Remembering Garry Shandling’s Early Version of Larry Sanders

Screen Shot 2016-03-24 at 11.05.06 PMI would much prefer that the article I’m writing today was about an old episode of Letterman or Conan, but today we look back at one of the late Garry Shandling’s classic specials. Garry hasn’t appeared much in From the Archives, and that’s not because I’m not a fan. Quite the opposite. The reason is because the majority Garry’s body of comedic work isn’t in “the archives.” The Larry Sanders Show and It’s Garry Shandling’s Show are very much a part of the modern comedy canon as two of the most influential television shows of the last thirty years and they aren’t leaving any time soon. Previously, I’ve looked at Garry’s Showtime special from 1984 Garry Shandling: Alone in Vegas, but beyond that and his occasional late night appearances, pretty much everything is (rightfully) already well known.

Sort of.

Before Garry Shandling was an actor/writer he was just a writer, cutting his teeth on shows Sanford and Son and Welcome Back Kotter. As his star in the world of standup began to rise, he began to become more and more of a fixture on late night television. If you’ve seen an episode of The Larry Sanders Show it’s no doubt painfully clear to you that Garry held the job of talk show host in high esteem, particularly when that job was performed by Johnny Carson. In 1986, just two years after his first Showtime special and a full six years before Sanders, Shandling created his first fictional long-running late night show and threw a big party to celebrate the imaginary show’s 25th anniversary with a special known as The Garry Shandling Show 25th Anniversary Special.

Just as The Larry Sanders Show would with its own version, the show is produced very carefully to as accurately as possible reflect the real Tonight Show. This goes down to the announcer, the montage of “memorable moments” from the past 25 years of the show, as well as the font for “The Garry Shandling Show’s” logo. The show begins with our announcer Pete, played by Paul Wilson, starting up the show and bringing out Garry to do his monologue.

The monologue is a great example of Garry’s commitment to an idea. With a premise like this, it would be so easy for the show to wink towards the audience and confirm that yes, of course this is a fake late night show that hasn’t really been around for 25 years. Instead, the monologue is played so subtly. Just as Carson would have done on his show, every single joke isn’t about how they’ve been on for 25 years. Some of the jokes are just solid jokes. Like “I’ve been able to buy things I’ve always wanted as a kid. One of the benefits of having a permanent job. I just bought bunk beds. … King size bunk beds. This girl came over and she said, ‘I’ll get on top!’ And I said, ‘Well, I’ll get the ladder,” and she said, ‘You think a lot of yourself, don’t you?’” By not overplaying the premise, Garry ends up strengthening the premise, hitting the tone perfectly.

Over at the desk, Garry banters with Pete, and if you’re familiar with Larry Sanders’s Hank Kingsley, Pete is definitely a proto-version of Hank. He may not have the bravado or pathos but he does have the dopeyness and the vain attempts at forging a friendship with Larry, even if it involves asking for an invite to Garry’s house on the air.

A big thrust of the special, as it would be on a real anniversary special, are clips from the previous decades. Here, Garry uses the opportunity to stage these clips as mini sketches that operate with mini-premises inside the larger one. For instance, the first clip is introduced by Garry and Pete as having been an encounter with a guest who had to be significantly censored. Of course this guest is the famous Mr. Ed, who is bleeped over and over again, talking about his dislike of other animal actors and his penis size.

The 25th Anniversary Special has actual guests as well, in the form of Donny Osmond. Immediately the conversation turns to his sister and long-time singing partner Marie Osmond, whom Donny very obviously doesn’t wish to discuss but Garry very much does. Of course, Garry backs down when he presses Donny to tell him what Marie says about him and learns that she, in fact, hates his guts.

While there is some DNA shared between this and The Larry Sanders Show, ultimately this special is very different, tonally. Shandling described Sanders not as a show about a talk show host, but instead “a show about people who love each other but show business gets in the way.” This is a show about a talk show, and occasionally we see that the host kind of hates the sidekick. The jokes aren’t really about the host of the show and his problems; it’s a lovingly constructed tribute to the genre. There is one exception, to this though…

As a surprise to Garry, Pete has set up something to settle a long-standing beef Garry has had with someone who is constantly making fun of his hair on his TV show. Together the two travel backstage and end up on the set of Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, allowing them to bury the hatchet, and allow Johnny to get in another of his famous digs in on Garry’s hair.

The entire thing is chock full of little details that make it an absolutely perfect parody of late night TV in the 1980s. The attention paid in the clips in particular is especially inspiring, such as Garry’s various wigs to reflect his changing hairstyles throughout the years, the changes in set design, and even the picture quality throughout the decades. I could go on and on with examples, but thankfully I don’t have to this time. Some nice person has uploaded the entire special to YouTube, and on a day like today, there’s no better tribute to the late Garry Shandling than to watch and enjoy a solidly constructed comedy special in which you can truly feel the love behind it that’s holding it all together.

Rest in peace, Garry Shandling. You gave us so much and inspired even more. Thank you.

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