Every single episode of "The Larry Sanders Show" has had the same flaw: It's been too short. That goes double for the one-hour series finale, tomorrow night at 10 on HBO.
Series finale? Already? And so soon after suffering through the departure of "Seinfeld"? The two best comedies on American television were actually shot on sound stages barely yards apart on the same lot in Los Angeles, and now both those sound stages are dark. Oh, agony. Is there no God?
(Of course there is, but still, this seems unconscionably cruel.)
Some people think TV critics want to hate the programs they review. Not true, and there may be no more conspicuous case in point than "Sanders," a situation comedy about the trauma-prone production of a late-night talk show. For six seasons it's been tremendous fun watching it and loving it.
The talk show, starring series co-creator Garry Shandling as Sanders, has supposedly been running 10 years, and Sanders wants his sign-off to rank in broadcast history with those of Jack Paar (whose actual goodbye Sanders watches at the beginning of the episode) and Johnny Carson. As always, fates and fools intervene, but Larry/Garry still walks away with his lips held high.
For its entire run, "The Larry Sanders Show" has dabbled dangerously in mixing truth with fiction. Real stars play themselves on the series; they're guests on Larry's couch and a few of the female guests have also been guests in Larry's bed. Even one of the male guests, David Duchovny of "The X-Files," developed a seemingly non-platonic crush on Larry. Duchovny reprises that nonsense on the finale and in the process does a hilarious spoof of Sharon Stone's most famous scene from "Basic Instinct."
The series has been merciless and marvelous in its satire of show business, of television, of ego wars and rampant paranoia and jealousy and back-stabbing in the wackiest of all workplaces. But it has always been about more than that. The weaknesses and foibles of Larry and his co-workers are unmistakably human; it's just that inside the pressure cooker of TV, everything swells up out of all sane proportion, including Larry's head.
Things continue in this vein on the final episode, with co-writers Shandling and Peter Tolan finding new ways to skewer old targets. Longtime second banana Hank Kingsley, played with blinding brilliance by Jeffrey Tambor, rehearses his goodbye speech to Larry in front of a Coke machine -- and it turns out the speech is more about Hank than Larry, shamelessly self-aggrandizing. And then, son of a gun, something happens on the show itself and he doesn't even get to give it.
Artie, the show's producer, played by Emmy winner Rip Torn, warns everybody not to get sentimental and then marches off to the wardrobe department for his own sobs among the sport coats. Guest stars Tom Petty and Clint Black argue backstage about who gets to sing the lovey-dovey goodbye song to Larry and soon the discussion erupts into a bitter fistfight. In many ways, it's just another typical night for "Sanders," but with many more stars.
Reality and fiction mingle more intimately than ever. Guest Sean Penn says he has just finished a movie whose cast includes Garry Shandling, to which Sanders says, "Wow." But then during the commercial break, Penn confides to Sanders that Shandling was a pain in the neck to work with. Penn is hardly the first person to say that about the exacting and demanding Shandling. Around the "Larry Sanders" set, Shandling's colleagues refer to him by such terms as "a needy baby," exactly the kind of thing Sanders's colleagues would say about him behind his back.
Jerry Seinfeld is among the big stars dropping by to say goodbye to Larry, plus Jim Carrey in a kind of milestone romp on Larry's desk. Carol Burnett and Ellen DeGeneres exchange compliments, ignoring Larry on his nuit de nuits, and, backstage, comic Jon Stewart's coke-snorting agent sniffs that Sanders is "a thing of the past" even though the show isn't over yet.
Also popping up briefly and ironically: beautiful Linda Doucett, who played Larry's assistant for several years before leaving the show and who was also, for some of those same years, Shandling's real-life girlfriend. The more you've been watching "Sanders," the more you'll relish these convoluted inside jokes.
But the beauty of the series has been that most of its inside jokes were for everybody. In its caustic, cynical and cruelly hilarious way, "The Larry Sanders Show" broke through barriers in both form and content. For Garry Shandling, it's a triumph, a masterwork, a pinnacle -- but one that he's probably quite capable of topping with some new series a year or two from now.
In addition to all the writing he did this season, Shandling also directed three of the episodes, and showed considerable talent in this area, too. He has grown impressively as an actor and auteur during the run of the series, and he showed a generous willingness to let his fellow cast members steal scenes and bask in the spotlight.
What a guy. Let's all run out to Hollywood and ask him to marry us.
And then sue him, just for the heck of it.
The finale of "Sanders" will probably be more satisfying to its fans than the finale of "Seinfeld" was to its, but "Sanders" only has about a tenth as many of those fans, and the "Seinfeld" closer was so mercilessly mega-hyped it couldn't possibly have lived up to the excessively great expectations. Both shows seemed fearless and daring and, unlike most of the competition, possessed of a true creative vision.
Although "Sanders" followers are smaller in number than the "Seinfeld" legions, we like to think of ourselves as selective connoisseurs and of "Sanders" as gourmet television -- special and clever and incalculably above the fray.
An invitation to a screening of the finale featured a photo of Shandling as Sanders saying "Now you can flip," a reference to Sanders's warning before each commercial break, "No flipping."
It might as well have said, "Now you can turn off the TV altogether." What now? What's left? What's the use? I think I'll take up smoking. CAPTION: "X-Files" star David Duchovny, left, plays himself in the finale of "The Larry Sanders Show," starring Garry Shandling. CAPTION: "Larry Sanders" star Garry Shandling, flanked by co-stars Rip Torn and Jeffrey Tambor, takes the stage at show's end.