The Larry Sanders Show is a really enjoyable viewing experience, but is “The Larry Sanders Show” any good? Confused? Well, I’m talking about two things here. The first is HBO’s The Larry Sanders Show starring Garry Shandling. In said show, Shandling plays the titular Larry Sanders, a neurotic talk show host joined by the likes of Jeffrey Tambor’s “Hey Now!” Hank Kingsley and Rip Torn as the show’s best character, the producer Artie. The show chronicles the making of Sanders’ program, which also happens to be called “The Larry Sanders Show.” That’s the show that I’m pondering here. I know that The Larry Sanders Show is good, but is the show within the show worthwhile? Basically, if “The Larry Sanders Show” were real and on television now, would I watch it?
I’m a big fan of the late night talk show genre, so I’m not a tough sell. However, I also won’t just tune into any old late night program. I haven’t watched Jay Leno since his first show after he wrestled at a WCW pay-per-view, and I was very much in my childhood then so don’t hold it against me. Leno represents the worst of what late night can be: hacky, stale, dull, and unwilling to try anything new or interesting. Is “The Larry Sanders Show” like that? Or does it aspire to be something more?
One thing Sanders’ talk show has going against him is that The Larry Sanders Show is supposed to be in part a satire of the talk show game. A lot of the humor is mined from the personalities of the people who work on the show, and the business of putting together a talk show. Will Bobcat Goldthwait cause chaos on the show? Will Hank and k.d. lang be able to put aside their bad blood? Will Bruno Kirby get bumped again? As part of this satire, “The Larry Sanders Show” is not supposed to be all that great. Some of the jokes are supposed to be hacky and some of the comedy bits are supposed to be dumb. These less than stellar bits are supposed to be funny, not because they are good but because they are bad. Nevertheless, they are a part of the show within the show, and thus they figure into my assessment.
I’ll start with Larry’s strong point: Interviews. Larry and Hank are at their best when they are talking to the assortment of guests that come on the show, most of them celebrities playing themselves. While Hank is played up as a no talent buffoon, and he pretty much is, he can still chime in with the occasionally remark that is funny, whether he intends it for a laugh or not. Larry, on the other hand, is better at this. He sets up his guests well, and even when distracted, which is often, he can do a solid job. He does the sort of awkward flirting with the ladies that is synonymous with talk shows, and he gets in a lot of good lines, even if we know that most of them are meticulously set up. However, he does get in some good improvised lines as well. Larry Sanders is certainly capable of being funny and holding a conversation.
When it comes to the bits the show does, however, “The Larry Sanders Show” is quite lacking. There is a running gag on the show that one of the most beloved clips involves a chimp grabbing Larry inappropriately. There is a recurring sketch involving Hark as the mermaid wife of a sea captain played by Larry. Most of the skits on the show seem to solely exist to get Larry and or Hank into a goofy costume, and usually Larry doesn’t seem all that happy with them. I have seen nearly every episode of The Larry Sanders Show, and I can’t recall a single bit that struck me as particularly funny, and the only really notable sketch came from an episode hosted by a young Jon Stewart in which Hank played “Adolph Hankler,” the gruff host of a talk show that resembled a certain notable former leader of Germany. It was not well received.
Larry’s monologues aren’t much better. These are a bit harder to gauge after the fact because, like with real monologues, many of the jokes are topical, and a large portion of them haven’t stood the test of time. The ones that do are hit or miss. Larry’s monologue jokes aren’t as consistently lackluster as the show’s skits, but they aren’t exactly great either. Even vaunted new writer Wendy (played by Sarah Silverman), whose jokes were supposedly quite good, created mediocre material at best. I’d say Larry’s monologues resemble a current David Letterman monologue, only without Letterman’s many personal touches and eccentricities that usually make up the best part of his routine. Larry, on the other hand, often seems like he is just trying to get the jokes over and done with.
The Larry Sanders Show doesn’t begin when the show with in the show did. After all, the eighth anniversary of “The Larry Sanders Show” comes in season four of the actual show. That means viewers never got to see the early, awkward stages of the show, but did get to see the show start to drag on. One episode of The Larry Sanders Show involved Larry trying to start a movie career. Another saw him focused on a pilot with Chris Elliott. Clearly, at times Larry wasn’t fully into the show, and the writers were often shown to be ambivalent as well.
Overall, “The Larry Sanders Show” doesn’t seem all that good. I certainly wouldn’t watch it over most of the late night shows currently on TV. While it appears to be better than Jay Leno, it is probably, at best, on par with David Letterman, putting it behind folks such as Craig Ferguson, Conan O’Brien, and Jimmy Fallon. In a vacuum, I’d probably declare it "OK" if somebody were to ask me about it. It would definitely be worth flipping over to, despite Larry’s constant requests of, “No flipping,” and certainly the interview portion of his show would be watchable if he had a good guest. Maybe I’d just skip the monologue and the bits and check in to see if he had a guest or two worth sticking around for. While I highly recommend the sitcom The Larry Sanders Show, the late night talk show that it is based around is far from necessary viewing, and more something you’d watch if another, better talk show was in reruns that week.