Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Man Who Talked Too Much: Garry Shandling and The Larry Sanders Show

Garry Shandling with Sharon Stone on The Larry Sanders Show in 1994. (Photo courtesy of HBO)

Johnny Carson’s annual “anniversary” specials were usually clip shows that featured only Johnny, his faithful sidekicks, the announcer Ed McMahon and bandleader Doc Severinsen, and their memories. But in 1988, Carson shook up the formula a little by making room for three guest comedians, David Letterman, Jay Leno, and Garry Shandling. Over the course of the evening, each of them came out individually to perform and pay tribute to their host, and as Dave, Jay, and Garry prepared to take his leave, Carson would lean in close to assure each of them that, confidentially, he was Johnny’s favorite. It was an inside joke that everyone in the national television audience was in on. Letterman (b. 1947), Leno (b. 1950), and Shandling (b. 1949) had all filled in for Carson as guest hosts of The Tonight Show, and were seen as potential heirs to his throne whenever the great man deigned to retire. (Letterman, who had been hosting his own late, late night show in the slot following Carson’s since 1982, made his Tonight Show debut in 1978 and guest-hosted for the first time in 1979.) When Carson finally stepped down in 1992 and NBC snubbed Letterman by choosing Leno as their new late night masthead, it set off a battle to define the TV face of the aging Baby Boomer generation that mirrored the generational political fight to define true Boomer legacy that began that same year, when Bill Clinton handed George W. Bush’s dad his pipe and slippers, along with some pamphlets suggesting how to make the most of one’s golden years. (The late-night wars came to an end last year, when Letterman joined Leno in retirement. The political Boomer wars are still ongoing, though the Clinton-Bush feud took a hit earlier this year, when Jeb!’s silver rocket to the stars quietly imploded on the launch pad.)
Shandling, who died last week of a massive heart attack, first appeared on the Carson show as an unknown standup in March 1981, and would go on to guest host seven times in 1986 and 1987. There’s a fluky little moment in his debut appearance that, in hindsight, has the weight of prophecy. After Carson has called him out, saying that it’s an auspicious night for a young comedian to be on the show because the studio audience is in such a receptive mood, Shandling does his act and backs towards the wings, acknowledging the crowd’s applause. The camera cuts to Carson, who appears to be trying to wave Shandling over to join him at his desk. In 1981, anyone who was enough of a show business insider to obtain a copy of TV Guide knew that it was the ultimate dream of any comedian to receive an unscheduled invitation from Carson to sit down and chat after doing his act for the first time on The Tonight Show; comedians whose names no one remembers now could often be seen ending their sets by casting a hopeful look in Carson’s direction, just in case he has a flare in each hand and is eagerly trying to guide them in to sit on his lap.

But Shandling must have been too nervous and distracted to notice, and he disappears backstage. (Carson shrugs it off and says that it’s nice to see a new comedian with some funny material, assuring the viewers at home that they have not heard the last of Mr. Garry Shandling. For the Tonight Show bookers, this must have been like hearing Caesar stand up at the end of the games and say in a loud voice that he sure is looking forward to seeing that one lion again some time.) Jay Leno could not have made this mistake; Leno, who took over Carson’s precious brand and turned it into a landlocked Carnival Cruise vacation with himself as entertainment director, was born with both eyes on the main chance and without the gene that enables people to learn that it sometimes helps to play a little hard to get. But Shandling, we now know, was an artist, on the lookout for inspiration and material. Both Leno and Letterman (who had to bolt to rival network CBS to show how ready he was to do his own expanded take on Carson’s sly silver fox persona) became the masters of their universes, but in his classic HBO comedy The Larry Sanders Show, Shandling took everything he’d learned from working and appearing on talk shows for more than a decade and used it to create his own world.

David Letterman, Garry Shandling, Jay Leno, and Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show in 1988. (Photo: Joseph Del Valle)

Larry Sanders, starring Shandling as beleaguered talk show titan Larry Sanders, ran for 89 episodes between 1992 and 1998. (Shandling, who wrote extensively on the show and also directed three episodes of its final season, is credited, with Dennis Klein, as the series’ co-creator.) At the start of the series, Larry Sanders is a rich, successful star, courted by celebrities and groupies and the occasional movie offer. (Does anyone remember that David Letterman once had a very expensive movie deal with Disney? No, even at the time, nobody, Letterman included, thought this made any sense.) His terrifyingly plugged-in veteran producer, Artie – played by Rip Torn, who invented a new character type for this show, the loyal, deeply committed burnout – and his personal assistant Beverly (Penny Johnson Jerald) form a Chinese wall meant to protect him from the outside world, with its crazy stalkers, nosy reporters, and passive-aggressive push-pull interactions with the network, which professes to love him while meddling with his show and openly musing about whether they could get higher ratings with someone younger.

It’s a wall that leaks, and Larry is constantly being confronted with new sources of irritation and anxiety to feed his neuroses, which would probably manage to stay fat and sassy even if he were kept in a medically induced coma between shows. The fact that he is not is hell on his personal relationships outside the workplace. His second wife, played by Megan Gallagher, breaks off from him after the first season; once she’s out of the picture, his previously unseen first wife, Francine (Kathryn Harrold), agrees to give it another go, but the transplant fails to take. From the third season on, Larry addresses his emotional and physical needs through a program that Shandling, in a 1994 interview, referred to as “having sex with the guests.” In one classic episode, “The Mr. Sharon Stone Show,” Larry, still finding his footing as a Hollywood bachelor, begins dating Sharon Stone and discovers the pain of being the less famous person in a tabloid relationship. He realizes he has to make some small effort to contain his downward spiral when, in season-ending cliffhanger, he gets engaged to Roseanne. (She temporarily won his heart by helping him beat his addiction to painkillers, which grew out of a false report that he was addicted to painkillers that Artie circulated to the press, so that Larry would not have to admit that he’d made a mistake when he suddenly announced, on the air, that he was quitting the show out of frustration and anger. During his sabbatical, he relocated to a cabin in Montana, where he did nothing but watch old VHS tapes of his shows.)

If you’ve seen or even heard about the show, you know that the real Sharon Stone and the real Roseanne made time in their then-busy schedules to help sell these little moments of TV comedy gold. The Larry Sanders Shows satirical veracity – the mechanics of both how a TV talk show looks and feels and what goes into its making feel startlingly right and informed – extended to the casting of actual celebrities to play themselves, often in scenes that go way past “good-natured ribbing.” The comic fearlessness of the regular cast and writing staff compelled actors ranging from Burt Reynolds (who, in the midst of his own tabloid divorce to Loni Anderson, turned up on the show as a version of himself who was eager to guest host because he needed the money so badly) and Ryan O’Neal to Lori Loughlin and David Duchovny to dig deep and give performances that matched the level of the material. Duchovny first appeared on the show as the little-known star of a sci-fi show on Fox, who responded to being bumped from a scheduled appearance by hissing, “When I get back to my lonely hotel room, I expect to find a big fucking fruit basket waiting for me.” His potty-mouthed outburst didn’t sit too well with Larry, who murmured to someone, “Put him on the Sean Young list.” They later made up, only to have Larry withdraw out of concern that his new friend was a little too into the homoerotic aspects of their bromance.

When Larry Sanders first aired, the buzziness of these cameos helped to create media attention around the show. (So did the news that NBC, hurting over the defection of David Letterman, was courting Shandling to either do his own show following Leno or simply replace the massive-chinned bastard. Shandling would eventually confess, while Larry Sanders was still in production, that he’d strung the network along for the sake of the publicity; only a damn fool would have abandoned his own show to go to NBC and become what he’d been satirizing.) Now, a couple of decades down the road, the timeliness of the show is something that idiots are careful to apologize for. I’ve seen “tributes” to the show written by peach-fuzz-cheeked yutes that caution their fellow Millennials that, though technically “brilliant,” it is dated, like everything else ever made in which the characters read newspapers, don’t check their phones every three minutes, and never travel by hoverboard. This is so stupid it hurts. The topical aspect of Larry Sanders – the way its events rhyme with what was really going on in the late-night-TV industry of the 1990s – bears about the same relation to the show’s lasting power and hilarity as the original poems that Lewis Carroll was goofing on in “Jabberwocky” and “Father William.” Sure, being hip to the real-life subtext adds a little something, but it’s the bracing smartness of the show’s attack, its clownish but layered characters, and the excellence of the execution that form the essence of its continuing appeal. It always did.

Garry Shandling and David Duchovny on The Larry Sanders Show.

At the time the show first went out, none of this was really to be expected from Shandling. As a standup, he had perfected a smiling, self-lacerating take on a familiar ‘80s type: the yuppie girl chaser who was too narcissistic to worry about trying to conceal his shallowness, and had zero interest in understanding how the rest of humanity lived. (“A friend of mine, he has.... what do you call those things? A baby.”) His first TV series as It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, a spoofy, “meta” mock sitcom that he co-created with first-season SNL writer Alan Zweibel. Which aired on Showtime between 1986 and 1990. (He had previously co-written and starred in The Garry Shandling Show: 25th Anniversary Special, a one-shot for Showtime that parodied Johnny Carson’s anniversary specials, imagining an entire, storied TV talk show history for Shandling – a fantasy that I suspect is actually pretty common among TV addicts and comedy geeks of a certain age.) It’s Garry Shandling’s Show was the essence of mainstream ‘80s “irony,” an endless joke about the conventions of TV sitcoms, and while it could make for pleasant viewing, it was thin and forgettable; there’s only so many times you can treat the very fact that you’re on TV at all as a joke. After a while, the joke might as well be that anyone feels flattered enough to be in on the joke that they’re still watching this.

Shandling had caught hold of an idea that David Marc put forth in his seminal book of television criticism, Demographic Vistas (1984). Writing at a time before the commercial and formulaic constraints on American series television had barely started to loosen up, Marc argued that TV is an intrinsically comic medium, partly because there’s no way for a “dramatic” TV series like Dragnet or the Quinn Martin productions to generate real surprises or suspense; everyone knows the built-in limits on what can happen (the hero isn’t going to die or fail to save the imperiled heroine in such a way that it will impact on his soul, nobody has any real room to develop as a character), so the simulation of drama and suspense becomes funny.

According to Marc, the real artists on TV were the comedians, and, by the 1980s, the strongest, most ground-breaking work being done for TV was by the writers and performers, notably the creators of SCTV and some of the early Saturday Night Live people, who had grown up watching television and had the same storehouse of clich├ęs in their minds as the audience. They didn’t try to pretend the assumptions that seasoned viewers made about TV didn’t exist, they acknowledged them and played sophisticated games with them. At SCTV’s peak, its writer-performers, who had done time working in satirical revues pitched at the college circuit and improvisational cabarets and exploitation movies, created a whole cast of show business second-raters who, when they weren’t populating the show’s TV and movie parodies, railed about their stalled careers and tried to drum up new projects and some publicity for themselves. In Larry Sanders, Shandling and his team did something similar, but their experience was of flailing and warring against the machine at a more high-end level of the entertainment industry. (Almost twenty years before he played Artie, Rip Torn gave an interview to Studs Terkel for Terkel’s book Working, in which he shared his recollections of such sobering career moments as being told that he couldn’t use a cigar as a prop when playing a Civil War general, because the show was sponsored by a cigarette company.)

Larry Sanders stays funny because its real subjects are the eternals: the deranging effects of the desire for sex and fame and money and power, and the humbling effects of failure and embarrassment and disappointment and public shame. Shandling didn’t invent the idea of a comedy that would rip the lid off the TV talk show, any more than he invented the idea of celebrity cameos. Just a few months after The Larry Sanders Show first aired, ABC premiered a new sitcom called The Jackie Thomas Show, an intended vehicle for Tom Arnold when he was The Mr. Roseanne Show. The comedy star played by Arnold was a vulgarian ogre, and the focus of the show was on the poor writers who had to suffer under his employment. There was an intended self-satirical element to Jackie Thomas, because the bullying star was meant to remind viewers of stories about what a nightmare both he and Roseanne were to work for. But the show turned dull quickly, not least because of the one-note conception and performance of Arnold’s character. Ten years earlier, Buffalo Bill, starring Dabney Coleman as an ambitious TV host stuck doing a local show in a small New York market, enjoyed a longer, off-and-on run without ever becoming a hit. Buffalo Bill does qualify as a critic’s darling and a cult show, but it’s scarcely deserving of being mentioned in the same breath as The Larry Sanders Show, because it was boxed in by the limits of its own conception. Well-cast and smartly written, it never figured out how to develop Bill’s character past the pilot, which went to some pains to establish what a shameless vulture he is by showing him jumping at the chance to use a friend’s death as a career stepping-stone.

One of Larry Sanders’s great strengths came from Shandling’s wisdom in adding another eternal theme to Larry’s character: the desire to be good and do good, to become exceptional. Unlike Buffalo Bill and Jackie Thomas, Larry Sanders never feels condescending, because it allows Larry and his fellow neurotics to flirt with higher motives than they’re usually capable of realizing. In one episode, Larry decides that he owes it to the show and the people he works with to be on top of things and become available. After a few hours spent listening to other people’s problems, he learns his lesson and begs Artie to rebuild the Chinese wall. (One of the people burning a hole in his ear is the show’s talent booker, played by Janeane Garofalo at a point in her career when she was to complaining what Jackie Chan was to kicking people’s asses while upside down in midair.)

Jeffrey Tambor, Rip Torn and Garry Shandling in an early publicity photo for The Larry Sanders Show. (Photo: Darryl Estrine)

The show is often at its most invigoratingly twisty when Larry is concerned about the show becoming safe and stale; some part of him still hungers to be an artist, or at least to serve as the Lorenzo de’Medici of the airwaves. After one particularly uneventful interview with George Segal, Larry demands that the talent booking be shaken up and some exciting new blood be brought in. In response to this decree, Larry finds himself staring at his studio audience while they stare at the political performance artists Tim Miller deliver a monologue from his theater work My Queer Body. After Larry and Artie huddle and decide they can’t air the episode, the story hits the wires and The Larry Sanders Show is castigated in the media – by Roseanne and Tom Arnold, no less – for being afraid of exciting new voices. Enter special guest Jay Leno, who is only too happy to put Tim Miller on The Tonight Show, and complement him for not being shocking at all. (In Jay Lenoland, that’s a compliment.) The episode ends with Larry at his desk, listening to George Segal gas on, enjoying the pleasant sensation of feeling sleep piling up on his eyelashes.

Part of Larry Sanders’s appeal now is as a reminder that, even before social media and TMZ, technology was not always a celebrity’s best friend. After word gets out that Larry the star carelessly knocked a civilian down in a store, Larry and the network deny and stonewall heroically, until grainy footage of the actual mishap surfaces. (The network’s walking nervous smile of a lawyer is played by the great character actor David Paymer. Part of the fun of watching The Larry Sanders Show can be learning which familiar actors are considered sufficiently untouched by celebrity that they can get away with playing someone other than themselves.) The core cast is rounded out by Jeffrey Tambor as Larry’s vain, opportunistic empty suit of a sidekick, “Hey Now” Hank Kingsley. (This is the role and performance that redefined Tambor’s career after fifteen years in the trenches that included a regular role on The Ropers, a Three’s Company spinoff that turned the remainder of Norman Fell’s life into a twenty-year apology tour.) A profoundly uncomplicated man, Hank just wants a little of the respect that he absolutely does not have coming to him, and maybe a bump in pay. In one episode, he tries to play hardball, threatening to leave the show to pursue other offers unless his contract is renegotiated. No one feels anything but relief at the prospect of being rid of him, forcing him to break down and confess to Larry that there are no other offers. (Larry covers for him, demanding that the network pony up some more dough for his irreplaceable wing man.)

It’s typical of the surprising degree of emotional complexity that Larry Sanders was capable of tapping into that the show can make you feel sympathy for Hank without ever losing sight of what a nightmare he must be to have around. In one episode, Larry falls ill too close to show time to rustle up a replacement host, and, while everyone cringes and prays, Hank is drafted into service to run the show, just this once. He makes it in by the seat of his pants, endearing himself to the audience with his naked show of fear and humility. This is enough to drive him insane with power, and after manipulating himself into the guest host’s chair a second night in row, he walks off the set a crumpled, broken man, having been booed by the audience and committed many unbroadcastable transgressions, the least egregious being his having addressed Little Richard as Rich Little. Hank is simply not cut out to be a headliner, but at least, as the episode “Hank’s Sex Tape” makes clear, the banana in his pants is second to no one’s. After the tape falls into the hands of the show’s stoned head writer (Wallace Langham) and gets leaked to what Artie calls “an underground railroad of perverts,” Hank’s very livelihood may be in jeopardy. (And not just his: as Artie tells the head writer through his best gargoyle smile, “No problem, buddy, you make me laugh. I hope to hell we don’t have to fire your ass.”) In a drunken funk, Hank parks himself on the couch and stares into space while the show goes on around him, breaking out of his trance only to insult the guest next to him, Henry Winkler. Confused, Winkler turns to fellow guest Norm Macdonald, who asks, in wonder and admiration, if he’s seen Hank’s tape: “The guy has a huge cock on him!” This only confuses Winkler further: “Then why is he so unhappy?”

If nothing Shandling had done before The Larry Sanders Show could have fully prepared audiences for his masterpiece, nothing he did after it could be seen as a really satisfying follow-up. Shandling flirted with movies, but his stint as Warren Beatty’s court jester earned him nothing but roles in two of the dullest bombs of Beatty’s career, Love Affair and Town and Country. Beatty’s wife, Annette Bening, did make a game co-star for Shandling’s sole leading role in a movie, What Planet Are You From? (2000), a sci-fi sex comedy, directed by Mike Nichols, about an extraterrestrial who comes to Earth on a mission to impregnate a woman and make off with the baby. The movie has patches of genuine wit, but the role of a foreign intelligence disguised as an ineffectual cad doesn’t allow Shandling to show the kind of emotional shading he deployed as Larry Sanders, and the movie itself is too cold and alienating to work in the multiplexes, which it badly needed to do, given that it cost an inexplicable $60 million to make. (More recently, Shandling turned up playing a treasonous, mealy-mouthed United States Senator in a couple of the Marvel Universe superhero movies.)

That just leaves the greatest TV series ever made, a pop culture breakthrough and touchstone that did its part in drastically revising people’s expectations of what they might expect from television entertainment, to speak for his legacy. In a sense, The Larry Sanders Show is a time capsule about the cultural space once devoted to a form that now seems outmoded, despite strong efforts by Craig Ferguson and Stephen Colbert to keep it alive; youngsters today seem more interested in listening to comedians hold forth on open-ended podcasts or jousting during the panel-interview segments of political satire shows, and the buzzy talk shows hosted by Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel are vestigial appendages to their own detachable YouTube clips. But the fires that stoked Larry Sanders’ pretensions, Artie’s gasbag, and the throbbing-python star of “Hank’s Sex Tape” still burn as bright as ever.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He has contributed to The A.V. ClubHitFlixNerveHiLobrow, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, among other publications.

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