OK, I’m cheating a little here because I still have five seasons of Shout Factory’s tremendous Complete Series DVD box set to get through, but progress is progress…
The Larry Sanders Show was one of the most influential comedies of the 1990s, but has since become more of a cult favourite after being a critical sensation during its run. This is no doubt because the series was largely unavailable on DVD until this set was released in 2010. Rights or legal issues that remain unclear prevented a release, but somehow Shout was able to overcome them.
Now that we have the chance to revisit the series (or in my case, revisit the first two seasons before heading into new territory), we can notice the striking similarities to many contemporary comedies from America, Britain, Australia, and beyond. Larry Sanders helped define a new kind of television comedy that owed more to the documentary than the sitcom, and showed us a skewed, unvarnished, but utterly plausible view of celebrity culture in Hollywood.
Set behind the scenes of a late-night talk show akin to Letterman and Leno, Garry Shandling and Dennis Klein’s HBO series used the often petty conflicts involved in running a television show to critique the ego and neuroses of celebrities and, by extension, us. While Larry Sanders (Shandling) is undoubtedly able to indulge his own weaknesses because he’s a star, he’s clearly a flawed human being despite his fame, which is particularly clear in his relationship with his wife, Jeannie (Megan Gallagher). Rounding out the cast are the show’s staff, led by Larry’s approval-hungry screen sidekick Hank Kingsley (Jeffrey Tambor) and loyal but slightly unhinged producer Artie (Rip Torn).
Most episodes involve a problem preparing for the night’s show, with these behind-the-scenes segments shot on film. This alternates with footage from the show itself, shot on video (similar to ABC’s similarly structured Frontline). The camera roves and follows the actors rather than filming their choreographed movements, and combined with the low-grade image quality you believe you’re watching a functioning office.
That ethos also informs the show’s humour, which is typically wry and satirical rather than laugh-out-loud, and these scenes can transition into a moment of pathos without warning. The humour rarely feels staged, and when it does, it’s because Larry is a comedian and his making the joke in a particular context is the point rather than the joke itself. Shandling and Klein’s approach is subtle rather than bombastic, so it may take a few episodes before you know you like it, and you’ll find the characters engaging before you start laughing uproariously at them. This approach is ubiquitous now, with The Office (both versions) entrenching it even further. Gervais cites The Larry Sanders Show as a major influence, and the lineage is clear.
It also influenced Gervais’ next show in a different way. Extras featured celebrities parodying or at least playing reprehensible or undignified versions of themselves, and Larry Sanders blazed that trail. Guest stars in this first season include Robin Williams, Dana Carvey, David Spade, Mimi Rogers, and Michael Richards, and all are willing to seem callous, self-absorbed, or just plain weird. Curb Your Enthusiasm and 30 Rock now do this on a regular basis, but there’s an unsettling realism to how Larry Sanders uses its guest stars that they and Extras can’t duplicate. You know that these portrayals are orchestrated, but the documentary aesthetic makes it so credible that these recognisible faces become vaguely abhorrent.
Abhorrence isn’t what you expect from a comedy, but that speaks to the complexity of The Larry Sanders Show. It eludes genre categorisation, and even labelling it a satire doesn’t account for the sadness at the heart of it as Larry and Hank’s insecurities eat away at them and intimidate them into betraying their principles. I’ve yet to see the majority of the show so can’t confirm the view of many critics that it’s one of, if not the best comedy of the 1990s, but it’s already an entertaining and caustically witty show that hints at greatness.
[It’s just a shame that the complete series is unavailable on DVD outside of North America. However, Australian readers, a free, legal solution is unexpectedly at hand! In a deal with content provider Crackle, Plus7 have most of the first four seasons available to stream. They are presumably adding one a week and episodes are available for a year, so the early ones may start disappearing soon if my maths is correct. But if you like it, support the excellent Shout Factory and import their set, which is stacked with extras.]