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Low Culture Essay: Ryan Diduck On The Larry Sanders Show
Ryan Alexander Diduck , November 10th, 2022 11:00

In this month's Low Culture essay for tQ's subscribers, Ryan Diduck recalls the programme-within-a-talk show brilliance of The Larry Sanders Show, and the troubled genius of its creator, Garry Shandling

Show idea: Behind the scenes with God, Angels, Jesus – Garry Shandling, 1998

We heard the booming voice of the announcer Hank Kingsley first, misreading the television studio’s applause sign as “applesauce”, thus creating The Larry Sanders Show’s first catchphrase. The voice continued, reminding the imaginary audience of this utterly unique talk show that they were important, imploring them to behave so that the host would respond in kind, and finally counting down into a remarkably original television series. The unlikely comedian Garry Shandling’s The Larry Sanders Show arrived on HBO in 1992, long before Larry David played his best and most cantankerous self on Curb Your Enthusiasm; well before Louis CK dared dream of vying for Letterman’s Late Show job on FX’s Louie. Oddly enough, it was contemporary with David Lynch spinning his wheels attempting to make a comedy series set backstage at a variety show, the four-episode failure, On the Air.

Where Lynch flopped, however, people flipped for the curiously loveable Shandling, who conceived of a refreshingly good-natured, sharp-as-nails, and most importantly, wickedly funny show-about-a-show behind-the-show, starring Shandling as his Bizarro self — his polar opposite, his arch nemesis, his own worst enemy — an enigma wrapped in a riddle, America’s best-known and most beloved fake talk-show host.

The Larry Sanders Show first aired on 15 August 1992, and remains one of the few series to successfully do comedy and comedy-about-a-comedy. To add another layer, the show was furthermore a comedy-about-comedy itself, a meditation on what was funny on TV at that time, and why. There was a loose attitude towards reality about each episode, every successive season of the show — it aired for six, ending in 1998 — sharing more and more intimate and at times cringeworthy revelations about its star and cast.

It all seemed real enough – after all, the storylines often were. There were real guests, much like a real talk show, with performances by real musicians, acting like their real selves: The Wu-Tang Clan, Chris Isaak, k.d. lang, Beck, The Butthole Surfers, Elvis Costello, Porno for Pyros. But then the camera would cut back to reveal cameras — plural — boom mics, a stage, a studio audience.

In this ingenuous gesture, Shandling pulled back the curtain on the curtain and made a meaningful statement about the nature of putting on a show – any show. The king of late-night David Letterman said it best: there is no off position on the genius switch.

In creating his Larry Sanders alter ego, Shandling outmaneuvered everyone else in the talk show game, including Letterman. This meant that he was able to enjoy the best of both worlds: hosting a reasonable facsimile of a show, and simultaneously playing the character of a neurotic host. All Shandling had to do was act naturally. “Larry and I are very different people,” said Shandling of his alter ego in a 1994 Rolling Stone interview, “He’s 43, and I’m 44.”

Shandling essentially invented the Larry Sanders persona with his first series for the FOX network, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, and more specifically in its subsequent 1986 Showtime special, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show 25th Anniversary, a mock retrospective of a talk show that presented faux clips of zany antics from previous decades. In it, Shandling sported retro hairdos and appropriate fashions of the day, and the filmic images were treated to indicate aged media in the way that Instagram filters emulate the look of old Polaroids to today’s kids.

Like celebrity roasts in the 1970s — where stars of the era would drink excessively and make lewd jokes about the dubious honoree — the variety show anniversary special of the 1980s was already an ideal cliché for parody. Shandling barely had the showbiz credibility to pretend to be a long-running talk show host, but the audacity of assuming that role, complete with a fake sidekick to persecute and plenty of videotape to cut away to, won Shandling TV industry credibility. He would use this cultural caché to write his own destiny as a pretend talk show host in a proto-retro decade.

The programme emerged out of a very different television industry. The notion of Prestige TV that we think of today, programmes like The Sopranos, The Wire, and Curb Your Enthusiasm, was in its infancy back then and dependent upon viewers paying for content. The popular idea of cable or satellite networks like Cinemax and CNN was new at that time, the butt of the old broadcast boys’ jokes – the gag went, who would ever pay for good old-fashioned free TV? Look where that got them.

Shandling’s generosity launched many worthy legacies and sustained others. He intuitively excelled picking talent at its ripest. For instance, he waited for Rip Torn’s grapes to sour and plucked Scott Thompson post-Kids In The Hall like low-hanging fruit. He snagged Sarah Silverman’s silver tongue early on, sharpening it as he had done for himself writing on Sanford and Son. Shandling recognised the tremendous potential in Todd Holland and Judd Apatow in the prime of their directing careers. Larry Sanders was also a significant springboard for mid-career comedians like Jeff Cesario, Janeane Garofalo, Bob Odenkirk and Jon Stewart, who remade comedy in politics’ image with The Daily Show immediately following his string of Sanders cameos.

Even though Sanders was Shandling’s love letter to Carson and Letterman, in many ways, Shandling was the anti-Jerry Seinfeld, his nemesis, but also his development man. If Seinfeld’s motto was “no hugging, no learning”, Shandling’s must have been its Bizarro-world opposite, leaning headlong into a self-reflexive intimacy rarely seen anywhere before on TV. Shandling could shy away from a hug onscreen and somehow still signify a touching embrace. In ways that neither Seinfeld nor the other 90s juggernaut Friends ever could, Shandling managed to accurately appraise friendship as the most valuable of human commodities.

Both Shandling and Seinfeld had innovative series on which they played themselves. They had nerdy best friends, wacky next-door neighbours, platonic girlfriends and started episodes with a clip of their stand-up comedy. Even though the two men came from very different worlds — Seinfeld growing up in Massapequa, New York, and Shandling coming of age in Tucson, Arizona — their careers echoed one another’s in a curious game of thesis antithesis synthesis. They both seemed born to kvetch, arguably a coinciding curse and mitzvah of Jewish origins. Both inherited plenty of material on neurotic mothers and messed up families. They made their big television debuts on The Tonight Show in 1981 and Johnny Carson gave them both his seal of approval, praise deeply coveted for a young stand-up comedian in those days.

Yet there were fundamental differences. Seinfeld set his own bar high while Shandling appeared surprised every time he got a laugh. Failure could have been Seinfeld’s kryptonite; Shandling accepted it as a life force. And Seinfeld, ever the squeaky-clean upstate kid, never did dick jokes. With a healthy measure of precaution, Seinfeld’s routines were decidedly safe for work, whereas Shandling had no qualms about getting up on stage and musing aloud if he should worry about his dog’s diet because his penis tasted bitter. It took a big man to gag on canine fellatio.

Seinfeld took Shandling’s TV experiments and refined them as a big corporation like Campbell’s might do with an old family soup recipe, maximising flavour while reducing the ingredients to their bare minimum. Seinfeld created Seinfeld in the wake of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show — a show where nothing happens, what a concept! — and made his own iteration a more palatable product for NBC, a recognisable brand for the masses, infinitely replicable through the miracle of syndication.

Shandling was among the first and certainly the best self-observational comedians of his generation. He was the sort of stand-up who winked out at the audience as if to ask, isn’t this stupid? What am I doing up here? Isn’t the idea of trying to make people laugh a little bit laughable in itself? There was always a sense that an audience could reduce Shandling to tears if they didn’t give him the laughs he so desperately desired, but Shandling’s observations and self-criticisms were naturally hilarious and thus no charity was necessary. He earned every laugh.

Seinfeld demanded that we get the joke, whereas Shandling pleaded like a subject of Jungian analysis, please understand me. Still, he had aspirations for the big screen and might have spread himself too thin, while Seinfeld was content to be a master of the stage. Nobody could accuse Shandling of acting badly if he was not acting. Seinfeld simply showed up on his own show; Shandling played his own host.

Rip Torn gets the privilege of delivering one of the series’ stand-out lines when he identifies Sanders as a kind of human superspecies, “a talk show animal: half-man, half-desk.” Nonetheless, Sanders reveals that talk show hosts are just like everyone else: they, too, are fragile and vulnerable; they just want to be loved; they just want their behinds to look good in a pair of trousers.

After six seasons, Shandling must have finally run out of other talk show hosts to interview. His evident emotional pain on the show — his real-life rifts with actress Linda Doucett and legal battle with long-time manager Brad Grey, as well as the ongoing effects of the childhood loss of his brother, Barry, to cystic fibrosis — was becoming too painful to watch. As bittersweet as it was for Shandling to write his own pot-shots in the first few seasons, there was a looming impression that he was teeing himself up for his real showbusiness friends.

On Sanders’ farewell episode, a two-part parade of celebrities featuring Jim Carrey and Jerry Seinfeld, Sean Penn is one of the final interview subjects. Penn directly mentions the star-studded adaptation of the David Rabe play, Hurlyburly, which they had just finished filming together with Robin Wright and Kevin Spacey. In the film, Shandling plays a standout role as a coked-out, lecherous movie producer of a type with whom we are now all too familiar. In the Sanders scene, Penn names Shandling’s acting as the film’s weakest link. It is like watching a prize boxer take a knockout punch. It hurts.

Shandling did box, and he caught more punches than he threw. On the interviews included in the show’s DVD boxed set release, he essentially steps into another ring of reality, and it becomes clear that Larry Sanders might have been a thinly-veiled way to draw his favourite people nearer. An interview with Alec Baldwin is evidence of a beat-up soul reaching out, and Shandling’s rambling conversation with Seinfeld shows that he was still in a giving mood, essentially handing him the keys to another great idea, Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee. They might have been Lennon and McCartney, except where Seinfeld wanted to be The Beatles, Shandling couldn’t help but be Paul Cook in an I Hate Pink Floyd t-shirt.

The Larry Sanders Show is a ripple of an American comedic television wave that was cresting and breaking simultaneously with the show itself. At times, Shandling was ahead of the late-night curve; at others, he fell behind, but always sought to capitalise comedically upon his tardiness, making a joke out of himself copying Letterman, or going up against Dana Carvey, or envying Arsenio Hall’s concurrent hipness. The trick to being eternally hip, though, is to never really be hip in the first place. Hip is perennial insincerity, and Shandling was too sincere to be hip.

Maybe that is why the 90s never seemed to end — because it was the decade when televisual performance became self-aware, and entertainment history caught up with itself. As backstage comedies go, nobody has surpassed The Larry Sanders Show. And even though we are still living in some repackaged version of 90s anxiety, that moment is gone and there are no monocultural tropes that would support a parody of that scale. Today, Larry Sanders would be cut down to a Saturday Night Live sketch, at best, the ones they put on at 1:05am, when nobody is watching anymore.

The reality of Larry Sanders as a talk show, and a show about a talk show, was more carefully constructed than any other shows’ realities, and more difficult to pull off than faking the reality of a reality show. There is no confession to the camera, and so the entire performance becomes a confession, the camera’s lens a confessional partition. It is more like going to church than The Office.

Like a number of great comedians, Ricky Gervais admired Shandling. Gervais’s signature character depicts a hyper-normal person trying and failing at something he was ill-equipped to do. Shandling’s tragedy was that he was well-equipped, extraordinarily so, but too complicated, too tortured to attempt anything approaching normal. Instead, he possessed the glitch of genius. For Shandling, the ideas, either profound or quotidian, were more important than their medium. TV, like the page, or the voice, or the body, was simply a vehicle for self-expression.

Garry Shandling passed away in 2016 at age 66, leaving another lifetime of unfinished business. It’s Garry Shandling’s Book, the final document of priceless outtakes from his voluminous archives, is heavy, physically speaking; as a tome, it is a weight to carry around yet is only a sliver of his brief span on earth. Imagine what else he carried! Shandling’s sardonic energy bore with it the burden of performing, of entertaining, of always being on. Even when the camera cut, there was always another camera rolling. If the image has a physical relationship to its subject, then Garry Shandling must still be attached to this world with an existential cable connection from some great beyond, flipping in his grave.