Tuesday, March 1st, 2011

Your Favorite Comedy Exists Because of The Larry Sanders Show

This year the IFC channel started showing reruns of The Larry Sanders Show, which will hopefully introduce one of the best, most influential sitcoms of all time to a new generation of bored stoners, Greg the Bunny fans, agoraphobic movie snobs, and whoever else is watching IFC at 11 pm on a Monday. It’s a strange show to watch in syndication, however, and I can picture someone — even a comedy geek who peppers conversations with Mr. Show and Spaced quotes — finishing an episode of Larry Sanders and wondering what the big deal is. So: this is why Larry Sanders is a big deal.

We should start by saying that the HBO-produced The Larry Sanders Show is a workplace comedy, the workplace in question being the late-night talk show called “The Larry Sanders Show.” The main characters are the titular talk show host, played by series creator Garry Shandling as a deeply neurotic, narcissistic, self-loathing train wreck of a man; Larry’s on-air sidekick “Hey Now!” Hank Kingsley (Jeffrey Tambor of Arrested Development fame), who is like Ed McMahon but dumber, angrier, and consumed with a need for approval from Larry; and Arthur the producer (Rip Torn), who keeps the show going by feeding and manipulating Larry’s and Hank’s egos and occasionally losing his temper in short, hilarious bursts.

A behind-the-scenes-of-showbiz comedy isn’t anything special; the reason Larry Sanders deserves singling out is the attention Shandling and the other producers paid to making the show realistic. The scenes where Larry stands in front of the talk-show cameras were shot on video while the “off air” scenes with the talk show’s staff were shot on film. And where a lot of entries in the “behind the scenes” genres don’t pay attention to the specifics of the front of the scenes — is 30 Rock still about a television show? — the “Larry Sanders Show” that we see glimpses of in The Larry Sanders Show is a pretty good mock-up of a (not all that successful) network talk show in the 90s. The jokes are topical, hey-didja-hear-about-this one-liners, and the guests are real celebrities from the 90s, playing themselves.

This realism means that the show dates itself, sometimes pretty severely. Remember Mimi Rogers or Bobcat Goldthwait or Bruno Kirby? No? How about some jokes about OJ Simpson or Connie Chung? Even the idea of a talk show seems pretty old and lame to us in 2011; it’s easy to forget that 50 million people watched Johnny Carson’s last show, which aired only months before Larry Sanders premiered in 1992, and that the ratings wars between Leno and Letterman and Arsenio (who was that?) got a whole lot of coverage in the newspapers (what were those?). Some episodes, like the one where Dana Carvey appears as the next hot young comedian destined for talk-show stardom, take Wikipedia to put in the correct context.

The show’s commitment to realism extends to the way scenes were written, acted, and filmed, and this is where it’s important to remember that this is a sitcom that was made in the early- to mid-90s. Larry Sanders doesn’t have a laugh track or a live studio audience (except during the talk show scenes (more realism!) and the jokes are delivered casually in conversation, with no “beat” or pause to signal a punchline. That style sounds familiar to fans of Arrested Development or Curb Your Enthusiasm, but in 1992 no one was doing this. Sitcoms — even critically beloved Seinfeld — were slowed down by the need to pause for laughter, and most took place in the familiar timeless sitcom universe, bounded by the traditional three cameras. Larry Sanders wasn’t the first single-camera sitcom, but it was one of the first to do away with audible laughs, which gave them more time to cram in jokes and plots.

What this means is, when you watch an episode of Larry Sanders, you really have to pay attention. For years, sitcoms — and TV in general — seemed designed to be the kind of thing you could eat or have a conversation over. A show like Sanford and Son (where Garry Shandling got his start, incidentally) is great, but it’s not something you need to devote yourself to — in fact, if you watch some of those old sitcoms really closely, you’ll discover that there is very little you won’t miss if you are simultaneously checking your email or peeling carrots. The Larry Sanders Show requires careful viewing, it requires a knowledge of what’s happened in earlier scenes, and sometimes it requires you to know things about earlier episodes or 90s pop culture. It’s as complex as a half-hour comedy show can get, and it appeared at a time when television was afraid of complexity. Remember, when Larry Sanders started, Homicide: Life on the Street, the primordial ancestor of The Wire, was a year away. The current golden age of television we’re living in started with the idea that television could demand just as much from its viewers as a movie, and that idea began, arguably, with Larry Sanders.

The direct influence of the people behind the show probably deserves a mention too. Judd Apatow was a producer and a writer on Larry Sanders, and I always though that this scene from Freaks and Geeks paid homage to his old boss. Paul Simms, another writer, created NewsRadio, a brilliant show that’s practically the stylistic opposite of Larry Sanders. Sarah Silverman appeared for a few episodes as a writer for “The Larry Sanders Show,” including one that tackles the still-relevant issue of the lack of women in comedy writing rooms. A pre-Mr. Show Bob Odenkirk had a recurring role as Larry’s agent, Dave Chapelle appears as himself for an episode, and Jon Stewart plays himself too, as Larry’s replacement and the next big thing in the talk show world. Then there’s the young Janeane Garofalo who plays the show’s talent booker, and I know there’s a whole group of people who will watch the show just for a young Janeane Garofalo.

But all that trivia is just window dressing. Like any great show, Larry Sanders is more than just a combination of funny people who worked on other funny things. It was a new kind of sitcom, a sitcom that trusted its viewers to figure out the punchlines on their own. Shows as diverse as Arrested Development, Community, and the British Office owe something to The Larry Sanders Show. It went off the air in 1998 after six amazingly consistent seasons — unlike all those unjustly-cancelled shows it influenced — and Shandling hasn’t done much work since, probably because he didn’t need to.

Harry Cheadle writes for Vice Magazine, among other places, and lives in Brooklyn with a cat and some roaches. He tweets here when he should be working.

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  • ChipSuey

    I've been overdosing on Larry Sanders via Netflix Instant. It's pretty much comedy perfection. Hank Kingsley is one of the greatest comedic characters ever realized.

  • http://twitter.com/petegaines petejayhawk

    I too have been watching the crap out of Larry Sanders on Netflix.

    But man, you use Bobcat Goldthwait and Arsenio Hall as examples of "crazy '90s relics nobody remembers?" Now *I* feel old.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Harry-Cheadle/17401764 Harry Cheadle

      Well, I know Bobcat Goldthwait now directs movies, specifically black comedies about bestiality and autoerotic asphyxiation (Robin Williams was in the last one), but I have to explain who he was whenever his name comes up. And Arsenio kind of fell off the face of the planet–I wonder if an 18-year-old would even recognize his name.

      • HerooftheBeach

        Bobcat was recently on the WTF Podcast (with a bunch of other people) and the dude is still fucking hilarious. I don't know what makes one comedian an icon (like Eddie Murphy) and another a relic.

  • http://www.unutterable.org G Garcia-Fenech

    Everyone in the show was excellent, but Jeffrey Tambor was GENIUS.

  • http://mattpayton.tumblr.com/ BobSacamano

    And they actually finished the story and went out on top before exhausting everything creatively. That should be one of the biggest legacies of the show. It had a hell of a victory lap. God bless them!

  • Mike Brown

    A lot of people give Aaron Sorkin credit for the "walk-n-talk" but there sure were a lot of them on The Larry Sanders Show.

  • http://thisisfyf.com rodtownsend

    I'm currently on a Larry Sanders spree on Netflix too. I missed the originals. Having started at Season One, I'm now at Season Three and just can't stop. I'm going to be crushed when it ends.

  • Butterscotch Stalin

    It's just Fernwood 2 Night with a backstage set.

    • holy moly


      • moly holy

        Fucking wow.

        • Guy who posted the 2 above

          i mean does it get any douchier than that guys comment

          • i'm steaming

            like god forbid the notion that other shows come along and do similar things/take inspiration from those that came before them. clearly it isn't possible to like something for it own merits since it's a clear and obvious rip off of something that already beat it to the punchline. god damn it.

  • Scott Saslow

    I'm waiting for the DVD boxset to go on sale on Amazon again. I missed it when it was only $50.

    I remember when the show ended and critics were saying how much better the finale was than the Seinfeld finale which aired around the same time. They were right!

  • El Knid

    HBO had already pretty much established that not having a laugh track was part of their in-house style for sitcoms with 1st and 10 and Dream On when the Larry Sanders Show was picked up. If you're looking for an area in which the show was a pioneer, you might have better luck focusing on its use of celebrities playing unaliased fictionalizaitons of themselves.

    Overall, though, I'd say the show's legacy is less about introducing any specific feature to the sit com, and more due to the overall execution of a wicked, sophisticated and emotionally honest half-hour comedy.

  • http://www.twitter.com/becca_oneal Rebecca O'Neal

    I'd never seen an episode of The Larry Sanders Show before it started airing on IFC, but I was sick in January and caught over a dozen episodes in a day. LOVE IT!

    You kind of nailed it in the first paragraph with this line: "even a comedy geek who peppers conversations with Mr. Show and Spaced quotes — finishing an episode of Larry Sanders and wondering what the big deal is." For the first few episodes, I didn't get it. Then I watched and watched and watched. And it was apparent that The Larry Sanders Show was the antecedent to sooo many shows I loved.

    At first, it was a bit like loving cake and then going back and eating flour, sugar, and raw eggs and expecting them to be delicious – because shows like Arrested Development have done SO MUCH to the template laid out by The Larry Sanders Show. But TLSS stands on its own comic legs. And the cast is AMAZING.