The Teeth Are the Best Part

Watching classic TV of a previous era is always a dicey proposition.  People can get distracted by out-of-date fashions, technologies, haircuts; even the rhythms of speech and the way audiences laugh at things can seem terribly archaic to a younger viewer.  The lack of immediacy and the somewhat unchanging nature of the technics of film keep this from happening on the big screen, but the further out you get from a great television show, the less likely it will be to fully hit home with contemporary audiences.  It’s next to impossible, for example, that anyone will ever receive I Love Lucy the way audiences did in its heyday, or even in the 1970s — for reasons that have everything to do with the way the medium has changed and almost nothing to do with the quality of the show itself.

The Larry Sanders Show is now almost twenty years old, practically a lifetime in terms of television.  It left us just before the commonly accepted era of ‘Quality Television’ began in 1999 with The Sopranos, and though it was a clear harbinger of that movement, it doesn’t always get lumped into the category for a number of reasons.  (One of the odd tips that occurs watching it today is seeing an impossibly young David Duchovny, in between working a hilarious gag he actually came up with in real life about having a man-crush on the host, being referred to as the co-star of a “cult” TV show called The X-Files.)  It was a comedy, for one thing, and it aired on HBO at a time when that was the furthest thing from a guarantee that a TV show would be any good.  Most of all, it was set in the milieu of a talk show, a medium that seemed of another era, a dying animal that might not resonate with anyone so far down the road.

Lucky for us — and lucky for everyone else who now has a chance to binge-watch the entirety of The Larry Sanders Show on HBO’s on-demand platforms — it actually holds up even better than it did when it first aired.  Part of that is because television and especially television comedy has moved, more or less, in a Larry Sanders-ish direction; it anticipated and pioneered a lot of the trends that now mark the sitcoms that we think of as setting our current standards.  It was one of the first sitcoms to utilize naturalistic acting and to perfect the ordinary patterns and rhythms of human speech instead of the formalized delivery of most television comedy, which nowadays reads as stilted at worst and performative at best.  It seized early on what the potential for the pseudo-documentary format was, and did it better than almost anything that followed; it seems almost impossible, watching the show now, that there really was never a person called Larry Sanders.  Much of the credit here belongs to the talented directors and crew, who innovated a dual film-and-video technique that gave the show segments and the behind-the-scenes bits an entirely different feel and helped enhance the ‘reality’ of the show.

The show had a crack writing staff, as well, who put in tremendous work despite a number of real world backstage shakeups.  Many of them — most notably John Vitti — were veterans of the Harvard Lampoon and television pros who came from the same writing staffs that gave us The Simpsons and Late Night with David Letterman, to name two obvious touchstones; this infused it with a ‘modern’ sensibility that still remains aesthetically in step with where we are now.  This was particularly notable in the way the show dealt with its very premise; while it turned out that the talk show format of monologues and celebrity chat still had some life in it, The Larry Sanders Show kept it at just enough of an arm’s length that the cast and characters felt like they knew they were trapped in a lumbering dinosaur of a format that didn’t really have any right to exist. Garry Shandling played this to the hilt, with just the right amount of self-mockery, egotism, and entitlement, while the producers were lucky enough to attract stars who played along with the gag, always willing to make themselves look venal, petty, or foolish.  This, too, served to give the show its heightened sense of reality.  Watching it now, it’s almost impossible to believe that it was a nearly entirely scripted show, with almost no improvisation.

But nothing worked for The Larry Sanders Show better than its cast.  Shandling himself so savagely parodied himself that you never once doubted that he really was the exaggerated version of himself that we saw night after night, a talented but hopelessly needy neurotic who could never get comfortable in his own skin.  Rip Torn has never been better used than in the role of Artie, the supremely confident showbiz professional who can handle everything except his nagging doubts about how he ended up babysitting an adult toddler for a living.  (Torn is almost more of a mob boss than an producer as Artie; he can menacingly purr a one-word admonition in a way that sends chills down the spine.)  Most astonishing is Hank Kingsley, the incredible creation of Jeffrey Tambor:  as Larry’s toady, sycophant, and sometimes nemesis, Tambor gives us one of the most memorable television characters of all time.  Alternately craven and blustery, a nervous wreck when he’s losing and an insufferable boor when he’s got even a temporary advantage, Hank is perhaps television’s most pure expression of the petit-bourgeois striver — and that’s not even approaching his ability to deliver a paralyzingly funny non-sequitur with a straight face, as when he claims he can’t play music because his record player was broken in the L.A. riots.

Garry Shandling’s death was unexpected and tragic, and robbed the world of an underrated comedic genius whose role in creating a new kind of television comedy has yet to be fully appreciated.  But it led to The Larry Sanders Show, his greatest triumph, being released to its biggest audience yet, and that’s no tragedy.

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