By Tom Shales
Tuesday, October 26, 2010; C01
"The Larry Sanders Show" -- which was, of course, really "The Garry Shandling Show" -- has certainly held up well since its last episode aired on HBO in May of 1998. How could anything hold up better than still being, a dozen years later, ahead of its time?
Maybe time will never quite catch up with this caustic, innovative, daringly creepy comedy about a chronically insecure talk-show host and the hired support group that surrounds him -- trying to protect him from, among many other things, his own dark self. "Sanders" was absolute appointment television the way only the greatest shows can be.
The show's influence is certainly still being felt -- most noticeably on NBC's "30 Rock," with its show-about-a-show, and on HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm," where Larry David plays a neurotic fussbudget named Larry David who co-created "Seinfeld," which is of course true. "Sanders" was way ahead of the pack.
Although long out of production, "Sanders" will be back on Nov. 2, when Shout Factory releases a 17-disc, 89-episode box set devoted to "The Complete Series" in all its dyspeptic glory. Shout is the imaginative and enterprising outfit that earlier packaged Shandling's previous breakthrough, "It's Garry Shandling's Show," and "Sanders" gets the same deluxe treatment, replete with the obligatory disc of outtakes, deleted scenes and a documentary or two on the making of the show.
Not to tarnish it with a dirty word, but "Sanders" was, in addition to everything else, a twisted example of a twisted genre, "reality television," in that "Sanders" chronicled the continuing misadventures of a talk-show cast and crew and, as a show-within-the-show, highlights from the fictitious talk show itself. Except it didn't look fictitious, especially since Shandling had substituted many times for Johnny Carson over the years and probably could have had a talk show if he'd really wanted one.
With the brilliant concept of "Sanders," he was able to have his talk and tweak it, too -- a show-with-benefits that took us backstage and onstage with wicked facility. Cleverly yet simply, "Sanders" differentiated the two worlds -- both fakey, but in different ways -- by shooting the talk show on crisp and shiny videotape and the backstage stuff on slightly grainy, softer-edged film.
The joy of the show had little to do with its technical trickery, however; it was in the sharp and incisive writing and, even more so, in the wonderfully dimensional performances -- Shandling never better than as this blurred and frantic variation on himself, with Rip Torn unforgettably authentic as Artie, Sanders's nearly omniscient producer, and Jeffrey Tambor, painfully great as the hilariously transparent Hank Kingsley, Larry's talentless announcer and sidekick, and a man perpetually muffing his quest to be taken seriously.
Over the show's six great years, the story arcs were deftly divided among the characters -- Larry imagining that actor David Duchovny, spoofing himself, had a not-necessarily-platonic crush on Larry; Hank attempting to construct an empire out of pathetic business ventures (a revolving restaurant that made everybody sick) while tirelessly and endlessly searching for some profound inner self. There was nothing there to find, which gave Hank poignancy rare in modern sitcoms -- rare in any kind of sitcoms, really.
Plopping one of these heavy-set box sets down on the coffee table, it's sometimes hard to decide where to begin, or which episode to sample out of the dozens just sitting there waiting to be rediscovered. It's not so hard, however, when one episode includes your barely noticed television series debut, and your first attempt at acting since the eighth-grade musical at Abbott Junior High.
Yes, against all his saner instincts, yours truly, a rabidly unabashed fan of the series, accepted an invitation to play himself in a November 1996 episode called "Where Is the Love?" Storyline from the booklet that accompanies the DVD set: "Larry finds himself at war with Washington Post critic Tom Shales."
The one scene in which Shales appears takes place in a rudimentary set being passed off as a pricey restaurant. It's near the end of the episode, the premise for which is that Shales writes a snippy pan of Sanders's show -- calling him "needy" and "puffy"-faced -- because Larry had never invited him to be a guest on the show. This prompts Larry to seek revenge, naturally against the advice of Artie, the very savvy producer. In the course of that, Larry proves the criticisms correct.
The experience taping the episode remained a sublimely happy memory for your easily amused critic -- until Monday when he watched the episode with the added enhancement of a spoken commentary by director Todd Holland. "He loved, loved, loved our show," Holland says of Shales, but then: "He was much meaner to us after this episode aired" (the nerve of the man!), perhaps because "once you participate, you can no longer appear to be such a fan."
Why, Holland is the S.O.B. who kept telling me I was doing a good job! Could he have been insincere? (In Hollywood?!?) I loved "Sanders" from first episode to last -- I think -- but Holland repeats his charge: "Tom Shales was never as nice to us again as he was when we were strangers."
The bastard has broken my heart.
So there you are -- a poor schlemiel who started out as a minor character on the Larry Sanders talk show ends up a minor character among the many others who populated "The Larry Sanders Show." That was a scenario full of intrigues and back-stabbings just like the fictitious talk show's was, and bad blood was spilled all over the soundstage before it was over. Shandling became involved in a terribly bitter fight with co-producer Brad Grey, now head of Paramount Pictures, over profits from the show that Shandling claimed he was owed. It was an ugly mess that ran almost as long as the series had.
And in its unpleasantness, it served to verify the bittersweet credibility of Shandling's sitcom and its ingeniously observed milieu. To return to it now is an absolute delight, full of wonders and surprises and -- as Artie insisted in many a postmortem, "Huge laughs, huge laughs."