’ styles and characters fall on very different ends of the comedy spectrum. Some parallels to ‘Seinfeld’ are certainly there. In both, you have a titular neurotic (yet confident) Jewish protagonist living out his real-life fantasies of dating models and actresses through the avatar of their TV character. They also both deploy a healthy dose of star power, but even this common thread doesn’t translate evenly. ‘Seinfeld’ had star power, (think Terri Hatcher playing Jerry’s love interest or Bryan Cranston playing Tim Whatley the dentist,) but I don’t believe I’ve ever seen another show with the number of celebrity cameos ‘The Larry Sanders Show’ regularly throws at you. Guests with varying stints on the show included Chris Farley, David Duchovny, Roseanne Barr, Sharon Stone, David Spade and many more at the peak of their celebrity. Sting, Jim Carrey, Wu-Tang Clan, David Letterman, Robin Williams; the list is endless. We saw actors and comedians such as Jon Stewart, Jeremy Piven, Bob Odenkirk, and Sara Silverman at the beginning of their careers; it was even one of Judd Apatow’s first big breaks as a writer. If you want a snapshot of popular American culture between 1992 and 1998, be it music, fashion, or TV/cinema, ‘The Larry Sanders Show’ is a much more enjoyable study than scouring the internet.
With comparisons out the window, let’s talk about what works.
The heart of the show is the cast. The supporting cast of assistants (Penny Johnson, Linda Doucett, Scott Thompson) talent bookers (Janeane Garofalo, Mary Lynn Rajskub), and the writing team (Jeremy Piven, Wallace Langham, Sara Silverman) provide stand-alone hilarity while also serving as perfect foils for the main characters. The comedy is unassailable and the peak behind the curtain of a late night talkshow is first of its kind, but the reason this show endures is because of the incredible main characters and their relationships with one another. Whether in Shandling’s Sanders, Jeffrey Tambour’s Hank Kingsley, or the late Rip Torn’s Artie, their humor is bludgeoning. Line after line, subtlety after subtlety, you’re watching three comedic actors at the top of their craft operating with undeniable chemistry. They’re hilarious and nuanced but also narcissistic and often pathetic. They had to be nearly perfect in their comedic execution for the show to work; the humor is a necessary respite for viewers who are consistently reminded of the void these characters are attempting to fill with adoration from some combination of fans, viewers, and each other. They are hilarious, yes, but they are also complex and tragically flawed.
This isn’t Larry David playing himself in ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ or even Jerry playing himself in ‘Seinfeld,’ both roles we’ve been told countless times by the comedians and those around them do not reflect who they are in their daily lives. While there was certainly embellishing for Shandling’s character, he made clear the insecurities he portrayed and his fraught romantic life in ‘The Larry Sanders Show’ were reflections of his own life. I won’t spoil anything as you’ve only had 22 years to watch it, but I always come away from the show amazed and devastated by an actor and writer so self-aware of his flaws that he’s able to depict them through another character, yet still powerless to rectify those issues in his life. I guess what I’m saying is come for the laughs, stay for the profound introspection and existential dread? Put it on a poster.
In all seriousness, I’ll never understand why this show isn’t more widely revered. If you can get past the baggage that now accompanies Jeffrey Tambour, know that it is his most brilliant comedic role; this from an avid ‘Arrested Development’ fan. If you, like many in my generation, have only come to know Rip Torn as Zed from ‘Men in Black’ or the urine drinking alcoholic coach from ‘Dodgeball,’ do yourself a favor and check him out as a character I can only describe as a controlled explosion of manic comedic genius. If after those two you still need a reason to watch, do it because of Shandling. He doesn’t have the acting chops of either Torn or Tambour, but he lives his character with such ease and sincerity that by the end of the show you’ll be scrolling past Colbert and Kimmel desperately looking for his reassuring smile. And if none of that does it for you, do it for the never ending insult comedy directed at Tambour’s Hank Kingsley. It’s just so, so good.
So go now. Get that Xfinity password from your aunt. Try a free trial of HBO Max and binge it for a week. Do whatever you can to start watching ‘The Larry Sanders Show,’ and please, for Shandling’s sake, no flipping.