Sometimes a single TV episode can exemplify the spirit of its time and the properties that make television a unique medium. A Very Special Episode presents The A.V. Club’s survey of TV at its most distinctive.
In the Albert Brooks monologue “Memoirs Of An Opening Act,” Brooks describes opening for Richie Havens at a concert in Texas, and dealing with an intoxicated crowd that booed everything he said, whether he was citing his impressive television credits or treating them to one of his lightly absurdist comedy routines. And then, according to Brooks:
I pulled out the big gun, I couldn’t help it. I didn’t want to use it. It’s just a trick, but I had to do it. It’s a word that works in that part of the country every single time. It’s a miracle word. The word is “shit”… Hats come on the stage. People run out and begin to build a statue in the park. “He’s a hero! He’s a hero! He’s a hero!” Parades are scheduled… How does that work? I mean, do they talk about that after the show? “What’d you think of the comedian?” “I tell you one thing, when he said ‘shit,’ I almost died!”
I thought about that Brooks bit the first time I watched The Larry Sanders Show episode “Out Of The Loop.” At one point, Larry’s sidekick Hank (played by Jeffrey Tambor) is dictating his Larry King-like “Hank’s Thoughts” for his fan-club newsletter when the sight of the show’s head writer having sex with a production assistant outside the window distracts him.
One of the comments Hank makes—“I am telling you, nothing beats that missionary position!”—is actually fairly close to something Larry King might write. (Credit the invaluable Tambor, who has a way of making Hank sound sincerely boobish, with just a hint of juvenile malice.) Nevertheless, Hank didn’t expect his secretary to append that line and “Jesus, I think that’s Jerry and Sally fucking in the parking lot” to his newsletter, thus setting up the punchline of the episode, as Hank realizes that his unexpurgated thoughts have been FedEx-ed out to his fans, and he lets out a long, low, “Shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit…”
Albert Brooks may have intended his “‘shit’ is a miracle word” bit as a disparaging comment on the low standards of comedy audiences—especially in the deep South—but y’know what? He was right. “Shit” is a miracle word. Profanity can be a cheap way to shock and entertain, but it can also come off as refreshingly frank, a sign that the person doing the swearing isn’t holding anything back. I remember when I was growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, local radio stations would sometimes play a Richard Pryor routine with all the profanity bleeped out, partly as a joke, and partly to make the point that without the word “motherfucker,” Pryor was nothing. But then I saw Richard Pryor Live In Concert for the first time, and realized that Pryor’s use of language had a real purpose, to let the audience feel like part of his inner circle, with the privilege of knowing what he was really thinking.
The Larry Sanders Show had a similar effect. Prior to Larry Sanders, the line on any original series made for cable is that it was bound to be inherently inferior to network product, outside of its ability to sprinkle in nudity and profanity. Otherwise, why wouldn’t it be on NBC? Then The Larry Sanders Show came along in 1992 and saw its first season nominated for eight Emmys, including Outstanding Comedy Series—a first for a cable show. It wasn’t that Larry Sanders was any less raunchy than 1st & Ten or Dream On; if anything, the show was even franker in its subject matter, and more colorful with its language. It’s just that The Larry Sanders Show didn’t use explicit sex jokes and the like merely to titillate. The rawness was a way of conveying the reality of life behind the scenes of show business.
Garry Shandling co-created The Larry Sanders Show and also played the title role: a vain, aloof, insecure late-night talk-show host. Throughout his career, Shandling has shown a knack for couching his talents in unexpected contexts. He broke into show business as a writer on broad ’70s sitcoms like Sanford And Son and Welcome Back, Kotter, then developed a stand-up act that had him obsessing over his looks and his troubles with women. He was a slick enough performer to land guest-hosting gigs on The Tonight Show within three years of becoming a comedian, but nothing in his material or persona marked Shandling as an innovator. Then in 1985, Shandling and Alan Zweibel launched It’s Garry Shandling’s Show on Showtime, putting Shandling’s sitcom training and nebbishy persona to good use in a sitcom that was primarily about the comforting corniness of sitcom conventions. During the run of IGSS, Shandling also co-wrote and starred in The Garry Shandling Show: 25th Anniversary Special for Showtime, spoofing the disjointed, era-spanning style and faux-chumminess of Johnny Carson’s frequent TV retrospectives.
The Larry Sanders Show pivoted off the Anniversary Special concept to an extent, going backstage at a long-running late-night show, though this time less as a spoof than as a report from the frontlines of the late-night wars. Over the course of six years, Shandling and company took all the gossip about what was going on in the offices of the major networks—the rumors of David Letterman’s misanthropy, Jay Leno’s careerism, and the looming specter of Jon Stewart as the younger replacement for them all—and turned them into plot-drivers. More than anything, The Larry Sanders Show’s format allowed Shandling and his writers to produce the kind of smooth, inoffensive stand-up that Shandling was known for and to show that he was much savvier in real life than he had ever let on.
“Out Of The Loop,” for example, begins as most Larry Sanders episodes do (at least in the early years), with footage from the show-within-the-show, containing several examples of the kind of jokes Larry Sanders would tell on the air. Here, he makes instantly dated quips about Jerry Brown and the 1992 presidential election, and when he gets backstage after the show is over, his producer/booster Artie (Rip Torn) reminds him that Suzanne Somers is going to be on the show soon, and asks whether she should bring her Thighmaster.
Yet we see a whole different side of Larry’s sense of humor when he’s having a heart-to-heart talk with Jerry (played by Jeremy Piven, pre-mercury-poisoning) about the whole Sally situation.
Larry starts out intending to warn Jerry that all his fooling around in the workplace could cost him a cushy job, but then he digresses to an anecdote about writing for Norm Crosby, saying he ultimately quit that gig because “I can’t write that malaprop shit.” He intends to play the mentor role, but he’s a comedian at heart, so he riffs, because ultimately he wants the younger comic to see him as a vital player in the business, not as some fusty relic.
The Larry Sanders Show’s premise gives its characters an excuse to throw out punchlines without violating the reality of the piece. At heart, the show is a fairly traditional workplace sitcom, with Larry dealing with the office wackos, then returning home at night to commiserate with his wife. (Their relationship ends midway through the series, but while it lasts, it resembles the marriage dynamic on the far-less-traditional Curb Your Enthusiasm, which debuted two years after Sanders went off the air.) But because the characters are all meant to be funny people, they’re constantly quipping—treating show business as a never-ending battle, and their ability to entertain as their weapon. So it makes sense that when Larry hears about Jerry and Sally having sex behind his desk, his first reaction would be, “Was my mug out there?” And that when his secretary mentions seeing Jerry naked, Larry asks that she “steer clear of the phrase ‘Jerry’s penis’ while I’m biting into this cold burrito.”
Throughout “Out Of The Loop,” Larry is dealing with one of his common anxieties: that he’s becoming irrelevant, in this case because he doesn’t even know what’s happening in his own backyard. Everybody knew about the Jerry/Sally affair before him, his wife is handling the bills at home for repairs he’d heard nothing about, and a staffer Larry has never met is chatting with him in the hallway. So Larry comes to Artie, demanding to be connected to what’s going on with the people who work for him, even though Artie warns that he’s spent eight years trying to keep those kinds of petty details from cluttering up Larry’s day.
Sure enough, in conventional sitcom fashion, Larry quickly wants out again once he realizes what being plugged in will mean. His booker Paula (Janeane Garofalo) drives him to distraction by complaining nonstop about her boyfriend, and he’s fed up with the infighting between Jerry and another ambitious writer on his staff, Phil (Wallace Langham). So he begs Artie to disconnect him again, and Artie complies. Meanwhile Hank, in a smaller, more pathetic reflection of Larry’s complaint, asks Artie if he can get a floor monitor just so he can better follow the action on the actual talk show. Here, we get two models of “out of the loop”: One involves a guy who, it turns out, needs to be removed so he can do his job, and one involves a guy so in a fog that he can’t even do the simple job he has. And that’s that. Throw in a stinger joke, roll credits, and we’re out.
Again, though, the plot of any given Larry Sanders episode is secondary to the riffs and the vibe. “Out Of The Loop” is more about Phil needling Jerry by telling him to “get a job on The Byron Allen Show,” or about show-guest Peter Falk pretending to be pissed at Larry and Artie.
Before Falk gets cut off by the commercial, he tries to make a point about how TV talk shows never give the guests enough time to express a thought. It’s a good gag, and one that also speaks to the breathless rush of The Larry Sanders Show itself. “Out Of The Loop” is only 22 minutes long, and is edited in such a way that scenes often cut off when they’re at their most heated, to be followed by new scenes that begin almost in mid-sentence. The whole episode is practically over before it begins, and it leaves viewers feeling like they’ve gotten a glimpse at what life is like for well-paid entertainers and their less-well-paid lackeys—but just a glimpse. And even that glimpse is occluded. The “Peter Falk” we see in this episode is an exaggerated version of the real Peter Falk. And Garry Shandling gives us two fictionalized versions of his own real self: the entertainer and the worrywart.
If there’s one moment that best expresses the theme of The Larry Sanders Show, it’s the Hank line that opens a majority of the series’ episodes. Hank is telling the studio audience how the show’s going to go, and he points out the “applause” sign, joking, “That sign says… ‘applesauce.’ No, no, I’m kidding. It says, ‘applause.’ Ray, do me a favor, could you flick that once?” It seems like a silly, unscripted moment to the studio audience; it’s just Hank making them feel special by showing them how TV works. But watching at home, we know that Hank says this every night, and that there’s nothing spontaneous about it. It’s all part of the show. And we get to see through it.
When HBO launched in the early ’70s, its appeal was largely tied to that sense that subscribers would get an experience that ordinary TV-watching schmucks would miss. And yes, a big part of that was HBO’s liberation from a major network’s standards-and-practices department. Having HBO in those early years meant access not just to sports and movies, but to stand-up comedians, uncensored. I went to a Charlie Daniels Band concert back in 1980 and I used to laugh with a buddy of mine about the way the audience whooped when Daniels said “son of a bitch” in “The Devil Went Down To Georgia.” We’d approximate the crowd’s rapture: “Oh, swear at me, Charlie!” But that same buddy and I used to page through his family’s HBO guide every month, looking for movies and specials with the highest possible raunch level, so we could plan out the best nights for me to sleep over. Because, y’know, there is something rapturous about hearing somebody curse, or seeing naked bodies, or witnessing anything that ordinarily would be kept behind closed doors, or in confidence between friends.
The Larry Sanders Show fulfilled a lot of that initial promise of HBO. Just listen to Rip Torn as Artie, using profanity for seasoning and emphasis—he’s the scatological version of The Great Communicator. It’s consistently hilarious to hear Torn swear, but it’s all in service of building a character who, by his own admission, is the man who sees all and knows all. Whenever Torn’s Artie appears on the screen, the buzz he adds to a scene is like that little screen full of static that heralds “HBO Original Programming.” It’s a signal that we aren’t being fed some flavorless “applesauce.” We’re getting something much stronger.
VSE stats: This is the second “Very Special Episode” directed by Ken Kwapis, for those keeping score at home. It’s also the second consecutive installment about an HBO show, and the first of two in a row that’ll feature Peter Falk.
Next time on A Very Special Episode: Wagon Train, “The Gus Morgan Story.”