In the 1980s, Garry Shandling was a stand-up comedian who had the good fortune to appear on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. He did well, so Carson had him back, again and again. Soon, Shandling was guest-hosting The Tonight Show, and he did well at that, too. He was clever and winning and quick-witted; Bill Haverchuck really liked him. Eventually, the networks decided that they wanted to get into the Garry Shandling business on a more permanent basis. As the story goes—and the details here might not be precisely accurate—Shandling was given a choice: he could have his own late-night talk show, or he could have his own sitcom.
Shandling, who died Thursday at 66, eventually found a way to do both. In 1992, HBO debuted Shandling’s brilliant sitcom The Larry Sanders Show, which dramatized the production and performance of a fictional late-night talk show, also called The Larry Sanders Show. “Let’s put on a show” is pretty much its own entertainment genre, and the Sanders show did this genre very well, hilariously depicting the challenges of managing and producing a nightly network talk show. But the show also poked savage, self-aware fun at the mundanities of late-night television and the neuroses of the genre’s inhabitants. At times dark, at other times beautiful, at all times peopled by deeply flawed characters who made the Seinfeld crew seem like the Muppets, The Larry Sanders Show was the best, most ambitious sitcom of the 1990s. To mark Shandling’s death, it’s worth recalling exactly what made it great.
The Larry Sanders Show imagines an alternate universe in which Garry Shandling did take that talk show gig—and spent the next decade or so being neutered by it. The show centers around three main characters. There’s Artie, the show’s brusque, endlessly competent producer, played by Rip Torn. Jeffrey Tambor plays Larry’s mean-spirited, dull-witted sidekick, “Hey Now” Hank Kingsley, who is so stupid that he opens a revolving restaurant in a windowless, ground-floor space. Sanders himself is neurotic and weak-willed, forever comparing himself to his competitors or worrying about the size of his ass. He needs the acclaim and public recognition the show affords him, even as he keeps trying to quit, even as he knows that the show is middlebrow and bad. His marriage crumbles during the show’s first season, in part because he insists on watching himself on television every evening, much to his wife’s exasperation. “Larry’s a good man, but he is a performer, and you should try to think of a performer as a small, helpless child,” Rip Torn’s producer character tells Larry’s wife one night. “No, Artie—you know I have sex with him,” she responds. (“I’m so sorry,” Torn says.)
The brilliant thing about the in-universe Larry Sanders Show is that the talk show it depicts clearly isn’t very good. Jerry Seinfeld, too, played a mildly despicable version of himself on his eponymous program: a self-centered observational comedian whose meanderings generally made the world a worse place. But at least you always got the sense that “Jerry Seinfeld” the character was a good comedian. There is absolutely nothing performatively compelling about Larry Sanders. His monologues are hacky; his interviews are at times insincere and underprepared. The show’s comic skits are inevitably horrible. “No flipping [channels],” Sanders implores his audience at the end of every monologue, as if he knows that’s exactly what they’re planning to do.
It takes a brave performer to consistently and consciously make himself look like a hack. And I think Shandling’s own self-effacing bravery encouraged the show’s many, many guest stars to themselves be brave in their own self-portrayals. Part of the fun—and the genius—of The Larry Sanders Show was that real celebrities appeared on the in-universe talk show, usually playing unflattering versions of themselves. The Larry Sanders Show version of David Duchovny, for example, wasn’t just David Duchovny, X-Files star: he was a version of David Duchovny who is creepily obsessed with Larry. Elvis Costello wasn’t just a songwriter and musician, but a seedy guy who sells Hank a lemon of a used car. When the Sanders cameras are on, Robin Williams is a characteristically boisterous talk show guest. When the cameras go off, he becomes subdued. “Enough of the bullshit, how am I really doing?” he mumbles to Larry.
If you want a good point of entry into the series, I’d recommend starting with the second-season episode “Off Camera,” featuring cameos from Gene Siskel, John Ritter, and the musician Warren Zevon. The conceit of the episode is simple: On the day that a reporter comes to see a typical day in the life of The Larry Sanders Show, everything that can go wrong does. A dog gets loose in the production offices; Gene Siskel and John Ritter fight in the green room. (“This shit doesn’t happen on Montel Williams,” Siskel grumbles.)
About halfway through “Off Camera,” as he waits for his segment to arrive, Zevon makes a request. “Please don’t make me play ‘Werewolves of London,’ ” he asks Artie, and it’s clear from Zevon’s expression and tone that, after years of forced repetition at concerts and on talk shows, he can no longer stand the song that made him famous. “Anything but ‘Werewolves.’” And so of course “Off Camera” ends with an oblivious Larry asking Zevon to play “Werewolves of London” as an encore. He grits his teeth and does it, angrily. He knows that he has no choice.
It’s a moment that gets at one of the primary themes of The Larry Sanders Show: the perils of being trapped by one’s own creative success, the existential horrors of being forced to give the people what they want, night after night after night. For a musician like Zevon, hell is having to play the same damn song over and over again. For an intelligent, inventive, thoughtful comedian like Garry Shandling, I think hell would have been having to actually host a talk show: to tell the same stale monologue jokes, to conduct the same banal celebrity interviews, to perform every night for millions of viewers who really only need you to be pleasant background noise as they drift off to sleep. Every artist knows that success can be a straitjacket, and I have to imagine that Garry Shandling knew that when he decided to satirize the late-night grind rather than subject himself to it. There’s a running gag throughout the series wherein every time they stage an “anniversary” show, Artie insists on including footage of the time a monkey grabbed Larry’s testicles. Larry protests its inclusion every time, but to no avail. You’ve got to give the people what they want.