Intensities in Ten Suburbs

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DVD O.D. : Not Just the Best of the Larry Sanders Show

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on May 18, 2007

“Are you talking to me or my ass?”

My brother often refers to things as “the Deep Purple of ______.” He uses the term to refer to an artist or work that, while rarely transcendent or terribly notable in its own right, functions as a precursor (and in many cases, direct inspiration) to many more rewarding, long-lasting artists or works. While admittedly a somewhat flawed analogue–I mean c’mon, “Smoke on the Water” and “Highway Star” will never be anything less than awe-inspiring–it’s still an easy and partly accurate way to refer to a rather frequently occuring phenomenon in pop culture history.

And as you’ve no doubt figured out by now, watching a 23-episode greatest hits DVD (as well as hours of special features) of The Larry Sanders Show has led me to conclude that Sanders is the Deep Purple of reality-derived comedy. It got tons of acclaim at the time–a couple of Emmys (Sanders as writer, Rip Torn as supporting actor), claims of being the 90s’ second best sitcom behind Seinfeld, and a relatively respectable six-year run. But though you can obviously see the early glimmers of an entire generation of TV comedy in these 23 episodes, few of the episodes hold up as legitimately wondrous television.

It is somewhat amazing how extreme and how obvious this show’s impact would be on the next decade of TV comedy though. There’s the big two, of course–Curb Your Enthusiasm (stand-ups playing fictionalized variations on their public personas, celebrities making cameos and themselves) and The Office (pseudo-documentary formatting, insecure, occasionally asshole-ish main character surrounded by callous yes-men and smarter people taking the piss out of him, extremely dry humor). But then there’s also Arrested Development (besides the similar humor, Jeffrey Tambor’s character is a proto-GOB, and oh yeah, he was on the show too), Entourage (same sense of star-fuckery and mix of fictional and non-fictional celebrities, as well as a showbizzy Jeremy Piven) and even a couple episodes of Seinfeld (mainly the Puffy Shirt episode where Jerry goes on Bryan Gumbel). Not to mention every show that would follow on HBO–the channel that Larry Sanders would help solidify as a commercially and artistically viable station.

Without all of these shows that followed, it’s entirely possible that Larry Sanders would still seem so mindblowing and funny, but the fact of that matter is that nearly all of these shows have far eclipsed the potential of even Sanders‘ very best episodes. Part of it has to do with the Sanders character himself, who now seems like a sort of relic of the time–nearly everything about the character is dated now, including his talk show (which, while very good at being a satirical example of an unfunny 90s talk show, is not often very funny in itself). Shandling as a comedian I find somewhat grating anyway–once again, he makes for a very good possible 90s talk show host, but I’m not so sure that’s a good thing.

Not to say that there aren’t parts of Larry Sanders that hold up. The supporting cast is strong across the board, with special marks going to Jeffrey Tambor’s insecure, dim-witted sidekick Hank Kingsley, Rip Torn’s part-he-was-born-to-play TV superproducer, and a pre-Sherry Palmer Penny Johnson playing Larry’s devoted assistant Beverly (between her and Mary Lynn “Chloe” Rajskub’s role as the show’s booking agent, it’s a veritable 24 reunion in the later episodes). And the late night show stuff, if not always laugh out loud funny, is usually at least clever and occasionally insightful, especially the show’s deservedly Emmy-winning final episode, which plays as both the final episode of The Larry Sanders Show and The Larry Sanders Show (when Shandling/Sanders chokes up during the show’s final monologue, it’s an extremely touching moment–not to mention the bouts of sobbing Torn has throughout the episode).

The comparing and contrasting of this show with Seinfeld is somewhat inevitable–especially since on the DVD’s extra disc, Shandling even has an extended conversation about this with Seinfled himself. Shandling easily seems like the more insecure of the two–both about his show and himself–and it makes sense, as Seinfeld’s show was much less personal, and ultimately much more enduring. But it’s the insecurity (and ingenuity) of Shandling and Sanders that proved enormously important to countless classic shows to follow, while Seinfeld had a Pulp Fiction-like effect of merely inspiring a number of lesser knock-offs.

Of course, his hair was much, much, MUCH worse. So he does have that to be legitimitely embarrassed about.

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